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Night owl's all-time Topps set countdown (56-53)

"Can't you say something NICE?"

I get that a lot.

Yes, I can say something "nice". I do it all the time. Even right here on this blog. I think what clouds the issue for some people is that I'm not afraid to point out something wrong -- in life or on the blog. I refuse to be sugar and sunshine all the time.

I'm actually a very happy person who likes to laugh, enjoys people of all kinds and has a wide variety of tastes and interests. But I won't run a blog where it's "golly gee" every moment and every comment is "Nice Cards!" Yes, sometimes the cards are very nice. Other times, they're crap. I'm not too shy to point to a pile of stink and say "THERE'S CRAP THERE! HEY, EVERYBODY, DON'T STEP IN THE CRAP!"

I don't look at that as being negative. I'm trying to be helpful.

Strong opinions is how readers came to Night Owl Cards ... well, that and some bitchin' cards. And I promise I won't ever pull punches when writing about trading cards. I calls them as I sees them. I tell it like it is. I say a cliche is a cliche, and I've just written two of them.

And that leads into episode 3 of Night Owl's All-Time Topps Set Countdown.

These are sets ranked No. 56 through No. 53. They are sets that I don't really like, but can probably find something NICE to say about them.

Truthfully, I can find something nice to say about all of Topps' sets. But that isn't the objective here. Every Topps set isn't going home with a ribbon and a popsicle. I'm not taking all the Topps sets out for Capri-Suns after this countdown. I'm ranking sets from worst to best.

So, let's look at a few sets where I've actually got something nice to say -- that is after I tell you not to step into that crap set.

56. 2002 Topps

This might be the first set where a significant number of collectors ranked it even lower.

I've heard a lot of remarks about the color of this set. The most-often used noun/verb in these remarks is "vomit."

Yes, the color of the border is bizarre and could be nauseating. It was an era of strange borders for Topps. I'm not a fan, but I do like it better than the more traditional gold sets from 1998 and 1999. I like brighter colors, whether it reminds collectors of vomit or not.

The design features two positives. First, the set mentions what it is: "2002 Topps". It's featured on every player's card. That is appreciated, especially during a time when copyright dates grew smaller and smaller. There are precious few Topps flagship sets that mention the set year on the front. This is one of them.

Second, 2002 Topps displays a tried-and-true design technique: ribbons. Topps has used ribbons or pennants or flags, as design elements for several sets -- 1965, 1974, 1979 -- and it almost always works. Present the ribbons in a couple of different colors, and I'm not going to get mad. 2002 Topps is a colorful set, I'll give it that.

The back blares that same off-puke color. At least the card number is nice-and-large, even if the stats aren't.

In the end, large set or not, colorful set or not, the border color choice solidified 2002 Topps' ranking near the bottom. It was just too strange of a decision for me to take it seriously, especially during a time when I wasn't collecting. Maybe if I accumulated several hundred of the cards, I would have a more favorable impression.

Then again, maybe I would have had to run screaming to the toilet and you never would have seen me again.

55. 1997 Topps

If you've been paying fairly close to attention to this countdown -- and really why would you want to do that? -- you'll notice that this is yet another set from the late '90s/early '00s that has settled near the bottom.

There is now not a single Topps set between 1996-2002 that has made the top 54 Topps sets of all-time.

I am officially prepared to say that this is the darkest period for Topps flagship. This is the era of bad feeling. Topps at its worst. I can blame some of this on the fact that I didn't collect cards during this time, but I'm trying to look at these sets fairly objectively and none of them cut it.

In fact, the only reason that 1997 Topps is rated this high is because the set accommodated my synesthesia.

As I've mentioned many times, I am one of those people who attaches a color to each word or letter. It's something I was born with, some weird set-up in my brain. Ever since childhood I've categorized words and ideas by color and that goes for sports, too.

As a kid, and into adult life, the American League and the National League have always been associated with a color. The American League always -- always, always, always -- has been red. The National League always has been blue.

This has been a truth in my world since the mid-1970s, since I was sucking on Space Food Sticks.

So, let's see what Topps did in 1997:

It made every American League player's card red.

And it made every National League player's card green.

OK, green isn't blue. But close enough. My brain adjusts and green is on the blue/purple side of the rainbow, so yes, this makes sense to my brain. If the red cards were orange or yellow I'd think the same thing.

So, looking at 1997 Topps, I can't help but think how sensible this set is. All the American League teams and players are the same color and all the National League teams and players are the same color! Yes! It all makes sense! All right, maybe it isn't the thing to do the year after interleague play began and Major League Baseball started blending the American and National Leagues together, but that just means there was a subversive in the Topps office, right? Someone said "screw that interleague garbage, all the American League teams are going to be RED."

That's probably not what happened, but it does make me like the set a little more.

Why, once, I was going to attempt to collect this set. But then I realized it wasn't even 500 cards and probably filled with Yankees and Braves players I didn't like and I scrapped that.

The backs are as garish as any non-70s set could be. They're not easy on the eyes and definitely not easy to read.

Still, I have a soft spot for 1997 Topps.

For a late 1990's set, it's as good as it gets.

54. 2007 Topps

In another time, in another era, in another period with less addiction to foil, this set would be rated much higher and possibly be considered a classic, or at least a cult favorite.

But, unfortunately for a set as sleek as 2007 Topps, it arrived during a time of cynicism and excess. I would not be surprised if 2007 Topps is the most plentiful set created since the junk wax era ended. How can a set be special when you can find it growing out of the cracks in the pavement?

Topps also didn't do the set any favors by drenching it in gimmicks. The famed Mantle-Bush Derek Jeter card will be the lasting image of 2007 Topps. There were variations that few collectors knew about. There were stupid red-letter backs and cards with no facsimile signatures. The inserts offered with this set are some of the worst ever. By the time 2007 was half over, collectors couldn't wait to be done with set, myself included.

Sleekness aside -- this set looks great in a stack -- there are confusing aspects to 2007 Topps.

For example, the four sets of four tiny squares are quirky enough and happily color-coded to go with each team's colors, but why are they there? I like to think it was to convey the idea that each card is film negative and together they form a film strip. But I don't think that was the plan.

Then there is the back:

The grass-and-dirt backgrounds are interesting and fun and did catch me off guard the first time I turned over a 2007 Topps card. But it's all offset by the strange floating head shot at the left.

Why is it so small? Why is there so much extra space just floating in ... um ... space? And why is the image duplicated from the front?

Except in some cases when it's not duplicated from the front? Why?

And just when you think it's because not much of Jack Wilson's face is showing on the front of the card and that's why they went with a head shot of Wilson (a tiny, tiny, tiny head shot of Wilson), then there is a card like this:

... where the head shot is different, but it didn't have to be different because of this:


And that's how it is with 2007 Topps. There are so many head-scratching elements, from the design to the decisions made in the set (two Elizardo Ramirez cards? Why?), to an obvious corporate decision to start gimmicking-up flagship.

The 2007 set was Topps' first full black-border set since the 1971 set. The '71 set is universally revered among card collectors, and truthfully, 2007 Topps in a lot of ways isn't that far from the 1971 Topps set.

But it doesn't come even close to matching the respect that 1971 Topps has.

That's a lot of people's fault. Including collectors.

And why 2007 Topps is set No. 54.

53. 1968 Topps

I'm trying to envision a kid in 1968 -- a kid who had collected cards for maybe the previous four or five years -- coming home from the store after buying his first cards of the year.

He tears open the wax wrapper and comes face-to-face with the design for the year.

And it looks like burlap.

Suddenly, I imagine, collecting didn't seem as fun anymore.

This is another one of those wild design decisions where I wonder how it got out the door. Maybe there was just one guy making designs in the 1960s and that same guy is the one who OK'd them. That's the only way this one makes sense. We're talking about a collecting world that was 100 percent kids at the time. What kid could appreciate a card that looked like that? It looks like something I'd be forced to make with yarn in art class.

I also saw 1968 Topps for the first time when I was a kid. It was when my friend inherited a bunch of cards from his older brother. I wrinkled my nose at the '68s. What was up with those? These aren't fun. I think I hear my mom calling me to do chores.

Another aspect that bothered me is the design doesn't even look the same through the entire set. The lower-numbered cards feature wider-spaced "burlap" like the yellow-lettered Ed Brinkman card here. It almost looks like a leopard print.

But most of the cards in the set display finer dots, making the border look more yellow and giving it that burlap look.

These cards look worn and dated, even more so than other vintage cards. I've often compared the look to the wallpaper in my grandmother's kitchen, which was also worn and dated. The cards look yellowed right out of the wrappers and that's not something you want with new cards.

The photos in this set are nothing special, which is par for the course in the '60s. But late '60s sets also suffer because of some photos that are a couple of years old. I believe (unless I'm missing some from '67), the blacked-out cap trend began in 1968, which is never a good thing.

More yellow on the back. The second straight year of vertical backs had to have collectors thinking this was the wave of the future (but it was back to horizontals in 1969).

There is a cartoon on the back, which is always worth a few extra ranking points, but I never liked placing the cartoon on the bottom of the card (bad news for 1981 Topps).

I give vintage sets more credit than current sets so it pains me a little to rank this set the lowest of any vintage set. There are some who look at this set nostalgically, comparing it to the TV sets of that time period. And the last couple of years I've grown to respect '68 Topps just a little more.

But that doesn't mean there aren't so many other better vintage sets available.

Up next: Sets #52-49. There are brighter days ahead. And that's not just a load of crap.


Billy Kingsley said…
You ranked 2007 much more generously than I would have. I can't stand that design.
Jeff said…
I actually like 1968. I'd have put it higher I think.
Stubby said…
As a kid, 1968 was right in the heart of my card collecting years. Started buying packs in '64 and pretty much stopped in '76. 1966 was the first year I had enough allowance or whatever to buy a whole lot of cards. Dupes, Trips, what's the word for four...or five or six....of every card (until the high numbers which never reached my neighborhood. '67, another whole bunch of cards. Then, '68 happened. I hated them from the get go. So did every other kid in my neighborhood and school. Hardly bought any. Then the great '68 flood happened (don't bother looking it up; it was restricted to our basement). The '68s were completely wiped out, but the '66 and '67 cards took a big hit, too. I figured it was a sign from God. "The '68 design is an abomination and I will rid them from this earth, but you must also be punished for buying them, so I will remove your '66s and '67s as well!" I bought very few of the '69s, even though that design was far superior to the '68 (IMHO) and THAT even though it was basically the same thing as the '68 without the burlap (even with many of the same pictures because of a dispute between Topps and the new "Players Association"). But the Seaver card was wonderful and the Mets won the Series. So, in 1970, I was all in once again.

That's a very long narrative to basically say the '68 design sucks. One of the worst ever. Maybe not as bad as the late 90s set designs, but...gehaggh.
Fuji said…
This reader definitely loves your strong opinions! As for the countdown... still can't believe any of these sets beat out 2008. Sorry... just my strong opinion ;)
The blacked-out caps look started in 1968, when EVERY Athletics and Astros card was airbrushed.

There were no blacked-out caps in the 1967 set.
Stubby said…
FWIW, there were blacked out caps in '65 (as the Colts became the Astros) and in '66 (as the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta). The A's, in '68, moved from Kansas City to Oakland. Not sure why the Astros were blacked out in '68. But '68 and '69 were also victims of the dispute between Topps and the Players Association--where lots of players would refuse to let Topps take their picture without an agreement on compensation with the full association. That is why you saw so many of the same pictures used over and over and why you saw so many "big head no hat" shots as well. For example, the most recent pictures Topps had of Ken Boyer in '69 were taken with the Mets in '67, but he wasn't with them anymore. So what are you gonna do? The dispute was settled during the 1969 season (fairly early, IIRC).
defgav said…
I really, really hope when Heritage gets to the '68 design, they do parallels printed on actual burlap.
Matt Runyon said…
Kids in 1968 probably felt the same way I did in 1979. I cracked open a few packs in February and was disappointed with the photo quality. That was the first bummer of a set for me. The next bummer was 1982.

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