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Night Owl's all-time Topps set countdown (32-29)

Anytime you rank a shared experience in a public forum, expect disagreement.

I know that. I work in newspapers, remember? I consider it a compliment, that people are reading, and caring.

But that doesn't mean I don't go over in my head how certain rankings are going to be received. I may play an owl on this blog, but I'm a human owl, not a cyborg owl. I can't help but care about perception.

During these particular rankings I often wonder about the reaction when I rate a fairly current set over a long ago vintage set. I can hear people preparing angry missives the moment I say something from five years ago is better than something from 50 years ago. If you were talking about almost anything else, people would say, "well, of course, something from five years ago is better than something from 50 years ago." But we collectors love our old stuff, and we love to hate our new stuff, too.

But that won't stop me. I rank them as I see them, and I try to explain the reasons why, too.

We have a restaurant critic at our newspaper. Invariably, when the critic loves a restaurant, commenters blast the review saying, "of course, they love the restaurant, they want to keep their advertising and sell newspapers!" And when the critic gives a negative review, commenters say, "evil newspaper, tearing down a hardworking family trying to run a restaurant!"

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the masses are asses.

But not YOU. You are smart, intelligent, well-read, understanding, careful-thinking collectors, and my faithful readers! You have the best opinions ever about cards! Did I pander enough in this paragraph?

Anyway, I welcome varying viewpoints.

Time to start the second half of the countdown:

32. 1954 Topps

All right, get ready to vent. I'm sure this is a top 10 set for a lot of collectors.

But you'll have to go to the "A Lot Of Collectors" blog to see the 1954 set ranked higher. Not here.

First the good stuff: I appreciate the 1954 set for several things:

1. It's innovative. Large profile shot, small action shot. 1954 thought of that. It's so clever that it's been used repeatedly by Topps and other card companies on too many sets to count.

2. It's colorful. It's not colorful in the way I like, but I'll get to that. It's still colorful and gets your attention. It's bold in a lot of ways.

3. It's BIG. I remember getting my first 1954 Topps card as a freebie at a card show. It was Washington Senator Tom Wright. It was the first early '50s card I had ever seen in my hand and my first thought was, "holy cow this Tom Wright has a huge head!" The '54 card images are freakishly large -- check out Gilliam's hand -- and that took some getting used to, but I like it now.

4. The backs. Unlike a few other 1950s card backs, I like 1954's. It's very '50s, but in a good way. I love the cartoons on the bottom. They read like comic strips, with a story. And they look like Gil Thorpe. They're awesome.

5. Quirky stuff that only I see. Joe Black is looking at smaller black-and-white version of himself. It's his angel! Or is it his devil?

OK, now for the stuff that keeps this set where it is on the countdown:

1. It's 250 cards. I've mentioned this before. That is barely a set. I was very hard on some sets from the '90s with totals in the low 400s. 1954 Topps has barely half of that. And some of the cards are of coaches. The 1950s card company battles were brutal, but all I see is outcome. Yeah, there's a Hank Aaron rookie in this set, but there's no Stan Musial or Roy Campanella or Mickey Mantle. I need a little more than 250 cards.

2. The color scheme. I can't get past it. I'm very sensitive to color, and 1954 Topps has one of the worst collection of colors in history (I lump 1981 Topps in this list, too). I do not like the puke green assigned to some players in the set. I've never liked yellow backgrounds. And the orange is pretty ugly, too. That leaves only red and white as backgrounds that don't bother me. And white's not even a color.

The background color is a huge part of the look of this set. I'm sure it made sense to people growing up in the '50s, but it's kind of like when your grandmother offers you strange-looking candy that was commonplace in the 1950s. It's candy. You know it probably tastes good. But it looks so weird.

That's 1954 Topps to me: weird-looking candy that your grandmother offers.

Sorry, I know I'm ranking these according to my hang-ups. It IS my countdown.

31. 1995 Topps

I have come across collectors -- I can think of their names right now -- who despise 1995 Topps. They rank it among the worst sets that Topps has ever done.

I don't see it. Never have.

To me, 1995 Topps is one of the best sets of the UV-coated era. Take that for what it's worth, but, really there is a lot of effort behind this set that I don't think is appreciated all that much.

One thing that '95 Topps did that will always keep it low on a lot of veteran collectors' lists is that it's the first Topps base set that employs foil on every card. Up until then, foil was used mostly for parallels. But this is where the foil plague began. So I can understand if people want to banish 1995 Topps into an eternal pit of fire.

Topps also didn't fare well in its foil execution. For one, the foil name varies depending on the card:

On some cards the foil name is almost fully within the frame of the photo. It's easier to read (I know you can't read it on the scan, trust me it's easier).

But on a lot of other cards, the foil name is halfway between the photo and the white border. It's jarring and difficult to decipher. Not well thought out.

It's possible that this fell through the cracks because Topps was busy working on other interesting elements for 1995 Topps.

For example, very large rookie trophies:

And very interesting photos:

It's fairly obvious that after five or six years of trying to catch up to Upper Deck in the photography area, Topps had come close to matching UD by this point.

It was even copying them in some very obvious ways with some pretty interesting but bizarre cards:

Overall, I like how '95 Topps featured its photos a lot. The jagged watercolor edges that make it appear as if the photo is a painting is a nice effect, and one of the more distinctive base card designs of the '90s. Love it or hate it, you can't ignore 1995 Topps, it won't let you.

The backs, with the "Diamond Vision" scoreboard head shot are very '90s, but near-and-dear to my heart given the Dodgers' connections with Diamond Vision. The write-ups, meanwhile, are a little hard to read.

 And, before I forget, 1995 Topps featured parallels that displayed stats that were projected for the 1994 season, which was truncated because of the strike. Now you could see that Delino DeShields would have sucked for the entire season!

I've seen collectors blast these, but I don't have any problems with them. It was a pretty difficult time for card companies. People didn't want to buy cards (I certainly didn't). And you can tell that Topps was pulling out all the stops, anything they could think of, and trying to make it fun, too.

I appreciate that. And it's why I may complete this set someday.
Although it may be a little too '90s for my taste:

All of these subsets basically say the same thing: we're not good enough to appear on a baseball card yet.

30. 2003 Topps

Pick a year before 2003. Any year in which I was alive.

Now, go to that year and find me and tell me that in the future Topps will make a card set with blue borders.

OK, now cover your ears because 1979 or 1984 or 1992 me is now going to start talking for the next 30 minutes about how he has to invent a time machine so we can travel to 2003 RIGHT NOW.

But now it's 2015, and 2003 Topps is 12 years old, I'm an old man, and my opinion is a lot more muted and short:

"Eh. The set is OK."

Things never turn out like you hoped.

2003 Topps is likeable enough and at one point I had real thoughts of collecting the entire thing. The set is in a binder, and I don't put cards in a binder, in most cases, unless I'm planning to complete it.

But that is no longer a goal.

After studying it for a long time (what, you don't take time to analyze and compute the ramifications of border colors?), I think I prefer white or black borders if you're going to use the same border on every card. Sure there are exceptions for a crazy set like 1975 Topps, but for one solid, plain color? Leave that to the parallels. It doesn't hold up well on an entire set.

All I see is blue here. I know that sounds funny coming from a Dodger fan and someone who's favorite color is blue, but I want to see the photo here, too. The border isn't quirky enough for me to be dazzled by it, so I go to the photo and there's that blue overpowering everything again.

This is a lot of negative talk about the border. I actually do like this set quite a bit, and the blue is definitely a part of that. It's not a set you will forget. I'm just explaining why this set didn't quite meet expectations and isn't ranked higher.

The rest of the design is classic and borrows from 1963 and 1983 Topps (and even 1954, 1955 and 1960 Topps -- and if we're expanding into other sports, 1977-78 Topps NBA). Using the baseball-diamond inset design is clever, although a little small (vertical cards in this set are hit-and-miss. Fullmer is great, while Wickman seems scrunched here).

The backs are bluer than 1984 Topps backs and that's hard to do. But they're also as dull as any '80s Topps card back.

2003 Topps seems like a one-trick pony, a set with blue borders and really not much else. It's still pretty good, but I've been shrugging my shoulders the entire time I've been writing this.

29. 1960 Topps

The last all horizontal set.

Given how much I've raved over horizontal cards in the past, I can appreciate that. I would love to see an all horizontal set again with the photography we have now.

But as you know, as far as the photos go, 1960 Topps isn't a true horizontal set. The main photo is a squarish rectangle, squeezed in there by the black-and-white full-body shot. This is 1955 Topps with a lot less square footage. It's tight quarters in 1960 Topps.

I like the set for its use of color. Alternating color letters was a bold choice that works sometimes and doesn't others.

I also like any of the cards with pink in them. It may be 1960, but pink says it's still the 1950s. This is a very good-looking card.

But I think 1960 Topps is considered a middling set by a lot of collectors, possibly because all of the cards look the same. Shuffle through a bunch of 1960 Topps and there's not much of a difference in the pictures. Tight head shots and a black-and-white image. Thank goodness all those colors are going off in your eyes while you're shuffling.

The back of the card? Well, let's say, at least there's a cartoon. And I always like a timeline. That dirty gold color though.

By far, the best part of the 1960 Topps set are the manager cards (which by the way are vertical, go figure).

From front to back, hands down the best manager cards ever.

By the way, if you haven't discovered the 1960 Topps blog yet, check it out. I'm sure Commish Bob will make the set more interesting than I just did.

Up next: sets #28-25


David said…
I really enjoy your countdown. There may be a case or two where I think you're a bit hard on a set, but directionally I totally agree with you. You see things that I've never seen even though I've been looking at the same cards/sets for years! Thank you for that.
JediJeff said…
The best part about your countdown: it's your opinion. So if I scream at the screen how wrong your rankings are, I know I am correct in my yelling.

How do you hate the colors of '54, but 6 years later they are the greatest thing ever? If you were born in say the early 40's, and dealt with these cards as they came out, I could see your feelings about the colors. With each passing year, one's opinion on colors change. But to you, me, and a hundred others, the '54 and '60 sets "came out" the same year. Style, design - those show differences. But color is just color when everything comes out at the same time.
Commishbob said…
I love the backs of the '60 set...that dirty gold color and all. I, I KNOW that my love is based on memories more than esthetics... the color, the bulleted 'season's highlights' all make me think of my days of begging my folks to buy a cello pack at EJ Korvettes.
night owl said…
The '60s set had a lot more color variety: blue, pink, plus all those other ones, and in shades I like better. In '54 the colors were plastered all over the background, just one color per card, mind you, and it's like having an entire room painted in a color you don't like.

I can't explain why I like certain color arrangements and not others (except that design has a lot to do with it as it does in '54 and '60), but I do.
SpastikMooss said…
1995 Topps! I was wondering where it would place, and I think this is a solid place for it here. Awesome set...probably my favorite of all time but I am hugely biased and collect differently than a lot of the blogosphere. Good stuff.
Stubby said…
I wasn't a big fan of 1954 Topps. Until I saw what you ranked ahead of it, here. Among other things, 1995 Topps is so bad, that, out of 64 possible slots, it ought to rank 65. Possibly even 66. That's right. "No cards at all" ranks higher than '95.
Billy Kingsley said…
With the foil on the 1995 set being in different heights, that's almost surely due to the foil process itself. If the sheets weren't lined up exactly the same way when they foil was stamped on, they will not be lined up correctly or in the exact same place.

I have some rather interesting errors where the foil was stamped wrong- either off center (common), totally missing, or my favorite, foil from a different card is on it. Occasionally you can even find cards with more than one stamping.
GCA said…
I finished the Cyberstats set to get a taste of mid-90s collecting. In fact, I have '99 Opening Day, but no other regular sets in the 90's besides '91 and '92. (Working on '97). I liked the "full foil" design better that just the name, so I went with it...
Stack22 said…
I don't really care for anything after they changed the card stock, but that said, 1995 is one of my favorite post-91 sets.
I've never been a huge fan of the weird early-2000s border colors (except the teal one - I just like teal). Were I a team collector, I'd be even less of a fan, but I could see a Dodgers fan being all about that 2003 blue border.

I would have ranked the '54 Topps higher - it's one of my favorite vintage sets. But I do also like pink on baseball cards.

Looking forward to the rest of these!
Fuji said…
The 1960 design is in my Top 10 and as of right now... my Top 5 (it flip flops with 1975, which sits at #6 right now... depending on my mood on any given day). Love the bright colors, dual photos, and the way the player's name, team, and position were written. And as you stated... that set has the greatest manager cards ever (which by the way... I'm pretty sure I discovered on your blog a while back). I think the 1954 design would break my top 30, while the other two are probably in the forty to fifty range.
Ana Lu said…
That Alex Diaz card..WOW!!!!!

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