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All-Star Week: Night Owl's all-time Topps set countdown (24-21)

I'm sure you have heard about the blind screech owl, Zeus, whose sparkling eyes that look like stars captivated animal lovers earlier this year when he was discovered in California. Or maybe I'm confusing you with Facebook friends.

Anyway, I figured Zeus was appropriate for the All-Star Week edition of the all-time Topps set countdown.

Also, just to keep the All-Star theme alive for another day, I am going to feature an All-Star card for each of the next four sets in the countdown. I got lucky and each of these sets has some sort of All-Star subset.

By the time we're done with this episode, we will have reached the top 20. So you know that means I am pretty fond of the next four sets, as well as any other set that comes after them.

So let's all enjoy what's to come. Topps is finally getting it right:

24. 1992 Topps

I know for a fact that a fair amount of collectors hold a grudge against 1992 Topps. For them, this is when everything went south for Topps, never to return to those pre-1992 days. It's all 1992 Topps' fault.

It's 1992 Topps' fault that some collectors only collect Heritage. It's 1992 Topps' fault that they talk about the '90s like they were the darkest days for the hobby. Because in 1992, Topps switched from the dark, sturdy, cardboard that it had used for decades, to a bright, white stock that was more in line with its competitors.

But in '92, Topps was actually praised for finally getting with the times. Upper Deck, featuring its slick white cardboard stock, was immensely popular with collectors and every other companies' cards seemed brighter and more vibrant than Topps. Finally, old man Topps was joining the rest.

I don't necessarily agree with that sentiment -- I like my dark cardboard just fine -- but I don't totally blame '92 Topps for what cards look like now either. You've got to do what it takes to survive.

But on the other hand, I don't consider '92 Topps to be like any other set, certainly not like early '90s Upper Deck.

1992 Topps has a feel all its own. Topps changed the cardboard, but it hadn't graduated to the slick feel of '90s cards, which was still a year or two away for them. (Of course, '92 Topps introduced gold foil in parallel form, which would later be a pox on flagship sets for years to come, but I can confine my critique to the base cards).

1992 Topps is not slick on both sides, just on the front. And the white backs make it seem like one of the brightest, purest sets ever made. I like the sheer whiteness of this set.

Although it does have its drawbacks:

The white discolors with time and exposure.

I enjoy the design quite a bit, one of my favorites of the '90s. Much like 1991 Topps, the design allows the picture to bleed over the design, as in the case of Bip Roberts' arm. But it picks and chooses what overlaps and what does not. For example, the base does not overlap.

I love designs like this, in which a 3-D element is added to the picture. This is why I like 1988 Topps so much (note you haven't seen it in the countdown yet). This is having fun with the design. Sure, it looks cheesy to experienced graphic designers from the 21st century, but at the time it was a kick and I refuse to look at it as "dated" now.

The multi-colored name and team boxes are pleasant and unobtrusive. Overall, the design adds to the simplistic, clean feel of the set. I like it.

The set may not have as many memorable photos as the 1991 set, but it has a lot in common with its predecessor. Super close-up portraits, baseball glamour shots and some terrific action. Cards like the '92 Cal Ripken and Tom Lasorda will last forever in collectors' memories.

And since the previous two cards I mentioned are both horizontal, I might as well show the best part of the set:

Awesome horizontal cards.

Because the card stock is so bright, the photos leap at you more than if they were on gray cardboard stock. This made me consider putting it ahead of '91 Topps for a moment, but '91 Topps simply has too many great photos and overwhelms '92 Topps in this area.

I remember being overpowered by the card backs the first time I saw them -- so WHITE! But I got used to it and I always liked the panoramic stadium views on the cards. A nice touch.

One thing that is not nice about '92 Topps, and something I refuse to show here, are the horrible draft pick cards featuring players in their polo shirts. Just awful and one of the worst aspects of '90s cards.

It's not hard to find drawbacks in 1992 Topps. But I think it gets bagged on a little too much for what it wrought. I prefer to look at the set for what it is, not for what followed it. It's actually a somewhat unique set and why it deserves to be in the top 25.

23. 1986 Topps

If there is one set that appears to have been merely the product of a dream, for me, it is 1986 Topps.

Part of that is because I didn't collect very much of the set when it came out. I was busy living away from home for the first time and I didn't have time to focus on cards. I didn't come back to them for many, many years and when I saw them again, it was like they emerged from a dream from long ago.

The card photos feature a distant, hazy look as if players are walking around in a dreamscape. And the design is not like anything that had preceded it in the 1980s. The bright, neon letters on a pitch black background obviously appealed to my sensibilities, but it was like I had dreamed it up. The set, when I returned to it, didn't seem real. It was so different. (I know people consider this set a rip-off of 1971 Topps or some earlier set from the '60s, but I don't see it. It seems very unusual for what was going on in the '80s).

Another element that added to the dreamscape nature of the set is that the photo quality was steadily digressing. After 1983 and 1984, which I consider to be the peak of '80s Topps flagship photos, it seemed like Topps had suddenly stopped caring. It was bizarre and didn't seem real.

So many photos that were either blurry or dark.

And many picture of players with their caps on crooked or looking down in an odd fashion. It almost seemed as if Topps was trying to out-Fleer 1980s Fleer.

But, still, when it came to catchers, Topps seemed to get it right.

There are the famous Bo Diaz and Glen Brummer '86 cards, as well as these two:

1986 Topps is downright mysterious. It looks mysterious and acts mysterious.

I have often called 1986 Topps the "three-legged dog" of card sets. It has a lot of things wrong with it, but in the end you just can't help but love it. Part of that is because it seems like a design that I had waited for all my life -- and even once probably dreamed up myself.

Red backs. I always loved red backs, too.

In short, 1986 Topps looks like something from my imagination. I'm sure some of you don't know what I'm talking about, but that's OK. 1986 Topps came from my dream, not yours.

22. 2015 Topps

OK, here we go.

Because this set arrived in the very year in which we are residing, someone is going to dislike this choice, because they dislike this set. There is always someone out there who dislikes whatever is new. It's just the way it is. Everyone loves that new song that's out. Except for THAT person.

I think 2015 Topps is great. One of the best designs that has come out in years. And keep in mind that I'm someone who has lots of issues with modern Topps and the way it does things. Yet, I am still trying to collect this set. Because I like the way it looks so much.

I have my doubts that if I were to do this countdown in 10 years, that this set would be ranked this high, but at the same time I don't think it would stray too far from where it is. I love colorful sets, and this is one of the most colorful Topps sets ever made.

The full-border color-coding treatment makes the set. Considering how many previous Topps sets that have arrived with plain, monochrome borders:

2014: white
2013: white
2012: white
2011: white
2010: white
2009: white
2008: white
2007: black
2006: white
2005: white
2004: white
2003: blue
2002: gold vomit
2001: whatever weird turquoise shade that is
2000: gray, they're trying to make you think it's silver
1999: gold
1998: gold
1997: good god, we're in the 20th century now and we still can't get team color-coded borders!

This is big, everyone.

These cards are pretty great and there is not a player name, team name, position name or team logo that is in foil. You can't say that about any Topps flagship set since 1994. That needs to be rewarded.

As for the photos, I can't gush about them as much as the design. Topps seems to be inching its way out of the tight, close-ups of players in action, but by inching I mean fractions of an inch. For every wonderful photo of Yordano Ventura here ...

... there are 5-to-10 cards of this.

That's got to stop. This probably could have been a top 10-to-15 set if there weren't so many closeups of pitchers straining and batters focusing. It's gotten old and I think if it shows up in 2016 Topps, no matter how beautiful the design -- I will buy less than four packs for the whole year.

The horizontal photos have been a standby in Topps flagship for a number of years. I like the horizontal photos in 2015 Topps, too, although I think the design infringes on them a little (P.S.: I love the Blue Jays cards in the set. I enjoy how the red border contrasts with the blue).

What I enjoy most about 2015 Topps is that Topps obviously made some decisions to break out of the rut that it had been stuck in for awhile. It ditched the foil, for the most part, and focused on an eye-catching, colorful design.

Sure, there are people who think they didn't do enough -- the card stock is still slick and thin, the photos are too action-oriented and either too close-up or not close-up enough -- but it's progress. And after suffering through 2014 Topps for an entire year, that's all I want.

Backs are colorful and cool, too. And you know what series you're collecting because it says so right above the card number.

Listen, I don't need to convince you because I've already convinced myself.

Purple borders, man!

21. 1977 Topps

The 1977 Topps set sits squarely in my childhood collecting period. When you're talking about spreading your cards out on the floor, wrapping them in a stack with rubber bands, building card houses out of them, flicking them at the wall to see if they stand up so you can win more cards, that is 1977 Topps for me.

I've written odes to 1977 Topps on this blog. It's difficult for me to view it in an objective manner.

Then Topps has to go and include cards like this in the set:

There are so many personal and varied stories, so many adventures that go along with this set, that I almost considered not doing this countdown because I wouldn't be able to get out from under all of that influence from the mid-1970s.

But then all I had to do was turn to the front of my 1977 Topps binder and objectivity hit me in the face.

This is card No. 10 in the set.

This is card No. 14.

This is card No. 15. We're still on the same page, mind you!

This is card No. 18.

And now -- finally -- we are onto the next page in the binder. Where, no doubt, there is more airbrushing.

This is the counter to spending hours in sixth grade trading 1977 Topps with my classmates; the balance to my dad driving me to the drugstore to get 1977 rackpacks; the fat kid on the other end of the see-saw.

Bad, bad, airbrushing is all over the 1977 Topps set to a degree that hasn't been seen before or since.

It's not really the set's fault. It happened to come along immediately after the first off-season of full-blown free agency and the addition of two expansion teams. So there are horribly misshapen blue jays and tridents, along with painted approximations of several other logos, all over the set.

Although I wasn't completely aware of all the airbrushing in the set when I was collecting it in '77 (I did know about some of them) and there is a certain amount of charm to the set because of that, I can't in good conscience consider it one of the best Topps sets.

Not when this is a card in the set:

But let's get back to some of the good stuff.

The set is colorful and instantly draws your eye. The position flags are simplistic, but make the design memorable all by themselves.

And the backs feature some of my all-time favorite cartoons. I think only 1956 and 1973 Topps can top the cartoons on the back of 1977 Topps.

The 1977 Topps was essentially my last childhood set. By 1978, we were looking at cards as "collectors," as in we actually knew what a "collector" was. We'd talk about completing sets and ordering things through magazines and going to card shows. But in 1977, we were still tossing cards in the air.

OK, maybe I can't be completely objective.

Up next: Sets 20-17.


SpastikMooss said…
I'd have 1992 Topps above all of this list but 2015. Mainly just above 1986. I collected at a time when 1987-1991 were "old," but 1986 was really old. I mean, I went to this arcade sometimes where you could win one card if you won the game, and the card was a 1986 Topps card (every time, over multiple years - I'm guessing not a lot of people played the game), and I was like " that worth playing this game?" It just did nothing for me. Maybe I lumped it in with 1987 and 1988 (I loved 1989 Topps to that was different) but it was just...not great for me. Whereas 1992 Topps was. Personal preference I guess.
Marcus said…
I really like 1992 & 1993 Topps, which were the first cards that I collected. They're in my top five Topps sets. But that's just me. I also tend to not like the new stuff (especially songs on the radio), but this year's design is a pretty good one.
JediJeff said…
Yes on the lack of foil this year. That is a major plus with 2015. And I never really noticed the great action shots of '77. When they went to that well, Topps did a fine job. It's a shame they didn't hit the well often enough, though.
Billy Kingsley said…
It looks like your 2015 Dozier card has even less foil than most cards.

I really like the 2015 design. It's a set that to me is very interesting.
steelehere said…
You gotta trust me on this one. 1986 Topps was issued during a period when 1975 Topps was exploding in popularity. It's blatantly a ripoff of that set and is probably why you like 1986 as much as you do.
night owl said…
Well, I still say it's a lot different than what had come before it in the '80s.
Stubby said…
To me, '86 Topps is just '64 Topps with the team name on a black field instead of white. And, given those choices, I gotta go with the white team field over the black. '85 Topps had been very popular with collectors (no doubt McGwire being a part of that) and, though I know lots of people don't like it now, '87 was quite popular upon its release as well. '86 was the blah piece of crap that came between them and, in my travels at the time, I never met anyone who had a kind word for it. It was the kind of year you just bought the factory set and stuck it in the closet because you certainly wouldn't want to look at the thing.

On 2015, I think you got it just right. If anything, I'd move it up a notch or two. And I don't see it falling too much from that position in the years to come (unless Topps starts doing some truly awesome designs and, well, I don't think they have it in them; 2015 is likely the pinnacle design of the current Topps team). Topps has never before had team-centric color borders and just getting away from all white and getting away from the foil--those things are huge. A lot of the photos suffer from sameness, but there are enough that don't to keep it interesting overall.
Anonymous said…
This old school collector loves 1992 Topps, white cardboard and all. 1995 is when Topps went to poop. Hell, 1995 is when EVERYTHING cardboard went to poop. Bah!!!

I generally don't disagree with this set of rankings but I felt like 92T needed a little love.
Matt Runyon said…
Those draft pick cards are probably the worst subset ever.
Stack22 said…
No quad rookie example from '77?

"a fair amount of collectors hold a grudge against 1992 Topps. For them, this is when everything went south for Topps." - I'm a proud card carrying member of that demographic.
Fuji said…
I always felt that 86T was designed to honor the 64T set. Either way... it features some of the coolest cropped photos in years. Some of my favorite cards (based on photography) come from that set: Gooden, Mattingly, Pena... the list goes on.