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Night owl's all-time Topps set countdown (20-17)

With everything that's going on this week, I considered postponing the latest edition of the countdown until next week. Trade deadlines, bloggers taking off for the National Sports Card Convention, who's paying attention?

But then I thought, this is Night Owl Cards here! The National doesn't stop because of what NOC has to say, the trade deadline isn't moved to make way for Night Owl, that's their problem. It's time to make them pay! You skip one day of Night Owl Cards, you lose. Thank you to the faithful readers who know that there's nothing better than reading random thoughts about baseball cards.

So, here we are in the Top 20. From this point out, you are guaranteed that these are sets that I like. Even if I spend part of that set's segment criticizing some element, I still like the set. Nothing's perfect, even the set at No. 1.

So be comfortable in the fact that these are enjoyable sets, and if you've never appreciated them yourself, maybe there's something here that will help you to enjoy them.

20. 1980 Topps

We're getting into sets to which I have deep ties. 1980 Topps is one of them.

1980 Topps marks my beginning as a "serious collector," it was the first set that I actually attempted to complete. I didn't complete it that year (I didn't complete until decades later), because I was still a young teenager with very little money. But the process and the set left quite the impression.

Thinking back to that time, I approached this set with a great deal of hope. It was the start of a new decade, the first time I understood the concept of a brand new decade. I was looking forward to the future of baseball cards. And when I took a look at 1980 Topps, I was pleased, because it looked a lot better than 1979 Topps.

Topps went back to the pennant flags, a tried-and-true practice that had worked in previous sets like 1965 and 1974 Topps. The flags are quite a bit more active than in previous versions, as well, which complements the action photos in this set.

And, unlike 1979 Topps, this set is filled with color. And it doesn't detract too much from the photo.

1980 Topps begins with this bad-ass card, one of the best first cards of any Topps set. You don't know how pleased I was to see the highlights/record breaker subset returning to the front of the set after 1977 and 1979.

The 1980 set is known for one of the best-looking rookie cards ever made, the Rickey Henderson rookie. And it's got one of the best-looking card backs as well.

I've mentioned before how thrilled I was to see blue backs. I wasn't around in 1965, so this was very exciting, and to this day, I appreciate the 1980 card backs more than most.

So, you know what's coming, what don't I like about the 1980 set?

Well, other than the grudge I hold against it for not being able to complete it in 1980, I have just one minor complaint.

There is way too much yellow in this set.

Yellow borders, yellow small flags, yellow big flags, yellow letters, yellow, yellow, yellow. Eight of the nine cards on this sheet feature yellow. And it's like that for most pages in the set.

I'm just not a fan of yellow in most places, and that includes card sets. You know my feelings about 1991 Fleer.

Yellow is good for attracting the eye and that's why fast food operators and advertisers use it, but it decreases the appeal of cards, for me. If 1980 Topps had used a few more blue borders -- to go with the blue backs -- I would have rated this set higher.

19. 1984 Topps

If you asked me a few decades ago, or even as recently as five years ago, what I thought of 1984 Topps, I would have told you it was a lazy rehash of 1983 Topps, an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the set that preceded it.

I've come around since then.

Sure, 1984 Topps looks a lot like 1983 Topps. But pretend for a moment that 1983 Topps didn't exist. Or that 1984 Topps came before 1983 Topps. I did that, and I saw a new way to look at this set.

To me, this set is one of those sets that is "of its time," like 1959 Topps. If you remember the mid-1980s, it was filled with bright colors, from The Cosby Show to Miami Vice to the Go-Gos to Coca-Cola advertisements. Everything was bright, vibrant, bold colors. That's 1984 Topps.

1984 Topps is full of action, just like the previous year's set. The bright colors underline the action. Then, there are the vertical team names and the cut-out mug shots with the colorful background. This gives the set a comic-book feel, which makes me appreciate the set even more.

If I bump up the contrast on Joe Beckwith's card here, he looks more like what you would see in a comic book. Or at least that's what it looks like to me.

In the past, I thought that so many elements -- 1984 Topps has a LOT of elements -- detracted from the main photo. The player in the main photo looks cramped. But while that may be the case in some pictures, I think Topps did a great job of finding pictures, or cropping them in such a way, that makes them stand out.

To me, this is a great pop culture set. I enjoy it more and more and am now wondering why I've ranked it so low.

So let's see a reason why it's at 19.

These blasted things.

This is one of the worst examples of set filler from the 1980s. There are 18 of these cards, many with the same repeated mug shots. I hated them the instant I saw them.

The backs, while featuring a nice team logo, aren't the friendliest, either.

Here's a better logo example, on the manager cards. These are wonderful.

And for those who still aren't convinced, or just know this set as the one with a Don Mattingly rookie card, I invite you to take another look at it. It's not just a knock-off of the 1983 set. It's a 1980s comic hero swooping in to the strains of James Ingram's "Yah Mo Be There". You might be surprised.

18. 1952 Topps

Back in the spring, when counting down all of Topps' flagship sets was all the rage (sorry, no trends being set here ... again), the 1952 Topps set was voted the best set over at Cardboard Connection. This was one of those mass vote-off rankings where readers did the selecting.

It once again proves my point. The masses don't know what they're doing.

Sure, 1952 Topps set the template for the modern baseball card. It gave us stats on the back and the approximate number of cards in a set and a bunch of other things. Yes, if it weren't for 1952 Topps, the other sets that I love might not be around.

But that gets 1952 Topps as far as No. 18. It's not getting to No. 1 on that. Because it's not good enough.

I'm one of those bloggers -- and I know I have company on this -- that believes '52 Topps is overrated. Topps has beaten the design into the ground for 20 years now through various tributes and reissues. I look at the set and the design and I'm numb to it, like a song I've heard 25 times a day on the radio. All of the pioneering that '52 Topps did means nothing because of Topps' subsequent overkill.

It actually took someone else's blog for me to rediscover some more respect for '52 Topps. Adventures in 1952 has been documenting the quest for a complete '52 set a card at a time. Thanks to that blog, I've seen several '52 Topps cards for the first time.

And I've liked what I've seen. I like the bright backgrounds. I like portrait shots, although the colorized black-and-white photos sometimes aren't the greatest. The design in general is pretty ugly, and the set has a very old, dated feel. No matter how much praise it gets, it's not timeless, like some other sets from that period.

There are you historic stats on the back (sorry for the small number of scans with this set, but thanks to a bunch of '52 Topps being dumped into the river, they're not easy to buy).

While I wouldn't mind collecting this set, there are too many other sets -- many of them made by Topps -- that look better and are simply more pleasing to collect.

Being first means a lot, but it doesn't mean you strong-arm your way to the top. Others came second, but did it better.

17. 1974 Topps

Some sets are more difficult to rank than others.

I know for a fact that many collectors, those who never collected a card in the '70s, would rank this set much lower. There isn't much about it that appeals to a younger collector. The design is tried-and-true, the photos are what I'd characterize as "in transition," there are many too many glorified head shots.

But when I see certain cards from this set ...

... I melt.

This Aurelio Rodriguez card (the original "A-Rod") is one of the first cards that I ever saw. It came from those first packs that we received from my mother back in 1974. I can't remember if I had this card or my brother had it, but it is legendary in my mind, and I cannot separate it from an analysis of the set, which is supposed to be objective.

This set means too much to me.

I actually think there are enough classic cards in this set to satisfy an objective ranker:

And I think the design really helps certain teams in this set, like the Reds and the Yankees, and especially the Oakland A's:

They have phenomenal cards in '74 Topps, as they should, since they were the two-time World Series champs at the time. And don't you know that 8-year-old night owl knew exactly how cool these cards looked.

The Swingin' A's were everywhere at that time, and so was Hank Aaron. To recognize Aaron's imminent surpassing of Babe Ruth for the all-time home run record, Topps did something it had never done, and issued a Hank Aaron retrospective to kick-off the set.

That automatically makes the set memorable, although I've always been miffed that Aaron didn't receive a card that looked like everyone else's in the set, too.

Also, how scary was it stating for a fact that Aaron would be the home run king before he became the home run king?

Speaking of the backs, 1974 Topps has some of the best cartoons ever.

And 1974 Topps gave us the first separate Traded Set:

True, there are ...

... far too many ...

... examples ...

... of airbrushing in '74 Topps.

But, I can't help it. I look at a card of Al Bumbry or Claude Osteen or Garry Maddox and I'm transported to the very first time I saw baseball cards up close, in my hands, and all of them were 1974 Topps cards.

That's enough to get this set to No. 17.

Up next: Sets #16-13


You have identified two of my favorite sets from 1974 and 1984. Although 1973 was the first year I collected, 1974 was the first year that I nearly completed the set. I would spend hours reading and re-reading the card backs and work on stats to compare younger player stats with the many veteran and future HOF players. As. 10 year old, I hoped to predict who among the younger players would compile legendary stats like Aaron, Killebrew, F. Robinson, etc.

As an A's fan growing up in Oakland it was extra special to pull those great cards from packs and take them to school the next day. Also, I love the easy to read backs, the cartoons and I concur with your comment regarding the Topps prediction, and odd language used for the prediction. However, this is one of my all-time favorite cards.

The 1984 cards marked my return to.the hobby after a 5 year hiatus from collecting. I've always liked the design and for some reason they handle differently than other sets. Anyway, it's good to see these 2 sets in your top 20.
Tony L. said…
For me, the 1978 set is what the 1974 set is to you (likely because you are a couple of years older than me). It's the one that I spent a ton of time looking at as a kid, pulling packs, etc. But the 1974 set was always a favorite because I seemed to be able to find more of those inexpensively at flea markets as a kid in the 1980s. Of course, when you're 12 years old, anything that's 9 years old seems super old, and those 1974s felt that way to me.

I'm totally on board with the 1984 set being ranked highly as well. It's one of those sets that is fun to look at, is well designed generally, has a lot going on -- yet is still a clean front design. But, as you showed with those "all-time leaders" cards, Topps had started with its photo recycling by that point already.
AdamE said…
I hope you were planning on getting some hate mail after this post. 1952 Topps at 18 are you kidding me? It's iconic, it was first, it is Topps pride and joy, the flagship, etc... How it could be 18 is beyond me because it is so freaking ugly people threw the things in the river just to get rid of them because nobody wanted them. Way to high NO,way to high. I'll put it at 32 but might have been okay with 28.
I like the '52 design. A floating nameplate superimposed over a large photo? It's like a prototype for the full-bleed cards of the early 90's except, you know, with a border.

Why'd you have to get "Yah mo be there" stuck in my head, Greg? Why? This is going to be all night...
Stubby said…
I love the '52 design. I think its one of the best Topps ever did. Yeah, they've killed it by using it too much in recent years, but I think it should be evaluated independent of that. Not big on '74 or '84 (the rankings for those is probably fair). 1980 is one that has grown on me over the years. It helps that '81 was godawful.
David said…
Love the countdown and to read of varying perspectives. One reason I loved 1974 was when opening a pack, you could slowly reveal just the top and see, for example, Cincinnati - Catcher, and you knew the next card had a 50/50 chance of being a star. (Sorry Hal King.) I also loved the uniformity of the teams. Back then, we sorted by team and it seemed right to me that all the Royals looked the same, and A's, etc.

I did not realize that Hank didn't have a regular card and now, 41 years later, I am kinda miffed about it too! One of my favorite cards from '74 is Juan Marichal. As a rule, I do not like the Giants but the photo and the cropping seems near perfect.
Any design plusses in the 1984 set are offset by the poor quality (graininess) of the photos.
Michael Gray said…
I think it's hard to judge a set like 1952 because most of us have only seen the cards after they are worn and dulled, and have only seen a fraction of the set, while you can open a box of 1984 Topps right now for less than the price of a jumbo box of 2015 Topps. It isn't my favorite design, but I think if you look at graded 8s and 9s of the 1952s to get a sense of what the cards looked like right out of the pack you get a better appreciation for that set. It has some really beautiful cards.
Fuji said…
1980, 1984, and 1952 are all in my Top 20 too. The 1974 set might squeak in as well... especially since that Rollie is one of my all-time favorite cards.
Cardman99 said…
1980 was the first year I ever bought baseball cards, while on a trip down south (I am from Canada), so that set will always hold a special place in my collecting history. Some day I hope to complete the set, but I have a ways to go. At that time I didn't know we had O Pee Chee cards here in Canada, they weren't as readily available as the hockey cards - at least where I am from.
Brett Alan said…
I have similar nostalgia for the 1974 set. The Aaron tribute was indeed something special, and I really do like the Traded subset even though the "traded" banner is a bit bigger than it needs to be (and yellow!). I even get a kick out of the Washington "Nat'l League" cards.

I actually think those "active career leaders" are a decent idea and a nice way to get more superstar cards into the set...they just ruined it by using the same photos over and over.
Sascards67 said…
The 1974 set is in my top 10.

I agree with your ranking of the 1984 set in the 15-20 range. It's a solid design.