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Night owl's all-time Topps set countdown (16-13)

The Night Owl countdown is on the verge of the top 10. We've made it through late '90s yuck and '60s blandness to arrive here at the final 16.

The four sets that follow are all very good. There is maybe one small factor for each that keeps them from the top 10. But I would be happy to have each of these sets completed, and I'm pleased to say for three of the four sets, I have.

I think you'll see that each of these sets rarely gets a fair shake. But I'm here to try to convince you otherwise.

As I write this post, I'm prepping to put the complete countdown show on the sidebar or create a link to its own page. This countdown needs to be preserved so future collectors can figure out which sets to adore and which ones to burn in the fire pit (I'm joking. But 1989 Topps burns very well -- or at least that's what a friend told me).

OK, that's enough of a lead-in. Here are sets 16-13:

16. 1978 Topps

I think it's difficult for collectors who didn't grow up in the mid-1970s to fully appreciate 1978 Topps. I've read many a dismissive post about this set and at first it stunned me. I thought everyone knew of the impact '78 Topps left on the hobby.

But then I realized, you had to be there.

The 1978 Topps set is 726 cards large. This was earth-shaking news in 1978. Bigger than disco. Bigger than Camp David. Bigger than Animal House.

For five years, Topps issued a flagship set of 660 cards, starting in 1973. I started collecting in 1975, although I had vague knowledge that the '74 set was 660 cards, thanks to those cello packs I got from my mom. So, 660 was the norm. Twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Four stations on the TV. Happy Days comes on at 8 o'clock.

But not in 1978. The complete Topps set came to our house that year, and when it was opened, we discovered that the advertisement was right -- there were 66 more cards than usual! Well, kiss my grits!

This was very exciting. "More" was always exciting and we couldn't wait to see what was on "more".

But I admit, when I saw the cards, I wasn't thrilled at first sight.

The '78 design is spare. Unlike the sets that immediately preceded it -- my introductions to the hobby -- the '78 set makes way for the photo. There are no pennants or fat team names or tiny drawings of people playing baseball. There is a simple frame, script team name -- that instantly reminded me of school -- and a fun floating baseball for the position.

This may not be the most kid-friendly design, but I appreciate it quite a bit now. This is one of the classiest-looking sets that Topps has ever created. It is high-class flagship and one of the most memorable that Topps has made.

The spareness of the design allows other elements to shine.

For example, the rookie cups might look better on 1978 Topps than virtually any other set. The design doesn't detract from the cup, allowing the cup to practically glow. I think this is my favorite rookie cup set.

The All-Star badge also stands out, not that it needed help standing out because -- didn't you hear me? -- I said All-Star badge. This is genius. Who thought this up? Genius! With the exception of 1975 Topps, and maybe 1976 Topps, because stars, these are my favorite All-Star cards. It's simple, yet you can't help but notice that every All-Star wears a badge.

The '78 set is also colorful, properly reflecting its period. And there is so much about this set that is unforgettable. The Eddie Murray rookie, the Molitor/Trammell rookie, the fact that two-thirds of the Yankees are action cards (not the norm in those days), the game on the back ...

I admit that when we first noticed that there was no cartoon on the back of the card (the first time since 1971), we were not pleased -- what is this some sort of card set for adults?

But then we played the game, and played it, and played it. And although we noticed a number of faults with it (I've written at least a couple of posts about this), it occupied the abundant amount of time we had in the summer of 1978. I'm firmly convinced that video games were invented because Topps stopped putting cartoons and games on the back of their cards.

One of my favorite parts of '78 Topps, even back then, are the manager cards. This was my introduction to manager cards and not only did I love the concept, but I loved the presentation. Even the backs were great with the complete player stats and the fact box on the right that seemed to light up (I was a kid, I had an imagination).

There are a couple of drawbacks with '78 Topps. I think we all know about the Greg Minton and Mike Paxton "painted" cards. And the Rich Gossage full-body painted card. And this is the set that introduced me to double-printing. Whose idea was it to double-print the Pete Rose card?

But heck, I can't even get mad about this. It's just too classy of a card.

15. 1957 Topps

The kid who opened packs of 1978 Topps would not have ranked this set this high.

My appreciation for '57 Topps has never been as high as it is now. Going way back I've thought the set drab, washed out and old.

A lot of the pictures are dark, and many of the ones that aren't seem like you're looking at them with a dim flashlight -- even the cards with photos that were obviously taken in bright sunshine.

And then there is the element that receives the most complaints. The lettering on the card can be difficult to read, much more difficult in person than on a backlit scan. Is that Paul Poytack? Paul Roytack? Oh! Foytack!

So those are the drawbacks, which is why this set is not in the Top 10, because, brother, it deserves to be in the Top 10.

This is the set that started the modern baseball card, the 2 1/2-by-3 1/2 miracle that we're still collecting today! This is the perfect shape, the preferred shape by the majority of collectors, and it all began with 1957 Topps.

This is the first Topps set to include full-color photography on all of its cards. This is the template for thousands of sets that followed. In many ways this set deserves more credit for its successors than 1952 Topps.

A number of cards in the set offer the best glimpse of what major league baseball was like back then. The fields, the equipment, the advertising. It is a very nostalgic set and those with an appreciation of history gravitate toward it.

It's short on design color, which is why I've never taken to it. And I'm still mad that I can't get a Rene Valdes card because it's a blasted middle-numbers short-print ...

... and the backs -- holy hell, the backs, such a come down from 1956 Topps, I think I actually fell asleep reading the backs of '57 Topps.

But although it's not among my collecting preferences I can appreciate some of the "of its time" greatness in the set and what '57 Topps did to pave the way for future sets.

When you think about it, this was the Stadium Club set of the 1950s.

14. 1988 Topps

This is one of my favorite sets of the '80s. Perhaps the sheer volume of '88 Topps still available today, the fact that it's hanging from every tree and included in every political pamphlet left in your mailbox in the fall (what, that doesn't happen where you live?) has caused collectors to ignore this set. I've heard it. I've heard people say they don't care for it.

They have no appreciation for greatness. The '88 Topps is an oasis of brilliant color and design in a junk wax desert.

I have loved '88 Topps from the moment I opened my first pack (and opened just one that year, too). In comparison to the set that preceded it, 1987 Topps, it is understated, but at the same time it is airy and not dominated by wood paneling. It allows the photo to speak for itself.

As a faithful reader of Sports Illustrated as a youngster, I admired how the image often overlapped the lettering in "Sports Illustrated". This looks cheesy to the photoshop generation, but it had great appeal to me in '88, and right now, honestly. That 3-D perspective is one of the best parts of 1988 Topps.

When I first started blogging, the 1988 Topps blog was at its peak, one of the first card blogs I ever encountered. I thrilled at Andy's treatment of the cards and how much excitement and nostalgia that collectors had for this set.

It made me realize that there really was something to this set, bursting with color, even if you could buy every card for about a half-cent apiece.

Not every '88 card is a piece of art. There are far too many head shots and airbrushed photos and you can see why some collectors switched to Score and Upper Deck in the late 1980s.

But neither Score nor Upper Deck could give you this:

I take back what I said about the '78 Topps rookie cups. THIS is the greatest set of rookie cups. I so enjoy how the name ribbon expands to engulf the rookie cup. So colorful, so noticable. Pure greatness.

Manager cards, same thing.

Did you ever notice how much 1978 and 1988 Topps have in common? Understated designs, strong rookie cup cards, great manager cards, orange backs?

And now a position apart in the Night Owl All-Time Topps Countdown.

Junk wax, my tailfeathers.

13. 1991 Topps

I wish I still had the publication that ripped apart 1991 Topps. I want to say it was one of the Baseball Card Magazine issues from that time period. It was not long after '91 Topps came out -- to great fanfare because of its 40th anniversary -- and the set was mocked.

It was mild mocking, of course, because Twitter wouldn't be invented for another 15 years, but the message was clear: Topps wasn't cutting it with another gray cardboard set. It was dated and other companies were leaving it in the dust.

This wasn't one person's opinion either. I could see it when I opened packs. They didn't stack up to the lighter, brighter Upper Deck. Score, Donruss and WOW, YELLOW! Fleer.

It wasn't until many years later -- after I started reading blogs, in fact -- that I realized how misunderstood 1991 Topps was.

It is a set unappreciated in its time. Sure, it might be printed on gray cardboard -- something a lot of collectors don't have a problem with anymore -- but the photos are some of the best that Topps has ever put on gray cardboard.

This is the point when you knew that Upper Deck had gotten Topps' attention. This was the set in which Topps said, "OK, let's do what Upper Deck is doing. We can do that."

And they could.

The '91 set is so vastly different from the 1990 Topps set it's as if Topps fired everyone and hired a completely different group of people -- from another planet. Like the '87-88 transition, Topps went from a heavy, oppressive border, to a free-and-easy design that didn't infringe on the photo. In fact, it's even more pronounced with 1991 Topps.

Each of these cards share the same page in the '91 set. All are distinctive in their own kind of way, and that's how 1991 Topps made its mark. It tried, maybe not with every card but with most, to make each photo distinctive, and that wasn't the case before.

I believe this is the first time that Topps used team name logos (there's a proper term for that but it's escaping me), something that it used again to obnoxious degree in 2010 Topps. It adds flair to what is a pretty drab design.

What makes it a little fun for me is the same thing that Topps did with its 1988 set -- overlapping the design with the photo. Although, as you can see on these two cards that are back-to-back in the set, sometimes Topps overlapped the design and sometimes it didn't. And it seems very arbitrary.

The most notable drawback for me with this set, besides the design being a little boring, are these draft pick cards. I know Topps had been doing it for a couple of years now, but for whatever reason, it really hurt in 1991 Topps -- like I knew this trend was never going to go away.

And, no, I don't care about the Chipper Jones card. I don't live anywhere near Atlanta and the Braves are stupid.

There's your '91 back. I have no more words to spend on that.

The '91 set is placed on a pedestal by some collectors as the last set before the foil scourge. Although I can appreciate that, I'm not quite as militant. I think '91 Topps stands on its own, regardless of what came afterward.

Up next: Sets #12-9


Sascards67 said…
The 1991 set is in my top 5. I collected football and even hockey in this design but the baseball stands out. And the Braves aren't stupid until they move to Marietta in a couple of years. Well, OK. They are kind of stupid this year with them using about 200 players already.
capewood said…
I would probably put the 1991 set in my top 10, if I were to go through the painful process of trying to rank 60+ years of card designs. I'm also partial to the 1988 set. I appreciate the historical prospective you bring to the 1957 set but I still don't like it.
Anonymous said…
I am completely on board with this batch of rankings. 1991 is my favorite Topps set of the 1990's, hands down. 1988 might be my favorite 1980's Topps set, except when it's 1983.

1978 is... Well, every set from the 1970's is among the greatest sets of the 1970's... except for 1979, which is the least awesome of a subjectively awesome decade.
Jamie Meyers said…
I like that 91 Shane Andrews card. Perhaps the only time a huge dude in a "Cavemen" jersey ever appeared on a Topps card? Doesn't hurt that I met him a couple later in the minors and got a number of those signed. Nice guy, could hit the ball a mile. When he made contact, that is. Not sure i would rank any of the sets in this installment this high, but I see your points on all of them.
Stubby said…
Well. look, I grew up and started collecting in the 60s, so there is no way on Earth I would ever say the 70s was Topps "golden age". To me, its self evident that they did their best work in the 60s. That said--looking at just these four--I would have them in the reverse order from what you have. While the over-printing of the '88s has dampened fonder memories, the fact is that those cards looked *good* coming out of the packs. The 1991's looked like crap coming out of the packs--to me at least. Never liked them, never will. And it wasn't the comparison to competitors (I mean, Fleer had that awful yellow thing going on, Donruss and Score seemed to have lost their mojo, and Upper Deck wasn't all that anymore--Leaf even worse). No, it was the comparison of '91 Topps and almost any Topps card that had come before it that made me dislike them so much. And pretty much anything that came after was even worse. The 78s were good...they were colorful and had a nice mix of action and posed. What really hurts, though is 1966 and 1970 being down there in the 40s on your countdown. Those sets were Top 10 worthy and certainly (to me at least) far, far, superior to anything from the 80s, 90s or aughts. I get why some people don't like the '66s, but I'll never understand why 1970 isn't in everyone's Top Ten--easily the most under-rated Topps set and design of all time
Brian said…
The project of ranking all the sets feels so daunting to me, especially when it gets into this range - how to decide between 12th best and 13th best? If I flipped the rankings of 15 through 10, could I convince myself that order was just as good?

Even at say the 20th best, Topps' sets are pretty darn good. I don't often go for full sets, but 1991 was an easy choice to complete for me.
John Bateman said…
The 1978-1980 Topps period was a low light for set design except for the 1997-2002 which was the worst design period ever. I would put 1991 up higher, the 40 years of baseball logo is probably the best design logo on any card set. This set is just colorful - I thought 1988 Topps was junk until I started reading my first sports blog (The now retired 2008-09 88 Topps Cards) which gave it a new light. The 57s just look drab to me.
Fuji said…
I love comparing baseball cards to women, because we all have our own likes and dislikes. This post definitely proves my point. 1988 Topps is somewhere in my bottom 10.
Stack22 said…
"I don't live anywhere near Atlanta and the Braves are stupid."

If I were ever inclined to get script lettering tattooed on my forearm (I won't be), that may be the line I went with.

And not to nitpick, but how can you feature '88 Topps and not show one of those yellow all-star cards? (I'd suggest NL 3B)

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