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Best set of the year: 1994

Here you go, 2021 card collectors and companies, your cautionary year.
By 1994, card sets readily available to collectors had eclipsed 30 different kinds with various off-shoots and variations, demonstrating the company tricks that are still employed today. Collecting was no longer about the base set in '94 as "the chase" had become the thing and inserts and parallels exploded in content and popularity that year.
The hobby never seemed healthier or more vibrant. Then the baseball strike hit.
Fans left the game in droves and collectors walked away, partly due to the strike but also because the new direction of the hobby -- way too many sets to pursue -- didn't make sense to those used to the old way of collecting.
I was one of those who left in 1994. I collected some Topps, a few packs. That was it. By '96, I couldn't tell you a single thing that was happening in the hobby.
Those who remained, primarily kids who were just starting out in collecting, would redefine how people collected cards and how companies marketed cards. "Player-collecting" became a dominant force, because who could complete a set now? Base sets were marginalized, the beginning of collectors tossing those cards into the garbage when opening packs. Inserts and parallels were king and it all came into focus in '94.
It's difficult for me to do a "best set of the year" for '94 (and the years that follow) like I've done for 1981 through 1993. The collecting model and method shifted, who even cares about sets? Also I counted 33 different sets in 1994 before I gave up. There's no way I'm reviewing all 33 sets the way I've done it in the past.
Therefore, I'm keeping it to the six best, as I see it.
This isn't easy either. A lot of sets from '94 look the same. We're in the era of "all action all the time," so tell me the difference between '94 Donruss and Ultra, without citing inserts, I dare ya. Many sets moved to full-bleed presentations in '94 if they hadn't already done so. And almost everyone was doing the "this isn't a photo you usually see" thing.

The variety of sets also means you're going to get a lot of conflicting opinions. For example, I'm leaving two personal favorites out of the final six:

I happen to like 1994 Score and 1994 Finest a lot ... more so than some of the other "bests" that I'll show in a minute.

But, objectively, each has its "flaws." 1971 Topps wishes it could chip like 1994 Score, and add the glossiness  that contributes to the set bricking all these years later, it is almost impossible to keep the cards in pristine shape, trust me. Meanwhile, as much as I like the carnival theme of '94 Finest, I know it is considered a step down from 93 Finest by those who collected at the time. I happen to love the "sour apple" vibe but I can understand if some aren't fans.

So, I know some people's favorites won't be in the top six. Whatever. Nobody else is doing this.

All right, that's way too much introduction. But there was quite the earthquake in the hobby in '94 so I had to set the ground rules. Let's go:

1994 Collector's Choice -- the front

Plusses: A well-framed set showing off the interesting perspective and action-packed photography that Upper Deck was known for. ... The position silhouette, a la 1973 and 1976 Topps, gives an old-timey feel to the set, which I noticed right away at the time.

Minuses: I know I'm the only one but I don't like the pinstripes on the frame at all. I think it detracts from the whole look of the set and am so glad Collector's Choice dispensed with that for the rest of its history. ... The name and team is a bit too understated.

1994 Collector's Choice -- the back

Plusses: A wonderfully large photo on the back in the same vein as '93 Upper Deck. .. I really like the team logo in the corner of the photo.

Minuses: It's Upper Deck, so you're only getting five years of stats, max.

1994 Collector's Choice -- overall

Plusses: A cheaper alternative to Upper Deck without losing much of the quality of the flagship brand. UD was still considered cost prohibitive at the time so this was a welcome debut, especially for kids. ... If you weren't into gold foil, and I guess that was only collectors who knew what it was like to collect in the '70s, this was another reason not to buy Upper Deck. ... The set is 670 cards large so you didn't feel like you were missing anything by passing up UD. ... Terrific photos, which would really set the standard for the kinds of photos you would see for the rest of the decade, players signing autographs, hanging out in the dugout, lifting weights, etc. ... Alex Rodriguez rookie is here. Also, it's 1994, so come and get your Michael Jordan baseball cards.

Minuses: I like sets with strong designs, so I've never been the biggest Collector's Choice fan. ... And speaking of the set name, I've never liked it. You're not my card set, Collector's Choice.

1994 Fleer -- the front

Plusses: The best-designed set of 1994, maybe the best-designed set of the entire decade. ... As classy as a card set gets, which is a strange sight during the decade of over-the-top bells and whistles. ... The name and position wrapping around the team logo baseball is wonderful, almost a genius touch. ... Fleer also showed 1969 Topps a thing or two by moving that logo baseball to whatever corner of the card was the most available. That means put that circle on the bottom if you have to! ... Well-presented action photos.
Minuses: Even though this set looks a lot like Collector's Choice, the photos aren't as interesting. Fleer's aren't all-action-all-the-time, but it does get a little boring. ... The gold foil is difficult to read in such a small font.

1994 Fleer -- the back

Plusses: It looks nice enough.

Minuses: I can't read it. The stats over the top of the picture makes half of them very difficult to read. The vital stats and the blurb are too small, especially now that I'm over 50 and am more annoyed by that stuff. ... Please don't put your card number at the bottom.

1994 Fleer -- overall

Plusses: Widely recognized as one of the best-designed Fleer sets of all-time. ... The set is big at 720 cards. ... If you're into that kind of thing, Fleer really stepped up the insert game in '94 in both size and quality. There are at least 12 insert sets and a lot of them look very nice, which is a trend that would continue through the decade.

Minuses: I don't know if there's a reason for this, but these cards aren't as available as most flagship sets from the '90s. ... There are no real big rookie cards in this set, if you care, which I don't.

1994 Stadium Club -- the front

Plusses: It's Stadium Club, so you're going to get a huge set (720 cards) and the photographs are going to be memorable. ... Stadium Club contracted the "extreme" illness that was going around in the mid-1990s and that particular look is all over this set. One of the pleasing parts, for me, is the name line which has a ransom-note feel. ... SC's design elements are usually so unmemorable that it's easy to mix up various years from the brand. But I always remember '94 because of that name line treatment.

Minuses: As I mentioned with '93 Stadium Club, the photo processing at this time (lots of shadows, etc.) looks dated on some of the cards.

1994 Stadium Club -- the back

Plusses: Well -- if you want to know what 1994 looked like, all you need to do is turn over a 1994 Stadium Club card. ... It's colorful, I'll say that.

Minuses: We're a long way from the rookie card photo on the back, which Stadium Club was known for up until this point. Too bad. ... Lots of pointlessness on this card (which would be a theme for the '90s). The random blurb headers ("dialing 8") in too large type -- all lowercase -- is very much style-over-substance. ... I want to read it, yet am discouraged from reading it at the same time. ... This is early ESPN the Magazine to a T.

1994 Stadium Club -- overall

Plusses: Lots of interesting photos per usual. Just from my Dodgers binder I can cite Orel Hershiser harvesting turf sod, Chan Ho Park's "from the ground up" pitching pose, Tim Wallach staring down the card viewer from the underground batting cages, and Henry Rodriguez pensive in front of the bat rack. ... If you're into it (and a lot of people were) there are the "golden rainbow" parallels, which I just call "gold parallels" because tilting my cards all the time is too much work. ... First Day Issues and Members Only cards were a thing.
Minuses: I think this is the beginning of me thinking that Stadium Club's inserts and parallels are pointless and everyone please focus on the magnificent pictures in this set.

1994 Ted Williams Company -- the front

 Plusses: After a debut set heavy on black-and-white pictures in 1993, Ted Williams Co. went mostly color in 1994. ... The "wall design" on the side could infringe on the picture (this is the main reason you aren't seeing '94 Upper Deck in this review) but the players are allowed to break through that wall with a leg or an arm.

Minuses: YOU CAN'T READ THE PLAYER NAMES because they're written in tiny gold script on the brown wall. Major gaffe there. For the longest time I just thought there was no type on the front aside from the TW logo.

1994 Ted Williams Company -- the back

Plusses: Your basic back. Like the '93 set, TWC featured only the player's best years (although '86 for Lynn wasn't nearly as good as some of his late '70s seasons that aren't shown).

Minuses: Pretty damn boring and brown. ... What is that "invisible ink" reference at the bottom -- is that what they did with the names on the front?

1994 Ted Williams Company -- overall

Plusses: Like in '93, this was a yeoman effort for company that didn't land the licensing it needed. The checklist is vast and varied once again with a bunch of great-old players that you almost never saw in card sets at that time (and even today). ... The subsets and insert sets are well-thought-out. I love the Women of Baseball and Negro Leagues sets and really love the Memories insert set.

Minuses: This was the end for the TWC. There was a lot of friction between TWC and Upper Deck and Ted Williams and his son John Henry and there were lawsuits and eventually the TWC was dissolved. ... The "disappearing name" on the card fronts really affects my view of the set, which is too bad because I like the photos and player selection a lot.

1994 Topps -- the front

Plusses: In a continuing trend that started in 1991 as Topps began to furiously copy Upper Deck, the photos in this set are very memorable, among the most interesting Topps has made in one set. ... The design is an abstract representation of home plate, which I have to admit took me a long time to notice. ... One of the only Topps flagship sets with prominent script writing ('78 Topps is the most cited).

Minuses: I've never liked the design and therefore have never liked the set. Too much green. Color combinations that clash.

1994 Topps -- the backs

Plusses: Yay, there's a picture? Don't like these backs.

Minuses: More green and irritating color combos.

1994 Topps -- overall

Plusses: Let's hear it for the last set I would buy before I went on my hobby hiatus all the way until 2006. ... Another sizable set in 792 cards as all card companies were still acting like the bubble would never burst. What a change in 1995. ... The Black Gold inserts were back and still attractive. ... The first set (along with most of the other sets in 1994) where you could be assured that all of your Marlins and Rockies were actually playing in Marlins and Rockies games.

Minuses: This is the start of the '90s Topps sets that I've actually avoided collecting because I don't like the look of the cards, much like I do with '96, '98 and '99 flagship. ... I feel like I don't give this set a fair shake because I don't like the design, the pictures are actually pretty awesome. ... Like many sets from around this time: too many mullets.

1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes

Plusses: Part of the initial wave of retro sets, along with the Ted Williams Company and Topps Archives, this is the best-looking of all of them. ... Love the black-border theme, the white-on-black look and especially the floating heads with the spot-of-color. ... Proof that you can make a set with almost all black-and-white photos attractive.

Minuses: I'm sure those black-and-white pix weren't pulling in every collector.

1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes -- the back

Plusses: There is a lot of history on these backs in an easily digestible format. ... I like the return of the floating head on the back. ... I like the old-school feel.

Minuses: For what it is, it's perfect. No real minuses.

1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes -- overall

Plusses: A really fun set. ... Issued to recognize the 125th anniversary of Major League Baseball, the checklist list features a wide variety of legends but mostly focuses on those baseball players who are the stars of baseball lore, folks like Charboneau, Garagiola and Throneberry.

Minuses: It came out the same year as the TWC set, which is larger, so at 225 cards, it can't match the checklist depth. ... Every '94 set was starting to become a victim of the gold stamp monster, so there are pointless parallels in this set with "Major League Baseball - 125th Anniversary" stamped down the side. ... Set wasn't produced in large quantities, which I guess is good, but they're not as plentiful as they should be.

All right, that's all I can do for you. That took long enough. Imagine if I did that for 27 more sets!
And so it's time for the set of the year. It was a really tough pick this time with a bunch of sets bunch up near the top.
But in the end I picked ...


That was some tough deciding. I could've even went with Pinnacle and I didn't even break down that set. That's what happens when there are so many sets and many of them were trying to do the same thing.
So, sorry if your favorites are Upper Deck or Bowman or Flair or Action Packed or whatever. I tried to pick what I would think would be the most collectible if I was collecting in 1994 the way I was collecting in the early 1980s.

But I wasn't, because it was the beginning of the end for me. Now here we are, with a zillion card set choices and a bunch of collectors going bananas over cards and a potential baseball strike on the horizon.

Makes you think, huh?

Total "Best Set of the Year" ranking: Topps - 6; Stadium Club - 3; Upper Deck - 3; Collector's Choice - 1; Donruss - 1; Fleer - 1


Nachos Grande said…
1994 is one of the few years of my "main collecting" phase where I didn't bother collecting a single set. That says it all as far as I'm concerned for this particular year.
I have a lot of 1994 in my Player Collections but I have no idea, ever, even with spreadsheets and images and trading card database, what I actually have. Topps 1994 base/flagship set just looks dirty to me. Thanks for pulling this today. Pedro J. Martinez! That cracks me up.
Jeremya1um said…
You’re killing me with the ‘94 Topps/Finest hate. Those are 2 of the most classic designs from the ‘90’s, and I just love how they have home plate mingled in the design.
steelehere said…
Lots of choices in 1994. My top six would include Bowman’s Best, SP, Upper Deck All-Time Herpes of Baseball, Fleer, Bowman and Topps Archives (1954 Topps reprint set)
Old Cards said…
You just reminded me that I was one of those who left the hobby in 1994. My last complete set is a 1993 Topps. A few years ago, I discovered blogs like yours, Gio's @withballs and Cards That Never Were. Suddenly, I was back in and buying cards again.
night owl said…
@Jeremya1um ~

I don't hate '94 Finest at all, I just know a whole bunch of collectors have said it's a come down from '93 Finest (which I don't agree with). As for '94 Topps, you do you.

@steelehere ~

I don't want to know what a set called Upper Deck All-Time Herpes of Baseball looks like.
Fuji said…
My Top 3:

#1: 1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes
#2: 1994 Collector's Choice
#3: 1994 Flair

I don't think I knew about All-Time Heroes back in 1994... but I picked up a complete set within the past year, because I kept seeing singles in care packages and in random blog posts. I love the look (B&W photos don't bother me) and the checklist is awesome.
Stewart looks so damn cool.
Nick Vossbrink said…
When I was a kid I collected all my card for the year in a box and then paged them once the year was over so I didn't have to continuously resort/repage everything. When I came back to the hobby a couple years ago, I found all my 1994 cards still in that box. I not only dropped cards when the strike happened, I didn't even wrap up my collecting. Many of the sets from that year don't jog the memories they should for being from my youth, but a select few do stand out and you've mentioned most of them.

Collectors Choice, Topps, Stadium Club, and Fleer are clearly the standouts to me as well (the sets featuring retired players belong in a different category to me) Collectors Choice and Topps featured some great parallel sets (silver sigs and Spanish language). Fleer is an all-time classic design. But if I had to pick only one I'd go with Stadium Club for being he most of its time of all sets. Grea pictures, comprehensive checklist, and a peak early-1990s design on the back which his me right in the middle of my high school feels, I can't find anything to compain about with it.
hiflew said…
With as many sets as there were in 1994, perhaps an NCAA type bracket would be an interesting series of posts for someone to do. 32 is the perfect number, but you do a "play in game" with the 33rd set.

I do like Collector's Choice, but I don't think it would have been my choice. I think I might have gone Topps or even Donruss which I think is one of their better efforts. Of course that is not saying much since Donruss was never really the best with design.
bryan was here said…
1994 was about the time I took an extended hiatus from collecting. I did pick up a Topps factory set at Walmart around Thanksgiving that year, but my card purchases were random hockey and football packs that year. In fact, when I really resumed collecting back in 2001-02, I only had the Topps factory baseball sets from the years on hiatus (an annual Christmas present from my parents) from those missing years.

I was later able to fill in quite a few gaps from that time period, first by getting a large collection from my uncle, and a few years later, picking up several boxes at a show for $10. It was going through all those boxes I realized I hadn't missed much in the collecting realm.

There were quite a few Stadium Club from '94 in those boxes, and that became my favourite set for that year.
Matt said…
I left the hobby in 1993 when I graduated high school/started college. Had I stuck with it I would have had a hard time with picking which 1994 sets to gut tells me I'd have stayed loyal with Topps and Fleer with some TWC and UD ATH included for good measure.
John I. said…
I love 1994 Score - if it doesn't brick or chip, it has some really fine looking cards. Black designs are often my favorites.

In my opinion, if the prices go down a little, they'll go down a lot, because a lot of this boom is fueled by the investors. If there's another strike, which seems like a possibility, expect card prices to plummet.
Bulldog said…
I like that '94 Score but it screams for a logo even if it is a small one. Always liked that '94 Fleer set as well. Clean design. That Pedro picture is a classic. Good post.
gregory said…
(1) "1971 Topps wishes it could chip like 1994 Score". Hah! Good one there, Night Owl.

(2) I was pretty much out of collecting by 1993, so I missed all these sets and have only seen examples of them sporadically on the blogs. Your observations and commentary were really good here. Solid choice for the winner.

(3) How many different fonts appear on the back of those 1994 Stadium Club cards? Sheesh!

(4) The player surnames on the front of the Stadium Club cards remind me of those label-maker things that were popular in the '70s and '80s, where you'd have to dial in each letter and then pull a little trigger or something in order to punch the letters out on the ribbon.
Bo said…
I was always annoyed that there was no name on the front of the '94 Ted Williams cards. I suppose it's possible I realized the name was there at some point and forgot.
Nick said…
I agree with your Set of the Year choice here - '94 is probably my favorite Collector's Choice design, and I even like the pinstripe borders to boot. Ted Williams and UD heroes are probably #2/3, but that's probably my retro bias speaking there.
Kevin said…
Here is an idea to rank sets for the next ten years of this series and it will give you something more to create posts...break them down into categories, base sets (topps, upper deck, fleet, etc), retro sets (archives, Ted Williams, etc), high end sets (stadium club, ultra, select, leaf)..there are
Probably some other categories you can break sets down into...I do enjoy your break down of all the sets
Doc Samson said…
I'm late to the party, but once again Mr. Owl has done a magnificent job. My favorite 94 set is Score, but just barely. As much as I like Collectors Choice and Fleer, I believe they both suffer from one of the cardinal sins of baseball card design: many times the name is way too difficult to read. That is a deal breaker for me. I was also fortunate to put my 94 Score in pages inside a binder, so chipping and bricking were never an issue.

One more thing: 1994 Collectors Choice was supposed to be the flagship Upper Deck design, and the eventual 1994 Upper Deck flagship design was supposed to be the SP design. As to why these designs were switched around, no one knows for sure.
Jafronius said…
I was interested in how you'd rank 1994 since that was when you were leaving the hobby. I didn't even consider the UD Heroes set. Great post...on to 1995!