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.
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.
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.
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