60 Years of Topps Baseball: A Countdown
By Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*
Baseball cards are an American institution, almost as old as the game itself. And while they weren’t the inventors of it, no single company represents the history of the hobby better than Topps. They kicked off the revolution in 1952 that made cards into what we see today, and they’re still cranking out cards to this day. They pioneered all sorts of ideas in the industry– the good (adding stats to cards, using color photos instead of water color paintings, buying cards and getting gum as bonus instead of the other way around), and the bad (say it with me: Topps Gold and all the other parallel cards of the 90s and 00s), and even the ugly (3-D cards and the short-lived Topps Coins).
I can almost guarantee that if you’re a collector reading this, you have multiple Topps items in your collections. Of course, the fact they had a near monopoly on the card industry from 1956-1980 helps that fact. And if you’re Canadian, you probably have the Topps clone from the Great White North, O-Pee-Chee. And really now, who doesn’t love O-Pee-Chee? Bilingual backs on white card stock instead of gray, an abundance of Expos cards, and updates of late trades and signings with a tag of “Now Playing for Baltimore” or whomever on the front a few cards. As just some kid in northeast Ohio, there was always something that felt so exotic about getting an O-Pee-Chee card in the pre-internet days when worldwide trading was almost impossible. Like some smuggler brought it over the border illegally, outrunning the Mounties through Leamington, swimming for three days across Lake Erie with the cards in a waterproof hefty bag strapped to his back, then smacking a customs agent across the face with a walleye and making a run for it once he reached Sandusky before finally getting the cards to me to hide in my collection and telling me exactly what to say when the FBI comes calling asking about the receipt of illegally obtained foreign goods. But I digress.
Think of all the iconic Topps cards out there. 1952, 1953, and 1967 Mickey Mantle. 1954 Aaron and Williams. 1956 Jackie Robinson. 1968 Nolan Ryan and Jerry Koosman. 1979 Ozzie Smith. 1982 Cal Ripken and the other two scrubs. 1983 Sandberg, Boggs, and Gwynn. 1985 McGwire. All those cards listing some guy named Bob Clemente while repeatedly leaving out his look-alike teammate Roberto (wait, what?). No one ever remembers any Fleer, Score, or Donruss cards like that. Even Upper Deck lacks the icons aside from the 1989 Griffey.
With 2011 being the 60th anniversary of Topps Baseball Cards as we know them, I am counting down each set from worst to best in a 60-installment series. New sets will be posted approximately every three days if all goes as I hope it will. So by somewhere around the end of the World Series, the series will come to its conclusion with the greatest Topps baseball card set of all time, the illustrious 1990 set.
Just kidding. 1990 makes me want to dig my eyes out with a fork, as you will soon find out. Spoiler: its ranked 58th out of the 60 sets.
I went through and rated each set on the merits of its design (the visual appeal of the base design and image quality), player selection (whose rookie cards are in it and who’s missing for whatever reason), iconic cards (those cards like 1952 Mantle or 1954 Aaron, where you can close your eyes and picture the card in your mind), and significance to the hobby (advances in the industry, new additions, or cards covering major happenings in the baseball world) and then put them in order from worst to best. I doubt there will be any major surprises to anyone familiar with the hobby; I think your lists would all be pretty similar to mine.
Also, it’s strictly the base sets. No Traded, no Stadium Club, no Heritage, no Opening Day, nothing but just plain old Topps. Period. No additions to the end of that, it’s Topps, Topps, and Topps.
It’s time to salute 40 years of good cards with crappy gum, 15 years of “Sorry, we’re too busy concentrating on competing with Upper Deck with glitz and glamor instead of substance,” and 5 years of “OK, we’ll start taking this seriously again.” That is Topps baseball in a nutshell. It’s time we celebrate it. Happy 60th, guys. I’m sure Sy Berger is smiling like a butcher’s dog seeing his idea go this far.
Without (much) further ado, the series will begin this week with the worst Topps baseball set of all-time. What is it going to be? You’ll just have to continue reading the series to find out!
About the Author: Drew Pelto, 27, is the play-by-play voice of the North American Hockey League’s Wichita Falls Wildcats. He is a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan with an incredible load of emotional baggage from years of Shots, Fumbles, Drives, Chokes, Decisions, and general rudderless suck. He has been a sports card collector for 20 years. Drew resides in North Texas with his wife and a vast number of cats.
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