What’s in a base set?

All together, the first 66 Topps base sets (1951-2016) included 41,892 cards (not counting variations), of which 35,911 (86%) are base player cards, and 5981 I have categorized as “something else.”

Over the past year or so I have been working on a spreadsheet to help me categorize all of the Topps sets. When I wrote my recent post on Topps multiplayer cards, I was able to identify these cards pretty quickly. If I want to know what years Topps had Turn Back the Clock cards (1977, and 1986-90), or Boyhood photos (1972-73), I have that information. What year did Topps have the highest number of non-base cards? 1972, with 206 out of a 787 card set.


The next time I want to impress the woman sitting at the bar, I will tell her that Topps has had 417 cards focused on the post-season, starting with 1960. (Fortunately, I am happily married.)

My information is a bit weaker (meaning: there may be errors) in the past 20 years or so. I only have a handful of the sets, and Topps has gotten a trickier with their non-base cards. You might see Mike Trout on a checklist, when it is really the Angels team card or something. It occurred to me recently that I might try to find some help (a) categorizing the post-1994 Topps sets, and (b) expanding the study to cover other brands. It might be fun to see how many sets we could break down.

If people are interested I would post the spreadsheet on Google, and people could help me update it.

What year did Topps put out the most “base player cards” per team? 1959, with 29.8 (477 cards for 16 teams). What about the least (not counting pre-1956, when they did not have all the rights)? 1999, with 12.6. That’s quite a spread.


I should be clear on what base player cards are. These are cards that have the standard front and back for that year — one card per player. No managers, coaches, executives. No Jackie Robinson in 1997. If the card has a trophy on the front, or a star, or text that says “Rated Rookie” that’s still a base card. The Carew above is a base card.

If the card has a completely different design — like the 1985 Olympic cards, or all the 1990s Draft Picks, those are not base cards and are categorized separately. There are grey areas to this, and I suppose I could be talked out of some of it.

Anyhow, here is a graph.


It is possible that a more discerning look at the recent sets will dig into those totals a bit, but things have gotten better since the dreary mid-late 1990s.

Note: I do not wish to imply that the base player cards are the only cards that matter. Absolutely not. Only that if you make a spreadsheet of the set, you can pull out the teams and the managers and the league leaders, and give them their own columns.  The player cards are what is left — the cards you sort by teams and make rosters out of.

If this is of interest, let me know what else we can do with it.


Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, founder and past chairman of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, current President of the SABR board of directors, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

16 thoughts on “What’s in a base set?”

  1. One thing I noticed in the multi-player post was that there was no mention of the Big League Brothers cards from 1977 (May, Forsch, Reuschel, Brett). I never quite knew what to do with those cards.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure your pickup line would work on women, but I’m impressed. The Jim Fergosi “Boyhood Photos” card is one of the best in that catagory. The font used in ’72 is reminiscent of Art Deco lettering. Of course Jim played a “sad song” for Mets fans.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good luck. I have made spreadsheet checklists for all Topps base sets from 1973-2016 and other base brands since their respective year of inception to now. It makes collecting a lot easier.


    1. Excellent. What I am talking about here is different, of course. I am making ONE spreadsheet, where the rows are the set brand/year, and the columns are things like “League Leaders”, “Teams”, “All-Stars”, “Player cards”, and the cells are 12, 26, 14, 619.


  4. Very interested in your spreadsheet. Does your spreadsheet show the teams of the players also? I have a PC of Giants cards and until recently used Zistle for this purpose, but it was bought by Beckett.


    1. At the moment, no, though this would be a great addition and easy (since all of my cards are sorted by team).

      The point of my post was to say “Hey, this is what I have so far, anyone want to help expand this in new directions?” I have made a start, as it were.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am interested in seeing your spreadsheet and perhaps adding to it with other sets to expand the searches to be all cards for a certain player if people collect certain players and such.


  5. Well I have a lot of baseball cards I have been trying to see what to do with them can you help me out Thank you . Leroy Montoya ?


  6. I always considered Draft picks and the alt-designed Future Stars to be base cards, as they were the only card of that player in the set and had the same back design as the “regular” cards. But what about something like the 1974 Hank Aaron? That has a different design and certainly has the front-side feel of a subset, but is supposed to be Aaron’s base card for that year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of this is likely orneriness on my part. I grew up collecting in the 1970s/1980s period when players would not get a card until they were major leaguers or about ready to become major leaguers. So when you have things like the Draft Pick cards, with guys in college uniforms or a flannel shirt, that Topps was not saying “hey, here is an Indian”, they were saying, “someday this guy might be a Indian.” So when I sorted the 1992 set into teams, and I get to the Manny Ramirez card (which doesn’t have a team name on it) do I put him with the Indians, or do I put him off to the side?

      So I guess that is my personal prejudice. I always considered the core of the card set to be players who played for the 26 (or whatever) teams. In the early 1990s, because of the rookie card “boom”, Topps felt they needed to put out cards of players who were several years (if they were lucky) away from playing. Because of the era I grew up, I considered those to be special subsets.

      But that obviously reflects how I collect cards, which doesn’t apply to everyone else.


      1. I mentioned the managers on Twitter (as an 80s-90s collector they always felt like base cards) and I know you’re going to be doing a post just about those later.

        Regarding the draft picks, while I liked those cards they’re in no way a base card. I really enjoyed having them in the set since the increased press coverage about the draft meant that it was often an important news item from the season. But they were never about the players IN the team and that’s always been the point of the set.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I would also like go see any of the spreadsheet. This will help me with reviewing and inventorying my cards. I consider any card that has a single player with the previous season and career total stats on the back to be a base card as long as the stats are for major and minor league stats. I do not consider draft picks to be base cards as they have college or high school stats. There is one exception where I consider a card with two players to be a base card. It is the 1954 #139 Ed & John O’Brien.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: