Results: Topps Amid the Counterculture

Thanks to the 189 of you who took our poll to determine the best Topps sets of the 1960s — or rather, the Topps sets that we collectively enjoy the most. As with the 1970s, every set was loved by someone, and all sets finished last in at least three surveys as well. So there is no true consensus. Which I think is a great result.

Chick here to read about the poll and to see images of each of the card sets (front and back). I am not going to repeat the images here.

What follows are our results, with my comments. The average score is computed as a 10 for a first place vote, 9 for a second, etc.

 

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1. 1967 (7.05 average score, 47 first place votes)

It ended up being a two-set race for the title. Every time I checked the results over the weekend 1965 was winning, but when I closed the poll this morning I noticed the top 2 had switched.

This has always been my favorite Topps set of all time — I like my sets to be simple (not many design elements) yet to have distinct colors. And I love the backs as well — vertical seems more natural to me, and the missing stats columns (games and runs for batters) seemed dispensable for the extra text.

 

2. 1965 (6.90, 38)

I admit that it was not until recently that I realized how great this design is. A year ago I suggested to someone that it was Topps’ most “childish” design, which my friend thought I meant as a criticism. Anything but — Topps did best, in my opinion, when it appealed to kids first and foremost. Most kids would rather have cartoons than a player’s WAR value. That flapping pennant on the front is pure genius.

 

3. 1963 (6.12, 21)

This was the first result that surprised me, as I had this ranked fairly low. For me, its the second picture on the front which is generally out of focus and superfluous. But 21 people thought it it the best set of Topps’ best decade, an impressive result.

In 1963 Topps switched to a lighter card stock, ushering in the “glory days” of card backs. For eight wonderful years, Topps had a light and colorful back filled with statistics for the player’s entire career (and often his minor league years as well). In 1971, Topps literally embraced the dark side, ushering in two decades of card back mediocrity. So, bravo 1963.

 

4. 1966 (5.28, 7)

This is another set, like 1967, in which the player’s photo takes up maximum space on the front of the card. My favorite sets generally have wall-to-wall photo, so I was meant to love this set. And I do.

The color-coded team name going diagonally across the upper left made this the absolutely best set of sorting by team, as all right-thinking people do.

 

5. 1969 (5.26, 13)

This card set had its problems, the reasons for which I have documented elsewhere. However, those problems had nothing to do with the design — which is what we are supposed to be ranking here. The design, for someone in the minimalist school, is great. It has a big photo with child-like design elements laid atop, and it has a bright colorful back. The top 50 cards from this set are as good as the top 50 of any year.

I expect there is a strong correlation between the people who love the elegant 1957/1961/1967/1969, vs. the colorful 1958/1959/1972/1975.

 

6. 1961 (5.22, 10)

After three years of anti-photo experimentation, Topps went simple in 1961 with a very elegant set of cards. There are a lot of deliberate head shots here — cards where Topps obviously had tons of material on hand but showed the head and face anyway. Clemente, Aparicio, Kaline, Mays. Beautiful cards if you want to see what the players look like.

 

7. 1964 (5.04, 4)

Topps most “meh” set of the 1960s, reflected in the lowest number of first place votes. Two years ago I would have said, without thinking, that this was a much better set than 1965. Having recently spent a lot more time with the cards from this era I have now flipped completely on this.

One thing I absolutely love about this set should be mentioned. I am a set collector, but I organize my cards by team. I love the color-coded teams (all Red Sox have a team name in green, with a red bar at the bottom with name and position. Topps’s designs made the team name the primary color element for the rest of the decade, which, as I came aboard in the late 1960s, is probably what influenced me to sort my cards the way I do.

 

8. 1960 (4,91, 15)

A lot of people love this set, which surprised me considerably. For me, it combines some of my pet peeves — the dreaded secondary photo, the single-season stat lines on an otherwise nice card back. I am also anti-horizontal. It is not as bad as Topps using them for “some” of the cards (which it tried from 1971-74, and is doing again today).

I am actually slowly building this set at the moment, so what do I know?

 

9. 1968 (4.89, 21)

Talk about divisive: only two sets got more first-place votes, and only one set got more last place votes. Certainly a big set from my childhood, but I don’t have nearly the nostalgic draw for them as I do for 1967 or 1969. Another set that got crushed by the player boycott, and also by the Athletics move, and also whatever was going on the with the Astros.

 

10. 1962 (4.38, 9)

The two brown bordered sets ended up at the bottom. I kind of like the border myself, although the backs are terrible and the set is plagued with a lot of mediocre photos. In fact, Topps photography got better throughout the decade (pre-boycott), which makes 1966 and 1967 quite easily the best photos if you like bright uniforms under sunny cloudless skies.

 

So there you have it. What should strike you is that the best set had an average score of 7 (a fourth place vote) and the worst around 4 (a seventh place vote). So we are … conflicted.

 

 

Author: Mark Armour

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

13 thoughts on “Results: Topps Amid the Counterculture”

  1. A worthy winner even though I voted it last because of the signatures. What I love about the 67 design is how just changing the font can make it feel appropriate for any decade.

    That Topps puts out designs which are semi-timeless like this and also has wonderfully dated ones like 1960, 1972, and 1975 is one of the most fun parts of collecting cards.

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      1. Same here. It’s probably why I like the 1963 cards too, since 1983 was pretty close to being a direct tribute to 1963 (except that 1983 was a cleaner card design….).

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  2. As a ’70s guy, the ’60s sets don’t really speak to me, but I know enough about card history to know that ’62 Topps is practically iconic. There’s no way it should be last. … I whole-heartedly agree with ’67 being first. It’s the only ’60s set I’ve thought about collecting (bad decision, considering the prohibitive high numbers!)

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  3. The boycott and Astros rights issue hurts 68 but the backs are perfect. The trivia cartoons had great kid appeal. 67 and 65 are worthy league leaders.
    Great synopsis. Excellent work as usual.

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    1. Having begun my card journey with 1967 and 1968, I always preferred the vertical backs (and these two backs are nearly the same). I love both of their backs, and was surprised at how cramped they became in 1969 (my first exposure with the horizontal back).

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  4. I slept the poll, but my results mirror the group’s.

    1963 rules for me. No one element is outstanding, but every aspect of the design is a plus.

    1962 trails. Forgive me Night Owl, but aside from the clever unglued-corner of the player photo, bleah.

    1968 and 1969 are interchangeably bad. Sucks to have a yawner birth-year card (1969). So many crewcuts; they’re burning my eyes!

    Better (non one-year) backs on the 1960s, and they may top the list for me.

    1963
    1965
    1960
    1966
    1967
    1964
    1961
    1969
    1968
    1962
    1962

    A strong decade for card backs, but overall somewhat of a yawner.

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  5. For those of you who like 1963 (or 1960), please defend the brightly-colored circle with the cut out black-and-white out-of-focus image of the player. A player who, I must point out, is already pictured on the card in full color. Go.

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    1. For 1963 it’s less about the photo than it is about the graphic element of just having a solid brightly colored circle paired with the solid, differently-colored rectangle. You could remove the photo and replace it with 1968’s circle text and it would be just as good. I do kind of like having two distinct poses though. And on cards where the poses are the same—such as the 1960 Aaron you posted—the effect doesn’t work as well.

      For 1960 it’s a little similar although the photos work together differently. First, the bright rectangle is what allows the card to be horizontal since I’m pretty sure that Topps couldn’t crop their portraits any more than they did already. As a kid for whom 1960 was sort of the earliest I could afford to acquire, the only horizontal cards I ever came across were action shots until Topps Big came out in 1988 (I still love that set and its late-80s update to the 1956 look). So to see a set of tightly-cropped horizontal portraits stood out as being extra distinct. The small almost-full-length black and white photo balances out the tightness of the cropped portrait in a way which ends up being the opposite of what Topps did in 1983 and 1984.

      With 1960 though, aside from the novelty (for me) of the horizontal format, I just love the colors and how over-the-top it is of its time. Where you can update a lot of the 1960s designs to any time period through font changes (I really like that most of the 60s designs rely just on fonts and basic shapes to do the heavy lifting), 1960 is stuck where it is with its crazy background colors and multicolor fonts.

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    2. njwv’s explanation is very good. As a guy who voted these sets 1st (1963) and 3rd best of the decade, I’ll chime in.

      The 1960s card fronts aren’t particularly innovative, and these are arguably the two most creative of the decade. 1960 is almost TOO busy, but for the time, Topps less than a decade into card design, it’s pretty cool. I want to say it evokes some of the dimension of their hockey cards of the time. I like the inclusion of the logo. The player name treatment is a bit goofy, but contrasts favorably with the pedestrian treatment in most 1960s cards. The color bars pop, as njwv explained. And the backs! I’m no fan of the single season/career stat lines, but that said, this is an interesting back. “Season’s Highlights” is actually sort of a cool way to break it down. Think about some lazier versions (but still a nice change of pace) in the 1980s, like “First Major League Hit” etc.

      1963 is pretty unimpeachable. The contrast of the color bar for player identifiers and the color bar background of the mini circle photo make both elements POP. Given the more limited technical/photo capabilities of 1963, this layout outdoes 1983, a design I adore. And the backs! Card backs are strong in the 1960s (love 1966, 1967, 1969), but I’ll put 1963 up against any card of the 1960s or in the Topps stable, for that matter.

      So consider this the dumb “gut” response to your question, pair with njwv’s more eloquent and technical answer!

      Liked by 3 people

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