On Becoming Complete: A Spiritual Journey

What is complete? Who decides that? How do we know when we get there?

Recently, Mark Armour (co-founder of this blog and current SABR President), Tweeted the good news that he snagged a 1956 Yankees Team Card and his 1956 Topps set was finished. But was it?


One Tweeter threw out a picture of the unnumbered checklists


and Jason (our current blog co-chair) said, “yeah, you need those to be complete.” This lead to a series of comments on what makes a whole set whole. Do you need the 24 blue team checklists inserted in 1973 packs, but not numbered, to have a complete set of that year? How about 1974, where you’d need the red team checklists, the Traded set and all Washington variations to be done.

I do think about this a lot. I’m now 3 away from a complete 1961 Post set, having bought a nice Clemente. There are 200 numbered cards in that set and having one of each number is what I’m shooting for. BUT, with all variations (company issue vs. box issue, Minneapolis vs. Minnesota Twins, players with more than one team, transaction notations, and so on), the set runs to 357! That’s almost 180% of the base numbering. Will I be complete at 200? I’m saying yes.

If you need unnumbered inserts to be complete. Do you need all unnumbered inserts? That would be absurd.


If you narrow that down to checklist inserts, my thoughts turn to the 2004 Cracker Jack set, which had two separately numbered checklists, which were not made of the same card stock.

Cracker Jack

And, while I don’t know how the 1963 Fleer checklists were distributed, that card is unnumbered.


Furthermore, does being an insert in and of itself make it part of the whole set? Can’t be, right? These were inserted in 1971 packs, but nobody (at least nobody I know) considers a 1971 Topps set incomplete if you don’t also have a complete set of these.

1971 Topps Coins 5

There has to be a right answer, and this is it:

A set is complete when you have all the numbered cards. Master sets are complete when you have all variations, non-numbered cards, etc.

Getting back to 1956 Topps, if you’re not complete without the checklists, then you’re also not complete unless you have all white and gray back variations and the different team card versions. In fact, they’re called variations for a reason; those cards are “a different or distinct form or version of something.” I would argue, in fact I am arguing, that the checklists are also variations – they are different from all the other 1956 because THEY HAVE NO NUMBER and, without a number, they are outside the set as presented.

Obviously, to each his own on this, but there must be a clear standard. Perhaps we all know what it is, and that’s why complete sets tend to be sold by the definition above, and, when variations, unnumbered checklists, etc. are part of the listing, they are given a separate shoutout.

I’m sure there are many thoughts on this, and maybe I want to hear them. I’m not sure. I imagine I will anyway.


Author: Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is the former Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.

35 thoughts on “On Becoming Complete: A Spiritual Journey”

  1. I am a set completist but as long as I have all the numbered cards in the set I feel I have completed the set. The unnumbered checklists I think should be included because they were printed and sold as part of the set and were part of the wax pack. Don’t even think about including the advertising filler cards from the wax packs. Okay, I do have some of those, I confess. Donn


      1. I don’t think you need coin set for complete 71 set. I think you need the checklist as part of your coin set.


      2. Funny, though, because the checklist is part of the base set. Makes me want to check listings for complete coin sets to see if sellers throw in the checklist. They might as well; it’s cheap.


  2. This is a timely post for me. I am closing in on having a complete set of 1973 Topps cards. I only have 26 cards numbered cards to go. I don’t consider it essential that I have every variation of the Managers and Coaches cards with ears and no ears, solid backgrounds and natural backgrounds, or orange and and brown backgrounds. I will have a mix of these in my set of 660 cards and that will be just fine with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your answer is correct as stated. Going beyond that is directly related to how much existential pain an individual is willing to place on themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Complete is what YOU make it to be. As a completist myself, I understand the dilemma, but far too often I think we as collectors forget there is no universal standard against which we’re going to be judged. Some sets you might love so much that you want every little obscure aspect of it; others, a simple base set might be enough. It only matters that you’re satisfied with what you have and don’t have.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I wouldn’t consider my set incomplete without the checklists. Heck if I had a set completed except for a numbered checklist or two I’d probably draw a line under my build and move on to my next set. Checklists aren’t things I seek, they’re things I run into on the quest.

    Now, as a team collector my relationship to checklists is kind of weird in terms of considering a team set complete. I don’t feel the need for the team-logo Fleer checklists from the 1980s. I do like getting the 1960s checklists with players on them. I even got the Series 1 variant of the 1966 Series 2 Checklist featuring Warren Spahn as, presumably, a Giant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What determines a “complete” team set for you? Is it all cards listed with the team name/logo or all cards with the player pictured in the team’s attire? 1994 Stadium Club Team is interesting as a Mets collector because the Mets are not a featured team, yet Howard Johnson, Sid Fernandez, Darrin Jackson, Dave Gallagher, and Charlie O’Brien (at least) are all clearly pictured in Mets uniforms. To me those are more Mets cards than Rockies, Orioles, etc. cards despite the team name printed on the card.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is your turf, but I would think a Team Set is composed of the cards branded with the team name. A team collector would no doubt see it the way you do.


      2. That comment was meant more for Nick as I know he collects Giants. While I have Mets branded cards with the players in other uniforms as part of the Mets collection, I actually prefer the cards with the players in the uniform regardless of how the manufacturer brands them. And there are some rare cases, like with a World Series subset, in which I will include cards that do not picture Mets players because having cards 1, 3, 4, and 7 from the subset just because they are the ones that picture Mets seems incomplete when the subset is discussing a World Series in which the Mets participated.

        PSA has begun what is to me the very annoying trend of adding team checklist cards to master sets for players. So a 1977 Cardinals team checklist card, with the team photograph, now shows up in the master set checklist for Keith Hernandez. I could see it being in a Vern Rapp collection because he is specifically mentioned by name on the front of the card as a manager. But to call that a Keith Hernandez card seems a stretch. It would be like calling the 1989 Bowman Gary Carter a Gary Carter card, a Ryne Sandberg card (he is the baserunner to whom Carter is applying the tag), and a Keith Hernandez card (his face is clearly visible between Carter’s and Sandberg’s shoulders). While I’ve long had a 1989 Bowman Gary Carter with my Hernandez cards, it’s more as a novelty that he happened to be in the shot than as considering it a true “Keith Hernandez” card.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. How about 1972 Topps football? There isn’t a 3rd series checklist and the cards were only distributed in Michigan. I didn’t know the 3rd series existed until 30 years after it was released. In fact, the only reason any survive is that Larry Fritsch bought several cases.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I mean, you can’t say it’s a complete set without the 3rd series. When people list them, the say “1972 Topps Football Complete Series 1 and 2” or something like that.


      1. I think Tim’s suggesting that you could consider it complete with just series 1 and 2 because the third series was never *really* released. ( It *would* be nice to strike the 1952 Topps high numbers off my searchlist…)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. You know when this all started for me? Late 1981. I was 9yrs old and thought I had the complete 1981 Topps set built from packs. SO proud of myself! Then my neighbor Ricky shows me his new Topps Traded Set that I didnt even know existed. And Topps had numbered the cards 727-858. Was my set complete? Apparently not! Thanks alot Topps!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great debate. Personally… if they were offered in packs, I’d consider them part of the set. If it’s a send-a-way item, then I might not have to have it… but probably would still keep an eye out for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Not to be redundant but I think the set is complete if the unnumbered checklists are had because they were printed to be part of the set. In my opinion coins should be considered as added tokens and not required as a needed part of the set but a coin set on its own. Just like gum is a token in the pack or in the case of Fleer and Donruss, the logo cards and . . Um I forgot what Donruss included, oh yeah, puzzle pieces. Got a ton of those puzzles! One set on my office/man cave wall.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I mostly agree with the set vs master set distinction, but I still vote for including the unnumbered checklists with 1956 just as I would with 1981 Donruss.

    Using numbering as basis also fails to generalize to unnumbered sets like T206. We definitely wouldn’t consider a collection of zero T206 cards complete simply because it includes all numbered cards, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unnumbered sets are consistently unnumbered. The difference I see in 1956 (and 1981 Donruss) is that the set is numbered, but the checklists are not, and therefore outside the set itself.


  11. Is a 2004 crackerjack autograph subset of (6) mini autos and (11) secret surprise autos complete without the Legends Joe Rudi auto in the same issue? The Rudi card is in 1 of every 755,000 packs. There is a level of insanity to which completeness can be taken.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Clearly they had Henry Aaron in mind when inserting the card 1 in 755,000 packs.

      Thinking about this in terms of different types of variations:

      The 1960 Fleer set is like that to me with a really tough card. I spent time buying lots, upgrading cards, selling off the excess, and doing some individual upgrades at shows. It’s a nice set. I have 79 cards. It’s unlikely I will ever own card number 80 (any version) because those Pepper Martin cards are expensive. As in one is on eBay for $6,000. There are a lot of other things (including non-baseball things) I could buy for $6,000. It’s still “on the list” should I ever find one buried in a lot where someone thinks it’s the player on the front. The complete sets being sold on eBay are the 79 card sets.

      1969 Topps is similar. I have the base set and a handful of variations; I’m nowhere near having all the white letter variations. I think that’s fine because if I were to sell the set I would sell the set without the variations and then sell off the variations individually. I don’t think anyone would be expecting the variations in a complete set. And if I see white letters for a good price I’ll pick them up.

      1989 Topps – I have most of the major variations, though I’m not really a “shades of gray” collector (i.e. I don’t really care about color variations much unless it’s really clear like the white letters). I have Franklin Stubbs and Stanley Jefferson variations, though there seems to be a range of shades for those cards. I know there are people who go so far as to collect the variations on the Future Stars cards, but to me whether someone’s head is closer to the Future Stars logo is immaterial to completing the set. It’s kind of like Wilbur Wood looking skyward in the 1969 set – not very interesting to me. If it’s not that easy to tell if it’s a variation, how much of a variation is it?

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow, longest thread ever. If anyone is still reading, I am not, strictly speaking, a completist. I will get a box set every year and am satisfied that I have a complete set. If a traded or update set comes out I don’t care as long as there are no new players.
    I don’t backfill incomplete sets but do have a hankering for championship teams. However, even with those, I will not endeavor to accumulate every player, just the starters and key substitutes. There are some exceptions, such as Herb Washington on the ’74 A’s and Steve Braun on the ’82 Cards, but Mickey Klutts will not be missed.
    I don’t see any point in obsessing over every single card in a set. That’s just me. I would go nuts. Certainly if one is interested in ultimately putting one’s “complete set” on the market it would be a great selling point to include the checklists and other ephemera, otherwise, you just have to make a decision you are comfortable with.

    Liked by 1 person

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