Thriller Decade Part 1: Results

Thanks to the 160 of you who took our poll to determine the best cards sets, annually, from 1981 through 1985. Click here to read about the poll and see the fronts and backs of the fifteen different sets.

One overall observation (spoiler!): there is probably a lot of Topps Loyalty out there, people who grew up with Topps in the 1970s (or earlier) and stuck with them through the years even until today as most of their competition has come and gone.

Anyhow, here are our favorite sets, year to year.

Note: scores are average point totals, where a 1st place vote is a 3, 2nd place vote a 2, 3rd place vote a 1.

1981 Topps (2.46), Fleer (1.91), Donruss (1.64)

1981to3

In July 1980 Fleer finally won their court case against Topps, when a judge ruled that the player’s association must grant a license to at least one other company to produce baseball cards. As it happened, they awarded two: one to Fleer, and one to Donruss. The two companies had just a few months to put together card sets, including the gathering of several hundred photographs.

Given the timeframe, the existence of the two sets is remarkable. But not remarkable enough to produce designs as well as Topps, who had been at it for 30 years.

1982 Topps (2.55), Donrus (2.03), Fleer (1.40)

s-l225 (3)

Topps won a minor reversal in their legal battle, so beginning in 1982 neither rival was allowed to put gum in their packs. (In 1981, all companies had gum.) The 1982 Topps set also turned in its second decisive victory.

In my opinion, Donruss took a big leap forward in design and photography, but Fleer was the opposite — cards so uninspired and blurry that I wondered whether they would bother continuing. (I joked on Twitter that the photos look to have been taken by your stoned friends on Florida spring break. And they do.)

1983 Topps (2.71), Fleer (1.76), Donruss (1.49)

83-topps-last-card-ripken

The most decisive victory in the poll. I could be wrong, but I think this is more a reflection of people’s love for the Topps entry rather than a reflection of the other companies. This is my favorite Topps set of the 1980s, so I sympathize.

Where I differ from the consensus is that I love the 1983 Fleer set. In fact, Fleer was a game changer for me. I was now out of college, and I had pretty much decided that I was just going to be a Topps guy, that the usurpers, while admirable, had not done well enough to convince me to buy multiple sets. So I got my Topps set early that year and called it a day.

And then I wandered into a card shop one day, saw some Fleer cards, and basically fell in love. The use of the logo instead of (not “in addition to”, like 1965 Topps) the team name was genius, the overall design was attractive (the first non-white border since 1975 Topps), and the backs were much better than Topps (and had been from the beginning, to be honest).

As I said, I really liked the 1983 Topps set, but I still like Fleer better all these years later.

1984 Fleer (2.05), Donruss (2.03), Topps (1.97)

murphy-84f

This was basically a 3-way tie, and if I ran this poll again using a different methodology it is anyone’s guess which would win. In fact, Fleer had the lowest total of 1st place votes (although the margin was also razor thin). But Fleer is the winner.

I assumed Donruss would win as it is one of the most famous sets ever. It was famous in 1984 for supposedly being scarce, and for having a great Don Mattingly rookie card. I have seen a number of articles or surveys about the best card sets ever, and this set is often mentioned.

Personally, the 1984 Donruss and Fleer sets are my favorites from the 1980s. As for Topps, I didn’t like their repeat of the second photo on the front. They went 20 years before using it in 1983, and should have exercised the same patience before going back to the well. (Admittedly, I am a one-photo guy.)

1985 Topps (2.21), Donruss (2.02), Fleer (1.81)

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Topps is back on top in another very strong year for all three companies. After Fleer showed the way in 1983, Topps used team logos for the first time in 20 years. This was much preferrable to the second photo, in my opinion.

Donruss also debuted the team logo, and (like Fleer) used it instead of the team name. Donruss was the winner for me, but Topps was our (mild) consensus.

So there you have it. Topps takes four out of five, and easily could have swept. But by the mid-1980s I think it is clear that all three companies were on relatively equal footing, each having pros and cons. In 1981 we wondered: could the market really handle three card companies? A few years later, we knew the answer.

The best of The Thriller Years, Part 1

In previous polls, we have debated the best baseball card designs of the 1970s and the 1960s.  This was the heart of the Topps Era, when there was only one card set to worry about so we were ranking 10 sets per decade.

To tackle the 1980s, I decided to mix it up.  First of all, there were 31 cards sets in the decade, and I did not really want to ask you to ponder whether the 1983 Donruss deserves to slot ahead of the 1989 Score set in 27th place.  Check that: I did not really want to ask myself to do that.  So instead, we will start out by picking the best card set of each year.  We will skip 1980 for the moment (Topps was the only set).

Reviewing the rules:  Please, I beg you, do not vote for the set that had the best rookies, or the best update set, or the best retail value.  All those things being equal, if you look at 25 random cards from each year which are the most attractive? The End.

We are just going to do five years now, and finish up next week.

So, first review the photos below, and then vote.  The link is at the bottom.

1981

Steve-Garvey-(Surpassed-21-HR-on-card-back)  83-56aBk

s-l225  84-640aBk

1981to3  wpeE5

1982

s-l225 (1)  87-34Bk

s-l225 (2)  Robin-Yount

s-l225 (3)  89-390Bk

1983

$_58  download (1)

92-601Fr  92-601Bk

83-topps-last-card-ripken  download

1984

s-l225 (4) 95-151Bkmurphy-84f  96-186Bk

100_2721  25513-510Bk

1985

s-l225 (5) - Copy  100-222Bk - Copy

carew - Copy  101-297Bk

43648c5c004c7bf68b09711b4d8d9cd3  download (2)

OK, now go vote!

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.

 

 

Topps Amid the Counterculture

Several weeks ago, our group put our brains together and determined, once and for all (?), the best Topps set of the 1970s.  Here is the original article, and here are our results.

At the time I promised that we would be running other polls, tout de suite, but things got kind of crazy for a while, and here we are.  Let’s get back to it, shall we?

I ask today that you consider the best Topps designs of the 1960s.  I suggest (please) that you not vote for a set because you like the great rookie cards, or your grandpop got you the Mickey Mantle for Easter.  If we do that it just becomes a big nostalgia battle.  I have nothing against nostalgia, it is the reason many of us still haul out our cards.  But for this poll I am trying to set aside that element.  This could mean that the card set that you voted for in some other poll last year, or in some other blog post back in 2012, is no longer your answer for this poll.

Further, I ask you to consider the front of the card (the size and quality of the photos, the way the design elements work together or are prioritized) and the back of the card (readability, statistics, cartoons, quizzes, etc.).

I next present an example of each set for your consideration.  At the bottom of this post is a link where you can vote.  Look at these cards carefully, and then get to it.

 

1960

ARMOUR PART03 1960 AaronHankFront  ARMOUR PART03 1960 AaronHankBack

 

1961

ARMOUR PART03 1961 AparicioLuisFront  ARMOUR PART03 1961 AparicioLuisBack

 

1962

ARMOUR PART04 1962 ClementeRobertoFront  ARMOUR PART04 1962 ClementeRobertoBack

 

1963

ARMOUR PART04 1963 McCoveyWillieFront  ARMOUR PART04 1963 McCoveyWillieBack

 

1964

ARMOUR PART05 1964 KillebrewHarmonFront  ARMOUR PART05 1964 KillebrewHarmonBack

 

1965

ARMOUR PART05 1965 RobinsonFrankFront  ARMOUR PART05 1965 RobinsonFrankBack

 

1966

ARMOUR PART05 1966 FordWhiteyFront  ARMOUR PART05 1966 FordWhiteyBack

 

1967

ARMOUR PART05 1967 PalmerJimFront  ARMOUR PART05 1967 PalmerJimBack

 

1968

ARMOUR PART06 1968 YastrzemskiCarlFront  ARMOUR PART06 1968 YastrzemskiCarlBack

 

1969

ARMOUR PART06 1969 RobinsonBrooksFront  ARMOUR PART06 1969 RobinsonBrooksBack

 

CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE POLL.  Note that there are two questions in addition to the rankings.

 

UPDATE: OUR RESULTS!

 

Hooked on Heritage

A few weeks ago, Jeff Katz wrote a post to say that he was not enamored with the Topps Heritage line. As for me, I am firmly on #TeamHeritage.

I am a new convert — I mostly picked up a handful of packs over the years without getting carried away — but have spent the past few months attempting to complete sets for 2014 through 2016, and am working on this year as well. (I am currently shy about 50 short prints total for the four years.) Perhaps not coincidentally, the first cards I had as a child were from 1967, so last year’s Heritage (which uses the 1967 design) had a pretty strong pull.

The best Heritage cards are the ones showing a player from a team that existed at the time of the original, where the whiff of nostalgia is at its most powerful.

Roseboro  Ethier

I prefer the angle of the 1967 Roseboro to the 2016 Ethier, with more trees in the background rather than the darkened sky, but these are both good shots from the same pose family. Those of us who revere the 1967 cards appreciate that Topps uses the same color for the team names when it can.

Joe-Pepitone  MillerAndrew

The cards that work less for me are the ones where the uniform is too modern, something that does not match the classy older designs.

2016-Topps-Heritage-Base-SP-Bryce-Harper-215x300  2016-T-Her-70-Kris-Bryant

If you are going to go to the trouble of having this set, why not take the extra step and wait until a day when they are wearing the more conservative togs?

2017-Topps-Heritage-Baseball-Base-SP-427-Bryce-Harper-215x300  2017-Topps-Heritage-Baseball-Base

Same two players in 2017, and much better in both cases. In my opinion, Topps did a great job with their first 500 cards this year — the best Heritage set they have done. (There are 200 more, the high numbers, coming later this summer.) I am not asking the players to cut their hair, remove their tattoos, or tuck in their shirts. I am just asking Topps to better match the subject with the design.

2016-topps-heritage-475a-carlos-correa-sp-bx-25l-af5421c476315e3c3139914e3b7f0ccd  2016-Topps-Heritage-482A-Francisco-Lindor-SP

And, while you are at it, you don’t need to use a deliberately blurred background (above), something Topps latched onto in recent years but certainly did not use in 1967 (below).

download  LYU32_1182_lg

But you know what? No one is more romantic about baseball cards of the 1960s than I am, but those sets were filled with hatless (or hat-blackened) photos, or blurry photos, or bored looking subjects. For me, the Heritage cards are not competing with the old sets. They are competing with the Topps flagship.

Since I still like building modern sets to help me follow the baseball season, which cards am I going to want to look at?

5117tGySNlL._SY445_  41G2EjbrzFL

2017-Topps-Heritage-Baseball-Base-SP-450-Mike-Trout-216x300 (1)  2017-Topps-Heritage-Baseball-Base-SP-428-Mookie-Betts-217x300

While Topps has some nice poses this year on their main set, I prefer the bottom cards. I grew up knowing what all these guys looked like, and the Heritage cards help me do that.

To close, let me say this: I do not need the old designs. What I most want is the old design philosophy: the childish, whimsical elements; the cartoons, the quizzes, the fun.

What I propose is that Topps take a stack of cards from the 1960s to a local art school, and say: “Design a baseball card that looks like it would fit in with these. Don’t repeat these designs, but make a new one that belongs to the same school.” Choose the best one, and make a baseball set.

Hell, make it the flagship set. Too radical a change? Maybe, but wasn’t 1971 a radical change? Or 1975? We lived.

I suspect the kids of today would love it, and might fall in love with the game as I did … after first following in love with the cardboard that acted as my guide.

“Skipped Parts”

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A couple of years ago I was watching the 1966 movie “Penelope,” starring (peak) Natalie Wood, when I came upon a brief scene in which Wood casually opens a pack of 1966 baseball cards. Here, read this.

One of the best minutes in movie history.

download

So last night I watched the 2000 film “Skipped Parts,” with an ensemble cast led by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Its kind of a coming-of-age story, set in 1963, in which Leigh plays the unwed mother of a 14-year-old boy. Leigh’s father is a wealthy citizen considering a run for governor in some unnamed southern state, who exiles his daughter and grandson to a house in Wyoming so that they don’t embarrass him during his campaign. Leigh is a bit “wild”, even with a son. She also has never worked a day in her life, so she pretty much has to do whatever her father says.

65962There is a scene near the start of the film where grand-dad summons the boy into a room and makes him toss a stack of baseball cards into a raging fire. Something about “setting aside all childish things.” Prior to the summons, we see the kid (who knows what is coming) palm a 1958 Don Drysdale and slip it into his back pocket. When he tosses in the stack, we see (with a bit of freeze framing, several rewinds, and several minutes of Google image searches) that the top card is a 1962 Felix Mantilla, and below that is a 1961 Alvin Dark managers card. For the rest of the stack we can just see the backs in the fire, and they include a 1961 Willie Mays. The cards looked to be in good shape, though deteriorating by the second.

All of this is soon forgotten, and lots of interesting stuff happens for the next 90 minutes. It is sort of a proto-Juno, except the teenagers (Bug Hall and Mischa Barton) are 14, rather than the 17-18 year olds in the later film.

In the final scene, which takes place a year or so later, the boy is sitting on the front porch of the Wyoming house, next to (SPOILER) a baby in a bassinet. Above the baby is a mobile constructed out of baseball cards. (How did I not have one of those, or make one for my kids?)

54f5c4680cdc4_66095nThese are also 1961 and 1962 cards. I can make out a 1962 George Alusik (took me a while to figure this out, as the cards were literally spinning in a light breeze), a 1961 Gary Geiger (I think), and, still surviving, the 1958 Drysdale.

The movie was made in 2000, and the cards were obviously meant as a period device. We never saw the kid actually do anything with his cards other than near the start when he has a stack on the table that grandpa makes him destroy. I appreciate that the movie makers made the effort to get the correct vintage, even though very few people likely took the time to notice.

I am likely going to buy this DVD so that I can make clips out of these two scenes to add to my “collection.”

Oh, and the movie’s not bad. (I had no idea about the cards when choosing it.) Its not Casablanca, but the characters are interesting and Leigh, typically brilliant, is worth a couple of stars just by herself.

Please let me know if you run across any other baseball card scenes in movies, or if you have any insight into this one.

17684

Ponder This

I want to remind everyone that this blog is part of SABR’s Baseball Cards Committee.  I urge any of you slackers to join SABR , an organization filled with lots of great groups like this one, people who love to talk about (obsess over) biographies, records, the Negro Leagues, the 19th Century, statistics, poetry, board games, and dozens more.  You are free to join any or all of these groups, and you are free to start your own.  This group started last fall because Chris Dial and I said, “Hey, I wonder if anyone would be interested in a Baseball Cards committee?” Yes, in turns out.

After less than four months of work, this is our 100th post — a pretty fine output for a bunch of part-timers. I want to stress that this blog does not take an editorial position on what people should collect, or how people should collect.  I have my likes and dislikes, and I am one of the more active posters, but the only thing keeping your favorite sets (or your favorite collecting habits) from getting their due is that you aren’t writing about it.

So step right up!

If you are a frequent blog reader, you might have noticed an annoying tendency to write disrespectfully about high-end collecting: extreme grade-sensitive cards, using grading services, and storing cards in lifeless albums and blocks of plastic.  Qui, moi?

s-l1600

If I am guilty of anything, it is that I want to spread the message that high-end collecting is not the only game in town.  I would suggest that the rise of grading services and condition-sensitive collecting drove a lot of people, people that didn’t want to spend $125 for this Jim Davenport card, out of the hobby.  One of the reasons I was motivated to start this committee and blog was to show people that you don’t have to be rich to collect and enjoy your childhood hobby.  (I have heard from many of these people in the past few months.)

Put away the price guide for a second and find out what cards you actually like, and how you enjoy your cards.  That’s what we want to blog about.  (You can buy a perfectly excellent 1965 Davenport for $5, and for $10 you can get one that would require a magnifying glass to find its flaws.)  If you like collecting high-end graded cards, great, write a post about it and we’ll run it.

Thought of the day: “Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ would be such a cool painting, but two of the frame corners are chipped, so meh.”

So: if you want to want to build a set of 1961 Topps, all Near Mint, knock yourself out. If you don’t have 100 grand laying around, there is still a place for you in the hobby.

The card below would run you about $50 because (oh, the horror) it is only in “EX-MT” condition.  The Davenport above, I remind you, is $125.

s-l1600 (1)

Ponder this question.  If you woke up tomorrow and every baseball card in the world was suddenly worth 10% of what it is worth today, would this make you happy?  Your collection just lost 90% of its value — that is horrible!

Despite a sizeable collection of vintage cards, I would be thrilled.  I like getting more and different cards, and in this alternative universe I would be able to afford a lot cards that I can’t afford now.  This would be wonderful.

I have read blog posts that “review” old card sets, and I am struck by how often I read: “A fine attractive set filled with stars, but the lack of a tough high number series drags the set down a bit for most collectors.”  In other words, the set is less popular because the cards aren’t expensive enough.  Pardon my French, but WTF?

My message is: if you like baseball cards, there is a place for you.  Collect the cards you like.  And for God’s sake, play with them.