Wednesday, August 05, 2020

1994 Topps, pt. 1

If you asked me today what about baseball interested me most (besides the basics like which team is going to win the World Series or how the Indians are going to do this season), I would say “sabermetrics and scorekeeping”. That answer has probably been the same since 1996 or so. If you’d asked me in 1995 I would have said “statistics” rather than sabermetrics, and scorekeeping wasn’t on the radar. But if you’d asked me in 1994, statistics would have been second, but a fairly distant second. The answer would have been “baseball cards”.

I was always interested in facts and figures, so it’s no surprise that when I became an overnight baseball fanatic, I was caught up in lists of pennant winners and ERA leaders and the like, and this led me down a path to sabermetrics. I think my early fascination with baseball cards comes from already having collected football and basketball cards (which in turn came from an innate desire to collect things), so it was natural for interest in a sport to be followed closely by an interest in cards. Of course, just as is the case for statistics, baseball is the sport for card collecting, or at least certainly was circa 1994.

I am not a historian of baseball cards, so take the discussion that follows with a grain of salt. It’s written by the seat of my pants, and I could have done so much more accurately when I was nine. But 1994 seems to represent the zenith of the roller coaster history of card manufacturers that took the hobby from a Topps monopoly to five major players and eventually right back to a Topps monopoly. In 1994, the five majors were cranking out multiple sets, aimed at different levels of consumer. In retrospect it seems like an obvious bubble, in the way that bubbles usually do but only after the fact. Who was the audience truly demanding a super-premium card set?

Yet most of the majors had a base set (Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, Score); a premium set (Topps Stadium Club, Fleer Ultra, Leaf, Upper Deck SP, Pinnacle); a super-premium set (Topps Finest, Fleer Flair, Leaf Limited); plus the other sets which included Donruss’ Triple Play and Studio, Topps’ Bowman, and Upper Deck Collector’s Choice. The strike would help deal a blow to the insanity, but it seems like a market that was already ripe for a correction.

I try to actively avoid thinking that baseball or anything else peaked when I first fell in love with it, as so many people do. But I will always maintain that 1994 had the best cards (not that I know anything about post-1995 cards), the perfect combination of an increase in production values (gloss on both sides, although I will have more to say on that later) but when you could still collect a base set loaded with commons without a million insert cards. And aesthetically? They were (mostly) beauties.

Super-premium cards were inherently ridiculous, but I don’t think any looked better than 1994 Fleer Flair with its regal names and thick stock:

On the premium side, all of the offerings from the majors were memorable. Topps Stadium Club was the worst, but there’s something delightfully 90s about the names on the front of the card, with the lower case first name and the all caps surname straight out of the labelmaker your dad had stashed away in the basement. Although we’re not going to talk about what the backs of these cards looked like:

Upper Deck always put out a classy card (although I will admit that these rank well behind the debut set from 1989 and the iconic Ken Griffey rookie card):

Yet Pinnacle topped them:

Fleer Ultra was better still:

And 1994 Leaf was a work of art:

I contend the base sets were even better designed (for what they were) in 1994. Since I didn’t have a whole lot of disposable income, almost all of my pack purchases were of these five sets. Comparing the number of each I appear to have in my collection, I can roughly assume that my order in preference working from least-favorite to favorite was:

5. Donruss

This one was (and remains) a distant fifth on my order of preference, even though I think it’s a very nice-looking card. I have roughly equal amounts of the next three:

4. Upper Deck Collector’s Choice

I think it’s the pinstripes that really makes these pop. Plus the old-timey drawing to go along with the player’s position.

3. Fleer

The only flaw is that the player’s name is understated by being wrapped in small letters around the team’s logo.

2. Score

Sadly, what made this set great is what makes them less desirable to collect twenty-six years later. I was not in anyway part of the “cards in the bike spokes” generation. I treated my cards, particularly the cards of stars, as if they were my most valuable possession (in fact, they probably WERE my most valuable possession). And yet I’m not sure I came across one in my album that didn’t have obvious chipping to those amazing dark borders.

As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post, Topps is #1.

After 1994, it was all downhill for baseball cards, at least for the rest of the nineties when I was still interested in them although no longer obsessed. What went wrong? The most personal is that I became much more interested in the numbers on the back of the cards than in the cards themselves. But the biggest problem is that the crisp designs of 1994, which focused on the player pictures and used borders, names, and logos to complement them, were benched in favor of drawing attention to everything but the picture. Perhaps the designers wanted to show off what they could do in MS Paint (and some really do look like they were designed in MS Paint)? Or maybe they decided that since everyone had nice pictures on their cards, it was necessary to seek a graphic design that would differentiate them from the pack (pun intended)?

Perhaps we should have seen it coming, as Topps juxtaposed their beautiful 1994 base set with the questionable Stadium Club and the horrifying Topps Finest:

When looking at 1995, I think it’s instructive to look at what happened to the base sets, which were all so great in 1994. In 1995, worst went to first by default – Donruss changed it up a little bit, while their competitors decided to jump off a cliff together:

If I remember correctly, before the strike was settled, Upper Deck leaped first in the spring with a “special edition” of Collector’s Choice. Out are the classic pinstripes; in is garish blue. In is haphazard capitalization. Out were my dollars:

Score may have realized that the black borders were a disaster for the long-term condition of their cards; I’m not sure why that required shrinking the pictures, adding a faux wood/dark green border, and circles of varying sizes for some unknown reason. What’s sad here is that they were so close to some classic baseball motifs – wood grain can work (see 1987 Topps), but it helps if it looks like what you’d see on a bat. Green is the color I most associate with baseball – but the green of the grass, not a pine tree.

People didn’t say “hold my beer” in 1995, but if they did, Topps would have, going from the most perfect set ever printed to a terrible font in gold (so much for the first and classiest parallel set, Topps Gold), often hard to read because it brushes up against the border which for some reason is not straight:

Still, nothing better captures the 1995 self-own of the big five than the monstrosity that was 1995 Fleer. 1994 Fleer, as I said above, was gorgeous but almost too simple. They fixed that right quick. In 1995, Fleer decided that they would obscure the front of the card with all of the biographical info that no one cared about (and often didn’t believe). But that wasn’t enough – they decided that each of the six divisions should have a unique design. None got it worse than the AL Central, which was not good news for the cards of my Indians heroes:

Perhaps all of the card designers were on strike in solidarity with the players? I think 1995 was a low point – it got a little better later in the decade. But even the bible of the hobby lost its way. When I was taken by cards, I naturally asked for a subscription to Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. I’ll always remember the cover of the first issue I bought separately – a great portrait of Jeff Bagwell. These frameable covers would persist beyond 1994, but not too much longer, and eventually even Beckett covers would have headlines everywhere, like 1995 Fleer had grown beyond the borders of its set and conquered all things baseball card.

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