Monday, April 29, 2013

1981 Topps: Part III


Vital Statistics

As with the previous season, the 1981 set consisted of 726 cards. But for the first time since the small additions made to the 1974 and 1976 sets, Topps extended its offering with the first full update set, called "Topps Traded" at the time. It could only be purchased as a set and consisted of 132 more cards that picked up their numbering from where the base set left off, creating a master set of 858 cards.

My second year as a collector made me deal with a new concept: player movement. Some Dodgers from the 1980 set, and even a few from the current set, were no longer with the team. This required that I make an alteration to my preferred sorting order. For each team, players were sorted by position, and now that meant first the players still with the team followed, again by position, by players no longer with the team. I maintained this practice for at least a few years, and after a while it became interesting to see the progression of players used by a team at each position from season to season. Here are the Dodgers in the 1981 set, listed in the approximate order in which they’d be sorted in my heavily-perused Dodgers stack by the eleven-year-old version of me:

#679 Team Photo/Tommy Lasorda MG
#850 Fernando Valenzuela P
#440 Jerry Reuss P
#565 Burt Hooton P
#624 Bob Welch P
#693 Steve Howe P
#146 Bobby Castillo P
#104 Terry Forster P
#548 Dave Goltz P
#191 Rick Sutcliffe P
#231 Joe Beckwith P
#318 Steve Yeager C
#530 Steve Garvey 1B AS
# 50 Dave Lopes 2B AS
#260 Ron Cey 3B
#465 Bill Russell SS AS
#495 Dusty Baker OF
#787 Ken Landreaux OF
#651 Pedro Guerrero OF-1B-3B
#726 Rick Monday OF
#372 Jay Johnstone OF
#211 Darrel Thomas OF-2B
# 75 Reggie Smith OF AS
#127 Rudy Law OF
#302 Jack Perconte/Mike Scioscia/Fernando Valenzuela (Future Stars)
#605 Don Sutton P
#174 Doug Rau P
# 24 Don Stanhouse P
#711 Joe Ferguson C
#289 Mickey Hatcher 3B-OF
#512 Gary Thomasson OF-1B
#..7 Don Sutton (& Rudy May, ERA Leaders)

The 1980 All-Star Game was held at Dodger Stadium for the first and only time to date. In fact, when the 2013 Midsummer Classic is held at Ebbets Field, Jr., in Queens, the Dodgers will be the team with the longest hosting drought. Dodger Stadium voters went to work, electing 3/4 of their historic infield in '80, along with outfielder Reggie Smith. I felt bad for Ron Cey when this set came out as he was the only Dodger infielder without the cool green All-Star banner across the top of his card. It made him look like the weakest link. Friggin' Mike Schmidt!

Special Cards

These exist. Same as usual. I'm not showing these because it would be a waste of pixels. These are particularly uninteresting because, for some reason, they're the only cards in the set not to incorporate the cap theme, and Topps fails to replace it with anything remotely interesting visually.

Future Stars
Topps continued a stretch of depicting prospects with a three-player Future Stars card for each team, this time spread throughout the set. The design is utilitarian, but works well enough. I like the little caps they use in the subsets, which here frame the company name. You get lots of stars on the card, in case you didn’t get the point of the prognostication, but they aren’t distracting or annoying. The orange squash color used to frame things was the go-to color for the subsets. Not beautiful, but not horrible either, I suppose. This Tim Raines appearance on the Expos Future Stars card (#479) was, and remains, a key card in this set. But (as Yoda had recently explained to the ghost of Obi-Won) there is another…

League Leaders
Cards #1-8. In addition to the seven categories featured in 1980 (AVG, HR, RBI, SB, W, ERA, SO), the 1981 set adds a “Leading Firemen” card, reflecting the evolving role of the closer. Saves were only considered part of the story of a relief ace’s effectiveness, so the points system used to determine the Rolaids Relief Man Award winner serves as the basis for that League Leader card. As for the design, the little hats with the year in them are cute. But the layout used to indicate NL and AL is really weak, as the angle is strange, the spacing is way too close to the pictures, and the design leaves far too much white space in the area of the player/team names. The double border in the middle, with no bottom border around the pictures is also a little weird. Definitely the most poorly designed subset here.

Record Breakers
Cards #201-208. When I was a kid, I barely distinguished the difference when Topps would sometimes chose to include either Season Highlights cards or Record Breaker cards. Looking back, I realize that there really is a big difference, and there’s good reason to prefer Season Highlights. Breaking a major record can be considered a highlight, but not all of a season’s highlights come from records being broken, making a Record Breakers subset far more limiting in scope and variety. Case in point, among the eight Record Breakers in the 1981 set, two pertain to at bat totals. But there are a few nice ones here, too, including most career homers by a catcher (Bench) and in a season by a third baseman (Schmidt). The design is particularly nice. With nothing protruding into the photo, they look like pictures that have been framed to commemorate the achievements. Though why Steve Carlton is wearing a batting helmet on his card (#202) is a bit of a mystery.

Cards #401-404. I'm not sure why a set would ever be without, at the very least, a card depicting the World Champions. And even better is a subset summarizing the entire post-season. But, for some reason, this was the first time Topps had seen fit to include such cards in a set since 1978. We get four cards here. The first three summarize each League Championship Series and the World Series with line scores for each game on the card backs. George Brett is featured on the ALCS card (#401), before his battle with hemorrhoids caused kids around the country (except for those in KC) to have a good laugh at his expense. The final card features the World Series batting and pitching stats for the champion Phillies. More on that to follow.

Team Photos/Managers/Team Checklists
Cards #661-686. Grouped together in the set this time, they hold to the recent pattern: team photo with the manager identified in an inset picture, and the team checklist on the back. Since I'm not sure I'll get back into the 1970s sets when (if) I get through all of the sets of my collecting lifetime, I'm going to take this opportunity to display the Chicago Cubs (#676) and their collection of floating heads. This was the ninth, and final, time that Topps had depicted the Cubs, and only the Cubs (almost), in this strange fashion on their team photo card, beginning with the 1971 set. (Oddly, the Cubs get a regular photo in 1975... and the White Sox get floating heads. Weird.) I'm guessing that they had to do this because for some reason the Cubs couldn't be bothered to assemble for a team photo during this period. Whatever the reason, the cards were always unique in a given set. This particular card features Joey Amalfitano during his short and futile tenure as Cubs manager (redundant), before becoming the longtime third base coach for Tommy Lasorda's Dodgers. You can also catch a glimpse of Hall-of-Famer Billy Williams, then a coach, in floating head form next to the manager.

And that covers the set. But not really. There's one more piece of business that we'll leave for next time.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

1981 Topps: Part II


First Impressions

Really, the overriding thought echoing in my 11-year-old head was "Whoo hoo! New cards!" It didn't matter what they looked like, I was going to love them. Just the fact that they were different from the 1980 set, my first, was enough to give them an aura of the exotic to my innocent eyes. The fact that the pictures were less obscured by the card design or by fake autographs captured my notice, and my general impression of the new cards was that they were simply bolder.

32 Years Later...

Yup, they are bolder. More colorful, too. And more childish than the 1980 set. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Baseball is a religion, a philosophy and an important key to understanding the meaning of life (at least it is to me). But it's also a game. The question is whether the "childish" impression is whimsical or amateurish. And here it's a little of both.

None of the three basics is left out, as we get the player's name in bold positioned below the photo, and the team name and position in the cap, the card's dominant design element. It's the cap that goes a long way toward making this set a little less serious than the 1980 set, which, again, is neither a bad thing nor a good thing in itself. It's kinda fun, actually. But the way the team name and position are slapped on there is a little jarring and not very subtle. As I take a closer look, I'm actually impressed with the way they bent the team names to conform with the contours of the caps. But then they kill the illusion by stamping the position above that in a straight, though tilted, line. Maybe the position could have been better served by using the abbreviations and/or putting them in the lower right corner below the Topps "logo." Actually, it's not so much a logo on this set but the company name appearing in an unadorned font within a little baseball. It doesn't look bad, but I'm not sure why they didn't go with the logo they used in 1979, which had some character.

Where this set gets things right is in allowing space for the photo to really pop. By putting all of the design elements along the bottom of the card, they allow the picture to be the star, which is as it should be. Where the ribbons and fake autograph bury the photo to some extent in the 1980 set, this design makes cards of the same size feel bigger, bolder, and more alive. The photos themselves seem to be of a very similar mix between the two sets, which surprises me a little. I'd expected to find that there were significantly more action shots in the 1981 set, but that impression appears to be simply a function of the design emphasizing the photos more. Where I think the 1980 set flatters the portraits a little more than the action, I think this set frames both nicely. Unfortunately, the head shots aren't as consistently good as they were the previous year, with a lot of pictures that seem to have been taken when the player wasn't ready, with weird angles and strange looks on their faces. (Though this Bobby Grich (#182) is some classic Topps ballplayer goodness.)

Color is front and center on these cards, with Topps again using its retina-burning palette. It's this, along with the caps, that make this set less mature and more fun. These cards really seem to belong on the shelf with the candy, and the compressed sugar stick in each pack that they called "gum" fits in nicely with this set's look. Again, color combos correspond to specific teams, with some matching and others clashing. The Dodgers are stuck with pink again for some reason, but the angst that might produce in me was counterbalanced by the fact that Ryan's Yankees were saddled with the same malady this time around.

The backs hold to the norms of the era, with yearly stat lines and career totals. Unlike the previous season, cartoons only appear when the length of the player's stat line allows room. To be honest, I was rarely interested on the information in the cartoons or comments and I can see why now. Except for a few rare exceptions, Topps seems to stick to game or season accomplishments, no matter how mundane. Lots of "Drove in four runs against the White Sox," or "Was Appalachian League Player of the Year" type of info. Unless the feats were particularly extraordinary, I found them far less interesting than the more personal tidbits, like telling us the player "is an avid collector of vintage cars," or "has dogs named Willie, Mickey & Duke." The red/pink color works well, and legibility is pretty good on the 1981 card backs, though not quite as good as the previous season. Oh, and there's that fish-hook-looking Topps logo on the back. Wonder why they didn't use it on the front.

In all, it's another solid entry in Topps card design of the era. A completely different feel from the previous set, yet very much in the tradition. It's a winner.


Last night, as I was ripping open one of those vintage/junk wax repacks (no 1981s, but got some 1982s), I realized that I'd been making a mistake in my approach here. The same technology that allows this kind of sharing and interaction also creates an unfortunate tendency for the virtual to act as substitute for the tactile. (Yes, I am aware of my problem with writing like I'm creating a textbook instead of shooting the sh... breeze about baseball cards. I'm working on it.) Anyway, point being, I'm going to make it a priority to not only look at pictures of the cards online when writing about a set, but also to make sure I actually dig some out of my collection to see and feel them again first hand. As anyone who's collected cards for a while knows, the sensation of cards in your hands has changed quite a bit over the years. The substantial feel of the thicker cardboard used in this era has a lot to do, I think, with the popularity of vintage cards among people who really enjoy these things. My cards from this era tend to have soft corners, but that's because they're made of the kind of cardboard that really feels like a baseball card, and because I enjoy sorting them, holding them in my hands and looking at them a lot. I've always felt kinda sorry for the investor-type collectors who trap their cards behind plastic without taking some time to actually enjoy them. This is more like it...

Friday, April 26, 2013

1981 Topps: Part I


At some point I figured out that there would, indeed, be a brand new set of cards to accompany a brand new season of baseball. It had been a long winter, waiting for the return of the game that grabbed my attention in earnest only in the final days of the 1980 season. This was to be my first full season (or so I thought) of wire-to-wire baseball enjoyment. When I finally spotted the first box of 1981 Topps Baseball Cards among the Snickers and Chick-O-Sticks at the local drugstore, it was better than Christmas!

Unlike the previous season, when packs found their way into my hands by way of my Grandparents, I did not intend to remain a passive collector. Instead, I took my weekly allowance and any money that I could make doing odd jobs directly to Rexall Banner, next to Boys Market, to get the cards into my anxious little hands asap. While the 1980 set evokes "indoors," to me, the 1981 set is illuminated in my mind's eye by sunshine. That's because there was no way I was going to wait until I got home to see what was in each mysterious pack. Sometimes I would simply step outside of the drugstore and begin ripping them open. Other times I would perform my investigations while I walked home. It's a minor miracle that I never managed to get hit by a car because I would get all the way home without ever seeing anything but baseball cards.

Sometimes I had a partner on my card-gathering pilgrimages. It wasn't Burt, as I'd burned that bridge the previous year with my thwarted theft of his Don Sutton card. Fortunately, I had found another fellow collector in a boy named Ryan, recently transplanted from the exotic wilds of New York City. With my laid-back Southern California personality, I would look on at a respectful distance with interest as he opened his packs, hoping he'd come across some Dodgers that I needed and could possibly negotiate a mutually beneficial trade for. On the other hand, Ryan's attitude, as he angled for a better look than I could get at the cards I'd just bought, was that any Yankees in my packs were, de facto, his cards. The details surrounding the transactions were of little interest to him, as long as he had all Yankees cards in his possession before his (barely-existent) patience had expired.

I generally went along good-naturedly with his compulsion. After all, though we expressed it differently, our needs were the same. Only the teams were different. But one time I couldn't resist the opportunity to feel a little of the power that Burt had exerted over me the previous year. There was nothing in the world that Ryan needed more than the latest card of his favorite player, Reggie Jackson (#400). And I was the first one to pull that card out of a pack. The moment I saw it, my instincts kicked in... and I ran. Like an animal sensing a predator, I knew the moment I saw that card that I'd become Ryan's prey. And this is an apt metaphor because Ryan, like a stereotype come to life, was a street kid from the Big Apple who wasn't afraid to try to pound the world into submission.

Using my penchant for diplomacy, I was able to assuage Ryan's concerns before he caught up to me, assuring him that it would be no more than a few short moments before the card was in his possession. I appealed to his sense of fairness, telling him that I had every intention of trading the card to him, immediately, as long as we could hash out an equitable transaction. Remembering Burt's torturous techniques, I began the negotiations with what I knew to be an unreasonable demand. But the look on Ryan's face made me quickly abandon my plans to drag things out. I may have had resources and diplomacy on my side. But Ryan had nukes and his finger was on the button. So I quickly assured him that I'd only been kidding, accepted some nondescript Dodger for my Reggie, and made a mental note to remind Ryan where he got his favorite card every time his short fuse was in danger of being lit.

As for the major league season, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times... and then it was the best of times again. It started with Fernandomania ("And a little child shall lead them"). Perfection was marred by a strike that wiped out the game for much of the summer. (There was one silver lining to the strike. With no games to broadcast, the local radio station aired vintage games, which I listened to with rapt attention and transcribed in a score book. It was like actually being alive to experience Mantle, Berra and the rest first hand.)

To my relief, the season resumed with Fernando in the mound for the All-Star Game. And the disjointed schedule ended with about as much drama as an eleven year old could bear. The Dodgers never should have been in the post-season given that the Reds, who got left out thanks to the split-season format, had the best record in the National League. But my sense of fairness was not at all disturbed. The Dodgers tested my nervous system by facing elimination but surviving against the Astros in the first NLDS and Expos in the NLCS, then dropping the first two to the Yankees in the World Series. But they turned it around to win the first of what I assumed would be many, many championships in my lifetime. It was a good time to be a Dodger fan. To this day, the 1981 Dodgers regular lineup comes as readily to mind as my social security number.

Lopes, Landreaux, Baker, Garvey, Cey, Guerrero, Scioscia, Russell, Valenzuela.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

1980 Topps: Part IV



Oddball(s) of the Set
Nothing particularly crazy here. I like that Joel Youngblood, sliding into second base, appears to nearly knock Tim Foli of the Pirates out of the frame of his own card (#246), so that gets an honorable mention. But I think I'll go with Roy Smalley (#570), whose picture is taken from a mile away, and who doesn't have any other humans beside him to provide context, making it look like he got his position and his last name by virtue of belonging to a family of midgets (or, as we prefer in the post-Munchkin era, little people).

Most Aesthetically Pleasing
To my eye, this design was particularly flattering to the Yankees. There's Reggie Jackson taking a big swing (which, of course, is redundant). Graig Nettles poised for whatever might come at him at third base. Oscar Gamble displaying his legendary afro. But I think the nicest-looking card (perhaps showing my bias for veterans and pitchers as well) is that of Jim Kaat (#250). At home in Yankee Stadium, wearing the classic pinstripes, the crafty lefty is shown with his glove hand gracefully extended, about to bring the pitching arm forward in his motion. I like that the photo is cropped to show his entire body (minus the portion of his leg obscured by the team ribbon), which is angled in sympathy with the framing ribbons of the card. And there's the blurry fans-in-the-stands backdrop that fades to darkness as it recedes.  Nice.

Favorite Dodgers Card(s)
There are only a couple of action cards in the bunch, with Reggie Smith in mid-stride being the best. The Steve Garvey card has a nice batting cage shot, and Garvey always managed to look like the MLB poster child on his cards. Some find posed portrait cards boring, but I think they're classy and classic, and there are some great examples among the Dodgers veterans in this set: Sutton, Reuss, Hough, Monday. But the Manny Mota card (#104) is my favorite. Appropriately, he's got a bat on his shoulder (despite the "outfield" designation, he had very little use for a glove by this point). And that smile shows you just how much he loved (and still loves) being a Dodger. For the action-minded, the Season Highlights card (#3) is also great. I'm sure players don't like cards showing them pop up, but there's something dramatic about the resulting photos.

Favorite Card
My very first favorite player was not a Dodger. It was Carl Yastrzemski. As a result, I can spell his last name as easily as my own (which, outside of Boston, is pretty much a guaranteed bar bet victory). I have to admit that I'm guessing about the reasons for his exalted status in my ten-year-old mind. But, since I don't have Alzheimer's (yet), it's at least an educated guess. I think there are three reasons. The first is that my first little league team, on which I'd played bench-warmer/cheerleader the previous summer, before I even cared about the game, was the Red Sox. The second is that I'm pretty sure one of the first games that grabbed my attention on TV was a Saturday Game of the Week from Fenway Park, called by Vin Scully, and featuring a player the fans obviously revered playing in front of the coolest-looking outfield wall imaginable, with the kid-friendly name of The Green Monster! And finally, I loved Yaz because of this card (#720). He's an All-Star, and his stat line shows that he'd been playing for 19 seasons already, all for the Red Sox. For all I knew, this was the guy who'd invented baseball!

One Final Thought
This 1980 Topps Jose Cardenal (#512) was the first of very few cards (I can't remember any others off hand) that I ever defiled.  I did not do so in anger.  I had no idea who Jose Cardenal was, and the only thing I knew about the Mets was that they were, by far, the lesser of the two teams representing New York.  But (in the pre-internet days, mind you) I needed to come up with pictures to spice up my fifth-grade report on the Big Apple.  So I cut Jose off at the waste, just above the autograph, and cut him out in silhouette to be glued somewhere next to pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.  So, at least according to the report that reached Ms. Reese's desk, Jose Cardenal was a towering representative of the cultural capitol of the world.

The Big Picture

Given that these were my first cards, there was nothing to compare them with then. Appropriately, since this is the first set I'm looking at here, there's nothing to compare them with now. So, at least until next time, 1980 Topps currently ranks as the #1 set of my collecting lifetime.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

1980 Topps: Part III


Vital Statistics

A standard 25-cent pack of 1980 Topps Baseball Cards would get you 15 cards and a stick of gum on your way to assembling a 726-card complete set (and possibly a cavity or two).

In addition to a team photo/manager card and a "Future Stars" card like everyone else, the Dodgers are represented by 25 player cards and a Manny Mota appearance in the Season Highlights set (listed here in the order that I probably would have sorted them into):

#302 Team Photo/Tommy Lasorda MG
#544 Rick Sutcliffe P
#440 Don Sutton P
#170 Burt Hooton P
#318 Jerry Reuss P
#644 Charlie Hough P
#146 Bob Welch P
#521 Ken Brett P
#624 Larrin LaGrow P
#527 Doug Rau P
#605 Terry Forster P
# 51 Joe Ferguson C
#726 Steve Yeager C
#228 Johnny Oates C
#290 Steve Garvey 1B AS
#560 Dave Lopes 2B AS
# 23 Darrell Thomas 2B-OF
#510 Ron Cey 3B
# 75 Bill Russell SS
#191 Ted Martinez SS-3B
#255 Dusty Baker OF
#695 Reggie Smith OF
#127 Gary Thomasson OF-1B
#104 Manny Mota OF
#..3 Manny Mota (Season Highlights)
#209 Von Joshua OF
#465 Rick Monday OF
#679 Joe Beckwith/Mickey Hatcher/Dave Patterson (Future Stars)

That's typical team representation for the set, which emphasizes veteran role players over inexperienced youngsters, as was common for the time (and to my tastes, preferable). As they had been since 1976, All-Stars were noted on their regular-issue cards rather than receiving a subset of additional cards. In this case it is done with an band over the photo below the player's name.

The "key" card of the set is, of course, the Rickey Henderson rookie card (#482) that every collector already has burned into their memory by now. To the extent that I took note of the card at the time, I would have appreciated the distinctive crouch of his batting stance, and the pleasing way the green and yellow of the card design fits in with the A's uniforms. I'm naturally happy to have this iconic rookie card of the greatest lead-off hitter of all time. But, as I've mentioned, the "investor" buzz that surrounds rookie cards has always taken some of the joyful luster off of these cards for me. I tend to get more excited about the veterans, particularly those who've been around for 15-20 years, or who played with one team for their entire careers.

Special Cards

The set includes eight standard-design checklist cards listing 121 cards each against a pale green background. If you didn't make use of them, they made you angry when they took up one of the 15 spots in a pack.

Team Photos/Managers/Team Checklists
These were probably the more useful checklists, listing all of the cards for each team on the back of a team photo with an inset picture of the manager. This kind of card had been standard issue for the past several years. While rarely exciting, I always thought they were a useful addition to a set, particularly if you were inclined to sort your cards by team. However, I prefer for managers to have their own cards, and that counts as a small demerit against this set in my eyes. (By the way, yes, those are elephants from the San Diego Zoo gracing this particularly interesting Padres team card (#356), featuring befuddled and beloved announcer Jerry Coleman in his single season as a big-league manager).

Season Highlights
The first six cards in the set feature highlights of the 1979 season. Card #1 heralds the arrival of veterans Carl Yastrzemski and Lou Brock in the 3000-Hit Club, and makes for one of the set's more iconic cards. In fact, the whole subset is a celebration of hitting... switch hitting, pinch hitting, power hitting, and lots of actions shots (except for a placid-looking Del Unser going through the motions for the camera).

League Leaders
Cards #201-207 are a Topps staple of the era, cards featuring the NL and AL leaders in a handful of statistical categories: the triple crown stats (AVG, HR, RBI for hitters, W, ERA, SO for pitchers), plus stolen bases. I always found it interesting that Topps thought stolen bases were important enough to warrant a League Leaders card, but not important enough to list with the stats on the back of player's cards. I like these. Direct and to the point, and they add to the story the set is trying to tell.

Future Stars
These never excited me much as a kid, for reasons that I've already covered. The first time you saw them, you took them at face value. When you started noticing that 90% of the players Topps proclaimed as "Future Stars" never showed up again in the future, it was easy to become jaded and ignore the cards for a few years until you could pick out which one or two were actually prophetic. Plus these cards make for difficult sorting. Is this Mets Future Stars card (#681) a Mike Scott card or a Jesse Orosco card (with apologies to Dan Norman)? If you're going to do the whole rookie thing, I say give the player a card of their own. These things are a little annoying.

That said, as with all of the subsets in this collection, Topps does a nice job of maintaining consistent use of design elements without it feeling forced. It really does feel like a unified set of cards. I miss managers having their own card. And I prefer that the Post-Season be represented somehow. Here they miss an opportunity to celebrate Pops Stargell and the "We Are Family" Pirates. But, overall, this set does a nice job of hitting most of the key notes.

Monday, April 22, 2013

1980 Topps: Part II


First Impressions

Just as my naivety left little room to imagine ballplayers other than the ones depicted on these 726 cards, the design of the 1980 Topps set was for me at the time simply the only way I knew baseball cards could look. If I'd thought about it, I probably would have assumed that if there were to be more baseball cards next season (wouldn't that be awesome!), they would probably look just about the same as these cards did. That makes an extra degree of mental gymnastics necessary for me when evaluating this set today. At the time I was pulling these out of packs, I really didn't have a benchmark for comparison. The design of the 1980 Topps set was simply the way baseball cards looked, as far as I knew. As such, I could find no fault.

33 Years Later...

There is some fault to find. But let's start with the basics. Player Name? A nearly universal given. Team Name? Check. Position(s)? Check. Good. What else do we have here? Well, here's something we don't have: a Topps logo. That was the norm in the 1970s (although they'd busted out the fish hook logo the previous year). But this would be the last time for a while, perhaps ever, that they didn't engage in some in-your-face branding. Of course, by 1981 they'd have good reason to let you know whose cards you were looking at. So that's one less thing to clutter up the front of these cards.

Unfortunately, they did choose to messy up the photos with facsimile autographs. Sorry, but I've never liked it when they do this. First of all, I'm not an autograph guy. Don't get me wrong, given an opportunity, I enjoy having a player sign his name for me. But it's more about having an interaction with a player and less about the resulting scribbling. I fail to see the potential for enjoyment in slapping a printed signature over a (hopefully) beautiful baseball card photo. Plus, if you actually have the opportunity to get a player to sign your card, you end up with a super-messy looking card with two signatures on it. No sir, I don't like it.

So how did they choose to frame the cards in this year's set? The name is bold, but simple, along the top of the card. The position gets a little flag to frame it in the upper left, with the team name getting a bigger flag over the top of the lower right corner. After a few years of collecting, I began to consider this design a bit boring and a little cluttered. But looking at it again now, I think the "boring" part was simply a function of having stared at them for so long, being the first and omnipresent set in every incarnation of my collection. It's actually a reasonably nice design. The flags (or ribbons? certainly not pennants) don't take much away from the photos, yet with their curves and slanted angle they're not as utilitarian as, say, the simple bar at the bottom of the previous year's set.

As for the use of color, the 1980 set really has more in common with what Topps had established in the 70s than where things were going in the 80s. You get a somewhat random mix of bright colors, with each team receiving a unified theme. Sometimes it coordinates with the team's uniform colors, and sometimes it does no such thing. The Rangers look good. The Orioles are nice and orange. The Yankees get their usual red, white and blue, America's team treatment. The Dodgers? Red, yellow and pink. Okay...? On the whole, the use of color is a bit dated and arbitrary, but it's not distracting, and its continuity with the last several years of Topps cards is pleasing.

The photography is another way in which tradition is served. You get quite a few of the standard Topps spring training head shots, including the classic bat-on-shoulder poses for the hitters and looking-in-to-get-a-sign poses for pitchers. There are enough action shots to keep things interesting, though I think the posed shots work better with this particular design.

Looking at the card backs, Topps was in the midst of a long stretch where there was very little deviation in the basic layout. The 1980 set works particularly well because, unlike many other years, the color contrast is high, making the back easy on the eyes. The card number, player name, position and team all stand out against a black band along the top. You get a cartoon pertaining to the player (which I prefer to random unrelated cartoon subjects). The career stat line pops out with black type against the gray card stock background. And the bullet points with the little stars look nice, too. Nothing revolutionary, but just about perfect within the Topps standard of the time.

In retrospect, it really is only the fake signatures that keep this from being a top-notch design. The 1980 design is a more than worthy entry in the Topps tradition.

Friday, April 19, 2013

1980 Topps: Part I


Let's start at, what was for me, the beginning. These were the revelatory little pieces of colorful cardboard that jump-started my strange addiction. When I was first pulling these out of packs, my inability to grasp a wider context led me to believe that a complete set of these baseball cards would represent the complete population of baseball players, on the complete list of 26 baseball teams, in of all of recorded human history. I'd like to think that it didn't take too long to wise up a bit. But, at any rate, this wasn't about wisdom. It was about passion. I loved these cards.

This was the set that imbued in me a love of sorting baseball cards. I didn't do alphabetical yet. That smacked a little too much of some type of school work. I did do numerical, periodically, to check how close I was to completing the set. But my default mode for grand card organization quickly became TEAM/POSITION/PLAYER BY "IMPORTANCE." (The checklists, league leaders, highlights, etc., got their own "I don't know what to make of these yet" stack.) The first category was self-explanatory. I topped each team's stack with the team photo card. I somehow managed to grasp the position system from an early stage, going with the standard P, C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, OF, DH order. Where it got tricky was when a team had more than one player at a position. It usually wasn't too tough to figure out who the main man was among position players. But my grasp of the roles of pitchers was far from fully developed. And the fact that Topps didn't include key stats like games started or saves at this point did nothing to help me out there. But it was sure fun trying to figure it all out.

Naturally, I securely bound each of these stacks with a tightly twisted rubber band to make sure they maintained their carefully choreographed sequence. Whoops.

The sorting is what I remember most about this set. Oddly, I don't remember much about the purchasing of packs. I suspect that's because the majority reached me via my Grandparents' shopping trips (groceries for Grandma, beer and vodka for Grandpa).

The other thing that I distinctly remember is the manic need to complete the Dodgers team set as quickly as possible. This led me to a bit of unfortunate criminal activity. Mind you, I was pushed to take this drastic action. The only other kid I knew of at the time who also collected cards was a boy named Burt. He had in his possession what had become, in short order, my Holy Grail.

1980 Topps Don Sutton (#440), the final Dodgers card that I needed. And I do mean needed!

I tried to be reasonable. Unfortunately, I had no concept of the poker face. I made no effort to disguise how badly I wanted that card. Kids that age are starting to understand the power they have to manipulate the emotions of others. And little boys can be sadistic. In Burt's cost/benefit analysis, the pain he could cause me by withholding the card far outweighed any return I could offer in a trade. I offered two cards for one. I offered any and all cards I had doubles of. I may even have made the drastic, borderline sacrilegious, offer of cards that I only had one of (though certainly not any Dodgers). But Burt wasn't biting.

So, in my desperation, I pulled some version of the old "Hey, look, what's that behind you? Oh, I guess it was nothing. Okay, see you tomorrow!" trick. I may even have ditched school the next day, hoping that postponing the inevitable was the same as preventing it. No dice. Burt wasn't as stupid as I'd hoped. He was able to solve the mystery of his missing Don Sutton pretty easily, and had already bypassed the threat of "I'm gonna tell my mom" by actually doing so. After a rather embarrassing phone call from his mom to my Grandma, I was forced to reluctantly and sheepishly return the card. Naturally, it wasn't more than a few days before I pulled one of my own out of a pack, and the resulting joy was more than enough to put the whole kleptomaniac episode in my past.

These are the things I think of when I see a 1980 Topps card. Tomorrow it will be a little less about me (Finally! the audience, if there is one, sighs), as we'll take a look at how the cards look.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Seriously, What IS the Big Idea?

So I guess it's time to decide what, exactly, it is that I'm doing with this blog thing. That is, what will be the specifics involved with ranking my favorite Topps base sets? The first thing to consider is that, although Topps has been putting out sets since 1951 or 1952 (depending upon whether you consider the 1951 Red Backs/Blue Backs a "base set" or not), I have only been collecting since 1980. The majority of my collection dates from that year. I have a fair number of cards from the 1970s, a smattering from the 1960s, and a handful from the 1950s. So, to the extent that I can be considered an "expert" at anything (and I can't... trust me), my expertise is confined, at best, to my lifetime (1970 to present), or to my lifetime as a collector (1980 to present). So, what am I to consider here? (And I really am asking myself this question as I type...)

How about this: I will begin with considering the sets that I know best, 1980 to present, and then decide whether anyone, including myself, is interested in going any further. That answers question number one.

The next question is how, exactly, shall I evaluate each set? Should I just start typing and see what comes out? Or should I have a game plan going in, with specific criteria? I'm thinking that for the sake of the sanity of all involved (which, again, may not be anyone but myself), I'd better have at least some guidelines going in. Let's see what comes to mind...

First of all, I'd say that there are two distinct aspects to look at in a given set: the set as a whole, and the typical individual card.

As for the set as a whole, we'll be talking about set composition. Naturally, it all begins with the standard player cards, about which we can discuss set size and player selection, including "key" cards in a given set. (Warning: Unlike 99% of collectors, I am not a rookie card fetishist.) But the more interesting aspect of this part of the discussion will be what types of subsets are included. And here I do not mean inserts, as I am only discussing base sets, but "special" cards such as team photos, team leaders, managers, season highlights, record breakers, league leaders, all-stars, post-season cards, etc. These go a long way toward determining the character of a set.

As for the individual cards, it's all about design. And that encompasses a large number of traits, including photography, use of color, design of the standard template, incorporation (or not) of the standard design elements on the special subsets, the layout of the back of the card, and the information and design elements used there. And probably more than a few things that aren't coming immediately to mind. Of course, it's not rocket science, and I will be about the sixteen millionth person to look at these things, so there's some precedence. And, at the end of the day, it all just boils down to "me likey" or "me no likey."

I guess all that's left to do is to dive in and get the ball rolling, to pointlessly mix swimming and ball-based sports metaphors (to which anyone reading must be saying, "it's about time"). So, without significantly more ado, tomorrow, we get started.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Blue-Tinted Glasses

Objective schmubjective. I am content to like or dislike things based on how they make me feel. This isn't going to be anything close to an "objective" look at baseball cards. I reserve the right to make little to no sense. I come at this thing with some serious biases, but since this is all about opinion, it's all good. I love reading about what other people think. That's why I read blogs like the one I'm attempting here. So if anyone cares to comment on what I have to say, let alone read it, I have no problem with being told that I'm a jackass and an idiot and that I'm completely wrong. Because to someone, somewhere, I will always be wrong. In fact, if you're a Giants fan, I hope you always think I'm wrong. That way I know I'm on the right track.

So, to understand where my opinions are coming from, let's take a moment to understand what shapes my biases. I became a baseball fan, and a Dodger fan, at the age of ten, on the final weekend of the 1980 season. For those of you for whom that fails to elicit the telltale feelings of the proverbial thrill of victory and agony of defeat, that was when the Dodgers swept the Astros to force a one-game playoff to determine the NL West champion. That was immediately followed by a much worse Blue Monday than the one Dodger fans would be treated to the next season. (Dave Goltz? Really?) But the roller coaster adrenaline rush did the trick. I was a fan for life.

And my local drugstore was more than ready to feed my new addiction, even though it was the off-season, at a cost of 25 cents a pack. Sorted by team, 26 rubber-band-secured stacks of priceless infotainment were at my fingertips all winter as I awaited my first full season in the big leagues (of fandom). Oh, I was hooked all right. These were THE baseball players. As far as my worldview was able to encompass at that time, Steve Garvey was, always had been, and always would be the Dodgers first baseman. Lopes was at second, Cey at third, etc., etc., ad infinitum, in saecula saeculorum.

Jump ahead 33 years. Despite a better grip on reality, and an appreciation for the world's ability to endow extra-strength commercial-grade cynicism, I am still in love with baseball and its funny little 2.5 x 3.5 inch cardboard glimpses into its soul. And the same things that made me love them as a ten-year-old are the things that make me smile today.

Look, Matt Kemp is sliding into home plate on the card's boarder!

Look, Dan Uggla is... well... not pretty!

And it's just that easy to please me. So bring on the bliss!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What's the Big Idea?

Another baseball card blog? Yup. Does the world need such a thing? Nope. Will anyone read this other than myself? Probably not. Then why am I doing this? Because I want to take a closer look at something I love very much: baseball cards, specifically Topps baseball cards, and even more specifically each year's Topps baseball flagship base set. That's the constant, the foundation upon which each year in baseball cards is built, like it or not. And, with a few unfortunate exceptions, I like it. A lot. Not saying they're perfect, or even that they're always the best in a given season. Just saying that there's a deeper existential meaning to each year's set and its role in reflecting the meaning of life. That's all. No big whoop. And I want to take a look at how each year's set fits into all of that and do what all sports enthusiasts love to do, i.e., analyse, compare and rank. So that's what I'm gonna do. And I gonna make it all up as I go along. Enjoy... or not.