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...