Friday, October 20, 2017

1994 Topps: An Appreciation

The early 1990s were a period of remarkable change for Topps baseball cards. I was always fascinated with how little the flagship set changed in the 1980s, with the introduction of Fleer and Donruss to the card game. In design, style, and substance, the sets of the ‘80s were not all that different from Topps offered in the late 1970s. It took Score and Upper Deck to get into the mix before collectors got the radically new 1991 set, which I have covered in this space before. 1991 was a breath-taking set, in design and photography, and remains an all-time classic. In 1992, with premium and investment-grade cards now flooding the market, Topps took another major step forward with the use of white card stock for the first time since 1970 and full-color backs for the first ever. Like the 1991 set, the ‘92s used photography far superior to the Topps sets of 1990 and before and staged many cards in a horizontal format. That year's issue also introduced the first-ever parallel set with ToppsGold, which also became the first true “chase” set in Topps flagship history. In 1993, Topps got even more in line with its competitors, using full-color photos on the back, slick card stock, and inserting a Gold card into every pack. This set also introduced BlackGold, an insert set that was available in packs and with randomly-inserted redemption cards. The 1993 set was also the largest Topps had ever produced at 825 cards issued in two series.

The 1994 set gets a little lost among all these changes. There was no major “innovation” for the 1994 set. Ok, they used a high-gloss finish for the first time (which does not age well in unopened product), but to compare ’94 with ’93 was not to find a radically different set. The 1994 set does, in some ways, mark the end of an era. It was the last 792 card set, which for collectors of my age is as near-iconic a number as there is in the hobby. The 1995 set was the first to use gold foil stamping on ever card – a development many derided at the time and which would remain a vital (and often over-used) element of base card designs until 2014. It was the last set before the baseball strike took the wind out of the hobby’s sails and shrank flagship set sizes to a level not seen since the 1950s. And it seemed to mark the end of baseball cards as a ubiquitous part of childhood. It was still a hobby and kids would still collect, but it just felt a little different. Maybe it’s just me or collectors of my generation. I turned 13 in 1995. I collected then and would for a number of years, but it became a little shameful in my later teen years. It was a dork thing (this I freely admit), but it wasn’t the kind of dork things that kids were getting into (Magic cards, for instance), it was the kind of dork thing that kids were supposed to be growing out of. And it seemed that fewer kids of six, seven, or eight were getting into the hobby by the mid-1990s.

So this all leaves 1994 Topps in a sort-of lost area. It has none of the reverence of 1991 set, we don’t remember the pure shock of it like the 1992 set. Jeter-mania hasn’t kept it relevant like the 1993 set. Each of those designs – As well 1990, 1989, 1988, 1987… - have been reused by Topps in recent years. Not so for 1994. It’s a lost set. But in revisiting it recently, I’ve come to think of it as more of a hidden gem in the Topps library.

This all started, oddly enough, with my dad cleaning out some closets back at home. He told me he’d found some cards and would bring them down next time he visited. Fine, I said. I knew I probably still had cards at home and expected a shoebox full of junk. What he brought was two unopened boxes – 1992 Upper Deck (a topic for another time) and a box of ’94 Topps Series 2. He brought them on October 2: the day that Tom Petty, one of my favorite musicians ever, died. After the folks left, my wife and I opened up a big jug of wine, cued up Wildflowers, and I set into the cards. It was a sad but nostalgic evening, the kind where you feel the sting of loss but are glad for the memories that are left behind. I ended up with a good portion of the set (many with damage from sticky gloss, sadly), and with a real nice eBay pick-up – all of series one for $10 shipped! – nearly have the whole set put together.

The photography on these cards is, in my opinion, better than the previous two years and rivals even the 1991 set. There are great candid and action shots.

The set seemed to have a particular affinity for catchers. Check out these great shots with airborne mask action.

The set also contains two of my favorite cards of the decade…

Here is Kenny Lofton chasing down a short flyball at old Municipal Stadium. The hat on the grass in the back is perfect.

And here is George Brett, on his sunset card, grounding out to second base against Jamie Narvarro. It’s a gorgeous card, probably one of the 25 best flagship cards ever issued by Topps. It was Brett’s last AB of the game, he would be pinch hit for by Hubie Brooks in the fourth inning.

The set also featured the first multiple exposure cards Topps ever put in a flagship set… something Upper Deck had been doing annually since 1989.

The backsides were bright and colorful, done with the player image either on the left or right. Which is well and good, but this also meant that the card number shifts, from the left upper corner to the middle. Which is a huge pain in sorting. Thankfully, I think is the only year this was done. 

Speaking of the backs, were got some fun information from them. Like Deion Sanders wanting to host a fishing show or Curt Leskanic shaving his arm.

There are also a surprising number of photos where the player’s face is either not shown or partially covered (like the Brett shown above). This was something done occasionally in the early 1970s, mostly with terrible results, but here the pictures remain relevant and artful.

Topps even had a little fun (god forbid) with the images. This one of Kevin Brown immediately comes to mind.

The subsets also had a fun look to them. The quad prospect cards returned (originally brought back in 1992), with a bit of a design twist. We also get Future Star cards again, with a VERY early 1990s idea of what the future might bring.

But in particular, I like these Draft Pick cards, which give the impression of being a scout’s clipboard. These are hokey and dumb, but I love them. Especially that little post-it with the comic sans. 

I really do like this set. The design is colorful, a bit dated, but it fits with the times and the issue is a wonderful capper to a four-year run of great Topps sets. I still need 100 or so cards to finish the set, so check out my wantlists if you’ve got any laying around. I also have a bunch of Gold cards from the S2 box, if anyone is interested in those.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Brewers Auto Round-Tripper Pt. 3

I tried at Target yesterday for some Update blasters, but OF COURSE, they didn't have any yet. So, here are some more Brewers autos I've recently acquired. This one we'll call the 'Dooley n Dick' edition...

Dooley Womack lacks a Pilots card, but Commissioner Bob was nice enough to mail me this one a few months back. Dooley broke in with the Yankees in 1966 and saw plenty of action during one of the Bombers’ most forgettable periods. He was traded to the Astros after the 1968 season for Dick Simpson (another future Pilot) and was sent to Seattle near the end of the 1969 season for the man profiled above, Jim Bouton. He pitched well for the Pilots in a handful of games, but was traded after the season in what calls an “unknown transaction.”

Most Impressive Pilots Stat: 2.51 ERA over 14.1 innings.

Wayne Comer was the Pilots’ everyday center fielder and put up decent numbers in what would be – far and away – his best season in the bigs. He hit 15 homers and managed a .354 OBP to go with 18 steals. He opened the 1970 season with the Brewers before he was traded to the Senators for Hank Allen and Ron Theobald.

Most Impressive Pilots/Brewers Stat: 14 OF assists in 1969, 2nd in the AL

Dick Schofield joined the Brewers at the very end of a 19-year career. He broke in the Cardinals in 1953 at age 18 and an important cog in the 1960 Pirates’ World Championship team. He came to the Brewers in a trade in late July and played mostly off the bench. He managed only three hits with the Brewers.

Most Impressive Brewers Stat: Played errorless at 2B, SS, and 3B.

Kevin Kobel debuted with the Brewers in 1973 at the tender age of 19 and is still the only Brewers pitcher to appear in the majors as a teenager. Even more interesting is that he doesn’t really seem to have been much of a prospect. He was drafted in the 11th round and had pitched decently, but not overly fantastic over three minor league seasons. He joined the Brewers rotation in 1974, pitching pretty well for a 20-year-old with a 3.99 ERA and a pair of shutouts. He developed arm troubles the next season and would only throw four more innings for the Brewers.

Most Impressive Brewers Stat: 2.06 ERA over his first nine games in 1974, at age 20.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Trade with Cards on Cards

Evidently, I sent a package to Kerry from Cards on Cards some time ago. I'd forgotten about this so, when with an email heads-up, a box arrived from him in the mail, I was pretty stoked. And, lemme say, I must have been pretty good to him, because he sent a pretty awesome return package. 

In addition to nice stack of needs from Topps base lists, he included a very decent bundle of Brewers. Perhaps exorcising them from his collection since the little-Crew-that-could has finished ahead of the mighty Cardinals this year (rub it in, run it waaaay in). 

But let's start with this bit of fun on the box this package came in...

...yeah! Not no more it ain't! The best way I've ever seen to de-label a box.

He included some classic Brewers...

Here is a pair of franchise legends. I really want to start collecting Stadium Club again. It might be my next project. The photography on these is outstanding. And then a Robin Yount National Chicle. That's a decent set too, sadly a one-and-done for Topps.

There were a number of Archives cards, these are from 2012, I think. The Yo is an example of how nice the 1990 Topps set can look given some half-way decent photography. And John Axford has always been a favorite of mine. Even though he was traded away long ago, he still sponsors a film in the Milwaukee Film Festival every year. This year it's Poltergeist, and I very much do hope to see it.

A pair of Mean Jean Seguras. I love that Heritage card.

And some Gypsy Queen cards. I really miss Krush, but I'm glad to see he is doing so well in Oakland. Then there is Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who seems to appear in every Topps product this year, despite not doing much for the Brewers this year and not even making the team out of Spring Training. He totaled three hits for the Brewers in 2017, but here he is in a 330-card set.

Having moved on to current Brewers, here is a pair that will be a big part of next year's team. The Davies is one of those cereal-box Donruss cards, without logos or wordmarks. It's a little design-heavy for my taste. The Phillips is an airbrush job, but it my first Phillips as a Brewer card. I got him TTM a couple years ago on a minor league card, and will likely send this one out next spring to try to get him on a Brewers card. 

Always great to see some Orlando Arcia in my life. He is a hell of alot of fun to watch at short, and I really dig this 'Rookie Star' insert set. 

BRAUNIE! A trio of nice cardboard from the guy that every other city in baseball loves to hate. I'll admit that I had conflicted feelings about his whole ordeal. He did a lot of really scummy shit (least of which was taking the PEDs in the first place), but he'd made peace with the sample collector he slander and always seems to be involved in some kind of charity event or another. He's aging quickly and will probably be out of a job in Milwaukee in the next year or two, but he's a big part of franchise history. For better or worse. 

There was a bunch of other cool stuff in this package, but I'll wrap things up here. Thanks for the great mailday, Kerry!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The 2017 Update Checklist is Out... And it Sucks Ass Hard

The much-anticipated 2017 Topps Update checklist was released today and I’m dreadfully disappointed in the Brewers sliver of it. The base set itself seems to be kind of mess… very, VERY heavy on rookies and All-Stars with little room for much else. Like last year’s update set, it comes in at 300 cards, down from 400 as recently as 2015. The Brewers have seven cards in the base set. The obvious one was the Corey Knabel All-Star card. Yeah, that’s fine, I guess. I used to like the idea of Topps giving EVERY All-Star a card in the Update, but it’s getting kind of old. Maybe this could be an insert set or something.

Three of the Brewers set are rookies: Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, and Lewis Brinson. These are all solid. All are top prospects and all debuted this year and Hader and Phillips actually played pretty awesome down the stretch. Good on you for these, Topps.

The fifth is also a “rookie,” a Rookie Debut card of Orlando Arcia. Honestly, I hate these debut cards. Who cares? It’s just an excuse to double up on parallels for eBay-hot players. And Arcia didn’t even debut this year… it was 2016. I’m a big Arcia fan, but this means nothing to me.

Card six is something called “PARTNERS IN POP,” one of their gimmick cards with an utterly pointless checklist on the backside. I like gimmick cards, if they are done right. But I have think sinking feeling that this will just be a rehash of the “Brewers Bombers” card from Heritage High Numbers.  

And speaking of rehashing High Numbers… card number seven is Jett Bandy. Yes, Jett Bandy who hit .207 this year. Jett Bandy who got sent to the minors at the end of June (FUCKING JUNE). Jett Bandy who already had a card in High Numbers. Not Eric Sogard, who quickly became a fan fav after being called up in mid-May. Not Stephen Vogt, a two-time All Star who joined the team in June. Not Brent Suter, who is without a solo Brewers card. Not deadline pickup Anthony Swarzack. And certainly not Manny Pina, who was the Brewers most regular catcher and posted a 2.6 WAR and might get Rookie of the Year votes and DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A SINGLE MLB CARD.

No. We’ll get another Jett Bandy. And nothing against Jett. I’m glad that a card of him as a Brewer exists… but he wasn’t even in the majors when this set was being finalized! My god, Topps, can you at least TRY to pay attention to teams that aren’t the New York Judge-havers?


Anyway, I’m still gonna collect this set, because I’m degenerate cardboard addict. And I am looking forward to the Eric Thames 1987 autographed card. And, hopefully, we’ll get some Vogt/Sogard/Pina/andtherest in the 2018 base set. Like, maybe one of them will be the background of an Aaron Judge card or something.