Wednesday, July 5, 2017

1991 Topps: An Appreciation

I turned nine years old in 1991. I had been marginally collecting baseball cards for the past two years, but I remember my habit really ramping up in '91. And it was a hell of an easy time to be a card fiend. Nearly every grocery store, pharmacy, or sundry shop had a display of cards, ranging from a box or two near the King Size Twix bars at the local UniMart to entire aisles of cards, supplies, and hobby mags at Fleet Farm or ShopKo. And every boy my age seemed to collect cards at least part-time. Our town had a pretty large Hmong population and the even the Hmong kids in my grade school classes - first-generation Americans who grew up, for the most part, in non-English-speaking households - found their way into collecting. It seemed that the hobby, among kids, was less about sports and more about the trend... something like fidget spinners or pogs or whatever else becomes the brief chic thing to do. It was about fitting in and participating in something, but it was also about social class and money (no collector went without a price guide). It was a weird mix of childhood innocence and this unfortunate kind of classroom capitalism that led to the most impressive collections, and therefore most impressive collectors, dictated by the Holy Price Book.

I often look back at the time when I was most active as a young collector, back in the mid-90s, with regret. Both myself and other kids I knew who collected were slaves to the price guide. It's how we balanced our trades and its what got us excited about ripping packs. It was fun, I suppose, but I was clearly missing the point of the whole reason for collecting. But there was a time just before this when I was probably most "woke" as a young collector. It was 1991. 

First off, allow to digress for a moment. Since I just used the term "woke" in a place where it probably really should not have been used, I have to revisit a point I made earlier... pretty much every boy I knew collected cards, but I do not recall any girls who were into cards. Granted, I was pretty terrified of girls until the age of... oh, about 21. But there must have been at least a few, and I certainly remember girls who were into baseball or who played baseball in little league. Do any of you remember any girl collectors as kids?

Anyway... 1991. I was a Topps man by virtue of 1989 Topps being the the first cards I ever opened. And in 1989, unless you had the money for Upper Deck, Topps was tops. But into 1990, Topps began to feel kind of old-fashioned. It lacked the white stock used by everyone else, it was a bit late on a lot of rookies, and was just kinda, well, dorky. When I saved up my allowance money for a factory set in the fall of 1990, I had the option of UD, Topps, Fleer, Donruss, or Score (yeah, the local department store sold ALL of them). Not wanting to spend the extra $10 on Upper Deck, I went with Score. It was bright, clean, and a mile more fun that the old grey lady that was Topps. I remember the Topps set being the one I wanted the least of the bunch.

Topps must have realized they were falling behind, too. So for 1991, their 40th baseball set, they drastically overhauled the look of their flagship set. They adapted a sleeker design and made, what I think, is still the greatest single-season improvement in overall appearance in trading card history.

The design itself was far more understated than the garish 1990 set. They used a special Topps logo for the first time ever, marking without doubt that they were "The Real One," masters of business that other companies had just gotten into. A ribbon at the bottom of the card contained a low-profile player name and position, with a pair of boarder lines running around the photo, making an excellent use of team colors. This had the effect of placing much more emphasis on the photo, a tactic that Upper Deck had been using for both of their baseball issues to that point. Another ribbon in the lower right carried a team wordmark, only the fourth time since 1960 (!!) that Topps had used any kind of team logo in their design and the first time any card had carried a team wordmark (Upper Deck used it in their 1992 baseball issue). 

Just look at that! What a damn beautiful baseball card. With much encouragement from my bi-monthly issues of Topps Magazine, this set restored my wavering faith in Topps. (yeah, I snapped all these pic from my binder, I'm lazy)

One of the big things that Mag gushed about what the photography of the set. And they were not exaggerating. 1990 Topps, and decades of previous sets, had relied heavily on portrait shots and spring training photos. Those appeared in the '91 set, too, but they are far more interesting and lively. 

Here's an action ST shot far more action-packed than anything in '90 Topps.

And here's a headshot that is actually fun and engaging. An alien concept to years previous.

But, of course, it was the action shots that most captured my attention. Many of the most memorable used a horizontal orientation, the first time Topps had used that since 1974. 

Here's Walt Weiss flying over Joel Skinner.

And here's Dwight Evans stroking a hit at Fenway.

And here is what might be the greatest single baseball card ever made.

But not all of the great horizontal cards needed such interesting shots. Some took what might have been pedestrian images and allowed them to be framed in such a way that really makes them pop. 

Like framing Nolan Ryan's follow-through.

Or using the turned heads of the Wrigley Field fans and the Cubs' catcher to give depth to this shot of Will Clark preparing to leg one out. 

Depth! Yes, the '91 Topps set used depth better than any set previous. They had tried in 1971 and 1973, but it didn't really work. In 1991, however, you can get a great 3D effect using the border and, in this case, the Topps logo. 

You can get an ump's eye view of Eddie Whitson.

Or to see what Dave Stewart might have looked from the front row. 

Topps also embraced the staged photo in '91, something that other companies had only dabbled with. In doing so, they produced some true gems.

This view of Wade Boggs was unimaginable on a Topps card prior to '91.

This card employs an iconic stadium in way that no other card really had before.

And this card used a photograph from a shoot for a Sports Illustrated cover in 1989 - a type of innovation in photo selection that Topps had never dared to try before. 

I collected these cards with glee in 1991. I didn't know what they "booked" for and probably didn't care. I just wanted to get all those gorgeous cards I'd seen in the magazine for my own. I picked up a factory set of '91 Topps at a card show a few months ago for $5 and spent the afternoon just thumbing through them. It was a hell of an investment.


  1. Just goes to show you what a little competition can do for an industry.

  2. Lots of awards to hand out for '91 Topps, in my opinion: Best Set of the '90s, one of the Top 10 Topps Sets ever, and the Fisk is a shoo-in for being one of my Top 10-20 favorite baseball cards ever made. You got a steal on that set for $5.

    Sadly, it seems that what few kids/early teens remain in the hobby these days are mostly in it for the money. There were a handful of collectors younger than myself at the recent card show I attended, and every single one of them was talking about the "book value" of their newest cards and/or what they thought they could get for them on Ebay. I really wonder what the hobby would be like these days had Beckett never come along. Maybe we'd see more appreciation for the CARDS themselves, as is the case with so many of these '91 Topps museum pieces.

    1. I've gotten the same vibe from the kids at shows. Maybe if there was a fun low-dollar product to collect...

  3. It's a great set.

    You and I are about the same age, although I don't really remember collecting '91 Topps at the time. I remember '87-'89 Topps well (mostly because I had an older brother, so when he got a pack I did), then I don't remember getting many cards until 1993 Topps, which I collected heavily. In 1994, it was all Collector's Choice.

    1. I had totally forgotten about Collector's Choice! I actually bought that pretty frequently as well. It was a very nice-looking set. I tried to build the football set, but just didn't have the patience as a young fellow.

  4. I was in my mid-20's in 1991 and I loved 1991 Topps. Still do.

    I remember one Christmas in the late 1980's when my cousin's two sons each got a wax box of baseball cards under the tree. They opened the packs and compared notes on the book value, while I sat there and looked on the proceedings with scorn. As it turns out, the joke was on them - the wax boxes were 1988 Donruss (cue Nelson from 'The Simpsons': HAH-ha!!!)