Those of you who remain unfamiliar with my less sordid hobbies as a child may be surprised to learn that I was an avid baseball card collector throughout the back half of the 1980's. The passion combined many of my interests and strengths - baseball, money, detailed memory of minutiae and swindling neighbors. I was lucky enough to leverage birthdays and holidays for cards amid a middle-school hospitalization for this (it's okay to click - no nasal polyp photos), a minor malady in which I attracted much sympathy. It was October 1986 and I spent a month in a hospital displaying allergies to multiple antibiotics and cheering for the Mets to stick to the Sox. I parlayed the medical issue into a bonanza of a November birthday and Christmas, where I compiled a pretty kick-ass set of trading cards which I traded up to get a banner collection for a kid my age without wealthy parents. Included among the (now mostly worthless) collection were a Johnny Bench rookie, a 1968 Mickey Mantle, a Ricky Henderson rookie, every Topps, Fleer and Donruss Dave Winfield card made (still working on O-Pee-Chee, though) and several other items that could be called gems at the time.* My interest started building in 1984 and eventually waned by 1990, when I became intrigued by other hobbies, like touching breasts and drinking alcohol.
(*among the non-gems were (7) Mike Greenwell rookie cards, (6) Tood Zeile rookie cards, (6) Ramon Martinez rookie cards and, wait for it, (9) Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens rookie cards. I still look at these cards on occasion to remind myself that I was an idiot as a child.)
But enough about me, the dim-witted kids in my neighborhood and my love of cold beer and warm breasts. Let's talk about the cards. In the 1980's, Topps baseball cards were king. Fleer was a second-rate competitor and Donruss was an emerging third horse in the race, but not yet a threat. Each January, Topps would release its new issue of cards. And there would be much discussion among my imaginary friends and me about each year's cards - the visual layout, colors, borders, patterns, player omissions, etc. But that discussion would quickly abate as we ripped through cards like kids looking for golden tickets in Wonka Bars. There was nothing like that first shuffle through a newly opened deck of cards. I would get excited by any Yankee, even if it was a lame player, because, all things equal, you'd take Bobby Meacham over an Iorg brother every day of the week. And I would love the gum for every second of the four minutes it took for the gum to turn into something that had the consistency of tire rubber.
So I proffer to lead us down memory lane and offer up a highly scientific ranking of the 1980's Topps baseball cards sets. The rankings grade each year from 1980 through 1989, using a highly scientific proprietary multi-factor model that assesses the following items: aesthetic value of the card layout, prominent rookies, contents of that year's regular and "traded" sets, the steroid era's impact on that year's deck, as well as other subjective factors. We will start the countdown at the bottom. I will highlight the pros and cons for each year, based on the aforementioned metrics, and attempt to enlighten you while fleshing out my thesis. Given my pace with previous multi-post concepts (hi Cauc Hop!), I expect to finish this series in March 2024. Or later. But the goal will be to publish this series once a week, concluding with the final post sometime in October.
So without further ado, let us begin.
#10 - 1986
Coming in last on this list means we will highlight the "cons" first, a fitting word for a set that featured rookie cards for Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco. But the black cloud hanging over many of these players pales in comparison to the detrimental impact of the black border surrounding the cards themselves. In a monster gaffe that repeated the mistake of the 1970 Topps set, Topps designed the 1986 set with a black border around the upper half of the card. This border chipped and frayed at the slightest of touches, rendering many mint-condition cards looking less than 100% after initial handling. It made it difficult to insert/remove them from the plastic pages of your card binder one time without marring them. That design failure would prove challenging for sloppy 11 year-olds like myself.
In addition to the design, the players themselves would prove to be a detriment to the year. There isn't much in the way of marquee players who haven't embarrassed themselves badly. Among the rookie cards in this set are a loathsome lot of men. Vince Coleman was a hot prospect in 1986, as were Lenny Dykstra, Harold Reynolds, Ozzie Guillen and Darren Daulton. And Cecil Fielder, although his rookie card (as a Blue Jay) did not become valuable until 1990. Not a lot of quality dudes there.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Topps put out a seven card sub-set this year to honor Pete Rose for passing Ty Cobb's hit record. So throw in a gambler with the juice heads, the firecracker thrower and the lady toucher and you have a true motley batch of jerk-offs featured in 1986.
One rookie, a tragic hero whose legacy has sadly diminished over time, was featured in the 1986 set. That man was Bo Jackson. I'll spare the recap, but every sports fan should remember the iconic moments of that man's career - his Heisman-winning year at Auburn, his steamrolling performance over Boz and the Seahawks on Monday Night Football, the way he made Gretzky giggle in the Nike commercial and the home run in the 1987 all-star game. These were all iconic moments. But other than Bo, there's just not a lot to like here, unless you're a big fan of Will Clark, Wally Joyner or Pete Incaviglia.