The Good Word – The Best Topps Baseball Trading Card Designs by Decade

One of the most exciting moments for me each year in the sports card hobby is the unveiling of the flagship Topps Baseball Card design for the following year. I suspect that we’ll get our first glimpse at the 2020 Topps Baseball design within the next couple of months, and here is to hoping that Topps won’t jump the shark and do something crazy like they did 30 years ago with the monstrosity that was the 1990 Topps set design:

Let’s backtrack just a minute. This blog post is inspired by a late-night text conversation with COMC colleague and fellow Topps Living Set enthusiast Grant Wescott about card design and Topps Heritage. While he is a big fan of the 1990 Topps design, I adamantly believed that if I were to rank every single flagship Topps design, the 1990 set would find itself in the bottom tier of my list. I don’t understand the design concept behind the double border, the slight slant in the player name box feels too comic book-esque to me, and everything clashes. The whole things reminds me of the Saved by the Bell TV show logo.

That conversation got my wheels turning, and while tackling the task of ranking every single flagship Topps design from 1951-2019 is one that is way too daunting for me, breaking down my favorite design by decade seemed like a happy medium. Without further ado:

1953 Topps

This choice required zero decision making process on my end. 1953 Topps is my favorite flagship Topps design of all-time. Topps mastered card design in their 3rd baseball card set that not only has stood the test of time, but also lends its brilliance for Topps first and only ‘Living Set’.  The lifelike paintings of the players featured in this set are the real highlight, but the card design with player info found in black or red boxes with an adjacent team logo is just the icing on top.

1969 Topps

For me the 1960’s is a toss-up between 1964 and 1969, but I have to give the nod to 1969 Topps because you can clearly the see the progression in Topps trying to nail down a design throughout the decade. 1964 Topps is marred by the team name at the top of the card simply being too big. 1969 corrects this by placing a more proportionate team name at the bottom of the card. They also improve upon the color circle design from 1968  by moving it to the top of the card and featuring the player name and position instead of the team represented. All-in-all a great way to close out the 60’s.

1977 Topps

There are three or four solid designs in the 1970’s that I like (but not love) that I could have went with. However, the 1977 Topps set edges the others out just a tad. I enjoy the very clean design, the bold type-font at the top, and I’m personally a big fan of facsimile autographs, which I think are a nice touch here.  The honorable mentions I refer to earlier would go to to 1973, 1975, and 1979.

Some may prefer the 1970 and 1971 Topps sets with their respective gray and black borders, but as we all know, the set design was hindered by low quality card stock and poor production process that simply made these sets less attractive with their various flaws. I think that modern sets that use these designs, such a 2019 Topps Heritage do a tremendous job breathing new life into these classic designs.

1984 & 1985 Topps

When it comes to the 80’s, I refuse to choose one set. 1984 Topps and 1985 Topps stick out to me as perhaps the best two-year block of Topps designs up to that period in time since 1952 and 1953. With 1984 Topps we see a perfection of the dual photo design that was used the previous year, while the colorful vertical team name was a fresh concept that simply worked well. The following year Topps radically changed the design with a great looking trading card that delivers hints of that iconic 1953 Topps design. My only gripe about 1985 Topps is that the slanted team name box could have been smaller to stay outside of the white border.

1991 Topps

I absolutely adore the 1991 Topps set design. Maybe it’s because it was the first complete baseball card set that I ever owned, but this set has a very fond place in my heart. Almost 30 years later I appreciate the cards in a different way – for a classy design that prioritized photography front and center by drastically reducing the size of player name, position and team logo. I do think that the Topps 40 years of Baseball logo feels out of place. Had the double border simply wrapped around the red Topps logo, with the baseball and 40 years removed, this set would rival 1953 Topps as my favorite design of all-time.

2008 Topps

This will probably be a controversial pick, but I truly love the zany, reinvent the wheel one-off design of the 2008 Topps Set. The team name featured prominently in colorful circles and the Topps logo also featured dead smack in the middle of the card just sells the design for me. I would have preferred the card sans foil, but as we all know, Topps fell In love with foil in 1995 on their flagship design and never looked back. Honorable mention goes to the 2004 Topps design.

2016 Topps

The past decade is easily the toughest one for me to choose just one particular design for a couple of reasons. I firmly believe this decade of Topps Baseball Cards is the strongest decade of flagship designs since the 1950’s. The designs from 2010 to now also mean a little more to me now since card design is something that I’ve only recently grown a passion for in the last five years or so.

If you have an eye for detail, you’ll have noticed that all my favorite sets outlined so far have consistent design themes and white borders. I could have easily chosen 2011 Topps or 2013 Topps to continue the trend, since both are really high up there on my all-time favorite flagship designs. But the border-free full-bleed 2016 Topps design really sings to my heart. What a nearly-perfect modern design to represent the new era of trading cards.

In my almost seven years at COMC I’ve seen and been around Topps products from the last decade far more than other decade of cards. The 2010 decade is the only decade that I do feel entirely comfortable ranking these sets in order from favorite to least favorite. With 2016 being my #1, here are 2 through 10:

2019 COMC Baseball Card Fantasy Pack Team Update

Members of the COMC Team are always looking to find new and unique ways to enjoy opening packs of trading cards. Sure, we could just rip through hobby boxes and packs looking for our big hits, but where is the fun in that? Earlier this year we introduced you to our fantasy baseball meets trading cards concept , which consisted of opening packs of 2019 Topps Opening Day Baseball Cards and creating a team based on the players found within.

To make it fun, we’re playing using a salary cap and the player’s real-life salaries, and the scoring system is based on how many wins your team is worth, rather than the individual stats found in traditional fantasy baseball. We’re now two months into the 2019 MLB season, which has been full of twists and surprises. With 1/3rd of the season under our belt, we felt this was a good time to check in and see how our picks are doing.

If you didn’t catch our first blog at the start of the season, we recommend that you check it out to get caught up all of the rules of the game. That being said, let’s recap the scoring format that we outlined in the original rules of the game:

Hitting Scoring 
Every 40 runs = +1 win
Every 15 Home Runs = +1 win
Every 15 Stolen Bases = +1 win
Every 30 RBI’s = +1 win
Every 50 walks = +1 win

Pitching Scoring:
 Every 5 Wins = +3 Wins
Every 5 losses = -1 Win
Every 5 Saves = +1 Win
Every 75 Strikeouts = +1 Win

The 2019 COMC Fantasy Baseball Team

No Surprise Here: Mike Trout Leads our team in offense!

DH: Mark Trumbo (0 points)
C: J.T. Realmuto (1 Point)
1B: Anthony Rizzo (2 points)
2B: Gleyber Torres (1 point)
SS: Francisco Lindor (0 points)
3B: Rafael Devers (2 points)
OF: Ronald Acuna (1 point)
OF: Mike Trout (4 points)
OF: Mitch Haniger (3 points)

SP: Justin Verlander (4 points)
SP: Gerrit Cole (3 points)
SP: Trevor Bauer (0 points)
SP: Blake Snell (0 points)
SP: Jacob Degrom (0 points)
Closer: Edwin Diaz (2 points)

23 Total Team Points

Bench Reserves:
Hitter: Juan Soto (1 point)
Hitter: Max Muncy (1 points)
Hitter: Whit Merrifield (1 point)
Pitcher: Dereck Rodriguez (-1 points)
Pitcher: German Marquez (2 points)

Analysis: We’re on pace to finish the season in the 70-80 point range, which is well under the 100-point threshold we predicted our team would finish at.

Designated Hitter Mark Trumbo isn’t expected to play until late June at best, which likely means that we’ll be replacing him with Juan Soto or Max Muncy off the bench due to not appearing in at least 108 games this season. Rafael Devers has been a pleasant surprise all over the stat sheet, and despite having what appears to be a slump season for him, Mitch Haniger has filled the right statistical categories (runs, HR, RBi’s) to notch three points.

Texas Heat: The career revival of Justin Verlander continues in 2019!

On the pitching side, our Astros one-two punch of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have accumulated the wealth of our pitching points. Justin Verlander has nine wins and counting as of this writing. Trevor Bauer and reigning American League Cy Young Winner Blake Snell have regressed in 2019.

We know that some readers of the COMC Blog are also playing along at home. How is your team doing so far? We want to hear from you! Have you found a way to turn your trading card collecting experience into a game? We want to hear about it! Drop a comment below and let us know!

Guest Blog: They Come in Colors – Like a Rainbow

(Editor’s Note: Please welcome Bill Eckle to the COMC Blog. Bill started collecting trading cards in 1961 and renewed his interest in the 1990’s when the University of Arizona Wildcats made their run in the NCAA Tournament with their first Final Four appearance. His Arizona collection and custom cards creations was featured in the March 2002 and November 2004 of the Beckett Basketball magazines. Bill’s COMC username is beckle.)

In 1993 Topps debuted Chrome technology with their Finest brand, which included parallels of the base cards referred to as ‘refractors. When refractor parallels are turned in the light, they display a rainbow effect that ‘refracts’ the light to show many different colors. This new type of card became a favorite for many collectors; however, Topps lost their licensing rights to all but baseball, so basketball card collectors had to look elsewhere for that technologyPanini’s answer was to  introduce their “Prism” cards beginning in 2012 and because of copyright issues, Panini had to come up with a different name other than refractor; hence, the name Prizm. Many collectors still refer to Panini’s prisms as refractors, as they exhibit the same effect as Topps Chrome and Finest refractors.

 Another confusing aspect is that the product itself is known as Prizm and the parallel cards with the light refracting qualities are also known as ‘prizms’.  Therefore the name, Prism prisms accurately describes the parallel cards. The Prizm prism parallel will have the name ‘PRIZM’ on the back where the base card does not. Probably in response to this confusion, Panini has since started calling these “Silvers”, which to date, have not been numbered. Technically, all Prizm cards that are not base cards are considered ‘prisms’, whether numbered or not. 

Each year Panini’s basketball Prizms have added more and different parallels than the previous year for a total of 35 in 2018, and that’s not counting  two different one of ones (Black and Choice Nebula) for each of the 300 players in the set.  Often mistakes are made by eBay sellers concerning the various colors, or they are given incorrect names. I purchased a Fast Break silver card of one of the hotter rookies from a card shop on eBay, but was disappointed to receive the base card of that player a few days later. Another mistake I’ve seen is the ruby wave listed as a red pulsar (#/25), which was available in last year’s (2017-18) Prizm basketball but not in the 2018-19 product. Since there are so many parallels to sort out, an explanation of the 35 different parallels from the 2018-19 Prizm set is helpful.

These two screenshots from ebay show some of the common mislabeling that one can find.

This explanation only applies to the 300 base card set of basketball, not the subsets or autos available which do not follow the same pattern consistently. These names also do not apply across other sports. Panini Basketball Prizms are spread across several box and pack types and these aren’t limited to hobby or retail. Certain stores such as Wal-Mart and Target carry particular variations exclusively, and Choice Prizmsavailable in Australia and the Far East also have versions specific to those regions. 

It is not unusual to see this product for sale with varying names that may or may not be according to Panini’s naming guide lines. Using COMC.com is a great place to see what the actual names are. Even if you are searching for a particular card not found on COMC, looking at other cards of similar types will give you a description of what they are and the accurate names. If you don’t find the information on cards currently available, make sure to check the ‘Include’ button on the Sold Out option on the sidebar menu. This may give more examples not found on currently available cards. 

Designs for Fast Breaks, sometimes referred to as ‘bubbles’, or more commonly ‘discos’were the names for styles of Panini’s football product. Fast Breaks are completely overlaid on the card’s front with small disks or circles, as check with COMC card descriptions will confirm. There are 7 different Fast Break variations: base or silver – unnumbered; blue – numbered to 175; red  (125); purple  (75); pink – (50); bronze  (20); and neon green – numbered to 5.    

You would think color would be an easy way to separate one kind from another, but some see orange as gold or pink as purple.  (I’m not sure how color-blind collectors navigate this minefield). This is where card serial-numbering is helpful. Orange parallels for the last two years have been numbered to 49 and golds to 10. The parallel numbering is one way to tell one type of parallel from another and again COMC is helpful as they list all cards regular numbering as well as serial numbering. For instance, there are five purples: purple wave, purple ice, which are not serial-numbered; purple fast break, and purple prizm, both numbered to 75, and purple pulsar (35)You may see the purple pulsars referred to as ‘gravity packs’, as these were only available in retail drop down boxes. And though there are two purples numbered to 75, the Fast Break is easily distinguished from the plain prizm by the circular disks on the card’s front.

Left to right: Prizm, FastBreak, Wave, Pulsar, Ice

The ‘ice’ parallelor sometimes called ‘crystals’, ‘crystal ice’, or even ‘cracked ice’, are also not hard to distinguish from other types. Cracked ice is a good description, as that is what the card fronts looks like. Panini soccer cards used this design technology and called it ‘crystal’. Previous Panini Contender products were called ‘Cracked ice’ which also had the same look. These names are often used by collectors but may not necessarily be the same name that Panini has chosen to use for a particular sport. There are 4 variations for the ice parallels: pink and red ice, found in Wal-Mart and Target products respectively and both unnumbered; purple ice – numbered to 149, and blue ice – numbered to 99. These last two are found in hobby and 1st Off the Line boxes. 

There are six red-colored cards with the unnumbered ‘ruby’ wave being one of the most common. Waves come in red and purple and are fairly easy to identify as they appear to have wavy lines on the card’s front. Also in red are the previously mentioned red ice, also unnumbered, followed by the red Prism, numbered to 299, red Fast Break (125), red Choice (88), and red shimmers – numbered to a tough 7. The shimmers appear to be the same technology that was referred to as ‘rain’ in prior years with Panini Prestige. The other shimmers, also numbered to 7, are a light and a dark blue.  

Left to right: Wave, FastBreak, Shimmer, Choice, Ice, and Prizm

The Choice cards were released in Australia and the Far East, but boxes can be found from dealers in the U.S. All Choice cards have large circular designs reminiscent of your first days using a drawing compass where you make a circle and using that radius make half-circles within the circle to create a flower pattern. This design was previously in Panini Select products and known as ‘Scope’. 

Choice also has Tiger Stripe (black and orange) Blue, Yellow & Green striped cards, both non-numbered, red Choice prizm (88), Choice green (8) and Choice Nebula (1/1). 

In a class by itself is the popular mojo (25) that is returning for 2018-19. Also numbered to 25 are both the red and green pulsars with the pink pulsar being numbered to 42. There are three pinks; pink ice – non-numbered, fast break pink, numbered to 50, and pink pulsar (42). Pulsars have oblong disks in a tight regular pattern on the card’s front, distinguishing them from the Fast Break design where the circles are more random.

Returning again this year are the green, hyper, and red-white-blue prizms – all (non-numbered), as well as the blue prizm – numbered to 199. Also back from last year are the ‘White Sparkle’ prizms –unnumbered and available in redemption packs, but commonly thought to be a print run of 20. A newcomer in the 2018-19 Prizm is the black and gold striped prizm numbered to five. 

Putting a complete set of prizms together of a favorite player is truly a daunting taskSeveral single digit-numbered cards, as well as the two ‘one of ones’, make it almost an impossible endeavor, but that is what makes it a collector’s challenge. 

Consignment Service Update: Retiring Declined Items

COMC is constantly seeking out ways to evolve our services to improve the hobby and give our customers the best possible experience.

Starting June 14th, 2019, COMC will begin using a new process to describe modern trading cards with condition issues that result in less than Near-Mint-Mint (NM-MT) condition. We believe these changes will greatly improve the experience for consignors by reducing the complexities of our current declined items system and for buyers and sellers by more effectively indicating which items are in less than NM-MT condition.

At a Glance

  • Modern trading cards in less than NM-MT condition consigned through Basic and Current-Year Basic services will no longer be declined, nor will they receive condition notes. These items will now be evaluated and described with condition ranges using standardized hobby verbiage (described below).
  • Modern trading cards in less than NM-MT condition consigned through Select, Current-Year Select, and Premium services will still receive condition notes, as well as be described with condition ranges using standardized hobby verbiage.
  • Items previously consigned through all service levels will still retain any applicable condition notes, but will now also be described with corresponding condition ranges using standardized hobby verbiage.

Detailed Explanation of Upcoming Changes

Declined Card System:

Currently, all modern (1980 to present) trading cards in less than NM-MT condition submitted through Basic and Current-Year Basic services are uploaded into the consignor’s inventory as a single group of declined items. Consignors are then presented with the following options:

  • Reprocess the whole group of items through our Select-level service, where they will receive condition notes. The items can then be listed on the COMC Marketplace.
  • Donate the group of declined items to charity.
  • Add the group of declined items to their next shipment request

On June 14, this declined-item system will be completely retired. Sellers with previously declined items will have adequate time to process, donate, or ship those items before support for the old system is also retired. Be on the lookout for more information soon with important deadline dates for when accounts with legacy declined items will be required to choose a resolution.

Modern Condition Ranges:

COMC will begin processing every item submitted through Basic and Current-Year Basic services regardless of condition. Modern Items received in less than NM-MT condition will be evaluated and assigned one of the following condition ranges:

  • Excellent to Near-Mint (EX to NM)
  • Good to Very-Good/Excellent (Good to VG-EX)
  • Poor to Fair (Poor to Fair)

Modern trading cards in NM-MT condition or better will not be assigned a condition range. In some cases, modern trading cards in NM-MT or better condition may receive a condition note for a minor issue we don’t believe results in less than NM-MT condition.

Items consigned prior to June 14th will still retain any condition notes they previously received but will also be described with corresponding condition ranges.

When is this happening?

On June 14th, 2019, we will begin to apply condition ranges to modern cards and update the Submission Wizard to reflect the new process. All consignment submissions containing updated paperwork or received after July 1st will be processed with these changes.

How will I be affected?

As a COMC Consignor

COMC Consignors will want to be more mindful about the condition of the items that they are submitting. Items in less than NM-MT condition will no longer be declined, and going forward all items submitted to COMC will be processed and deposited into their consignors’ accounts.

It is important to note that, with this change, sellers will be charged processing fees for all items submitted through our Basic and Current-Year Basic services, as COMC will no longer be declining to list items through these services for condition-related reasons. By no longer declining these items, sellers should ensure that they have a sufficient COMC Credit balance to pay for processing of all items submitted under these services to avoid delays in items being uploaded into their account.

As a COMC Seller

Currently, modern cards with flaws are given condition notes but are still grouped with items in NM-MT or better condition. Sellers have frequently been unable to quickly and accurately price their items with the information presented to them from the Inventory Manager. When pricing your COMC inventory after June 14th, sellers can now have confidence that competing items are similar in quality to their items.

 As a COMC Buyer

By making this change, it’s even easier to find the items you want in the conditions you are seeking. You’ll be able to quickly tell if an item has conditional flaws directly from search result pages, which will now display condition ranges. Items in less than NM-MT condition will no longer be found grouped with items in NM-MT condition or better.

Rich Reminisces: “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton

2019 is the 50th anniversary of what may be the most important book ever written about baseball. The tome which changed the world was “Ball Four” written by Jim Bouton and edited by Len Shecter.

Jim Bouton, who should have had Topps cards in 1969 and 1970 so we could have even better memories of that era, was as the author the key person of the book. After all, Bouton did pitch in 73 games during the 1969 season, which included two major league teams and a short minor-league stint.

Before going to the Seattle Pilots, Bouton had been a New York Yankee and was a remnant from the final days of the Yankees dynasty. While it was obvious from all his writings that he truly loved the game, the fact he looked at things differently was a cause of consternation for baseball officials. One of the things to remember is if all he had written about was how baseball players were human (young, loved to chase girls on the road, used coarse language, etc.) that would not have been so bad. Or as the story at the time goes: “If you see a word you don’t know, don’t ask your mother about those” to deal with the four letter words. This book took the inside stories which were evolving, beginning with Jerry Kramer’s book “Instant Replay” about the 1967 Green Bay Packers and Frank Beard’s book “Pro” about the golf tour.  

Bouton took these books a step further and was not nearly as family friendly as some of the other books in that process. Bill Freehan’s “Behind the Mask”, which actually pre-dated Ball Four’s release was also an inside look at a team, but without most of the non-baseball material covered in Ball Four. Of course there was a difference in Freehan playing almost every day as a position player and Bouton spending a lot of time in the bullpen, having more time to hear all those stories. Both Freehan and Bouton’s books are based on the 1969 season, so when the Seattle Pilots played the Detroit Tigers there are two different ways those games are dealt with.

The most amazing thing about these books was perhaps the self-examination needed for these diaries, as all of these athletes had seasons at or near their career peak during around that time. And in the case of Jerry Kramer, there is this memorable block of Jethro Pugh to give Bart Starr the room needed to score the winning touchdown in the 1967 Ice Bowl game  

But what really upset major league baseball was two fold:

1.) How he was able to show that the legendary Mickey Mantle was not perfect but just another person with typical male urges.
2.) He also showed how players were not properly paid, and some of the monetary troubles players had were because management had so much control.

Those issues as much as anything was what organized baseball got freaked out about after the book was published in 1970. Remember similar to today, there was a growing divide between the young athletes and those establishment types that were in charge. Today, much gets into the public because of social media use, which never used to be part of the discussion.

The other thing to remember was because of this book we were able to get a first person look at the 1969 Seattle Pilots, which were a one and done team. Since they were only in existence for that one year, the idea that we have this much information about the team is a gold mine.

Although the Pilots were an expansion team, they had several people important in baseball history. One of those players, who got traded before Spring Training even concluded was Lou Piniella. “Sweet Lou” may have had a sweet bat, but he was not always the mellowest player on the field. Piniella had what is called a “Red ***”, and more than 20 years later his temper was still well remembered.  He is the last Cincinnati Reds manager to take the team to the World Series and the only Seattle Mariners manager to lead them to the post-season.  And here is a brief part of a Sassoon ad which showed on television.

And there are plenty of other people who are remembered fondly because of their places in the day to day life of the Seattle Pilots. After all, Joe Schultz, a long-time baseball man, was the manager of the team and understood they were not going to be winning many games. Thus, one of his great pieces of advice was to “Pound the Old Bud (Weiser)” after every game.

We also have people who were almost “counter-culture heroes” at the time such as Steve Hovley and Mike Marshall:

And there is also Gary “Ding Dong” Bell:

Fred Talbot, is probably still waiting for his part of the 25,000 dollar prize since he, somehow as a pitcher, hit a grand slam in the designated inning of a fan contest. No, the money never came, but the story still lingers. There is no Topps card of him as a Pilot, so instead here’s his 1969 card of him as a Yankee.

And while I could talk about all the players and their roles in the book such as Marty Pattin‘s Donald Duck impression, the final couple of players I’ll talk about in this article is Greg Goossen. Goossen came up as a young man with the Mets and is responsible for one of the most memorable Casey Stengel lines: “This is Greg Goossen, he’s 19 years old and in 10 years he’s got a chance to be 29.

As a boxing fan, I’ve always been fascinated since Goossen is part of the boxing Goossen family, and before his passing actually was one of the corner-men in several important fights. He also became a stand-in for Gene Hackman in films, and did very well financially doing that seemingly thankless role.

And how else could I finish but by showing a card of Dooley Womack aka THAT Dooley Womack, who Bouton was traded for during the middle of the 1969 season. They had been Yankees teammates in 1966-68 before both of them began their last few seasons. This is Dooley pictured as an Houston Astro.

On a personal thought, I wonder if you could argue the eventual acceptance of Ball Four was one of the precursors to the work Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did to uncover the Watergate Scandal. By that time we had started getting used to the concept that people who had previously been protected by media members were not being treated as normal human beings. Scandals were far fewer before 1970 and Ball Four than afterwards.

  Was this book and the honest appraisal of baseball players a tipping point in journalistic history?