This is a post I’ve been sitting on for a while. How do I write a blog post about the grandpappy of all trading card companies? Topps has been around since 1938, with roots in an earlier tobacco company founded in 1890. It’s either purchased and absorbed (Bowman) or defeated (Fleer) its oldest rivals. Panini has been around since the 1960s, but it’s only been the last 10 years that it’s become a direct competitor to Topps in the American sports card market, having spent most of its life producing stickers for collectors overseas. Topps has produced more sets and more cards across more time than any other card maker, by far.
So I’m not able to provide a full accounting of the history and stature of Topps, but I can give a more personal view on the impact Topps has had on my collecting hobby through the years.
My first sets: late 1980s and early 1990s
Growing up as a card collector, Topps was Coca-Cola. It was ubiquitous. It was the default. If you didn’t know what else to buy, Topps was always there, and it was just about always a solid choice. Even now, I can’t turn a page in my card binder without seeing a Topps card or two.
The company may have been a touch slow to adapt to the switch to higher-quality card stock, foil embossing, holograms, and all the other fancy touches that competitors like Upper Deck brought to the industry, but it eventually caught up, and produced sets like Topps Stadium Club, Topps Finest, and Topps Chrome that still carry a lot of weight with collectors today.
But back in 1988, Topps was still in the classic wax-pack-stick-of-gum mode, with simple cards printed on crude brown cardboard stock. And even though the stick of gum I pulled out of this pack I opened recently had a grody brown spot of unknown provenance on it, I can say from personal experience that even when these packs were new, that gum was near inedible and hard as sheetrock.
The other thing I’d forgotten about from this era is all the mail-in offers you’d get in these old packs. In 1988, they offered these special sets of rookies and all stars, which is kind of cool and also foreshadows some of what they’re doing today with their Topps Now and other special offerings.
They also had these SuperStar mini stickers and mini cards from sets around this time (1988-1990) that I somehow ended up with a handful of. I honestly have no idea how I came into possession of these, whether they were pack-ins with regular-sized cards, or if I just bought some packs of minis because they were novel. I clearly didn’t take great care of them, because some of them are starting to look like the old Honus Wagner cards people would find in attic shoeboxes. They are apparently still making mini cards and stickers, as you’ll see in the slideshow below.
At any rate, the Topps/Coke comparison has always been very fitting in my mind. I love both brands, I enjoy them, I know they’re always a safe and satisfying choice, but I also know there’s better stuff out there. Generally speaking, the yearly Topps base sets are like THE base: the most basic, accessible set in any sport. They seem to take their role as sports documentarian seriously, because most sets are very comprehensive, representing as many players as possible, even adding update mini-sets at the end of a season to produce the first cards of players who’ve been traded or called up to the majors. Topps also tends to do inserts and subsets that reflect on the history of the game, celebrating singular achievements and Hall of Fame players. They really seem to understand their role and how to do it well.
Happy, shiny baseball cards: mid-1990s
Although Topps’s base sets stayed pretty traditional into the mid-1990s for the most part, the company branched out into the more premium card market in the early 1990s with its Stadium Club sets. The hook, as they say in the marketing biz, was high-quality photography, even going so far as to put a Kodak logo on the wrappers of its first sets to let you know they were serious. The first set in 1991 did away with borders and featured its card-front photos from edge to glossy edge. They accepted the challenge that Upper Deck brought and put a lot of effort into high-quality, eye-catching photography, while keeping the design clean and uncluttered. That initial design was mostly unchanged for several years, including the 1992 set that I collected a lot of at the time and happened to get a couple more packs of recently. And they really went for it with some of their photo choices. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a picture on a baseball card like the one of Lance Johnson taking batting practice in the slideshow below. It’s visually arresting; a bold decision. And of course, they produced the 1992 Frank Thomas, also pictured below, that still stands as one of my favorite cards of all time.
A few years later, Topps tried on an even more premium foiled-up and glossed-out look with its extremely popular Finest sets. I was never a huge fan of the Finest line, because the cards in their strange chromium relief effect never looked as clean and coherent as I thought they should, plus the designs seemed too busy and flashy. Plus the packs were pricey. But collectors absolutely loved them, even back in the early days when each individual card had a peel-off protective film on its front. The debate among collectors was whether you kept the film on or peeled it off: Would peeling it off inherently hurt the cards’ value? Would leaving it on ensure a higher grade, or doom you to a lower appraisal. It seems, looking at the cards’ values nowadays, that the “take the film off” camp won out. I have a couple of the green and somewhat gaudy 1994 baseball cards, and a single Hideo Nomo card from the more attractive (but still kinda gaudy) 1996 set (I left the protective film on that one for some reason, and now I can’t find an edge to take it off … guess it’s on there forever now).
Topps also started its long-running Chrome sets in 1996, but I have zero of those cards, and no recollection of ever even considering purchasing any during my first run as a child collector. My guess is I might have thought “what’s the point of these if you already have the chromed-out Finest?”
A whole lot of product: 2020
Chrome, though, is a big deal now. Any card you can buy in the Topps or Bowman base sets is much more sought-after in its Chrome version. And that’s really what Chrome is, a version of the base set that’s shiny and slick. You can see below in the comparison between a “normal” Topps 2020 card and a Chrome one.
There’s a whole bunch of sets beyond Topps and Bowman and their Chrome counterparts, though, in a wide variety of price points and scarcities, and that’s not even mentioning all the other stuff they produce, like Garbage Pail Kids stickers and Star Wars cards. I don’t collect a lot of those other Topps sets, whether for lack of interest, lack of funds, or lack of availability, but a few of the non-base Topps products have caught my eye. I’ve already talked a little about the Topps Project 2020 art card series, so I won’t go into that here. But as another example, there’s the 2020 Topps Fire set, designed by an Australian freelance designer named Tyson Beck who has worked with all of the American major leagues. I can’t deny this design is gaudy, but it’s gaudy in a way I find appealing. I can’t really explain it.
I like the color combinations, mostly, and the hyper-real photo illustrations of the players. I’m sure this will seem very dated in a few years, but for now I just think it’s pretty.
And then there’s the Allen & Ginter set. I can’t say that I collect this set because I haven’t purchased any of it yet, other than one card, but I WANT to collect it in the future. It’s a set of cards that reflects sports, art, culture, and history, and yes, it’s as eclectic as it sounds. A pack could contain a trading card of all-star slugger Mike Trout right next to a card of legendary pop singer Celine Dion, followed by a card from a subset that pays homage to classic monster stories like Dracula or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. I’m pretty sure past sets have featured 1 of 1 historical memorabilia cards, including one with a strand of George Washington’s hair. Myself, I purchased a card from the 2019 set featuring Japanese artist Mayumi Seto, who does all of the art for the Allen & Ginter cards.
Why would I go out of my way to purchase a card of a Japanese artist? The main reason is because she’s also the artist behind my favorite Topps product, the Living Set.
Seto draws these gorgeous, detailed, luminous pencil portraits of players, and she draws a lot of them. Since the Living Set started more than two years ago, she’s produced 370 portraits (and counting). The way the Living Set works is Topps releases two cards per week, and people can purchase them direct from Topps during the week, after which no more of those two cards will be produced. Then the next week, two new cards are offered, and the process repeats. The idea is that each player portrayed in the set is only portrayed once, unless he is traded or signs with a team other than the one he was with when his card was produced. Some retired/legend players have been included in the set as well. And this is an open-ended project, so while we’re on No. 370 now, it could ostensibly end up with more than 1,000 cards in the checklist someday.
And the design is gorgeous too, based on the design from the 1953 Topps baseball set. I love how clean and simple it is, and the card backs are even old-school.
If I don’t stop here, I’m afraid this post will soon need its own server, but suffice it to say there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Topps. If I ever grab any of the Topps Now special cards, or a pack of the historic T-206 set, or any of the Garbage Pail Kids stuff, I’ll be back with more posts to add to the legend.