2021 Topps baseball series 1: A base set to beat all base sets

I haven’t followed baseball all that closely the last several years, but for me there’s nothing quite like the time when the first baseball card sets of a season hit store shelves. There’s an excitement and a freshness that comes with a new baseball season that seems to exceed the excitement and freshness of all the other sports seasons. I think it has something to do with the coming of spring, my favorite climatological season, as well, but there’s also some special sauce with baseball’s rookies and minor league systems that adds a feeling of hope and optimism that fans of nearly every team can tap into this time of year. Your team might have sucked last year, but now they’ve got a 19-year-old center fielder everyone swears is the next incarnation of Roberto Clemente and he could tear through the farm leagues and be the big league team’s salvation by the end of summer! You know, that kind of thing.

And Topps, the grandpappy of all American sports card makers, is the sole manufacturer of licensed Major League Baseball cards, so when they drop their base Topps series 1, you know baseball is just around the corner for real. This year is all the more special, since 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of Topps baseball.

This is the first baseball season to start since I rejoined the trading card hobby last fall, so of COURSE I was had to buy a little bit of the Topps base set and be part of the pre-spring training hobby excitement.

It helps that, while there is a bit of a collector frenzy around the new Topps sets each year, it’s not nearly as bad as the insanity that surrounds a lot of Panini releases, meaning collectors may still have trouble finding Topps on the shelves at Walmarts and Targets, but they’re easily found online for not too much of a markup, or at your local card shop, if you’re lucky enough to have a good one near you. It seems sad to be saying “not too much of a markup” as though that’s great news, but in this crazy era of card collecting, that’s about the best one can hope for.

So I opened a blaster box of 2021 Topps: seven packs of 14 cards (a throwback to the old days!) plus one special 70th anniversary “patch” card. Here, friends, is where a little bit of the magic started. I looked at the side of the box to see what the possibilities were for this special card. It turned out there are 25 players depicted on these cards, a mixture of legends and current stars.

I wouldn’t be entirely UNhappy with any of those cards, though there are several players there I don’t have really any connection as a fan to, like Joe Morgan, Eddie Mathews, and Steve Carlton. Knowing my luck, though, I was pretty well ready to pull one of those fellows or maybe someone like Chipper Jones, who I watched play and enjoyed, but never really rooted for. Instead, I got this:

As you may know if you’ve been reading my entries for a while, I’m a Frank Thomas kid. When I talk about my favorite ballplayers, Big Hurt’s name is one of the first off my lips, every time. And here he is! This went straight into a special toploader, and I’m going to see if I can find a magnetic enclosure case that fits this big hog (these cards contain a little silver medallion, and they’re quite thick, maybe 120 pt., I’ll have to check it on the gauge to be sure). This is going straight into my permanent personal collection, and it’s already on my little display shelf.

What a way to start a box, right? Let’s get into the review, because this was a pretty great experience. As a reminder, I grade sets on four equally weighted areas, scale of 0 to 5, and then I average them for a final rating for the set.

Design: 5 of 5 – When I saw the first preview images of the design of this set, my immediate and very first thought was “they nailed it.” If I could step into a time machine with these cards and visit my 12-year-old self and say “these cards are from the year 2021,” I’m sure 12-year-old me would go “that checks out.” These are modern, sharp, futuristic but not exaggeratedly so, clean and attractive. It didn’t occur to me until I read a Topps blog entry about them that these cards have borders, whereas apparently the last several years of Topps offerings have not. Having bought a pack or two of the 2020 issue, I remembered this to be the case. I really liked the 2020 card design as well, border or no, and had I bought enough of the cards to do a review, I likely would have given it at least a 4.

Drag the slider to compare the 2020 and 2021 Aaron Judge cards.

I’m pretty neutral on borders vs. borderless; I’ve seen great designs both ways, and I’ve seen crummy designs both ways. I would say in general my attitude is that it’s easier to screw up a bordered design, because the border itself is such a crucial element to the feel of a card. But when done well, borders are beautiful. And I’d say these borders are well done. They’re so well done, as I said, that I didn’t notice them at first. I just noticed how great these cards look. I like the elements they continued from the 2020 set and expanded upon, like the futuristic diagonal elements that were small and subtle last year, but have taken more of a prominent role in the design for 2021. Let’s look at some more that I pulled in a slideshow (with descriptions below):

  1. The base card, with its modern diagonal design elements gliding neatly and unobtrusively across parts of the frame. The player name and position is fairly small, almost too small but not quite, above a team logo with a team color stripe. The classic Topps All Rookie Cup design element finds its home cradled by the transparent diagonal slashes on the left side of the image. The maker and set badge, with the clean, compact Topps 70 design, shows up in the upper left or right corner depending on the composition of the photo.
  2. The card back is a pretty classic back. Plenty of room for statistics, while still maintaining some space for flavor text, even for guys like Yelich who have had plenty of years of service to list. The fonts are crisp, the colors are complementary, I even like the use of lines across the stats to help guide the eye. It’s the little things.
  3. Another example of how malleable the base design is, this time the League Leaders subset, with its unobtrusive little League Leaders badge placed vertically, subtly, along the left edge.
  4. With a couple of tweaks to the design that don’t break with the established visual rhetoric, the horizontal design also sticks the landing. This Juan Soto is also a rainbow holo variant (1 in 10 packs), so you can see how pretty that is.
  5. One more look at how the base design can seamlessly and subtly incorporate variations, this time with the Future Stars designation slipping in some golden sunshine right above the player name.
  6. Topps has a long history of slipping in inserts and subsets/parallels based on classic Topps designs from their, well, long history of producing sets, and this year is no different. 2021 marks the 35th anniversary of the 1986 design, which is deployed to nice effect on this Jacob DeGrom card, complete with 35th anniversary silver foil seal. Each pack of the 2021 product also includes one card from the T52 parallel set, based on the first Topps baseball set produced in its current incarnation, from 1952. That first set, designed on a kitchen table in 1951, is still quite a looker, and looks great with modern photography like this shot of Albert Pujols.
  7. I even pulled one of the T52s in Topps Chrome variant, and it somehow works, marrying that vintage design with shiny chromium.
  8. Topps also decided to play some other tricks with the timeline, putting players from all over the last 70 years into set designs they were never depicted in, such as this Tony Gwynn card, that marries an early 1980s portrait with the classic 1974 Topps design. Gwynn’s rookie card was in 1983, a classic in its own right, but this matchup of design with photo just feels right, too.
  9. Topps even did the checklists right with this set. Each checklist card depicts a moment from one of the MLB teams last season, in many cases opting to document the not-seen-in-our-lifetime weirdness of baseball played in empty stadia during a global pandemic. I don’t know if Topps did these checklists in T52 or rainbow holo or other rare parallels, but I’m glad to say if they did, I didn’t pull any.

The more I look at these cards, the more I like them. I had plenty of time as I opened these packs and mulled over these designs to find reasons NOT to give them a perfect score. Ultimately though, these are excellently designed, memorable, and attractive cards.

Card feel: 4 of 5 – When it comes to a base set, it doesn’t get much better than this. The cards have an appropriate but not overly obnoxious level of gloss on their front, and a notch less gloss on the back. The packs must have been well packaged, because I didn’t notice any dings or bent corners on ANY cards I pulled out. One potential downside for bordered cards is that they make off-center cards much easier to notice, but I will say I didn’t notice any cards in my packs that were noticeably off-center. There were a handful of cards that made me look twice, but upon further inspection, I couldn’t say for sure that they were, so I let it go. Picking nits, I wish the cards had a tiny bit less gloss — the T52 cards are a bit more matte, and I think some level of gloss between the normal base and those would have been perfect — but on the whole, that’s a pretty minor complaint.

Photography: 5 of 5 – One of the major reasons I loved those early to mid-90s Upper Deck sets so much was that they just KILLED it with photography, to the point where every other card manufacturer had to step their game up in a major way or get left in the dust. Topps was cruising along at that time with pretty average photography, but to their credit, they introduced the Stadium Club set which made high-quality, interesting sports photography a major selling point, and they’ve kept that set going all these years. In the meantime, apparently, they’ve also become quite good at picking top-notch photography for their core sets as well.

Those few packs of 2020 Topps I opened really stood out to me as good examples of sharp, well-toned, well-chosen sports photographs. Opening these 99 cards from the 2021 set, I’m reminded of the great colors and vibrancy of the photos in those classic Upper Deck sets I adore. There’s great action shots, great portraits, great candids … they really ticked all the boxes for me. Even the schlubbiest backups and benchwarmers I saw (and there weren’t that many schlubs in the packs I opened, surprisingly), looked GREAT in their photographs. That’s a sign of photographic greatness.

Fun factor: 3.63 of 5 – I realize the concept of a review is pretty subjective to begin with, but I have to acknowledge that this fun factor rating is easily the most subjective part of the whole thing. I rate each pack I open on the 0-to-5 scale based on how exciting and fun the cards within are, then average those ratings together. It’s honestly very dependent on luck: Am I getting cool cards from my packs? Am I seeing players I like, or players I don’t even know? If I have crummy luck, as we saw with the Upper Deck Artifacts hockey blaster box I opened recently, there’s no chance this rating will be good, and that’s a quarter of the whole grade.

This little box, though, right from the Frank Thomas logo patch card I opened first, was quite a bit more fun than I expected. Seeing that these are 14-card packs, I expected each pack to include a bunch of no-names and perhaps even some doubles as I worked my way through the packs. I figured, in other words, that this would be an old-school pack-opening experience with a lot of chaff and a few highlights here and there.

That just really wasn’t the case. These packs were very well-balanced with rookies (there were a couple packs with four or five rookies in them, and a few other packs with none), star players, the Topps 1952 variants and other retro design cards, and even the checklists provided a little change of pace not unlike the beautiful paintings on the 1991-92 Upper Deck NBA team checklists. I didn’t pull any ultra rare cards, but I was consistently entertained and surprised by what I found, and none of the cards felt like afterthoughts. It helps that these are very pretty cards, and I probably would have given even a dud of a box from this set a higher rating than the Artifacts hockey, because those cards were frankly pretty boring to even look at.

Oh, and I pulled zero doubles, once again! I’m beginning to realize that those first big retail boxes of old sets I opened for this blog were at a fun factor disadvantage; opening 24 to 32 packs of cards means accruing stacks upon stacks of doubles and unwanted cards, whereas opening 6 to 9 packs from a modern blaster apparently offers far fewer opportunities to pull those deflating doubles (and triples and quadruples, etc.) that can really be a drag on a fun factor grade.

Overall: 4.41 of 5 – This is easily the highest rating I’ve given any box of sports cards I’ve opened so far. To me, this is a positively consummate set of baseball cards. It accomplishes everything I would want to see in a base set of cards, so much so that I may actually pony up the (surprisingly small amount of) cash to buy a complete base set, and then get the series 2 and update sets when they come out to have the whole thing in my collection. I’m not generally the type to care that much about complete sets, but when one is this good, it feels like an appropriate way to honor the accomplishment. I might even put them all in a binder to make them easier to look at and appreciate.

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