Monday, 2 March 2009

1991 Topps Review

The 1991 Topps Baseball Set consists of 792 ignored and unappreciated baseball cards. I barely remember buying the factory set in the mid 1990's and probably only looked at some of the key cards if at all before closing the box and setting it down on a shelf in the basement for the next 15 years. My enthusiasm for this set dwindled even further once it became clear that it would never appreciate in value. Even eBay auctions for $0.99 for the entire set occasionally end up without a bid. You can buy a brand new, unopened set for $8-$10. I can't remember what I paid for mine.

That all changed once I actually got the cards out, sorted them and put them into their own binder. As I really looked at the cards I realized that Topps actually did a good job with this set. Yes, it is still on the old-fashioned cardboard in 1991, while Upper Deck had been putting out glossy cards on attractive whiteboard for 3 years that were far superior in production value. And yes, even stodgy old Topps was branching out with the costier Stadium Club set, but there is a lot to like in these cards.

Compared to the fairly routine or even mundane portraits of previous years, 1991 marks a start of better photography with more inventive poses and much better action shots. There are quite a few cards that stand out in this set if you don't let the fact that they aren't worth anything dampen your perspective.

1991 also witnessed a return to putting the player's position on the front of the card. This had been done away by Topps from 1987-1990 and was a source of irritation to me. Did Topps assume every kid knows the position of 700+ players by heart? A simple two letters gives a lot of information in a small space and I was pleased to see it reappear in the bottom left corner of the 1991 set.

Let's look at the Good, the Bad, and all the rest of this set...

The Good

Card #455 Walt Weiss is one of my favorite cards of the set and pretty much sums up what is great about this set. I can't imagine getting a better action shot than here with Weiss elevating over the oncoming Joel Skinner to complete a double play. The flying dirt is seen in vivid detail without any blurring and I especially like that Topps let some of the action extend outside the frame in a lot of its cards.

Card #760 Benny Santiago is the centerpiece of the set and is another action shot that I really like. Notice that the frame covers the catcher's mask on the right while on the left Santiago's arm seems to be reaching out of the card giving the viewer the sense of depth. While this pose is obviously a bit more staged than the previous card of Walt Weiss, it is one of the best portraits I've ever seen.

Card #530 depicts a younger Roger Clemens posing against the Fenway Park outfield scoreboard. The pose just seems iconic to have the Rocket posed next to the words "STRIKE OUT". I was never a fan of Roger Clemens, but he almost seems likable depicted in this manner.

Card #1 of the 1991 Topps Set again featured Nolan Ryan. This pose is by far the best shot Topps ever took of the Ryan Express and captures perfectly the delivery that produced 100 mph fastballs for 27 years.

Card #450 at first looks as if Wade Boggs is standing in front of those ridiculous grey felt studio backdrops. Further inspection actually reveals a grey sky with menacing storm clouds ominously hovering over a towering Boggs. Not my favorite card of the set, and the pose is more appropriate for a power hitter, but if I try to imagine that the clouds are real and hanging over Fenway Park, then the cards becomes a bit more bearable.

The Bad

How bad would you feel if you worked to make it to the Major Leagues and this turned out to be your rookie card? He looks just like a little kid trying on his daddy's work clothes. His helmet looks too big, his glasses look WAY too big, and he just looks out of place. His jersey even looks fake though it is probably a practice jersey. I wish someone at Topps, while proofing this set prior to production would have been able to realize that this card looked ridiculous and simply chose a different photo. Was there really only one photo of Jeff McKnight?

I think more than one photo taken on "Turn Back the Clock" Day at Comiskey Park is a bad choice. Overuse a gimmick and it loses its appeal. Also, look at Robin Ventura's expression - looks like he is in pain or constipated. Again, Topps could have tried a bit harder to flatter it subjects with its photos instead of just slapping the first photo they come across on the card.

The Rest...

The backs of the cards are nothing special, but I have always been loyal to Topps in part because the "Complete Major League Pitching Record (League Leader In Italics, Tie <>)". They have thankfully never deviated from this practice and hopefully never will.

The traded set consists of the standard 132 cards released later in 1991 and have the same design as the base set except that they are printed on slightly different card stock (which I have never understood) and the backs are lighter in color.

Significant cards from this set:

#113 Carl Everett RC
#333 Chipper Jones RC
#4T Jeff Bagwell RC
#45T Jason Giambi RC
#101T Ivan Rodriguez RC


This set has gotten a lot better with age even though its value hasn't. I really like what Topps did with the upgraded photography. 1991 is miles ahead of the 1987-1990 era and overall I give the set 3 1/2 stars.


  1. I've always liked 91 Topps. It was a breath of fresh air after 1990. I think Topps realized that 1990 was a mistake and went back to a more traditional look, and I'm glad they did.

    1992 Topps was a nice evolutionary step from 1991 and both sets look great. 92 had the advantage of being printed on much better card stock though.

    And I'll join you in hoping that Topps never gets away from the complete stats on the back, at least on the base release.

  2. In a world where cards were appreciated for their creativity this would be a highly valued set. But since the collecting world is ruled by commodity value ...

    While I can't stand the consumer aspect of collecting, this set is a reminder of how collectors like us can benefit. A great set like this is terrifically undervalued. I'll take it for $10, thank you very much.

  3. When I was a child I was big into collecting baseball cards. Most of them I still have to this day. Unfortunately the majority of them come from the 87-92 era of jack shit. I remember the 91 Topps factory set ran for 18-20 bucks when it was new. So if you consider: $20 new in 1991 dollars vs 10 dollars in 2010, and adjust for inflation that's quite a bit of depreciation. They are fun to look at though.