by Chris Harris
And now, the list you’ve been waiting for. In the fifth and final part of my 1990s flashback I take a look at the five worst baseball card sets of the decade. Now, it would be easy for me to simply load-up this countdown with junk wax era (which I define as the years 1987-1993), but I don’t think you need me to tell you just how bad 1990 Fleer, 1991 Donruss, and 1992 Score were. Therefore, this countdown really won’t account for the entire decade, just most of it.
1. 1995 Fleer
I’ve already spoken of my love for 1994 Fleer, so I find it hard to believe that the same company that produced such a great card set could, just a year later, make one this terrible. Structurally, 1995 Fleer is similar to the ’94 version. The base set is a little smaller, but at 600 cards still pretty substantial. You still got an insert in every pack, and while in the aggregate there were fewer of them to chase after, 1995 was the first year of the randomly-inserted “Hot Pack” which contained nothing but inserts. What made 1995 Fleer so awful was the design of the base set – or should I say, designs (plural) of the base set.
I want to know just how much LSD the designer at Fleer took before making these cards. Maybe they weren’t high on Acid, but they certainly they were high on on something. If you’ve never seen a 1995 Fleer base card, consider yourself lucky. They’re THAT awful. What’s worse, THERE WERE SIX DIFFERENT BASE SET DESIGNS – one for each of baseball’s six different recently-realigned divisions – all equally repulsive to look at.
The tagline to 1995 Fleer was “Different by Design,” and it was different alright: Differently appalling.
2. 1995 Studio
Speaking of card sets that were “different by design,” when Donruss introduced the Studio brand in 1991, different was what it was: An all-portrait, black-and-white set with mauve-colored borders and backs that didn’t have any stats, rather a brief “getting to know you” questionnaire. 1991 Studio is a true gem of the junk wax era and for the next few years Studio would continue with the same winning formula. That is until 1995.
Whenever I pull out my wallet and reach for my debit card, I always think of 1995 Studio. Donruss took a set that worked, and turned it into … credit cards. I guess Donruss wanted card collectors to be reminded of the 21% A.P.R. charged on their cards when they bought a box of this stuff.
The rest of the product was also substantially different from the previous year’s set. There were no inserts in the set, replaced by two partial-parallels: Gold and Platinum (Gold Cards? Platinum Cards? Credit Cards? Get it?). Donruss-Playoff would bring back the credit card motif for future 2000s-era Studio, but only as an insert – which is what the credit card design of 1995 Studio probably should have been all along: An insert.
Before I continue, yes, this is the third set from 1995 on this list. If 1994 was the last truly great year for baseball cards, 1995 was equally terrible. From Donruss, which etched the player’s name in very small type on an very, very thin strip of silver foil; to an uninspired Topps Flagship; to an ugly Score set; 1995 was not a very great year for The Hobby. I don’t know if they were trying to react to The Strike, or it was just something in the water, but collectively, 1995 was a pretty bad year.
The biggest let down for 1995, by far, had to be 1995 Topps Dimension 3 (also known as D3), a 59-card Lenticular set released in late August. It should not be discounted just how much Topps hyped-up the release of D3 all throughout the 1995 baseball season, promising a card set that would be revolutionary and, to borrow a phrase, game-changing. Topps even went as far as buying a two-full-page ad in Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, at a time when Topps simply didn’t do such things.
So why was D3 such a disaster, so much so, that only days after the release of the first series the proposed second series AND a proposed D3 NFL set were both cancelled? For one thing, the Lenticular printing technology which gave the cards their three-dimensional look wasn’t really all that new. It was the same technique used by Topps in 1968 to make their experimental 3-D cards, by Kellogg’s in the 70s and 80s, and by Pinnacle Brands for UC3, a similar product released earlier in the summer. There was also the issue of cost: $5 for a pack of five cards, twice the price of UC3. The lack of inserts (the only one was a six-card, 1:3/pack set) didn’t help either.
The true lesson of 1995 Topps D3 is that no amount of hype or artificial buzz will get collectors to buy a bad card set.
Earlier, I discussed the 1998 version of this set and the “Dare-to-Tear” gimmick behind it. 1997 Zenith wasn’t as atrocious as the ‘98s, but it wasn’t all that great either. Pinnacle Brands was late to the super premium brand game, but when they did unveil their Select Certified and Zenith brands, they had two hits on their hands.
The 1996 edition of Zenith was not unlike 1995s, and was well also received by collectors. But for 1997, Pinnacle decided to radically reconfigure the brand. The base set was reduced to only 50 cards – about a third of what it had been previously – but that wasn’t the most drastic change to Zenith. Each pack contained five base cards and two over-sized 8” X 10” parallels – one of which done in Pinnacle’s patented Dufex. Not only that, they doubled the price to $10 per pack.
The $10/pack threshold had been crossed the year before with Leaf Signature Series, but at least you got an autograph in a pack. With 1997 Zenith you got … oversized parallels?
In retrospect, monkeying around with the structure of the product, over-sized cards that are a pain to display and store, and jacking up the price, should serve as a case study as to what NOT to do with a successful baseball card set.
5. Any 1999 Skybox baseball set
I had a hard time picking just one of the Fleer-owned Skybox-branded baseball products; and truth be told, not all of them are all that bad. Skybox Premium, E-X Century, Skybox Metal, and Skybox Thunder were pretty decent sets. But what made all of these so bad wasn’t what was on the front of the cards, but what was on the backs.
In 1999, Fleer oriented all their Skybox brands, across all their sports, to appeal to a more youthful "urban" audience; even hiring the hip-hop star Coolio (or at least someone who looked like him) to appear in a print ad. It even went as far as the language used on card backs.
A couple of years ago I bought a wax box of 1999 Skybox Metal and reviewed it for my blog Stale Gum. One of the cards I pulled was an Adrian Beltre with this on the back.
"Yo, Adrian, 20 years old, filling in for Bobby Bo' at third for the L.A. Dodgers ... not bad. We know that you almost nabbed the '97 FSL Triple Crown and were Mr. MVP. We can see your glove is phat already. But at 20? I guess that's why Zeile's in Texas and Konerko's in Cincy ... your move, Kid."
See what I mean? Here’s a Troy Glaus “Neophytes” insert from the same product.
"Anaheim's Angel at the hot corner. Your future's so bright, it's hurtin' our eyes! We just hope the bosses know they have a future star on their hands. Keep their heads ringin', Troy, and we know the sky's the limit for this Angel in the infield. True that! True that!"
Looking back with over a dozen years of hindsight, it’s easy to have a laugh at Fleer’s expense. About two years after the release of 1999 Skybox Metal, I had a job interview at Fleer's headquarters in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. It did not appear that anyone in the Skybox demographic was employed there. But the 1999-era Skybox products have entered the “so bad, it’s good” category.