by Mike Stack
There have been ten baseball card sets that have distinguished themselves over all others in the modern era.
Each of these complete sets has a unique place in the hobby and meaning greater than the mere sum of their parts. For the purposes of this article we’ll consider anything printed after World War II to be of the “modern era”.
But the list isn’t just about value.
It’s about sports card collecting as a whole and which baseball card sets either made an impact or represent an important milestone in hobby history.
- The 1961 Fleer set was unique. Unable to produce cards of current players because of Topps’ monopoly, Fleer chose to present a set of retired stars. The set offers very nicely designed cards that hold a special place in our hobby. ’61 Fleer is reasonably priced when compared to ‘regular issue’ vintage baseball card sets.
- The 1981 Donruss and Fleer sets make the list not for their design or value, but for the impact they had on the hobby. From 1956 though 1980 Topps Chewing Gum held a monopoly on the baseball card industry. Fleer and Donruss sued for the right to market baseball cards, finally winning the battle. These two debut sets injected competition into the hobby for the first time in twenty-five years.
- The 1982 Topps Traded set was the first highly sought after set not produced at the start of the season. This set was produced in mid-season and distributed later in the year to account for new players and team changes. It contained the first full picture card of Cal Ripken Jr., who was quickly becoming the game’s brightest young star.
- The 1957 Topps set changed the way Topps produced cards. For starters the cards were smaller than their previous five offerings. Their design was simple with a high quality full picture of each player.
It was the first time Topps used pure photographs to make their cards. The 1957 Topps set is simply a classic.
- While not always celebrated, the 1965 Topps set is one of the finest sets the company produced. The photography is of higher quality than previous sets and the team name inside a pennant was a unique, clean design that is popular to this day.
- The 1949 Leaf baseball card set is a great set that is often forgotten. It had a combination of current and past stars. It is the only major set of cards that had both Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. A nice card of Satchel Paige also is key to this set.
- The 1953 Bowman color set was a direct response to the highly desirable Topps set of 1952. When Topps took much of the market share from Bowman with their 1952 offering Bowman felt it needed to respond the next year with an awesome set. Their 1953 set, with high quality photographs dominating the front, accomplished that goal but only served to delay the company’s departure from baseball card production for two more years.
- The 1989 Upper Deck set was the first high-tech set. It was printed on a new, quality card stock and had pictures with a much higher degree of clarity as well as a hologram on the back. Instead of competing with the cheap fifty cent packs of their day Upper Deck was a pioneer in the high quality baseball card for the discriminating collector.
- In 1953 Topps made a set for the ages. The original paintings of each of the players used in the set has never been matched since those beautiful cards rolled off the presses 55 years ago. This is truly the most appealing set of all time in the eyes of many collectors. The original paintings from the set were kept by a Topps executive and are scheduled for sale in the spring of 2009.
- The granddaddy of all modern baseball cards is Topps’ first offering in 1952. This set had excellent photography and large pictures. It was much better than the competition of the day and has the added bonus of having a rare rookie card of the game’s biggest young star Mickey Mantle.
Huge quantities of the final series issued that fall were dumped into the ocean when Topps couldn’t sell them to youngsters, leading to acute scarcity, especially in high grade.
Mike Stack is a freelance writer who has been connected to the hobby as a dealer and collector for over 25 years.