In the 1980s, Topps developed a reputation for being the boring, stubborn, old man of baseball cards.
It’s easy to understand why, too.
When Fleer won their antitrust lawsuit against The Old Gum Company in 1980, they were joined by Donruss as new kids on the block who hurried to push out inaugural sets in 1981.
The quality of both issues was suspect, as we might have expected under the circumstances, but they both came back the next year.
More importantly, both Fleer and Donruss tried all sorts of news things, from wild designs to player stickers to 3-D foldouts and more.
Meanwhile, Topps continued to churn out their yearly 792-card sets on the mushy old brown stock that hobbyists had decried for years. And when the field expanded again with Score in 1988 and Upper Deck in 1989, Topps looked like even more of a dinosaur.
It’s a perception that persists in some circles, and I’ve been guilty of viewing Topps as an unchanging monolith, too.
But, man, if you take a critical look at what the company was doing throughout the 80s, the story isn’t quite as bleak. In fact, the early-to-middle part of the decade appears downright innovative for Topps if you consider everything they did during those years.
Among the changes and experiments that Topps rolled out from 1981-1985:
- First Topps Traded set issued in 1981
- Base set expanded to 792 cards in 1982
- Crisp, artistic, and beloved picture-in-picture design in 1983
- Premium white card stock for 1983 Topps Traded set
- Topps player stickers and albums beginning in 1981
- 1983 Active Leader Foldouts
- 1983 Michigan test issue replacing wax wrappers with Mylar
- 1984 Supers
- 1984 Nestle parallel
And the list goes on an on and on.
Looking back now, it seems that maybe our infatuation with that ugly brown card stock clouded our judgment of all the good things Topps was doing. And now, of course, doesn’t that smushy cardboard make you nostalgic, just like a wax-stained card back?
A New Dimension for Baseball Cards
But as much as I loved all of the bulleted goodies above, Topps outdid themselves in 1985 when they issued one of my favorite odd-ball issues of all time — the 1985 Topps 3-D Baseball Stars cards.
Now, the idea of 3-D cards was nothing new by 1985.
Kellogg’s had just finished a decade-plus-long run in 1983, and Topps themselves issued a 3-D set in 1968 that’s among the rarest of all special-issue modern sets.
In both of those cases, though, the 3-D effect was achieved through the use of a funky corrugated plastic card surface overtop of a funky blurry photo, a combination that could make an old sailor seasick with just the flick of the wrist.
In contrast, each card in the 1985 issue was actually three-dimensional. That is, each player was rendered in soft plastic that billowed out of a flat background to mimic the real-life contours of his face or batting stance. For good measure, Topps beefed up the card dimensions to 4 3/8″ X 6″
It was an astounding effect for a 13-year-old kid accustomed to the standard flat 2 1/2″ X 3 1/2″ cardboard offerings of the day (and pretty much every day before).
The cards came one per pack and were wrapped in a crinkly paper wrapper that made the experience that much more enjoyable.
Card backs were blank, though they did feature adhesive strips so you could plaster the cards on your favorites surface. Far more enjoyable, at least for me, was studying the stark white backsides and marveling at the inverse relief of each player.
Like so much else with baseball cards in the 1980s, it was mesmerizing.
Who Else But Donnie Baseball?
But this is Day 26 of the 30-Day Baseball Card challenge, so I need to pick “A favorite oddball card from the 1980s.”
“A” card, as in a single card.
So, instead, I’m going with the guy that was probably the hottest position player in the land during that summer of 1985: Don Mattingly.
Not only was Mattingly the best hitter on the planet and the next Yankee legend, he was from Indiana, my home state.
That was a tough combination to beat, and when you add in the classic, bat-on-shoulder pose, rendered in that terrifying and spectacular 3-D plastic molding, Donnie Baseball’s card is a perfect addition to this list.
Maybe Topps was a concrete-bound Luddite of a company in the 1980s, but their concrete sure was colorful and multidimensional.
Don’t you think?