There are certain events early each that indicate spring is almost here. Groundhog Day. Gasparilla. Mardi Gras. Pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training.
But most importantly for me, that’s when Topps trots out its flagship product, Series One baseball.
Sure enough, the 2014 Topps Series One set has hit stores and hobby shops, and the formula remains the same — expressive action photography, plenty of inserts, and enough cards to please most set builders.
It’s the 75th anniversary of the Topps company. Baseball cards became a regular for the company on an annual basis beginning in 1951 with the red and blue back mini cards, and then with the iconic 1952 set. For me, it’s the 50th season of opening cards, but I still have the same anticipation I did when I tore open a nickel pack in 1965.
The packs are much more expensive now, but the anticipation remains. Here are the particulars.
A hobby box will contain 36 packs, with 10 cards to a pack. There are 330 cards in the base set, but cards are numbered from 1 to 331, as Topps continues to keep No. 7 retired as a tribute to Mickey Mantle. With Mariano Rivera strategically placed at card No. 42 (his number) for his final Topps Series One base card this year, maybe it would be a good idea to retire the No. 42 beginning next year — not for Rivera, but for Jackie Robinson. Just a thought.
I always enjoy the photography. Topps always seems to find some unusual shots. Oh sure, there are plenty of mundane and typical posed and action shots, but get a load of the Afro that Coco Crisp is wearing on card No. 8. That hairdo would make Oscar Gamble jealous.
Card No. 326 depicts Brewers outfielder Khris Davis crashing into the wall, and there is some excellent detail and expression. Gatorade dousing shots have become commonplace, but card No. 221, of Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, gives that orange drink an almost glitter-like look.
Card No. 121 showcases the concentration of Seattle outfielder Franklin Gutierrez as he makes a sliding catch in the outfield.
There are the usual parallels in this set, with Red Hot Foil cards falling every six packs. Gold parallels are numbered to 2014 and can be found on average in every nine packs. Other parallel possibilities include camo, numbered to 99; black (63), pink (50), clear (10) and 1/1 versions of platinum and printing press cards. Black and printing plates are exclusive to hobby and jumbo boxes, while clear parallels — making its debut this year — appear only in hobby boxes.
Variations remain a staple of this product, and you have to be very sharp-eyed this year. While some of the variations are definite departures, most are different only because Topps has inserted a sparkle on the player’s helmet, belt or uniform, on the baseball and even (in one instance) in the crowd. In the hobby box I sampled, I pulled a Yadier Molina variation card.
Set builders will find that a hobby box of Series One will put you close to completion, but not quite. This was evident in the hobby box I opened, as I pulled 296 different base cards (plus the variation). What was maddening (and a little bit frustrating), was that I also pulled 11 duplicate cards. Basically, a full pack plus one. That part was disappointing.
There are plenty of insert sets in 2014 Topps baseball, but the one I like the most are the Before They Were Great issues. A hobby box should produce two of these cards, and the design is nice. The player is framed by silver foil (leaf down the sides, ornate design at the top), which in turn is framed by a marble-like background around the card background. Each player is set against a rich color background; the two cards I pulled were Ted Williams (with a red background) and Tom Glavine (blue background). The cards in this 30-card subset are thicker and just feel like they should be premium inserts.
Another insert that appears only twice in each hobby box is the 10-card 50 Years of the Draft. This set includes players like Rays pitcher David Price and Tampa Bay draft pick Josh Hamilton, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Reds Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench. The two cards I pulled had a decidedly New York flavor — Don Mattingly (Yankees) and Darryl Strawberry (Mets).
Topps has been paying tribute to retro sets with mini-cards; for example, the wonderful 1972 set was featured in the 2013 product. Topps tried something a little different with this year’s minis, making them mini die-cut cards. I just don’t like the choice of the year (1989) as the focus. That year does not signify retro to me; in fact, it screams "glut," as in the baseball card glut that was prevalent from 1988 to 1993 or so. They look like 1989 Topps cards with the white borders cut out.
It’s a nice try though, and the box I sampled included five cards, including Tampa’s Wade Boggs, Mike Trout, Jimmie Foxx, Tim Raines and Bench.
Upper Class is a 50-card set that showcases some of baseball’;s top rookie classes through the years. This insert is colorful, and each player is surrounded by parallel lines of gold foil. A hobby box will give a collector nine of these cards on the average. One of the cards I pulled was of Tampa native Gary Sheffield.
The Future is Now is a 30-card effort, with 10 players having three cards apiece in the set. The Topps All Rookie Cup Team continues the emphasis on rookies past and present, as it features the 10 best players named to the squad. These cards fall two per hobby box, and the two cards I found were Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols.
A hobby box will include one relic card, and the one I found was a gray swatch belonging to Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus.
This year’s digital feature is called Power Players. There were three in the hobby box I opened, and as in previous years, collectors enter the codes on the back of the card on a site designated by Topps. Prizes that can be won include exclusive parallels, coin cards, autograph cards, memorabilia and even baseball game tickets.
Finally, I pulled two actual vintage cards, but these had a small Topps silver foil stamp in an upper corner. The first one was a 1970 card of Seattle Pilots outfielder Danny Walton. Even though the Pilots had become the Brewers by the end of spring training in 1970 (some guy named Bud Selig bought the team and moved it from Seattle to Milwaukee), card No. 134 depicting Walton was too early in the Topps run to correct. Walton was the epitome of a journeyman player, competing for nine different teams (two stints with the Astros) in nine seasons and batting .223 in 297 games.
The second card was a 1975 Aurelio Rodriguez, a career .237 hitter who was a rifle-armed third baseman, most notably with Detroit when the Tigers won the American League East in 1972. He remains, however, the answer to a delicious trivia question Name the first major-leaguer who had all five vowels in his first name (and don’t try and slip the "sometimes y" rule in here, we’re talking the "usual" vowels).
It’s always a fun time to crack open boxes of Series One Topps, because it means that spring training and the regular season are very close. It’s a nice solid effort, and while not spectacular, Series One has plenty to offer for set builders and insert chasers.