Arpsmith: The Lean Years

Picking up where I left off yesterday. I made a break between 1996 and 1997 because the quantity of sets included in the package dropped off a ton between those years. Part of this is no doubt a reflection of Adam’s collecting interests and the nature of what kinds of cards he’s picked up. But it’s also a decent reflection of what I’ve noticed about cards from the late-90s and 2000s. They just don’t seem to be circulating.


I’ve been thinking of these years as being somewhat lean but they may also represent how the market was fragmenting a bit. The selection of 1997 cards here is very different than the selection of cards I got in exchange for my Garbage Pail Kids. Lots of Topps and Upper Deck. Very little Donruss or Pinnacle. I suspect that collectors had started narrowing their focus at this point and were no longer purchasing everything.

In terms of this batch, there’s not much to say. We’ve got another photo of a baby. No idea what Upper Deck is thinking with its highlight taglines. I’m increasingly liking Score. Collector’s Choice is still good despite being indistinguishable from previous years. Zenith’s lack of player name (or really any other design) is kind of admirable. And that Matt Williams Fleer is a cool promotional item.


This year is the last year in which the trading card landscape looks like how I remembered things from my youth. Topps, Bowman, Donruss, Fleer, Score, and Upper Deck. Some premium sets like Pinnacle (also Stadium Club and Ultra but none of those are in this batch).

I gather that there were all kinds of crazy inserts and things during this time. I’ve not seen those yet. What I do know is that this is the last year Pinnacle (who by this time also owned Donruss) went out of business so a bunch of the card lines suddenly vanished after this year.

In terms of card design, the less said the better. Some of the expensive sets this year (e.g. Gold Label and SP Authentic) are very nice but the basic ones pictured here? I’m not a fan. Donruss at least has some character and Collector’s Choice finally looks a bit different but overall I’m not feeling it with this year.

1999 & 2000

Putting these two together because without Pinnacle there’s not a lot to write about. 1999 is super thin since Upper Deck, sadly, discontinued Collector’s Choice. Instead we have Upper Deck MVP—a set which manages to look like an insert each year—and Upper Deck Victory which hits some of the Collector’s choice feeling but has none of the charm.

This also begins an age of Topps sets all looking the same to me although I do like the baseball three-player card. At least Upper Deck’s designs are more interesting though. I may not like the foil salad tongs look of 1999 but it’s an identity. 2000 Upper Deck meanwhile appeals to me in a period-appropriate way and the Gold Reserve variants are kind of nice.

Fleer meanwhile decided to scrap all the fancy-shmancy card designs in 2000 and released a strong vintage-looking design. When I first encountered these I had a bad reaction to them since they felt like part of the whole Heritage ecosystem of modern reproductions of old designs. Looking at them in context though and I can see that they’re an intentional reaction to the overabundance of high-tech cards. Rather than competing on snazzy-jazzy, Fleer decided to get back to the roots of the hobby. I appreciate how much of it is zigging while everyone else zags.

The most interesting cards in this batch though are the MLB Showdown playing cards. The idea of a collectible card game appeals to me with regard to sports. I just wish that, instead of being something where every year a new deck gets released, that the deck was conceived as something to build over many seasons. This would result in a card set which behaves like nothing else on the market and comes closer to the concept of what I wish Topps Living was.

Heck, I don’t need the game, I just like the idea of cards being designed to last many years and encouragement to frankenstein my own set together out of the every-expanding checklist.


Donruss comes back in 2001 just in time for its 20th anniversary. It’s an odd, awkward design though. 2001 Topps is one I actually like. Something about the grey-green borders really works for me although the blue-grey Opening Day color is also very nice. There’s a subtle richness to both colors that I don’t find on most cards and I really appreciate the way it frames and accentuates the photography.

Fleer is continuing its retro kick with a set which evokes 1956 Topps. I want to love this set but there’s an absolutely appallingly awful Photoshop filter applied to the action image. I think it’s supposed to look like a painting but instead it looks like an image went missing during printing so the printer just interpolated things from the preview image.

There’s also a true Fleer retro design in how Fleer Platinum is remaking the 1981 design. Unfortunately, that 1981 design is so loving hands that any improvement just looks wrong.

Upper Deck is nice enough this year. I’m finding myself partial to the full-bleed designs even though they’re difficult to distinguish from each other.


I’m collecting 2002 cards a bit more earnestly than other years due to World Series reasons so it’s nice to get a big stack of Topps here. Is a shame that it’s kind of an awful design with a horrid background color and some bizarre scroll detailing. If you’re going to change the colors of some of the elements to match the team colors, picking a background color that clashes with those colors is not a good idea.

One of the things I can see happening this year is the number of sets from each manufacturer is going up again. Topps 206 is kind of a hideous retro-ish set but Topps Total is very cool. I love the idea of a set which tries to get everyone on the roster a card. I’ve been looking at the current state of things and unless you’re a young rookie or starter your chances of a card are pretty slim. Which sucks since there are a lot of lifetime minor league guys who deserve at least one card for their cup of coffee in the bigs.

Fleer continues to do the retro thing. It’s getting a bit too specific/blatant for my taste now in referencing specific designs though. It’s interesting to me how Upper Deck, Ultra, and Stadium Club all ended up at around the same place in their design philosophy. Big full-bleed photos with small name plates. As much as it would be nice to have multiple manufactures still making cards, I’m not sure we’d need three different sets like this.

Also it’s weird to see Flair still kicking along except without looking anything like the super-premium set it used to be. I’ll have to take another look but one decade after its debut and my impression of it is that it’s now indistinguishable from the other cards.


Like 2002, Topps has a design with a distracting border color. Not a fan of the blue. Now do I like the bright red Topps logo. Which is a shame since the picture-in-picture callback to 1983 (and 1963) is otherwise wonderful. I’ll have to get more of the World Series and Playoff cards from this set too.

Opening Day’s border is a slight improvement on the Flagship. I really like this year’s Heritage design. 1954 is one of my favorites and it‘s nice that Topps just played things straight without trying any stunts to make the photography look old. The stack of Topps Shoebox will be great as stand-ins for vintage cards I’ll never be able to afford. I have mixed feelings about the Topps Archives and 205s in their fakiness but I do enjoy that triple folder.

2003 Donruss is nice and plain and boring. 2003 Fleer though is a fantastic version of the 1963 design. I like that they updated the position to have white highlights but this design is so simple and so good that it’s just nice to have a full-size set of cards in it. The Fleer discs are also a ton of fun and I dig the doubleheader as well. Odd cards are good cards.

Not as much a fan of this year’s Upper Deck but it’s fine. MVP still looks like an insert. 40 man is very cool as a competitor to Topps Total. It’s also a slick design that I very much like. and Victory this year is interesting in that it has rounded corners and appears to be trying to be a collectible card game. I like the format and the feel. I’m not a fan of the actual design of the card though where it looks lie I’m looking though a toilet paper tube.


This is an underrated Topps design. I didn’t like it much at first but it’s grown on me a ton with the easy-to-read team names and a position indicator which copies the player position in the photo. I also had very few of these cards so it’s great to have enough for a page now.

I’m not as taken with the grey Opening Day design and the Topps Archives, Cracker Jack, and Bowman Heritage designs are all interesting takes on the retro esthetic. I really really wish that Topps didn’t use photos with those modern polyester black spring training uniforms in the retro designs though. It spoils the whole look.

Some nice things going on in the Donruss Team Heroes set with the split-color bars I also like how many of the companies have followed Fleers lead and gone with more throwback-feeling designs. Fleers this time reminds me of their 1984 design and Upper Deck Vintage has a bit of 1954 Red Heart Dog Food going on. It’s just nice to see companies remember what solid colors, white borders, and no fancy computer design can do.

Side comment here. I apparently still suffer some fan-PTSD with regard to Sidney Ponson and his stint as a colossal waste of space as a giant.

Also I’m kind of into what this Upper Deck design is trying to do. It’s a little hard to read but I love the idea of including a detail from the player’s ballpark on the front of the card.


Kind of a thin year represented here. Topps’s design looks a bit too similar to the previous year but doesn’t hold together as well. Same with the Cracker Jacks. Archives remains interesting in the way it’s producing variants of the real cards which Topps released that year. I like this when they use an improved photo but Cepeda’s 1962 Topps card is a beaut and this new version is a major downgrade.

Donruss, kinda boring. I can just tell that it’s petering out and about to go out of business again. Fleer is continuing its retro kick but feels like it’s also running out of ideas.  And Upper Deck is still Upper Deck. I totally don’t understand the point of the First Pitch set however. But then I also don’t understand Opening Day either. The idea of a cheaper-made, smaller-checklist set that offers nothing new besides the price point just feels like a craven marketing ploy to make sure that all segments are targeted.


So those Barry Bonds cards cover 2005–2007 but I’m keeping them together. This set is so obnoxious. I’m amazed however that there are Chrome versions. I hope that the Chromes do not also exist as paper versions (and vice versa). Also I have to point out that 661—when Bonds passes Mays—is stamped silver.  I’m assuming this is standard and nothing special.

The Topps Flagship design this year is one I can”t stand. Too many things going on. Borders and banners and ribbons and foil stamping and like 3 different fonts. It’s bad. Allen & Ginter and Turkey Red are also super awkward this year. they sort of look retro but they‘re also obviously modern and uncanny.

I will never understand chrome or foil Heritage cards. If you’re going to go for the old look, go for the old look don’t get cold feet and start adding foil where it’s not needed.

Fleer though this year is kind of nice. This is the first year Upper Deck owned the brand and it kind of shows. The base Fleer set kind of looks like Collector’s Choice and Victory. The Fleer Tradition set has the same basic layout that almost every Upper Deck set this decade has had only it has a border and flat solid inks. I actually like this set a lot since it’s not scared to use color and I have a soft spot for letting the solid process colors just print solid.

Ultra meanwhile looks awfully close to the Upper Deck base. It‘s got the usual Ultra font wackiness but there’s no reason for Uppper Deck to produce both of these. Plus Upper Deck’s design this year is pretty nice.


A nice huge stack of Topps. Sadly I much prefer the white Opening Day design to the black Flagship one. The number of Topps releases is steadily increasing but hasn’t gotten bad yet. It weirds me out to see Dick Perez doing his Diamond Kings thing on a Topps card. It also is weird as hell to have the 1/1 editioning on the painting included in the reproduction.

Speaking of weird, Bowman Heritage using the 1954 Red Heart Dog Food design instead of a vintage Bowman design (and only a couple years after Upper Deck referenced that same design) makes no sense to me. That this design is so close to the Topps Heritage design with the player set against a solid painted-out background means the two sets look way too similar for my taste.

This is the last year of Fleer and the design looks like an Upper Deck reject. Sad to see that brand peter out as I’ll miss its willingness to print silly photographs in the 80s. Fleer Ultra is using almost the exact same font as the previous year but still manages to look better than whatever Upper Deck is doing with the elevator doors effect. That numbered Barry Zito is kind of nice however.


So I like this Flagship design. I just wish the Topps logo was handled differently. Heritage though. Wow. I’ve never seen so many low-resolution photos before. Ginter is still in its growing pains. And since Bowman confuses me every year it’s nice to see one season when the paper and chrome versions are so different.

Donruss is back again. Very much a fringe product of non-current players but it’s clearly the brand that won’t stay dead.

And holy crap how many different Upper Deck sets are going on this year. I love the base design as a retread/homage of 1995’s design. Simple text and lots of photo is a great look. I also like the Vintage artwork. It’s not just a Photoshop filter and there’s some nice stuff going on with the keylines and coloring in this set. Masterpieces is one of the rare sets printed on uncoated stock. I appreciate the linen texture as a way of working with both the painting effect and well as increasing the pleasure of just handling the card.

The big stack of Documentary though almost deserves a post of its own. What a fantastic idea for a set. What a disastrously lazy execution. The idea of producing a card for each game a team plays is wonderful. It’s what I wish ToppsNOW was doing. It’s almost what I’m doing with my GiantsNOW project.*

*I have exactly 162 cards but only 108 of them are game highlights and the rest are roster cards.

I love the backs which include a writeup of the game. I hate the fronts which reuse the same photos over and over again and can’t even be bothered to use a photo of a payer who even played in the game. Hate, hate, hate the fronts. I will be displaying these with the backs showing.


And I’m finishing off this post with 2009s because Topps starts to really go crazy in 2010. Not too many different things here yet. I kind of like the retro-stock variants. Ginter’s growing into itself a bit.

Upper Deck though. Wow. Over a dozen different piles here. Base design is fine. Main point of interest is Randy Johnson as a Giant though. The Starquest pair are I guess base and variant. There’s a helpful graphic on the back stating the color and how “common” it is. That we need such a graphic is one of those things that I hate about the current state of the hobby. Not to go all old man but needing to use space on the backs of cards to describe the print run of the front of the card is not why I look at the backs of cards.

I continue to like the way Upper Deck is doing the Goudy design. I also really like the Goodwin Champions cards. Something about the way Upper Deck’s artists have approached the vintage designs works way better for me than the way Topps did. Topps seems to frequently rely too heavily on Photoshop actions and doesn’t seem to consider the appropriateness of the photo for the look of the piece.

And the big stack of O Pee Chee is a lot of fun. I’m still not used to it not being a Topps affiliate but this design is a fantastic throwback to how cards used to feel. It’s not retro or heritage, it’s just a well-done basic cardset.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

5 thoughts on “Arpsmith: The Lean Years”

    1. Yeah a lot of these are new to me too. Or if I have seen them I’ve only seen one or two and not a page-worth. I’m beginning to realize that you really need to see at least a full page of cards to get a feel for the set.

  1. Been meaning to come back here and leave a few thoughts since I read this a few days back.
    1997: Fleer is sublime, I love the ’96-’97 uncoated sets. This Leaf set has always looked classic to me. The Zenith set is very nice as well.

    1998: Man, I have a huge soft spot for this year. I actually really like the Pinnacle set, this is one of my favorite Bowman designs somehow, Fleer Tradition is really nice for a flagship set, Leaf again was great, and even the Donruss set can look really nice, depending on the team colors used.

    1999: By the by, this is the year they changed Collector’s Choice to “UD Choice.” But it’s also the year that UD introduced MVP and Victory, which were both low price point sets. I was still buying for a couple years after this.

    2000: The Fleer Tradition set, as someone who was deep into chasing autographs at games, was another real nice set for me. The absence of Donruss is due to Pinnacle’s bankruptcy (who had purchased them in 1996). Playoff wound up purchasing Donruss/Score/Leaf.

    2001: The ’01 Fleer Greats of the Game set is by far its best version, it’s a shame you didn’t have any here – have you got any at all? This UD set is pretty nice, and I’m glad someone else noticed the awful action used on the Fleer set. Just wait until ’03 Patchworks and ’04 UD Play Ball – you’ll want to burn them all.

    2002: Those Super Teams cards are pretty cool, hadn’t seen them before. Feels like some unused test issue that Topps pulled from the vault. Total is a very good set, and I miss it.

    2003: Oof, I love this Topps set and its bright blue border. The ’83/’63 callback was a real nice take. 40 Man was not as nice of a design as Total, but I really appreciated it. The ’02 set is a better design. That Fleer set, though! I’ve had the ’63 design in my customs crosshairs for a while.

    2004: Hated this flagship set until I noticed that the foil player detail actually mimics the photo, and then I fell in love with it.

    2005: I like the simplicity of the Fleer Tradition set (which dropped the moniker on the cards, but is still referred to as Tradition). There’s apparently a Series 2 which slipped out but was never officially released, and I just picked one of the Astros up at the shop in Austin.

    2006: I hate these Barry Bonds cards, just like I hate the Mantle HR cards and all of the other insert bloat sets like this. I dig both of these Fleer sets though, especially the Flagship design. Hmmm, I’m sensing a soft spot for non-gloss sets.

    2007: Just dropping in to say that the Bowman Heritage you have is from the Prospects inserts, the base set is a standard-sized version of ’52 Bowman.

    2008: Circus Flagship is one of the worst. It’s so unnecessarily busy. The Bowman sets aren’t different – black one is the base, the spiky design is the Prospects insert series from that year. Masterpieces is a fabulous set, and the framed parallels are sublime. *Shakes head at Documentary and sighs*

    2009: Phew, I didn’t mean to do every year, but it just worked out that way. I guess I could have hit you on Twitter about all these. I actually love the ’09 flagship design, and Ginter looks really good this year. Goudey is also great again, I think I prefer the ’09 set – but Goodwin Champions is just superb. Oh, and the OPC set is really fun too.

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