Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Design Timeline: Topps Finest

This post is part of an ongoing feature The Great Griffey Base Card Project.

Sometimes card companies have a cool new technology or printing technique they love so much that they base a whole new set around it, and Topps Finest is perhaps the most successful one of those in history.  The whole set was essentially a vehicle for the new Chromium printing Topps adopted in the early 90’s.  It made the cards look rich and candy-like, and the market responded in a huge way.  Pack prices soared as did individual card prices (and refractors like whoa).  Topps began using Chromium printing in various inserts, subsets, and in the new Topps Chrome set that would debut two years later.  Both Chromium-printed sets, Topps Finest and Topps Chrome, continue unbroken to this day.  Finest remains the perennial super high-end brand

Topps maintains the exclusivity of Finest with a strategy of planned scarcity.  Retail prices remain super-high with relics and autographs guaranteed in every pack.  And no, this is not a pharmacy-shelf type of pack - these are high-dollar, investment-grade, serious-collectors-only adult-type packs.  In other words, they’re no damn fun.

Here, in order, is every Topps Finest base card design that ever featured Griffey:


The one that started it all, this set was comprised of two designs: regular and All-Star.  The regular design is not quite as colorful or iconic as the All-Star design shown above.  The design is comprised of a gold-bordered, vaguely-baseball-field-shaped triangle surrounded by a rainbow of hatching, a cool simulated 3-D logo up top that’s coming at you like the opening credits of a Superman movie, the shiny nameplate below with a big, regal red-and-gold Topps logo, and a thin, spatial border that bleeds into the rest of the background of shiny emerald-green.  Truth be told, it’s not even that good a picture of Junior, but the overall look really is awesome.

Also, notice how the top doesn’t say Topps Finest – it says “Baseball’s Finest.”  That’s the first and last time the brand is presented in this way.  It’s not just a brand name: these guys are the best, and they had to earn a place in this set.  This ain’t your daddy’s Topps set. We don’t take any old belly-scratcher here.


A bit plainer than '93, but that Looney Tunes circle in the background has always set the ’94 design apart for me.  While I like the logo, I feel like the name plate and the empty space below the name plate cheapen the card a bit.  The layout here feels overbalanced and lacks completeness.  A border may have helped.  Despite all that, this may be the most colorful base set ever made.


This year Finest went modern.  The design is dominated by an angular, futuristic baseball diamond with simulated grass and pin-striping.  It’s the first set I remember that had a removable protective coating on every base card - gimmicky, sure, but really cool to a 15-year-old kid.  I don’t think this set gets a whole lot of love in part for the polarizing design and in part because a lot of the cards appear to have been mis-cut; but it was released near the epicenter of my collecting heyday, so I have a completely indefensible love for it.  Also, it’s the last set to feature big, obnoxious FINEST across the top.  That part only gets smaller for the rest of the timeline, but I dig it.  Let your Finest flag fly, I say.


In 1996 the Summer Olympic s were in Atlanta and Topps, being the sly boots they were, made a major overhaul to their Finest set by releasing short-printed subsets in the same bronze, silver, and gold of Olympic medals.  It’s hard to pin down one design to talk about because there were several subsets with names like Franchises, Phenoms, Prodigies, Gamers, Intimidators, and Sterling, each with its own unique design.  For the purposes of this post, his common bronze card shown above is his base card.

Every design in the set as a whole is dominated by two elements: a large logo heralding the name of the subset and a prominent, unbroken border to signal that card’s rarity by color.  The Sterling subset is very art-deco, particularly in the fonts and background design.  I’m a sucker for banners, and this is one of the most detailed I’ve ever seen on a card.  On the other hand, the card is very dark overall, and I think it’s because they chose the wrong shade of bronze.  Luckily they would fix this in the next set.


This is the same concept as the previous year but full-bleed and with corrected colors.  It's also the first set to feature a two-photo layout.  The full-color action shot in the foreground with the sepia portrait behind it are balanced perfectly beneath the big, classy Masters heading, and that shadowed Times New Roman font looks fantastic above the subtle vertical stripes that run the height of the card.  This design is a knockout.


While I do like this card, I consider this year’s design a stumble in the timeline.  First of all, this is the inaugural year of the new Finest logo which would last through the end of the timeline.  I always liked the fact that Finest didn’t have a standard logo up to this point - it was a title, not a brand.  That aspect going away brings us that much closer to Finest becoming just another set of cards.

About the design itself: there’ something so standard about it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good-looking card.  It’s balanced, it’s got a banner (you know I love banners) and those great crossed bats, and I even like the full-bleed with the fade at the bottom. BUT, the layout is formulaic: picture against out-of-focus background, nameplate below followed by team and position, logo up top, yada yada yada.  The only real exception here is the Chromium paper stock, so is that what makes a Finest card? 


Again, this is a relatively boring, formulaic layout.  This design seems to be based around fields of chrome with hints of diagonal hatching here and there.  Apart from that we have just a bunch of boxes and angles with team-colored lettering.  Ho-hum.  These also came in Gem and Sterling subsets that look pretty much identical to this base card.  As much as I dislike the base design, the inserts in this year’s set were pretty darn cool.


The tin-foil textured baseball dominates the card here, but its apparent total lack of dimension makes it look flat and overbearing.  I really like the cool 2001: a Space Odyssey horizontal sparkles of the backdrop.  I’d like to see this card with just that background and no baseball.  Again we are stuck with a plain-Jane nameplate along the bottom, but I can’t help giving Topps a little credit for trying this year.

Oh, and no more peel-off protectors from now on. I have mixed feeling about that.


Perhaps the most elusive Griffey base card on Planet Earth for the mere fact that it was short printed to 1999 copies.  Again, the regular base card was short-printed.  The same is true for several other cards in the set, but there doesn’t seem to be any method as to which base cards got SP’d – it seems to be just random stars.  I feel really bad for that 2000th set builder who decided to tackle this set.  It’s got to be like playing Solitaire without anyone telling you the dog ate the jack of clubs.

This set includes a vertical nameplate along the right side of the card, and it’s a nice one as vertical nameplates go.  The rest of the card is an amalgam of confusing elements in team colors.  I’ve got to admit I’m a fan of the great dramatic font they used in the nameplate - it looks like it belongs in the opening credits of one of the Alien sequels.  Everything else on the card is just kind of there and serves no appreciable aesthetic purpose.  There is a pattern of topographical lines radiating from the logo that follow the curve along the bottom, but it’s barely worth mentioning.  Bah, humbug.


A much better take on the vertical nameplate/team-colored design elements thing.  Here the nameplate is thin and white, playing second-fiddle to the bold squares and arrows of the backdrop.  The player number is large along the card bottom, and the font in the name plate is small but modern.  This design as a whole is cool and forward-thinking.  Isn’t it funny how a few small changes to the very same aesthetic can completely change the impression a card gives?  A big step in the right direction.


This set is a favorite and marks a return to balance for the Finest timeline.  Most notably all the elements are centered and the backdrop is slightly pixilated with large honeycomb shapes floating in the foreground.  The nameplate is unique to say the least, and mimics the hexagon theme from the rest of the card.  The strip of white along the top sets off the deep colors of the rest of the card, and look where they put the player number and the position.  I also love the player name hidden behind the nameplate across the full width of the card.  Very cool card design.

This was the first of several very abstract designs in a row. Enjoy the ride.


Very centered apart from that field of stippling that includes the player number, there's not very much going on here.  Key to this set is that there is a fundamental change to the design of the refractors.  Topps split the card across the middle, making the bottom half black and the top a team color.  The refractor version of every base card is silver where this one is black, offsetting the colors and refraction a lot more.  The result is a brighter, more colorful, much more attractive card.  The regular base cards look dark and a bit dull in comparison.  To sum it up, once you've seen the refractors, it becomes clear that this design was meant for the refractors; the base card don't even compare.  Cool font, though.


I like this design.  It's probably polarizing among collectors, but it's also bold and unforgettable.  You can't argue that it fits with Finest's modern design aesthetic - it's certainly anything but traditional.  The circle creates a centered focal point with additional tighter circles creating a kind of zoom effect.  Topps also continues to flex their font muscle here.  Do we have any font nerds that read this blog?  What are all these great fonts called and where can we find them?


Another deceptively simple design, this card has stippling, hatching, and shading to create a kind of 3-D effect around the central baseball field element.  They filled the base paths with text, but the only text they fill it with is the player's position.  While I would like to see them use that space a little more creatively, I do like how it says "outfield" all over the infield.  While I don't think the scan does this card justice, even in person it lacks the wow factor of other years.  Plus they already did the baseball field thing in 1995, and it looked better.


Another favorite, this is one of the more classy, high-end-looking designs we see in this timeline.  It is also one of the simplest with no color elements - just black lines on a white background.  The lines and angles have the look of circuitry and are all mirrored perfectly.

One of my favorite elements is what they've done with the the small cropping of photo backdrop.  First they put it in black and white to offset the color of the player in the foreground.  Next they bring it to a clean fade around all the edges just before reaching the border.  The effect is striking.  I've seen the blue refractor, and I like this white base card better.  Very nice.


Despite a few high points, this design feels incomplete to me.  I like the nameplate and the placement of the player number and position.  I really like the centering and encircling of the Finest logo which will continue through the end of this timeline.  The border is simple and unbalanced from top to bottom.  I suppose the biggest problem here is that it's just not a very appealing shape.  If you're a fan of the weird, elongated hexagon, we should not be friends.


This chainmail beast is one seriously busy card.  There's a whole lot of border and filler and color bars and a little bitty sliver of photo behind the player.  This feels like watching batting practice through the porthole of a tank.  On the refractor the screen element becomes transparent, so I suspect this may be another one of those designs that clicks when you see it on the refractor.  Still, I've seen both, and refractor or no, this design is just...heavy.

Something else bothers me about this card.  It shows his team as the White Sox, but he is already in a Mariners uniform.  This means they had time to change the picture, but not the text?  Smells like an uncorrected error to me.


I love it when we end on a high note.  The large, chrome team logo makes up the entire backdrop here with the nameplate below in black beside...another team logo.  That sounded like a complaint, but I really do like the layout here.  It reminds me of '93 Studio.  The scan darkens the chrome a lot, but in-hand this card is a jewel.  Great pose, too - a great send-off here in Junior's last active appearance on a Finest base card.

While Finest continues to be made, this ends the timeline of Griffey base cards. 


Finest is still made to this day, and while there have been numerous other sets using the same printing methods, the brand remains refreshingly unchanged in theme. It’s still the shiny, super-premium, ultra-modern Chromium-printed set it was in the beginning. Refractors are still something special though nowadays there are some that are more special than others; and while there have been some similarly-produced sets such as Pristine and Chrome, the brand has never been sullied by spinoffs. 
I saw a "pack" (more like a small box) at my LCS the other day for $30.00.  Somebody's got to be buying them, right?

Here is every Griffey Finest base card from 1993-2010: