Most collectors will agree that T206, 1933 Goudey, and 1952 Topps are the most iconic vintage releases out there. As such, these three would more than likely top most lists of greatest vintage set ever. On the other hand, the question of greatest vintage subset ever is one that can still stir debate.
Here are my personal picks for the five best vintage subsets ever. My main criteria are eye appeal and star power, and I gave zero thought to book value. If you disagree with my criteria or choices, make your case in the Comments section.
5. 1972 Topps Traded
Well before dedicated Traded/Update sets became commonplace, Topps took three stabs in the early and mid-1970s. The 1974 design was godawful and the 1976 cards lacked star power, but the 1972 subset was highlighted by three first-rate Hall of Famers and gets a few bonus points for being the first of its kind and of course sporting the classic 1972 design.
A couple bits of trivia about this subset. The first is about a player it didn’t include. As the card backs note, the goal here wasn’t to capture all trades but rather the biggest trades of the year. One of the very biggest, of course, was when the New York Mets dealt fireballer Lynn Nolan Ryan to the Angels for Jim Fregosi. Unfortunately, Topps–like the Mets–assumed Fregosi was the headliner in that deal, so we get a Fregosi card but no Ryan.
As a second bit of trivia, the 1972 Topps Traded set is not the first major release to feature the same player on multiple teams. Several Topps League Leader cards did this throughout the 1960s, but even earlier you have the great Al Simmons with Detroit and with the Chisox in the 1934-1936 Diamond Stars issue. I suspect the pre-war historians out there could name several more.
4. 1960 Topps World Series
I deserve any hate that comes my way on this one, and I fully admit that it scored extra points with me from the Dodgers being my favorite team. The only HOFer in the subset is Aparicio, and a full 28% of the set is devoted to Charley Neal. Still, how can you not love this gorgeous artwork?
3. 1976 Topps All-Time All-Stars
Topps had reached back in time on several occasions to honor the greats of the past. Previous examples involving retired HOF-calibre talent included the 1975 MVP subset, the 1973 All-Time Leaders, the 1962 Babe Ruth Specials, and the 1961 Topps MVP and Baseball Thrills subsets. However, none of these boasted the eye appeal of this beautiful collection from 1976, issued on the 100th birthday of major league baseball.
When I first got my hands on some of these as a younger fan, I will also say it was an incredible treat to have full stats on the back. Short of heading to the downtown Los Angeles public library to look through their Baseball Encyclopedia, this was the only for a kid like me to get these stats back then.
2. 1959 Topps Baseball Thrills
If you don’t already know this subset, do yourself a favor and check it out! Just look at these six cards from the ten card subset, and you’ll probably convince yourself that we already have a winner. (And I didn’t even include the Stan Musial and Al Kaline cards!)
By the way, if you especially enjoy the Mays and Snider “moving action” cards, you’ll want to read the history of such cards on Nick Vossbrink’s excellent post on the topic.
A final note before we crown our champion here. Topps put out a second “Baseball Thrills” subset two years later, and it is nearly as amazing as this one. It definitely merits at least Honorable Mention status in this post.
1. 1958 Topps All-Stars
Prepare yourself. Sit down. Mere mortals were not meant to see all this glorious cardboard in one place.
It would be hard to imagine a subset any better than this one. The star power is absolutely sick. Imagine if all you did was frame this collection in number order. Your third row starts off Mantle, Mays, Aaron, which already puts this subset off the charts. But hold on, we didn’t even mention Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Ernie Banks! And whoops, did I leave out Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn?
As for eye appeal, how can you not love the alternating blue and red backgrounds and star fields? These cards just scream out that baseball is our National Pastime and the All-American game! Argue all you want with my other four choices, but if you come at me on this one I don’t even think I’ll listen.
1961 Topps Baseball Thrills – Similar to the 1959 subset but reaching back a lot further in time. Hard to leave this one out, but the design is kind of blah, at least compared to its predecessor.
1977 Topps Turn Back the Clock – If all the cards looked this cool, the subset would have been a lock for the top three. Probably my biggest complaint though is the selection of feats. Was Bob Keegan’s no-hitter really the biggest highlight of 1957? Don’t tell Hank Aaron that!
1961 Topps All-Stars – Poor Roger kind of biffed it on the collar here, but other than that it’s an awesome set. Player selection drops off a bit from the 1958 all-stars, but how could it not!
1963 Topps Combo Player Cards – Hard to say if this is an official subset. Among other things, the cards aren’t numbered consecutively. Mays/Musial, Aaron/Banks, and Hodges/Snider are my three favorites among the several combos featured.
1962 Topps In Action – Hard to believe but the action shots in this subset kicked ass over most of the shots in the 1972 reboot. I do wonder if the sequence Topps used for “Colavito’s Power” could have been improved. Looks like more of an “excuse me” swing than his best stroke.