For reasons unclear it seems important to catalog and categorize my year-by-year youthful intoxication with baseball cards. Simply by googling what the Topps card of a particular year looks like, I can tell, with some degree of certainty, my level of engagement with the hobby of kings.
It's hard to tell how much the design of the cards themselves influenced my degree of enthusiasm: Did I buy fewer cards in 1974 compared to 1973 because the design was weaker? Or was something else going on in my life to take precedence, as shocking as that concept might be.
So, without further ado:
1971: Magic time. I'd just turned eight the summer of '71 when I bought my first packs of the black-bordered cards. Whether the cards were handsomely designed seems a gauche point since I'd fallen in love at first sight and feel. I was instantly transported by the rows of orderly statistics displayed on the card backs, and it nearly a divine revelation to learn how the earned run average was calculated even though I don't think I was capable of doing the math myself. At least I knew, from adult authorities, that higher is not better. It felt a bit counterintuitive at the time. During this early age of baseball card collecting it was all purity, all the time. We had absolutely no concept of monetary value, no idea the cards could be treated as stock instruments.
1972: Arguably THE year of baseball card collecting for me. Nine years old, in the sweet spot, that golden age. The TOPPS design that year was gilt-golden and photographs otherworldly, the cards glittering. The heroes depicted appeared as gods on gleaming fields. Perhaps it's my imagination, but I wonder if even TOPPS itself was blessedly unselfconscious back then, designing cards not as marketable commodities yet but still making packs with the dust of pink gum affixed for…yes… nine year olds. The Frank Robinson and Pete Rose cards still have the ring of myth and truth about them.
1973: Here the TOPPS design suffers a bit or perhaps my interest waned fractionally. Ten years old now, these I collected assiduously and have warm feelings towards but…but the cards don't feel as incandescent as the '71 or '72 sets. There's that tissue-thin difference (that seemingly makes all the difference) between the mystical magical 1972 set and the functional, avuncular 1973 set. The Willie Mays and Matty Alou cards stand out as far as they go, and the backs of the cards are extremely familiar - suggesting I spent a lot of fondling time with them.
1974: This year's set is filled with mystery. I don't have many of these cards and I'm not sure why. Was it because the Reds had an “off-season” in finishing second to the Dodgers and card-collecting was affected? Was this when I sold most of my cards for $5 to an unscrupulous card dealer and never managed to subsequently restore their numbers? I The Google images look familiar and warmly received - I recall the “magic” that getting “Washington Nat'l League” error cards. TOPPS had mistakenly assumed the San Diego Padres were moving to the nation's capital and printed a fraction of their cards under that title. These cards never turned out to be worth all that much surprisingly. But at the time they seemed pretty special and highly active “trading bait”. It was probably around this time, at the tender age of 11, that cards took on the notion of having some external value. The notion of rookie cards being worth more than non-rookie cards probably took place in '74 or, for sure by '75 when Boston's Rice and Lynn would look like Mantle and Maris. I remember the Hank Aaron Home Run King card with great affection.
1975: Feel modest affinity for this distinctive and colorful set. Certainly there's no denying I was heavily into cards in this, my 12th summer, even if the cards themselves hold not the magic of '71 or '72. By now I was collecting older cardboard specimens at card shows with paper-route money and trading Mantles and Aaron's garnered from my friend's uncle's collection. 1971 and 1972 had no competing cards – that period of my card-collecting was completely ahistorical. I had only the present moment. But by '75 I was becoming more discerning, more critical. Did I like the gaudy cards at the time? Was I collecting out of a sense of nostalgia, duty or value appreciation?
1976: These cards were certainly collected assiduously but perhaps not as lovingly attended to and cared for. This is the first design of cards that I can't easily recall and I'm not sure that's a reflection of the more prosaic card design or simply that my own interest at begun to wane, inversely with my 13-year old hormones.
1977: This set, while familiar, has some unfamiliar cards popping up on the google image search. At 14 definitely interest in cards was flagging - certainly these cards seem to me “watered down”, not providing much punch at all. Definitely a big fall-off from 1975.
1978: While I have plenty of these cards, it's obvious I bought them in a later collecting interest resurgence because the backs of the cards are way unfamiliar. Almost no bonding with this set. At 15 years old, the summer after my freshman year at high school, it appears collecting baseball cards have reached a nadir.
1979: This “sweet sixteen” set evokes absolutely no emotion. If I collected it at the time and not during the '80s, then it was certainly out of a sense of loyalty to the hobby.
1980: This set is more familiar than '77-'79 and suggests a mild resurgence of the collecting bug at 17 years old, in high school and meeting an English teacher who was a card-ophile (and who looked like a dead ringer of an obscure pitcher for the '72 Rangers).
1981: The summer between high school and college is the first set that looks very unfamiliar. Obviously no collecting of this was done. I think I bussed tables at the Brown Derby restaurant. If not I was definitely not spending time sorting through cards and trying to complete sets. Even the star cards look strange. But then life happens.
1982 - 1984: These sets not collected at all. Perhaps part of it was the Reds were pretty bad, losing over a hundred games in '82. Or because I was feeling too adult to collect cards, seeing how I was a collegian.
1985 - College done. A career begun. A year of interest in that the Reds were much better, finishing in second place and Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb's hit record. A young rookie named Eric Davis was making baseball - and thus baseball cards - more interesting. I collected a few this year (or perhaps retroactively) such that some of the cards, like the Davis, look slightly iconic.
1986 - If I collected any of these it was not with enthusiasm. Seem to have become completely preoccupied. At 23, cards took a nose dive.
1987 - The full-blown renaissance of card-collecting. Here at the age of 24 I was 'coming home' to the hobby. I have a billion of '87 cards and I think at least in part because now I was thinking it fully as a “stock-like investment”.
Complete sets, mint condition, all that jazz. Ironically, the '87 set is almost worthless, in part due to everyone and their brother was saving them under the same illusion that they'd be worth something some day. Supply and demand. Lots of supply in the '87s.
1988-1990 - Collected but rarely looked at these. They were to be salted away like treasures under the sea.
1991 - Here the last scents of recognition linger. Here would be the last set that even looks familiar. At age 28, the card collecting hobby seems to have played out. Fo 21 years, there would be no new buys.