My 5 favorite baseball card designs of the past 25 years

I’m starting this article with a confession: I’m going to cheat. I’m saying 25 years goes back to 1990, even though it’s technically to 1991. But since I was born in 1990 and only 25 — it’s going to stick.

In that time the baseball card industry has changed dramatically. Ken Griffey Jr.’s rookie card was all the rage — now it’s just the face of the mass-produced time period. Instead of rookie cards fetching the highest price, dual-relic quad books and things like bat knobs are what collectors go gaga over.

Get all of your baseball cards here.

I do miss simpler times like that but we’re clearly never going back to those days. Instead we’re left to reminisce about the days when there were multiple manufacturers on the market, and not just Topps.

Here’s five of my favorite designs from the past 25 years (or so).

1995 Topps

I detailed my love for this set here. But if you don’t want to read all of it (I promise it’s not that long) it basically boils down to this: it’s the ultimate 1990s card. There’s the perfect text, the computer-aided images, it ushered in the foil parallels, etc.

It’s not one of the most popular sets among collectors but I don’t care. It’s one of my favorites and one that I really want to finish.

1994 Leaf

I remember being excited about these cards when I was a kid. Everything about it was awesome. The marble-based nameplates on the bottom of the card, the city or ballpark scene on the back of the card, the standalone player photo on the back; the ticket design that lists the player’s vital info and has another photo of the players; heck, even the holographic team sticker is sweet. I have yet to see another set quite like it (minus the 1993 Leaf set) and it’s a little sad. You just don’t see three different photos on a card nowadays — you’re lucky to see three different photos a set if you include the inserts.

While there’s not a lot wrong with the design, it does get dinged in the standings for it’s low set count (only 440 cards split among two series) and lack of base rookies. There are a special insert for some rookies and included guys like Carlos Delgado, Manny Ramirez, and Javy Lopez but none in the main set. Still, those minor ‘flaws’ pale in comparison to all the benefits of the set.

1996 Score

One of the great things about 1990s NBA uniforms was the two-toned-ness of them. I loved seeing how one color bled into another. The 1996 Score set did exactly that. Along the nameplate of the card, the player’s teams two primary colors go together to create a unique look. Between that, and the teared-looking top corner of the photo — something unique and frankly awesome — sets this design apart from all others. Combine that with some great photography and you’ve got all the makings of a great year.

2004 Topps

I’ll admit that this design took me a lot longer to pick up the nuance detail than it should have. I don’t know why but I didn’t realize that the player outline in the bottom left corner of the card was shaped exactly like the player’s pose in the photo. It goes down as just another reason to like this card.

Among the other great things about this set are the great, two-colored photo borders, the nice team plate at the top of the card, and the full team logo in the bottom right of the card. Plus, it’s also the first ones I got a full set of — so it holds personal significance. That all helps make it a great one, in my opinion.

2011 Topps

In between two of the most disappointing designs — 2010 and 2012 — there’s a great 2011 set. Sure, some heavy editing to the cards that distorts some of the colors but there’s a lot to like about it. One of the great things about it is how minimal it is — outside of the nameplate on the bottom, there’s not a lot going on. Nice and crisp and clean. Throw in a great teamplate on top of a baseball, it’s cool to see. This set relies on the photos to carry the day and that’s the way a baseball card should be.

Honorable mentions: 1992 Upper Deck, 1996 Leaf, 1996 Upper Deck1997 Fleer, 2000 Topps, 2009 Topps.

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