Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Box Break - 1996 Topps Finest Hockey

The last couple of '53 Topps Project posts have been duds, time to mix it up a bit with another box break in honor of tonight's Stanley Cup finals game 3. I haven't featured nearly enough hockey cards in the few months since I started keeping this blog, but a couple of things have motivated me to start posting about them. Aside from watching a ton of playoff hockey this post-season, the cable provider that I signed up for service with after moving last month gives me the NHL network in HD and an HD-DVR, a pretty nice combo for a hockey fan. I never knew the NHL network existed before this, but there's a show I've been watching called "Classic Series". Each episode is an hour long and details a particular playoff series (from the early 90's so far) with highlights of every goal, post game interviews and commentary. All of this has added up to a craving for some 90's hockey cards, so I caved and purchased 2 boxes of Topps Finest hockey, one from 1994 and this one from 1996. The box proudly states that the cards are "Brilliant Uncirculated 1996", does anyone know what the hell that means? If they're not circulated, how did I end up with a box? I'm confused...

These will be the first Finest hockey cards in my collection. I'll be busting the 1994 box at a later date, but here's the scoop on the '96 box. The box contains 24 packs with 6 cards a pack for a total of 144 cards. As far as I can tell there are 189 cards in the base set, although I cannot find a definitive number, so there is no way I will end up with a complete set from this box. If I can get at least 50% of the base set I'll be satisfied. The base cards are the same thick, glossy, metallic cards with the protective peel that Finest is known for. They are "bronze" in color according to the box, but they seem closer to purple to me. There aren't really any inserts in the set, but there are silver parallels seeded 1:4 packs and gold parallels seeded 1:24 packs. The bronze cards are labeled as "Common" on the back, the silver "Uncommon" and the gold "Rare". This kind of reminds me of the StarQuest cards that you get in 2008 Upper Deck baseball packs.

The cards themselves look very nice, exemplifying the high quality I would expect from a Finest product. There are 4 different themes in the base set. The first is a Rookies theme, shown on the Kyle McLaren card pictured above. The rookie cards look a little busy or crowded for some reason, I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe the Topps Finest logo is just a little too big for my liking. Another theme is Performers, pictured here on Peter Forsberg's card. I know the Finest logo is just as large on all the base cards, but for some reason I like the look of the Performers cards much more than the Rookies. This theme seems to be reserved primarily for skilled offensive players, although there may be an occasional goalie or defender.

The third theme is Defenders. As the name implies these cards are reserved for goalies and players known for their defensive prowess. I think these cards are more aesthetically pleasing than the Rookies, but not quite as nice as the performers. I could do without the huge DEFENDERS text taking up the bottom portion of the card. I did pull a couple of these Chris Osgood cards. Even casual sports fans are aware that Chris recently became just the fourth goalie in NHL history to post 2 consecutive shutouts to begin a Stanley Cup final. If you're interested I've added Chris and all of my other doubles to my Available for Trade list.

The final theme in the set is the one I liked the most, the Sterling theme. This theme seems to be reserved for the most high profile players (Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, etc.). In my opinion these are the sleekest looking cards in the set.

Pros: There are a few things I like about the set. First of all, the checklist is fairly small, making set completion a reasonable possibility. This is the case with many hockey sets, especially Topps products. Even in the 80's, Topps sets were always significantly smaller in size than their O-Pee-Chee counterparts. Sort of makes sense when you consider that O-Pee-Chee cards are manufactured in Canada.

The cards in general are high quality and quite heavy and I really like the design of the Sterling theme. The parallels were seeded exactly as stated on the wrapper, I pulled exactly 6 silver and 1 gold. My silver cards were mostly rookies and weren't great but one of them was a Hartford Whaler which is much appreciated. Plus the silver on the border of the card really matches the silver in the late-era Whalers jerseys, making for one pretty sleek looking card:

My gold parallel actually ended up being a decent hit, as I pulled one of the best defensemen of all time (albeit a former arch-nemesis of the Hartford Whalers), Ray Bourque. Once again, the gold on the border of this card matches the gold on the Bruins jersey and ties the card together quite nicely:

Cons: I'm not a huge fan of the Defenders or Rookies themes, the cards look a little crowded to me. These are not the worst looking cards I've seen by any means, in fact they blow away many 90's hockey sets, I just think Topps could've done a better job with the layout. Collation wasn't great and left a little to be desired. In two different packs I pulled doubles within the pack, which you wouldn't expect to happen with a 6 card pack. I'm still missing a good portion of the base set, yet I pulled 4 Joe Sakic Sterling cards and a good percentage of my doubles actually ended up being triples. I ended up with nearly as many doubles as I had base cards, not good.

Suggestions: Do away with the themes! I think this set would look much better if they used the Sterling theme for all the cards and replaced the word Sterling with a small team name and logo or something along those lines. Ultimately I think some of the themes make the cards seem gimmicky. Parallels usually bother me but I didn't mind the silver and gold variations in this product and I'm sure they helped to drive sales when the product was originally released. That being said, it would've been nice if Topps had included even one 10 card insert set just to provide a little variation every few packs.

Here's what I ended up with:

Base Set: 78/189 (41%)
Doubles: 57
Silver Parallels (1:4): 6
Gold Parallels (1:24): 1
Bronze Refractors (1:12): 2

As with most Finest products, there are Refractors in this product. The silver and gold refractors are seeded at a pretty ridiculous rate and needless to say I did not pull any. I did end up pulling two bronze refractors, Chris Terreri and Felix Potvin.

All in all, I would call Topps' '96 Finest product decent. I'd like to complete the set, but I don't think I'll be dropping $49 on another hobby box, especially given the collation that I had with this one. I have a gut feeling that I'm going to like the '94 Finest box better, so I'll probably see if I can fill some holes in my set cheap on Ebay. I'll hopefully have the '94 Finest box bust posted in the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

1953 Topps Project - Post #16

#67 - Roy Sievers - St. Louis Browns

Roy's career started off with a bang as he hit .306 with 16 home runs and 75 RBI to capture the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1949. Roy battled injuries over the next few years though and struggled to return to the form he showed during his rookie campaign.

From 1954-1958 Roy was able to pick up the pace again while playing for the Washington Senators. He clubbed at least 95 RBI in each of these five seasons and was selected to the American League All Star team 3 times during this time period. He managed to finish 3rd in A.L. MVP voting in 1957 behind Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. Roy hit home runs in an impressive 6 straight games during that season. Roy was pretty clutch with the bases loaded, hitting for 10 career grand slams...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

1953 Topps Project - Post #15

#170 - Bill Werle - Boston Red Sox

Bill "Bugs" Werle was a World War II veteran who played quite a few years in the Pacific Coast League before enjoying a brief 5 year stint in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox.
Werle was claimed by the Red Sox off waivers towards the end of the 1952 season. He never enjoyed much success in his two seasons with the Sox. He would pitch a grand total of 36 1/3 innings for them between 1953 and 1954 and had a record of 0-2 in those two seasons. Bill gave up 5 home runs in 24 innings pitched in 1954, including one to Gus Zernial.
Although he never had much success in the majors, Bill was one of the many players who continued to contribute to the game even after he'd thrown his last inning. He briefly served as pitching coach for the San Francisco Giants in the 60s and was a Baltimore Orioles scout in 1980.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Card of the Month - May 2008

1970 Topps - #630 - Ernie Banks

Card of the month for May is this 1970 Topps Ernie Banks. I started collecting Ernie's cards last year because he was one of the players that I idolized when I was younger. Banks' cards also come at a very reasonable price compared to other Hall of Fame players with similar numbers. He was appropriately nicknamed "Mr. Cub", which makes perfect sense to me as he is undoubtedly the single player that comes to mind when you think of the old school Cubs.

Ernie was the first black player to suit up for the Cubs, and he played there his entire career (first at shortstop and then eventually moving to first base). He became known for the saying "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame, let's play two!". Unfortunately for Banks, the saying could just as easily have been "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame, let's play 2,528 of them and never make the playoffs!". Yes, the Cubs were so terrible during Banks' tenure that he holds the record for most games played without a playoff appearance.

I can't imagine what it must've been like to be that great a player, play that many seasons, and never even get a shot at winning the World Series. If this happened it today's era, you'd probably see quotes from Ernie, demanding to be traded, splashed all over Chicago newspapers and SportsCenter. Maybe that's why I enjoy collecting his cards. It's refreshing in this day and age of high-pressure baseball and huge contracts to think of a Hall of Famer who loved the game and was perfectly content despite playing for a losing team for almost 20 years.

The reason I chose the 1970 Topps card is that it was on this day in 1970 that Ernie Banks connected for his 500th home run at Wrigley Field, a feat that only 23 players have accomplished so far (Manny Ramirez is just a few swings away from becoming the 24th).

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mantle's Blast

My very first subject for the 1953 Topps Project was Chuck Stobbs, a pitcher for the Washington Senators. In the post, I talked about the 565 foot blast that Mickey Mantle hit off of Chuck during the 1953 season, by all accounts the farthest home run ever hit at Griffith Stadium.

Because of this, when I saw this 1961 Topps card that pays tribute to that home run, it became one of those cards that I simply had to have in my collection. The front of the card shows an old photo of Griffith Stadium, with a trajectory of the home run ball overlaid. It's really impressive to see a visual of just how far this ball was hit. The back of the card actually indicates that the ball landed two blocks away from the stadium!

Cards like this one are the reason I love collecting...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

1953 Topps Project - Post #14

#42 - Gus Zernial - Philadelphia Athletics

Gus Zernial is not as well known as a lot of 50's ballplayers, but he was actually a great slugging outfielder who played about 10 years in the majors (1949 - 1959). His good looks and huge physique (6'3", 220 lbs!) earned him the nickname of "Ozark Ike" (taken from a popular comic strip at the time).

According to Wikipedia, Gus had the fourth highest home run total in Major League Baseball in the 1950's (behind Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby). That's a pretty impressive stat in my book. Here we see Gus at the tail end of what was probably his best 3 year stretch in baseball. In 1951 he led the league in home runs (33), RBI (129), extra base hits (68) and outfield assists (17). In 1953 he clubbed a personal best 42 home runs and topped the 100 RBI mark for the 3rd straight year.

During his career, Gus broke his collar bone on two different occassions while diving for balls in the outfield. The funny thing is that the second time he did so was during an 18-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox. Breaking a bone diving for a ball in a game you lost by 18 runs shows the grit and determination that Gus played with. With power hitting numbers like he put up in the 50's, you have to wonder if he would've been a hall of fame caliber player had he made it to the majors at a younger age...

You can check out Gus' official website here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Thank You Todd

I recently received an email and subsequent package from a reader named Todd from New Hampshire. In addition to some very nice and encouraging words about my blog, he let me know that he was going to be sending me a 1984 Topps hockey Paul Holmgren card, the last card that I needed to complete my 1984 Topps hockey set!

I got the package a couple of weeks ago and Paul is now in his proper place in my binder (in between Dino Ciccarelli and Al MacAdam). Arranging trades or getting pieces of mail like this have actually been some of the most rewarding aspects of having the blog. I really like dealing with the community that seems to be forming from all of these card blogs. It reminds me of my sixth grade self heading over to my buddies house with a shoebox full of cards for an afternoon of trading and talking baseball.

I'm pretty sure that Todd has been at work other places as well. Thanks for the card Todd and for reading my blog. Your generosity is greatly appreciated!
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