Topps will forever be the ‘Big Brother’ of baseball cards. A company with ties to two different eras of being the “official” card company of Major League Baseball, including the latest monopoly that began in 2010. In 1981, a federal judge ruled against Topps, ushering the way for new companies, Donruss and Fleer, to enter the market. This time around, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut contender to end Topps’ reign. BUT, things weren’t always so grim. In 1997, thanks to fierce competition, Topps struck a vicious 1-2 punch with the debut of Bowman Chrome and easily the greatest version of Finest collectors have ever seen.
For starters, take a look at the card below. I am not a graphic designer but this is something that was clearly produced by someone with careful consideration and lots of time and effort. In 1997, Finest was split into 7 themes. Jose Canseco made it into ‘Power’ and ‘Acquisitions’ but for now let’s look at his Power Refractor. Look how Jose’s image is in clear view, while the fans and the catcher have been blurred out. Jose in mid-home run swing, literally generating lightning behind him and with a murderous look on his face. The colors are dark with an almost overcast theme. It fits Jose to a T, as he was now a fading legend who had lived a lie his entire career. With every season, that lie was closer to being exposed and when it finally was, it changed the entire game of baseball forever.
It’s also clear that in 1997, Topps was a completely different company than what we know them to be today. For starters, many modern Topps products rely heavily on autographs and game-used memorabilia cards while design and photography selection seem to be placed on the back burner. Take a look at these three, Ken Griffey Jr. base cards in ’97 Finest and count how many different photos Topps went to the trouble of including. Done looking? That’s 3 base cards with 7 different images. That’s not even counting the multiple parallels. If you were a completist, you could start an entire Ken Griffey Jr. collection with ’97 Topps Finest alone.
I like you so I must warn you: DO NOT ATTEMPT to complete a Finest rainbow. You’ll wind up in a poor house and depending on the player’s popularity, you could spend enough money to put a down payment on a high-end, 2019 vehicle. Think I’m exaggerating? There is currently a Griffey Jr. Embossed Gold Refractor with an asking price of over $6,000 on eBay, down from $12,500. That particular asking price is a bit off but not by much. You can still find unopened boxes of ’97 Finest for well under $100 dollars, pull something special (if the Card Gods are on your side), send away to a grading company and find yourself with a card worth $3,000+ on the secondary market.
Unlike more than 2/3 of products from that era, ’97 Finest has an appeal that’s crossed over into the new generation of collecting despite not featuring a single autograph in the entire line. Topps Finest, which made its debut in 1993 but floundered for years, came through with a ‘Darkside of the Moon’ type release in 1997. It’s a product that will live forever in every collector’s heart that has ever opened a pack or saw one in person. We will continue to see new innovations in #TheHobby every year but it’s very safe to say that Topps will never strike gold, at least critically, the way it did with 1997 Finest. It was finally ‘Big Brother’ living up to its unrealistic expectations. This was the anti-underdog winning it all by a clear landslide. Simply put, 1997 Finest is perfect.
Fleer and Donruss may have slightly disturbed Topps’ business in 1981 but the reality is that in 1989, Upper Deck was the one who woke the sleeping baseball card giant. That debut and much-needed competition inspired Topps Stadium Club and later on, the creation of Topps Finest and the birth of the Refractor. In 1993, as collectors were spending unheard amounts of money on packs of Finest in search of that elusive Refractor, the Baseball Card Wars were over. Topps had won and left Pinnacle, Fleer, Donruss, Pacific, and Upper Deck in ruins … only collectors didn’t know it yet. Soon enough, baseball cards were officially ruled by the one, true king: Topps.
1997 Finest, was unfortunately, a once in a lifetime effort by Topps Company. Despite it’s long and glorious history, the brand is on life support today. It now features dozens of parallels related to the original Refractor, including the ever popular Superfractor, but nothing memorable has come from the line in years, maybe even decades. It’s a brand that will likely never be retired but also one that will never live in glory again. Much like going to a Def Leppard concert in 2019, at a state fair; It truly is better to burn out than fade away. If you look closely, you can see those flashes of brilliance but the magic is long gone. Left behind is a empty shell of what was once pure magic in cardboard form.
In 2014, Topps recreated ’97 Finest. Despite the many advances and Topps’ decision to include autographs, the product was just another that was forgotten shortly after its release. 2014 Finest failed to recreate that magic of 1997 because you can’t catch lightning in a bottle. It seems even Topps understands this and has begun releasing Buybacks of 1997 Finest, signed directly on the card. The one you see below is a 1/1 belonging to renown Jose Canseco Supercollector, Tanner Jones. You may continue to see versions like this pop up in Topps Archive products but trust me, you will never again see a product like 1997 Finest. To experience it again, the way it was meant to be, would require a time machine.