Why I Love 1986 Topps Traded and Loathe 1986 Topps Baseball

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In 1986, my life revolved around G.I. Joe and Transformers (at least until they broke my young heart when they killed off Optimus Prime and virtually every other Autobot and Decepticon in Transformers: The Movie). Baseball wasn’t among my interests yet, let alone baseball cards.


But it turns out that 1986 has my favorite set of the decade as well one of my most hated. And they’re both from the same general line. Welcome to my love-hate relationship with 1986 Topps (hate) and 1986 Topps Traded (love) Baseball.

Exotic Cards in the Great White North

Like many, I got serious into collecting cards in the late ’80s. Living in Canada, O-Pee-Chee Hockey was always easy for me to find. I had a pair of corner stores within walking distance that always seemed to have a box or two.

It was similar for baseball, although that didn’t pick up until 1989. And even then, all the places I could reach within my bike-riding limits carried O-Pee-Chee and nothing else.

Today, all this sounds like a best-possible-scenario and one that I took for granted. But for me, the allure of card collecting has been the chase. So that gave anything other than O-Pee-Chee an exotic, desirable quality.

Yes, there was a time when even 1988 Donruss Baseball was intriguing to me.

1988 Donruss Gregg Jefferies RC

I knew of American baseball cards from Beckett magazines, which, for a time, were easier for me to find than the cards themselves.

Beckett Baseball September 1989 Jim Abbott

The closest I came to a lot of these sets looking through a friend’s stack who was lucky enough to find some Donruss, Topps and Fleer cards. Pretty much the only way my circle of friends on schoolmates would get them was on a  weekend shopping trip down to Washington State or their parents brought them back a few packs as a guilt-clearing souvenir from a parents-only weekend in Reno.

For the young folks reading this, collecting before the Internet was a lot different.

I never saw packs of 1986 Topps Baseball in my neck of the woods until probably close to a decade later. I’d encounter the odd card here and there in my friends’ stacks but not much. That was okay. Nothing much about the set captured my attention.

But 1986 Topps Traded Baseball was a different story. Nobody had any. It was only sold as a set. And to get that set, I’d have to look to the fine print of a mail order ad in a magazine. After that, I’d have to convince my mom to buy me an American money order so that I could send away for it and wait. And to convince my mom to get the money order, I’d have to endure a conversation about spending money wisely, convincing her of the greatness of this set and hope that she wasn’t in one of her dreaded and arbitrary “No, you can save your money” moods.

For me, there were exotic baseball cards and then there was 1986 Topps Traded exotic.

I had to have it.

Bonds, Bo and Canseco

Jose Canseco was king when I first got into collecting. A decade later, it was Barry Bonds. Today, I’m personally partial to that beaming Bo Jackson.

The point is, the 1986 Topps Traded checklist is one of the greatest assembled in my lifetime. A compact 132 cards, it’s dense with XRC of players that border somewhere on the scale of good to great. Besides my personal trinity, you’ve got Will Clark, Andres Galarraga, Bobby Bonilla, Wally Joyner — deep breath — John Kruk, Otis Nixon, Kevin Mitchell, Mitch Williams and Bip Robert, to name a lot.

Now take a look at the main 1986 Topps Baseball checklist and it’s not nearly as exciting. Dare I say, it’s boring.

Cecil, Ozzie and the Usual Suspects of 1986 Topps Baseball

Whereas the 1986 Topps Traded Baseball is an exercise in precision over the course of its small size, 1986 Topps Baseball is a bloated 792 cards. Yes, it has all the stars of the day. The Pete Rose tribute is a nice way to kick things off (although I prefer the similar Nolan Ryan cards from 1990). And the ghosting effect of the Team Leaders subset stands out.

1986 Topps Braves Leaders Dale Murphy

But a big thing for any flagship set is its Rookie Card selection. Some of that is luck but some of it is skill. Donruss and Fleer managed to get Jose Canseco into their sets. Topps totally missed out the first time around. And that has to have made an impact both then and now. In many cases, one great card can elevate an entire set. As far as Rookie Cards go, 1986 Topps is led by players like Cecil Fielder, Darren Daulton and Ozzie Guillen. Those names are pretty good, but I’m not even sure any of them inch into the second-tier of 1986 Topps Traded.

1986 Topps Baseball lacks an anchor, that one card you instantly think of whenever it’s mentioned. Even though his star power has waned, Jose Canseco could have been that card, much like he is in 1986 Donruss. It might not be the $100 card it once was, but everyone still knows it and that dirty peach fuzz mustache.

I don’t get the same instant recall for Papa Fielder. Or anything about 1986 Topps Baseball, really. And that’s the biggest letdown.

1986 Topps Cecil Fielder RC

Is It Possible to Hate the Same Design in One Set and Like It in Another?

Here’s where I have a bit of a personal struggle with 1986 Topps and Topps Traded. Spread across 792 cards, the design does nothing for me except the subsets.

The team name is overpowering at the top. The font choice looks like it’s something straight out of a stencil book I bought from a Scholastic book order around the same time. What works for science title pages at the front of a well-worn duo tang isn’t the same for a set of baseball cards.

So for the main set, I pretty much hate it. I know some love it and that’s fine. I just don’t feel it.

But here’s where it gets weird. The Bo Jackson, Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds cards are so iconic to me that I don’t even really notice the design. It is exactly the same except for the brighter card backs.

Looking a little closer, I think I’ve isolated a couple of reasons. First, there’s the personal side of wanting the Traded set for so long that I’m forgiving. There’s not any real logic to it. It just is.

But I think there’s something more concrete going on. My favorite cards are all portraits. The thick borders of the front work better. They’re essentially picture frames.

1986 Topps Traded Will Clark

While portraits figure fairly heavily in the main set as well, there are a lot of action shots as well. But they’re so tight. There’s no room for the movement to breath. It’s the cardboard equivalent of claustrophobia.

1986 Topps Pete Rose

Sometimes collecting doesn’t make sense. That’s one of its beauties. It’s an individual pursuit that we all experience differently. There’s nothing anyone can do to make me like 1986 Topps Baseball. To me, it’s ugly and boring. But when you tighten things up and add three of the cards I wanted most growing up, 1986 Topps Traded can do no wrong.

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Ryan Cracknell

A collector for much of his life, Ryan focuses primarily on building sets, Montreal Expos and interesting cards. He's also got one of the most comprehensive collections of John Jaha cards in existence (not that there are a lot of them). Got a question, story idea or want to get in touch? You can reach him by email and through Twitter @tradercracks.

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  1. Deborah Layton 11 February, 2019 at 21:49

    I have almost all those players cards in very good condition I’ve been working on getting them all together and selling them. I have those cards in albums and protective covers. I have a ton of cards trying to go through them and get popular ones out. I have a lot of rookie cards all star cards rookie rated cards ECT. If your interested in all these cards I d love to show you what I have.

  2. David Schultz 11 February, 2019 at 22:06

    Great column. It’s funny how nostalgia can skew one’s memories. If someone were to ask me about the card design, I’d be inclined to say I love it. Really brings me back. But seeing what you wrote and comparing it to other sets of the era, you’re spot on in regards to how poor it actually was.

  3. Lanny Ribes 13 February, 2019 at 21:19

    Ryan…not sure how old you are but guessing by your article we are pretty close. I was the same way with this set for the longest time, looking back now my mood has changed. Here is my guest article with Dub that explains my take on this set…great piece my friend!


  4. Timothy Smith 14 February, 2019 at 15:48

    personally was not thrilled with this set over the other companies sets of the same year..that being said i did like the O-pee-chee version mainly because of the better stock and the cleaner back of the cards .

  5. Troy 1 April, 2022 at 19:52

    Same can be said for the Raines/Valenzuela in ‘81. Ripken Jr. in ‘82. Strawberry in ‘83 and Doc in ‘84. Collected in between ‘87 & ‘89. One of my friends growing up was spoiled rotten. Parents bought him the ‘83 & ‘84 Traded sets. Plus, the king itself, the ‘84 Fleer Update. He was the most envied kid on the block, lol. Finally got these sets as an adult 30+ years later. Just for the nostalgia of it all.

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