440 cards in the set – 220 in each series. This was far and away the smallest set Topps released in the modern era – it’s actually the smallest base set the company released since 1957.
- Subsets: Star Power (#1-12, 221-231), Draft Picks (#13-26, 232-245), AAA All-Stars (#101-104), Future Stars (#210-219), Now Appearing (#336-354), Prospects (#424-439), Mickey Mantle Commemorative (#7), Cal Ripken Tribute (#96). If they were leaning in the prospecting direction before this year, Topps really hammered that home in 1996. The Prospects cards are similar to previous years’ 4 player cards, while the AAA All-Stars are 2-player cards from the top minor league level. Future Stars is a loaded subset that has early cards of Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi, and Billy Wagner. A “Now Appearing” gold foil stamp is the only difference between those and other base cards. The Star Power inserts start off each series and show a month-by-month breakdown of the player’s performance from the year before. Last but not least are a couple of tribute cards. Cal Ripken has one that commemorates the night he passed Lou Gehrig with 2,131 consecutive games played. And honoring the Mick was a big theme for this product. Mantle’s card #7 was intended to be the last card #7 in the history of Topps, as they “retired” the number going forward.
- Set Design: The card design is simple yet effective. There is a white border with the team logo in one of the upper corners. In the bottom is a line with a stretched blue photo effect of the player’s face from the same photo. The Topps logo is above that and the player name is in the line in gold foil. The back of the card has the player name at the top above biographical information. Seasonal statistics and career totals are shown to the right below that, with a sentence about the player below when there’s room. There’s a full miniature action photo of the player to the right.
- Packs: Topps stayed smaller with packs in 1996 – both series had 12 cards per retail and hobby packs. Topps no longer listed it on the packs or the boxes themselves, but the MSRP was the same $1.29 that 1995’s 15 and 13 card packs carried. There’s an H-logo on the hobby packs, and you can also tell by knowing what the inserts listed. Cello packs were down to 17 cards – these had retail inserts and came 24 per box. I’m not sure on the MSRP, guessing $1.99. Jumbo packs were hobby exclusive and contained 35 cards and came 12 per box. There were also some Wal-Mart exclusive 5-card packs – each series of these had a special insert set (Classic Confrontations, Road Warriors)
- Rookies: This is another unimpressive crop of rookies. Sean Casey, Matt Morris and Raul Ibanez are the most notable true rookie cards. Vlad Guerrero, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones all have their first Topps card, but all had Bowman cards in 1995. Jermaine Dye and Derrek Lee also have their first Topps cards in this set, though they each had a few cards in 1994 (Bowman and SP) that are true rookie cards.
- Hall of Fame: There are 21 Hall of Famers in this set – actually an increase of 1 from the year before. Andre Dawson was back after only being included in the Traded set the year before, as was his teammate Ryne Sandberg, who was the less famous Chicago Hall of Fame #23 to unretire in 1995. Dave Winfield retired after the 1995 season, and Topps was the only company with no 1996 cards of him. Finally, the Babe tribute was replaced with the Mantle tribute. There’s also 1 NFL Hall of Famer – Deion Sanders.
- Variations: The Mickey Mantle commemorative card #7 has a variation that was “hermetically sealed” and stamped with “Last Day Production” in gold foil on the back. This card was inserted into factory sets.
Both boxes feature pictures of Tony Gwynn and Kirby Puckett on the front. This is the first regular series box where Topps used pictures of a specific player on the front – in the past they’d put an example of the card, or a photo of a player where you couldn’t necessarily tell who it was. The series 1 box has an orange background with an oval containing a Topps logo at the top. There is a box noting this is the “Mickey Mantle Commemorative Edition 1996”. There is also some wording advertising the Mantle reprint cards that are inserted.
The series 2 box is similar, except with a blue background and a different shot of Puckett and Gwynn. There is also a picture of the 1952 Topps Mantle card and advertisement for the “win an original Mickey Mantle card” promotion and some other insert cards.
Hobby boxes have an H designation on them. The choice of Puckett was interesting – as he actually didn’t play in 1996 when he was forced into early retirement due to glaucoma.
The odds below are for hobby packs unless noted.
Topps issued a 9-card pre-production set of the regular cards in cello packs inserted into specially marked 1995 factory sets. There is also a Ted Williams Commemorative card in the ’96 Topps design. This card was issued in December 1995 in honor of the opening ceremonies for the Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston.
For the first time since 1980, Topps didn’t issue a Traded set.
After inserting parallel cards from ’92-’94 and a partial parallel in 1995, Topps didn’t issue a parallel set in 1995 (though the Power Boosters could be considered a very small partial parallel – I’m just calling them inserts here, though).
Mickey Mantle was the main theme, though across all packs. In series 1, you could get one of 19 of Mantle’s base cards as an insert in any type of pack – in series 2 that was Mantle Finest cards, refractors, and contest redemptions. There was also a Mantle case-topper that was essentially the Mantle reprints with a gold foil stamp on the back. Power Boosters and Mystery Finest cards were also new inserts in series 1. The Mystery Finest cards came with an opaque covering where you had to pull off the cover to see which player you’d pulled.
After differentiating between hobby and retail for the first time in 1995, Topps continued this trend. Profiles was a retail-only insert set in both series, while hobby packs had Masters of the Game (s1) and Wrecking Crew (s2).
- Profiles – 40 cards (1:12)
- Mystery Finest – 26 cards (1:36 series 1)
- Power Boosters – 25 cards (1:36 series 1)
- Masters of the Game – 20 cards (1:18 series 1 hobby)
- Wrecking Crew – 15 cards (1:18 series 2 hobby)
- Classic Confrontations – 15 cards (1:1 series 1 Wal-Mart retail)
- Road Warriors – 20 cards (1:1 series 2 Wal-Mart retail)
- Mantle Reprints – 19 cards (1:9 series 1)
- Mantle Finest Reprints – 19 cards (1:144 series 2)
This was the first year they had “insert parallels” – and they had quite a few.
- Mystery Finest Refractors – 26 cards (1:216 series 1)
- Mantle Finest Refractors – 19 cards (1:96 series 2)
- Mantle Contest redemption – 19 cards (1:108 series 2)
- Mantle Case – 19 cards (1 per series 2 case)
The Mantle theme in this year’s product was a continuation of the “commemorative” theme (AKA “hero worship”) that Topps had started a decade earlier (1986 – Pete Rose, 1990 – Nolan Ryan, 1994 – Hank Aaron, 1995 – Babe Ruth). It also seems to me like it was a big step in the continuation of the retro-themed craze over Topps products.
Topps again issued 3 different types of factory sets in 1996. First, hobby factory sets were packaged in a white baseball background. They included 7 random insert cards, the Mickey Mantle Last Day commemorative variation discussed above, and a special card promoting the Mickey Mantle Foundation.
The retail factory set was packaged in brown and had all of the cards from the hobby factory set, plus one additional Mantle reprint card.
Finally, there was also a 4 pack “cereal box” factory set with Mickey Mantle cards pictured on each of the 4 “cereal” packs. Each cereal pack has a Mantle reprint card included.
The Mantle redemption cards described above could be sent in to Topps to be entered into drawings for various vintage Mantle cards. There were 2,000 redemptions cards for each of Mantle’s 19 cards.
Other releases associated with the Topps flagship set
#1 – As part of the Mantle madness that was the hallmark of this product, Topps produced a framed sheet of Mantle cards from his career. There’s all 20 Mantle cards – the 19 Topps or Bowman from each year of his career, plus the “retired” card #7 from the 1996 set – surrounding the image from his 1952 Topps card. It measures 19.5″ x 25″, and has a gold #7. This sheet was numbered to 10,000.
#2 – Certain teams were part of the first “Team Topps” set sold at Wal-Mart with “Big Topps” cards. The Team Topps cards were parallel versions of the players from the team, with the same number and picture as the regular card. The Big Topps cards featured the superstar from that team. The teams sold were the Rangers, White Sox, Cubs, Yankees and Orioles. The Indians and Braves had “AL Champ” and “World Champ” versions, the Dodgers had “Chavez Ravine 35th anniversary” versions, and Seattle had “AL West Champ” versions.
#3 – Just like previous years, R&N China supposedly issued a bunch of “parallel” versions of Topps cards throughout the mid-90′s. Some of the porcelain cards created were reprints – for example, they did a full run of all 26 of Nolan Ryan’s cards. I’ve read some things that claim that a full reproduction was done of the 1993, 1994 and 1995 sets, but read other things saying that a full parallel being done is very unlikely. Looking around on eBay seems to support the latter. I’ve seen fewer of the 1996 cards than others.
#4 – Topps issued a “Topps Chrome” product for the first time. 165 of the cards from the base set were reproduced using Topps chromium technology – as were the Masters of the Game and Wrecking Crew insert sets.
Big news in the baseball card world was that Pinnacle bought the Donruss/Leaf brands and their license in May 1996. After 2 new companies in 1981, and two more in 1988-89, this was the first consolidation of companies producing cards. 1996 Donruss was basically their last product made independently – 1996 Studio was the first under Pinnacle.
After dealing with return after the strike in 1995 – I think waning interest was still the biggest thing for baseball card companies in 1996. Companies started to lessen production, but didn’t really lessen the total # of products out there in ’95 or ’96. Probably a good move short-term but probably a bad move long-term. Collectors like to “collect”, which also often means they get frustrated when they can’t have everything they set out to. So the number of products can cause confusion. I think it kind of did for me – in 1996 I had stopped collecting everything but the Upper Deck base set and the Upper Deck SP set.
Looking back, the strike really did lessen my interest in baseball for a while. Even though the Reds were really good in 1995 and Barry Larkin became the first 30/30 Shortstop in 1996, I wasn’t nearly as interested in them as I had been in 1990 or even in like 1993. That combined with getting older, soon trickled over to less interest in baseball cards. Part of this wasn’t card companies fault – I turned 16, got a driver’s license, met my first long-term girlfriend, and started spending more of my free time training for track meets and doing things high school kids do.
Either way – this is the last Topps set design that I remember from my collecting days, and I think between me and my brother, we purchased such a small amount of ’96 Topps that I don’t remember any specific cards. I love the design – but they really focused too much on prospects and younger players, especially considering the set is only 440 cards. I do remember the Mantle reprints being a pretty big deal – I think this went a long way in streamlining the retro craze that really started with Topps Archives in 1991 – but now had crept into being a big part of a “main set”.