How I Picked An Autograph Card Set To Collect

I’ve hinted at it a few times before, most notably in my note about the sweet Eric Hosmer 2011 Topps Tier One autograph I picked up a few months back, but here’s the deal: I am actively collecting Tier One autographs.

It’s hard to explain why. Since I got back into collecting and we started this blog (over 2 years ago?! Jeez…) I’ve narrowed down the things I really like about baseball cards. Modern baseball cards, specifically. I know that autographs are old hat in cards these days but when I basically quit collecting in 1994 or so, they were the top tier of awesome. I dreamed (probably literally) of pulling a signed Ryne Sandberg out of a pack of 1991 Donruss. It never happened, of course. In fact, I bet my first pack-pulled auto was from 2004 Cracker Jack, when I took a brief (and expensive) jaunt back into the hobby and bought a couple boxes of some retro stuff. So, to me, autographs are still totally awesome. Pulling one out of a pack is always a thrill, even if it’s a scrub or a so-called prospect I’ve never heard of. A guy had that card in his hand for a moment and then it ended up in a pack that I opened. I think that’s cool.

Which is exactly why I hate sticker autos. They forfeit the thing I like most about autographed baseball cards- the actual human contact. I don’t mean that in a weird way like those guys who buy used underwear from vending machines. Just that the journey is traceable. Player signed the card. Andy pulled the card. In my opinion, sticker autographs are not autographed baseball cards. They are autographed stickers stuck on baseball cards. A subtle difference, but important to me.

So as I decided what things I liked about these cards and began my search for Royals on-card autos in earnest, my favorite finds were the players I vaguely remember from my youth or even recent years. A 1996 Leaf Signature auto of Michael Tucker is awesome because I remember Michael Tucker. Prospect autos have never done as much for me because the vast majority (seriously, someone should crunch the numbers) never make it to the Majors. And the Majors is where I get to learn about a player. To start remembering him.

His signature gives me an idea for a nickname: E-Rat.

One of the first things I wanted to do when I got back into collecting was to start building an all-autograph set. A set based on the things I like about autographed baseball cards. It would have many criteria to meet based on the above interests and a few more things. Eric Hosmer illustrates the first of these, though he walks right up to the line.

1. No Prospect Autos
If they haven’t played a Major League game, I don’t need an autograph of them. Of course, my Royals collection breaks this rule but that’s a different beast. It basically only rules out Bowman products, but till, it’s a start.

Nickname: Duff Man.

2. No Sticker Autos
Not just in the auto set I’m collecting- in the whole run of the product. Mainly because it makes stuff way easier to search for but let’s pretend I’m a super purist and want no stickers to have touched a pack that the auto set I’m collecting comes from. Danny Duffy (making his first appearance on an auto card and his first appearance in my Royals collection as well) up there’s signature may not look like much, but it’s on card. And every version of every auto in Tier One is on-card. I like.

Iron Ross. See, that one's a double because his name is Tyson and Mike Tyson's nickname was Iron Mike. Plus it's like Iron Cross which was a kickass DC hardcore band.

3. Quality Player Selection
Okay, Tyson Ross may not be a stud or anything, but he’s kind of been pitching like one so he counts. Obviously it won’t all be gold (nor can I afford to build a set that is), so I’m just looking for a good range. Quality young players, some vets and some golden oldies. Tier One fits the bill on all counts.

Obvious one: Weapon X. Anyone names Logan should just be called this automatically.

4. Quality Autograph Card Design
Note that I didn’t just say “quality design.” Designing good auto cards is an artform that few sets have mastered. Landscape cards generally do a better job but are non-standard in a lot of ways. Also pretty rare. So I knew it would be a portrait set. The cards need to look like they could be real baseball cards even if they didn’t have an autograph on them. Tier One is borderline in the design area- I don’t love the honeycomb (smacks of ’00s Finest a bit), but I love the nameplate area. Clean without too gaudy levels of gold. I like the way these cards look next to each other. The photo selection could be better. Logan Forsythe up there looks like he’s not sure how to throw a ball and he’s got no damn lead space (a pet peeve of mine). But there are compromises to be made.

For Whom the Josh Tholes. Ugh. I'm careening off the rails here.

5. Serial Numbering
Another holdover from my youth is a love of serial numbered cards. I dreamed of Elite as well as the Ryno. One good thing about Tier One is that they’re numbered high (Josh Thole is numbered to 999… I got him for $2). If I had a gripe about the serial numbering in this set it’s that it’s not uniform. I’m kind of OCD about that sort of thing and let me tell you I am annoyed that there are some /699 and /399 in set too. But whatever. Compromises. This rule knocks out all of the retro-themed sets. As much as I love (truly truly love) Allen & Ginter framed autographs and now Gypsy Queen autos, they just don’t have the appeal because they’re not numbered. I hate that some of the autos in those sets are terrifyingly short printed to God knows how many and I’ve got to shell out the money and hope it’s low enough to justify the cost. Plus, how would I know what’s under 50? I’m always thinking, folks… usually.

Over the Thames. I don't know any songs about the river in London, but there's an Avail song called "Over the James" about a river in Virginia. It counts.

6. No Crazy Parallels
I’m not chasing any damn rainbows for my set. I stand firm on my “nothing numbered under 50 need to be in my collection” statement. For both sanity and my wallet’s sake. Most of these autos have a gold parallel /25. But since they’re under 50, I don’t even need to trip. BTW, I love this Eric Thames photo. Looks like a real damn baseball card.

Tried to make his name into "Chris Sabo" somehow but couldn't manage it. Eric Sabogard? Eyeguard? I have two of these, so come up with a nickname I like and I'll send the extra to you!

7. Affordability
If I were rich, I’d buy every on-card auto of a Major League player ever made. I’m not joking. I love collecting this stuff. But I can’t afford such frivolities. So I need a set I can buy in bulk. No joke. You can buy lots (like, auction lots, not just… lots) of Tier One autos. You can’t do that with more the popular sets. And buying lots means doubles, like the one I have of Eric Sogard. So the moment I find the lone A’s collector in the world, I have some trade bait. Having trade bait is important to me because I don’t open a lot of wax. People want to trade with me and I’ve got nothing to offer but Stadium Club and junk wax! Now I can start amassing some real value for my trades (in $2 autos). Come and get ’em! Also on the affordability tip, I was already stuck buyin the most expensive card in the set (that Hosmer up there) so why not go all in?

So that’s how I chose 2011 Topps Tier One as my first autograph set to collect. As it happens, there are two unique auto sets in this set. The images above are from the On the Rise set which is mostly rookies and a couple 2nd year guys I think. There are lots of quality vets and some dudes from my youth in the smaller Crowd Pleasers set and then the heavy hitters in the Tier One set itself (all /99… gulp). I plan to get them all, though it will surely take ages.

I’d love to hear some opinions on other autograph sets people like. Was I took harsh? Did I make too many arbitrary decisions? I’m as good at second guessing myself as I am at being OCD about things so there’s always the nagging question… Validate me, people!

5 comments to How I Picked An Autograph Card Set To Collect

  • Every collector has the right to make their own rules… so as long as you’re happy… that’s what matters.

    I’ve built a few autograph sets myself, but each for their own unique reasons. Right now, I’m not building any… but I’ve considered trying out the 1998 Donruss Significant Signatures set. It’s fairly reasonable in size (18 cards + 3 refractor versions = 21 cards in all), has an excellent checklist (everyone except Mattingly is in the HOF), is serial numbered to 2,000 (the Ryan and Rizzuto are numbered to 1,000), and features on-card autographs… so they were handled by the athlete.

    The only downside is that the autographs are sometimes hard to see on the card.

    Best of luck on your set!

  • Zach

    Nice choice in an auto set. I agree Weapon X is one of the great unused nicknames out there. Hopefully Mr. Morrison will come to his senses.

  • Zach

    Shit, I mean Forsythe. Isn’t there a Logan Morrison out there? (I hope)

  • I’ve started to make similar (albeit somewhat less Draconian) decisions on my personal Tigers collections. On-card is a must. Good design is the #1 priority. I’ve recently focused on releases that have a multi-year history (since team collecting only gives a handful of cards per set). That has led me to focus on: Topps Heritage; Topps Retired Signature; Fleer Greats of the Game (2000-2002 only; the on-card years) and Allen & Ginter. Gypsy Queen is making a run with a STRONG release this year.

    I picked up the Tigers in 2011 Tier One for all the reasons you describe above. Hopefully they keep with it in 2012 and I can really build something.

    Anyway, I love what you’re doing here. I’m sick of feeling compelled by my Collector-OCD to go after everything out there. It is time to make some choices and hey, why not choose the cards that you like and want to collect, right?

  • I think George Brett has a 1998 Donruss Sig Sigs and you’re right- super hard to see on the card. Still 100X better than a sticker.

    Multi-year history is a great idea. Should’ve thought of that before buying a dozen of these! Maybe for my relic set I’d also like to build eventually.

    And Zach, Logan Morrison plays for the Marlins so you’re not crazy. He’s also pretty damn good, so it makes sense that he’d be on your mind! Of course, his autos cost more than the $3 I paid for Weapen X up there!

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