For several years now Topps has released a set it calls Heritage, spotlighting modern players on card designs from the past.
Depending on how these have been handled, my reaction has varied from “that’s cool” to “that’s a cynical cash grab.” But 2011 Topps Heritage? It’s an absolute winner, because the approach to the cards and history — specifically Mets history — is pitch-perfect.
 First off, the cards themselves. They’re done in the wood-grain style of the ’62 cards, and produced using plain old cardstock. They aren’t glossy, or festooned with holograms, or otherwise Jetsonized in some unfortunate way. Yes, there are some acknowledgments of the modern age: They have a (subtle) Topps Heritage logo, they say New York Mets® instead of N.Y. Mets, and the backs have a bunch of lawyerese, a web address, and the logos of MLB and the MLBPA instead of the ’nuff-said © T. C. G. P R I N T E D I N U. S. A. of another age. But that’s admissible — when nostalgia won’t be satisfied with anything less than perfect recreation, it’s crossed the line into mania.
The images are great too — they have that simultaneously static yet rich painterly quality of old Topps cards, and the poses are static, not action frames captured with a close-to-lightspeed modern shutter. The backs are wonderfully reproduced, too, with statistics boiled down to a brusque YEAR and LIFE and the little cartoons terrific recreations of a half-century-old style. (If you’re curious why Topps originally opted for YEAR instead of 1961, the answer was so holdover packs of ’62 cards might still sell in ’63.)
But here’s where it starts getting really good. There are 16 Mets in the ’11 Heritage set, plus two Rookie Parade cards featuring Jenrry Mejia and Mike Nickeas (first Met card!) as disembodied heads alongside those of other aspiring pitchers and catchers. Of the 16 Mets, nine are hatless, staring past the camera with the red badges of cap marks on their foreheads and vaguely sheepish expressions. Only one of the guys in a cap is visible to the waist.
The hatless shot is an old Topps standby, taken so a Topps artist could mock up a new uniform (sometimes with comical results) in case of a trade or some other move. There are hatless guys on other teams in ’11 Heritage, but a hasty and admittedly unscientific look around eBay finds many more hatless Mets.
This almost certainly isn’t a mistake or a statistical quirk: It’s Topps knowing its history, and offering an additional homage to 1962. Then, of course, the Mets were a brand-new team, with a dearth of photographs of players in heretofore-unseen blue and orange. Topps had to populate its Mets set with shots of guys in their old uniforms, and that was easiest if hatless shots were used. The ’62 Topps set has 21 guys and three Rookie Parade cards. Of the 21, 16 are hatless, three are wearing hats with the team logos removed, one guy (Al Jackson) wears a Mets hat, and one guy (Ed Bouchee) appears in full uniform. (For the trivia-minded, Don Zimmer wears a Mets hat on a Cin. Reds card, while Bobby Gene Smith wears Mets gear on a Cardinal card, but his cap is angled so you can’t see the NY.)
The percentages aren’t exact, but Topps has got the spirit wonderfully right. After I decided I loved the set, I spent 20 minutes irritably hunting around on eBay and the web looking for the Mets team card. Had Topps forgotten it? No, they hadn’t — I was the forgetful one. The ’62 Mets hadn’t had a team card. And so neither do the ’11 Mets.
Appropriately then, my hat’s off to them.
(Happy aside: The ’11 Heritage set, like us, also lacks Luis Castillo.)