Collecting the 1993 Finest Refractors Set

I am in the process of collecting seven complete sets of sports cards, but the reality is I am collecting one set while being occasionally distracted by six others. The subject of my interest is the refractor version of the popular 1993 Topps Finest baseball cards. The issue’s focus on players popular in 1993 coincides nicely with the period in which I was most actively following the sport. The cards are among the more attractive of the period with high gloss and metallic printing giving the appearance of depth. Only a few hundred cards exist, making acquiring all 199 cards a real challenge.

The ’93 Finest refractors are a set that is instantly recognizable among collectors, even those who left the hobby decades ago. Their introduction was instrumental in turning the tide away from the junk wax era and set a new standard that continues to echo through today. I have heard more than one collector compare its importance to the fabled 1952 Topps set and the description seems to hold true nearly 30 years later. I am attempting to complete the set before 2033, a time at which the cards will be as old as the ’52s were when I first laid eyes on them.

Hobby Influence and the Death of Junk Wax

The Junk Wax Era refers to a free-for-all of new card issues and seemingly unlimited production quantities that resulted from an explosion of hobby popularity. Many cards were cheaply made and mass produced in an effort to meet demand. While there are plenty of iconic cards from this period there are still millions of them in existence.

The first shot against this tidal wave came when a group of sports card enthusiasts founded Upper Deck and issued high-quality cards in 1989. These featured better cardstock, tamper-resistant packaging, and an eye for above average photography. Collectors went wild for the cards, prompting the company to continue the hobby playbook of producing them by the metric ton. That’s actually an understatement, as an estimated production run of 2 million of each card implies a larger sum. By this measure there are 4 metric tons of Ken Griffey, Jr. rookies floating around.

Upper Deck returned in 1990, including randomly inserted Reggie Jackson autographs that were limited to only 2,500 copies. This was an unheard of level of scarcity for the time and generated substantial buzz. Taking note, rivals began to up their game with improved quality and (somewhat) reduced production quantities.

In mid-1993 Topps announced the introduction of Topps Finest, a new premium brand that would showcase the firm’s production capabilities. The cardboard would feature a metallic new printing process and feature only the game’s most promising players. Most exciting of all was a notation that production would only be limited to 4,000 cases of unopened material. This implies a total production run of around 26,000 sets, a level that astounded the era’s collectors.

Many card manufacturers release their product at the beginning of a sports season so that retailers can carry inventory throughout the period of highest demand. Because of this, Topps’ dealer network was taken by surprise when the company announced in midyear that it would produce a new lineup of premium cards. Retailer orders were filled on a first-come first-serve basis with most of the production winding up in the hands of a small number of hobby shops with standing orders to buy whatever Topps produced. Low print runs coupled with regional scarcity fueled further interest in the unique set.

One further surprise was waiting for collectors as they pondered the extravagantly-priced $3 packs. Hidden inside random packs were special versions of the cards that reflected light into an array of rainbow colors. Topps dubbed these inserts “refractors” and they were about to change the hobby.

Within the first month of their appearance, hobbyists began to marry up the rates at which they found refractors with the stated production of base Finest cards. The resulting estimates implied production of only a few hundred of each player, a level nearly 10 times more scarce than Upper Deck’s autographs and 40x the popular Elite Series from Donruss. Collectors seeking their favorite players had to contend with the idea that the cards they were chasing might be harder to come by than many of the rarest tobacco cards from the beginning of the century. Unopened packs exploded in price, eventually commanding as much as $20-$50 for a half dozen cards.

Scarcity and Production

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss the scarcity of these cards. To this day Topps has never officially confirmed the total refractor production quantity to the public. Marketing materials accompanying the Topps Finest release gave a stated production of 4,000 cases (12 boxes each) of unopened product and implied refractors were inserted at a rate of about one per box. Doing some quick math yields a production run of 241 cards (4,000 cases X 12 boxes/case ÷ 199 different cards to collect).

A lack of confirmation from Topps and the number of cards graded by third-party authentication companies make the 241 card estimate seem a bit light. Conspiracy theories abound among people who take cards way too seriously with many not holding up to scrutiny. Data on eBay sales collected by Phil Gold has been helpful in estimating the overall number of “available” cards over time and I believe these correspond with a production run in the low-to-mid hundreds. I have kept my own log of sales and am seeing similar patterns today. Notes from collectors opening entire cases support an insertion rate of between 1:15 and 1:18 packs, a figure that would imply a slightly higher production rate than 241.

After reviewing countless nerd fights on the subject, I find the most compelling production estimate to be ~297 cards. This is a figure put forward in a message board post by George Calfas, a collector with probably more knowledge about the set than any other and possibly one of the largest accumulations of the cards. While this specific post does not go into the mechanics of how he arrived at this figure he does have an extensive online history that reveals a deep study of the cards. Based on some of his public comments I believe he has some exposure to primary evidence regarding the actual print run, bolstering my confidence in his estimate. My apologies for the internet stalking, George!

What is abundantly clear is that there are not thousands of these sets circulating in the hobby. This makes building a complete set quite a challenge, especially considering the number of cards that reside in long-term collections.

Short Prints (or the Lack Thereof)

Over the past three decades there have been several cards that were reported to be short-printed. This means that some cards literally exist in materially smaller quantities than others and has driven demand for cards with this designation. While the idea of an even more challenging chase is entertaining, the truth is short-prints don’t really exist for this set. Three factors have contributed to the mistaken belief in short-prints.

While Topps claimed to be starting anew with a premium product, it had not forgotten the quality control skills it honed in the junk wax era. Collation of refractor cards was reported to be lackluster with collectors opening sealed cases only to find multiple copies of the same player. It is therefore likely that remaining unopened boxes contain a disproportionate number of the “missing” short-prints.

Entranced by limited production, several collectors began to try to acquire large percentages of the print run for specific cards. One such hobbyist was Phil Gold, a San Jose resident that amassed more than 3,000 refractors. On multiple occasions Phil wrote that he enjoyed “creating” short-prints by taking significant quantities of cards off the market. Hobby publications reacted to the perceived scarcity by designating these cards as being notoriously tough to find when the reality was these cards were the easiest for Phil to obtain. With nearly half the print run in his possession, he claimed to have been personally responsible for the short-print asterisk appearing next to the Randy Myers card in Beckett Baseball Monthly. Phil was influential among collectors of the set and undoubtedly inspired others to try attempt similar feats.

PSA’s popular set registry has drawn study from observers seeking to determine the true rarity of cards. Some refractors do indeed appear in lower quantities than others, though attributing this to smaller production runs would be a mistake. The registry has trouble accounting for cards that are submitted multiple times, a factor that can make some appear relatively more common. PSA’s own pricing structure makes it uneconomical to submit cards with a limited value, depressing the number that are ultimately counted in its census. Other perceived PSA-rarities are the victims of quality-control issues at Topps, a subject that can be explored further in another post.

Player Selection

Limited production and an attractive design alone are not enough to charm collectors. What keeps this set iconic is an embarrassingly large group of players that represent the era. Nearly 40 members of the Hall of Fame make an appearance, a figure not inflated by inclusion of bygone players or multiple appearances in the set. With only 199 cards in the set and 6 cards per pack, collectors can on average expect to pull a card of a Cooperstown inductee in every pack they open. I have looked at other iconic sets and have struggled to find any regular issues that come close to this kind of concentrated star power.

This was also the ’90s, a period immersed in sporting infamy due to widespread use of performance enhancing drugs. Many of the biggest steroid-related names are present and would undoubtedly be Hall of Famers if voters overlooked chemical enhancements. One simply cannot find a set more emblematic of the era.

A lack of rookie cards is sometimes mentioned as a shortcoming of the checklist. This makes sense given the set’s underlying theme of selecting nearly 200 of the game’s top players. Rookies are rarely among the game’s best in their first year.  Two players, JT Snow and Mike Lansing, are generally recognized as the only rookie cards by most collectors. However, it is worth noting that there are a substantial number of players were still considered rookies in 1993 and had only previously appeared in update sets or Bowman issues. Bowman is notorious for including players as early as possible with many photographed years before suiting up for a game. “Suiting up” is meant literally, as Bowman’s 1992 edition included Mariano Rivera in street clothes three years before he would even faced a batter. Topps did a fairly good job with its rookie checklist and managed to include Mike Piazza and Tim Salmon, both of which won their league’s respective rookie of the year awards in 1993. Topps would follow up in 2001 with a release of overlooked rookies to appease its neck-bearded critics.

Common Condition Issues

These cards were highly sought after at the time of their release and were purchased by collectors that had fairly good standards established for keeping cards in mint condition. Despite this, there are several recurring kinds of damage frequently observed in the set.

Corner damage and edge wear are generally minor. Cards were well preserved once added to collections, making damage most likely to accumulate while the cards were still sealed in packs. The highly reflective coating makes the most insignificant wear stand out and precludes many from achieving the highest grades.

These were the first cards issued using the chromium printing process to generate a metallic appearance. While presenting collectors with attractive cards, the process made the front surface susceptible to scratches from other cards and even some protective holders.

Scratches are not the only damage seen from protective holders. Minute creases can be found on the back of some cards. The creasing originates from the natural tendency of the cards to bow slightly. Tightly pressed displays can flatten the card and result in a crease. The direction of the bow favors the appearance of creases on card backs and typically run parallel with that side’s text.

The great majority of the set has minor centering issues. Some cards are thought to be more prone to centering issues than others. Despite modern printing processes there is some variation in the size of the cards released from Topps’ facilities. A handful of cards appear to suffer from slightly smaller sizes than their peers. This results in perceived centering issues along the shortchanged border, as well as a tendency for collectors to suspect an otherwise flawless card may have been trimmed. I intend to put forward a theory in a future post to address both centering and subsize cards.

One final danger lurks for collectors seeking to keep their cards in top condition. The cards’ refractor coating sometimes reacts to long-term exposure to light by forming a greenish tint. Collectors often refer to this process as “hulking” given the way it makes player photos resemble The Incredible Hulk. Although this appears to happen more frequently with basketball cards released the same year, the Dave Fleming card shown below shows it is present in the baseball release.

Fleming smash! A “hulked” refractor appears to the left while an undamaged refractor appears on the right.

Parting Weirdness

There are always a few odd facts that come up when researching any topic. I leave you with a handful of items that did not fit anywhere else.

  • While only 6 of 199 players are depicted as members of the New York Yankees, 24% of the checklist ultimately played for the team at some point. This is likely due to the tendency of Yankee management to reach for big name players and late season additions in playoff runs.
  • Player images are superimposed on a rotating set of stock photo backgrounds throughout the set. There are three different images used on regular cards and a fourth appearing on All-Stars.
  • Players are seemingly randomly assigned to All-Star cards (#84-116). Player selection does not correspond with either the 1992 or 1993 All Star rosters with several players not appearing in either year’s game while other multiyear players are given base card designs.

You can check the status of my set through the ’93 Refractor checklist page.


PLAYERWARwOBA (Batting) / FIP- (Pitching)
Barry Bonds164.4.513
Roger Clemens133.771
Randy Johnson109.073
Rickey Henderson106.3.372
Greg Maddux116.978
Wade Boggs88.3.381
Cal Ripken92.5.346
Jeff Bagwell80.2.405
Curt Schilling78.175
George Brett84.6.374