With the assistance of Chipper Jones, here's a gallery and brief history of all the Topps "Retro" sets such as Allen & Ginter that Topps has put out since 2002.
In 2001 Topps began their Heritage brand with a tribute set to 1952 Topps. That set, along with the rebirth of the Archives brand were insanely popular. Since sets based on old Topps designs sold so well, the next year they mined the depths of baseball history and released a set designed on the classic T206 tobacco card set. The design is very simple, just like the originals - a very large photo manipulated to sort of make it look like an old lithograph. There is a brown border around the picture with the Player's last name and team underneath. The reverse of the original cards had an advertisement for a tobacco brand covering the entire back. For the base cards, Topps instead put an ornate frame around a short biography of the player. The one below is for a base player card, the design is different for rookies, prospects, retired players and original T206 reprints.
Each pack had one miniature card and either a thick insert card or a framed Autograph, relic or original buyback card. There were three series in all, the inserts for series one had the blue border, while series two and three were red. The miniature card was exactly the same as the base card, but was the size of the original T206 tobacco cards. The minis also had one of several original T206 back designs on the reverse. Discussing the minis and the many backs is worthy of a post in and of itself, so I'll save that for later.
After three very successful series of Topps206, the next year brought Topps205. This was the exact same concept as Topps206, hijack the design of a classic set for a new product. Until Allen & Ginter came out this was my absolute favorite set to come out probably in the past 20 years. The T205 set design is much more interesting than T206 for one thing. The original set that three separate front designs for the National, American and minor leagues. Here is the National League design, a very elegant one that has a portrait of the player, a colored background, the player's signature and a team logo. Chipper is also seen in one of the many variation cards for this set in this scan.
The American League design is much busier, a portait of the player is framed by several different baseball themed designs such as bats, gloves, catcher's masks, basepaths, etc. They also have a team logo in the top corner and the player's name and team underneath the portrait. Chipper's teammate Mark Teixeira lends a hand representing the AL. The card back is patterned on the original T205 back, which also have a full bio and even stats! The Topps205 logo is where the original tobacco advertisement would be located. Like Topps206, this set also featured one mini card per pack that had the different tobacco advertisements along with a "Brooklyn" advertisement on the back in different levels of rarity. Each Hobby box came with a small "cigarette pack" box topper with 20 extra mini cards.
The third design is for the rookie cards in the set. This design is the same as the T205 card featuring Southern Le aguers and other minor league players. They are distinctive by the ornate frame around a full picture of the player. Chipper's NL East rival Hanley Ramirez represents the rookies for this post. Hey you, come here. Closer. Keep it under your hat, but Hanley's T205 rookie can be found pretty easily for a buck or two. Can you believe it? A Hanley freakin' Ramirez rookie card for a buck! While everyone else is paying out the nose for his Bowman Chrome and Bowman's Best auto cards, you can get a pile of these for less than twenty bucks. Can you believe it?
This set also has an insert set that disguised the autos and relics in packs. They based the set on the T202 Triple Fold set. The original set featured two card designs from the T205 set bookending a larger middle card of a black and white photo of a baseball theme and Topps did the same. Topps inserted 50 each in series one and two. This set can be found with a red "Polar Bear" back and a short printed blue "Brooklyn" version.
2004 Cracker Jack
Topps205 ran its course after two series (a decision I vehemently disagreed with) and Topps moved on to the 1915 Cracker Jack set. The original set is distinctive for the bright red backgrounds and Topps spared no expense in buying up red ink for this set. The set has the large "Cracker Jack" logo at top and the player name and team under the picture on the bottom. The backs mimic the original set with a short bio and an advertisement on the bottom. Topps replaces much of the advertisement with copyright legalese. Topps also copied the Cracker Jack originals in one other way - many of the cards have backs that were printed upside down like the the originals were. This is a great authentic touch, but is a real pain in the tuchas when sorting your set.
The Cracker Jack set also had mini cards inserted in the set as well as mini stickers that were wrapped in a Cracker Jack "prize" pack. Like the other sets they were parallels of the base cards and were in the size of the original Cracker Jack cards. The stickers can be distinguished as their backs are glossy and have blue printing on them. The mini cards can also be found with a blue (very scarce) and white (completely impossible) background variation. Topps inserted a thick checklist card instead of an insert card to deter pack searchers. The box topper for the 2004 set is unique - a bag of actual Cracker Jacks with a prize! Mmmmm... four year old Cracker Jacks.
2005 Cracker Jack
2005 Cracker Jack is a first for these retro sets in that Topps created a new design out of whole cloth for the new series. Cracker Jack didn't have a 1916 series for them to copy so they imagined what one might look like. The design is quite attractive, featuring a gold border around an oval with the player's portrait. The backs once again feature a biography and no stats. There is again no separate insert set, only the mini cards and the stickers.
Topps produced two retro sets in 2005, releasing the Turkey Red set later in the year after retiring Cracker Jack. The cards are based on the T3 cabinet cards from Turkey Red tobacco. The cards have a gray frame surrounding a heavily computerized photo that is made to resemble the original paintings from 1911. The cards are distinctive for the texture on the fronts of the cards, with an odd pockmarked feel to them. I've never actually seen an original Turkey Red card but I suppose they are once again mimicking the originals. Since the original cards are oversized cabinet cards, there are no minis in the set. Instead there is a one per pack parallel with either a red, black, white or gold frame. Cabinet sized cards were inserted as box toppers in Hobby boxes.
2006 Turkey Red
Topps continued the series in 2006, and caused some confusion by continuing the numbering from the 2005 set. The cards are identical to the 2005 version and all cards numbered 316 and over are from the 2006 set. They continued with the parallel cards, here's a white bordered version of Chipper's card.
2007 Turkey Red
Rather than continue the numbering into the 1000s, Topps rebooted Turkey Red in 2007 and created a new design like they did with 2005 Cracker Jack. The same style photos from the original sets (Chipper's picture here sure looks familiar...) and portraits painted by Dick Perez were now bordered by a wood grain picture frame. The colored border parallels were also abandoned in favor of Chrome inserts, the first time Chrome was used in a retro set.
The backs of all three series of Turkey red are identical as you can see here. They mimic the original set with a bio that takes up most of the card, with the card number player and team name on the top and a Topps advertisement on bottom. Can you tell which of these is the 2005 back and which is from 2007?
2006 Allen & Ginter
Topps overshadowed their Turkey Red set in 2006 with a set based on the 1887 Allen & Ginter World's Champions set. The cards copied the first series or "N28" set of Champions design. They feature an artistic portrait of the player meant to look like the lithographs from the original cards, and have the player name, an Allen & Ginter's Topps logo in blue and Brooklyn New York underneath the portrait. The backs are very similar to the originals. They have the same "The World's Champions" title, but the player name, card number and team name replace an advertisement for cigarettes. The original card backs feature a checklist of the series, while Topps has the player's career stats written out word by word instead of numbers presumably to give the card the same checklist 'feel'.
Topps went back to inserting art cards as pack deterrents as they did in the Topps206 set. These thick cards feature a sketch by Dick Perez of one player from each team and are framed by bats and baseballs. Andruw Jones once again provides an outfield assist with this insert.
2007 Allen & Ginter
Topps followed up their wildly popular Allen & Ginter with an insanely popular rerun of the set. The design is identical (why mess with a good thing?) to the 2006 version with one difference: the Allen & Ginter logo is now in red and states 2007 instead of Topps. The backs are completely identical other than the copyright date.
Once again Topps inserted Dick Perez sketch cards in hobby packs without a relic or autograph. They can be distinguished from the 2006 version by the border which has a scroll framing the sketch instead of bats and balls.
That's where we are so far as far as Topps Retro sets go. I hope this was a good reference to anyone not familiar with these sets. You can still pick up boxes of a lot this stuff, just promise me you won't eat the Cracker Jacks. It's a pretty good assumption that the Product of the Year for 2006 and 2007 will return in 2008. Will it take the design of the second series of Allen and Ginter Champions, or will they change the logo color again? (My money is on a green logo this year) Will Turkey Red be retired? If so, will they find a new set to plunder, maybe Gypsy Queen or T207 perhaps? I'm looking forward to finding out!