When “Fernand” Valenzuela Was an Early 80’s Smash Hit

At the end of the 1980 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers called up a pudgy Mexican-born pitcher who electrified fans by pitching 17 2/3 innings in relief in the final two weeks of that season without allowing an earned run.  He won two games and saved one during that streak, and helped the Dodgers nearly catch the Houston Astros from behind to win the N.L. West Division title. In fact, without a sterling performance from Joe Niekro in a playoff game, the Dodgers might have finished their improbable comeback.  Twenty-two years later, their cross-town rival, now known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, used a similar pitching performance from Francisco Rodriguez to help propel them to their first World Series victory.

1981 Topps Valenzuela1981 brought competition to the card industry for the first time since 1955.  A court victory in 1980 cleared the way for Fleer and Donruss to launch their first sets.  Both were rife with error cards and one featured the hottest rookie card on the planet.

Valenzuela’s impact was so strong that before the 1981 season began, Topps and Fleer included him in their 1981 sets. Topps used a multi-player “Rookie Stars” card to feature him while Fleer, who only had single player cards, put a portrait shot of him in their set. The Topps card also features long-time catcher and manager Mike Scioscia, who  was the Angels manager when Rodriguez was a rookie in 2002. One can only wonder if he remembered the impact Valenzuela had in 1980 and by drawing on that experience insisted the Angels bring up Rodriguez in September, 2002.

The major difference between the two relievers is Rodriguez continued to work out of the bullpen for the rest of his career while Valenzuela became a starter in 1981. He also became a sensation, compiling an astonishing 0.50 ERA in his first eight starts, all of which were victories. In the rookie card craze of that time, both 1981 cards noted were (along with fellow rookie Tim Raines) the most popular cards of that time. Amazingly the prices for Valenzuela rookie cards seemed so high for cards easily accessible from packs that could be purchased from store shelves.

What truly differentiated Valenzuela from Raines was “Fernandomania”.  Fans, many of Mexican descent, packed Dodger Stadium for each of his starts.  The hobby was on fire with dealers in search of as many rookie cards of the young ace with the funny windup as they could find.   There was even a bubble gum product created in his honor, just like the Reggie bars in New York a few years earlier.

1981 was the third time in 10 years  when  a rookie pitcher gained fame in both baseball and national circles. In 1971 that was Vida Blue and in 1976, Mark Fidrych. 1981 continued this every five years kind of run as Valenzuela’s name was on everyone’s mind until the strike began in June and poured water on a sizzling story.

1981 Fleer Fernando Valenzuela errorThe Fleer card is actually the more interesting of the two rookie cards as it features Valenzuela by himself and is an uncorrected error card.  Somewhere Fleer lost the ‘o’ in Fernando so he is forever ‘Fernand’ on the front.  I guess no one at the company had ever heard of the ABBA song ‘Fernando’ that had been on radio airwaves just a few years earlier.  Today, you can buy them for a buck or two in mint condition.  The Topps rookie isn’t much more expensive although a ‘9’ might set you back $50-75.  Valenzuela’s 1981 Topps Update (Traded) card is a little more desirable simply because there aren’t as many around and he’s featured by himself.  A PSA 10 sold for $477 in June but you can buy a very nice one for less than $10.

Considering that the errors and variations craze was nearly as wild as the rookie card craze at that time, it’s an interesting question as to why that Fleer error was never corrected.  Others were, including the famous “Craig” Nettles variation.  Many of the third and final printing corrections, such as changing Kevin Saucier’s name from Ken to Kevin are much tougher to find than the other corrections.  Thus one can wonder why this Valenzuela error was never fixed. Perhaps some Fleer employee of that time can remember why, especially at the height of ‘Fernandomania’.