by Diane Carter
Today, with new sets coming out practically every other week, it’s hard to imagine a world where Topps would be the only set of sports cards issued each year. Yet, if Fleer had not sued Topps in 1975, that might very well be today’s reality for collectors. It took five years, but in 1980 a judge ruled against the exclusivity of Topps Major League Baseball cards. The door was blown open as if by dynamite and fans entered a new era of card collecting.
For the first time in 1981, there were three sets of baseball cards from which to choose: Donruss, Fleer, and Topps. Donruss issued an unexpectedly large set of 605 baseball cards. The packs contained 18 cards and one piece of gum. Topps’ contract gave them sole rights to gum distribution, so the following year, Donruss puzzle pieces replaced gum. 1981 Donruss cards were printed on very thin stock and had some color problems.
There were many errors in the Donruss set–most believed to be unintentional. 1981 Fleer had them, too. The top baseball rookies included Jeff Reardon, Tim Raines, Harold Baines and former BYU basketball star Danny Ainge who at least for the moment, seemed a better fit for baseball.
While Donruss missed out on the popularity of pitcher Fernando Valenzuela by not having a card, they did have special cards for George Brett and Mike Schmidt, who won the 1980 MVP awards.
Donruss also offered cards honoring the Cy Young winners Steve Carlton and Steve Stone while George Brett and Rod Carew had a Best Hitters’ card. Amazingly enough, the 1981 Donruss cards never came in a complete factory set. Rather, cards were shipped by 100s of each player and then collated by the individual sports card hobby shops. Trying to put a set together via wax packs was a nightmare with little or no collation.
After their first set, Donruss continuously produced baseball sets until 1998 when they began to have financial woes. Fleer also had a tough time when it came to producing baseball cards and staying out of the red. 1981 marked their first production of individual player cards since1963, after which Topps won a lawsuit and began a monopoly that lasted 17 more seasons.
Fleer packed their cards with gum in 1981 but like Donruss gave up confectionaries after that initial year and began packaging them with stickers in 1982. Of the three sets of 1981 baseball cards, Fleer was considered the best quality and named #1 by The Baseball Hobby News.
Many collectors spent their free time that summer searching packs for a misprinted Graig Nettles card–the back listed his first name as Craig. In 1981, the Nettles card alone was going for as much as $40. There were reverse negative cards, misspelled names and what looked like little fingers at the bottom of some cards in the first print run. Many were corrected, leading to multiple variations.
Also like Donruss, Fleer issued a large set with a total of 660 cards. For rookies, they did include the new sensation, Fernando Valenzuela.
In 1981, Fleer Star Stickers were issued as a separate set. There were 128 total sticker cards in the set and these were often harder to find than the regular 1981 Fleer cards. The checklist was included on three cards and had photos of Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Reggie Jackson. The cards had a bright blue front design and lighter blue on the backs.
Topps must have felt a little humbled in 1981. They went from being the only baseball card company to being one of three. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that Topps became a monopoly, literally controlling the American sports card market. In 1981, their first season with competition in nineteen years. they issued a 728-card set, 5 x 7 home team cards, a set of stickers and a set of scratch-offs.
Topps 1981 rookies included Valenzuela, who won the Cy Young award that year and was the Rookie of the Year for the National League. In his first eight starts, Valenzuela was 8-0 and his ERA was a mere 0.50. Fernando-mania swept the country and his rookie cards stayed hot for a couple of years.
Rookie of the Year for the American League was Joe Charboneau and his card was also among the most sought after. Just a year later he would leave baseball because of back problems. The 1981 Topps baseball set also included rookies Jeff Reardon, Tim Raines, Harold Baines, Charlie Leibrandt and Tony Pena.
A unique card set for collectors in 1981 were Topps Scratch-Offs. The set had 108 cards and came in perforated three-player combinations. You would select your nine players and then scratch off a circle on the card when it was your player’s “at bat.” Every pack had 18 cards–nine National League, nine American League and the traditional stick of gum.
Obviously, if you played the game, your cards got beat up. But there are still plenty of these sets around if you want to add one to your collection. It’s possible to get a set for under $8 on Ebay. The Topps Scratch Cards were most likely a gimmick someone thought of to try and push Topps ahead of Donruss and Fleer in the first year of direct competition. They were a novelty for kids and adults. Scratching off a “home run” for your favorite player was as much fun as it is today to scratch off a winning lottery ticket.
Topps, Fleer and Donruss would continue their rivalry until Score and Upper Deck joined the market later in the decade, creating an even more confusing and crowded marketplace but also re-energizing a hobby that grew tremendously during the decade.