By the winter of 1980-81, the collecting landscape had changed dramatically. A long Topps monopoly had ended earlier in the year when Fleer and Donruss began producing MLB-licensed baseball cards. In the fall came the first Topps Traded/Update set.
Fleer was not an unknown name, having created a short-lived 1963 set packed with cookies, all-time greats sets in the 1960s and various sticker and Laughlin baseball art sets in the 70s.
Fleer’s first set is sometimes scoffed at today but it played a huge part in hobby history.
From the time they began producing cards in the 1950s through the 1970s, Topps held the exclusive rights to produce baseball cards and was the only game in town. Other oddball/food issues popped up but Topps held the exclusive rights to the MLB bubble gum card license and remained the sole producer of cards from 1956-1980.
In 1975, Fleer sued Topps over those rights and a judge ruled in their favor. That lawsuit opened the door for others to enter the mix, including Fleer. It took a few years for everything to get hashed out, but in 1981, Fleer produced its first full baseball card set. Fleer had produced a set of strip cards back in the 1920s and then in 1959, a special Ted Williams set followed by a 1960 set of all-time greats. But this was the first true set of cards of current baseball players in the modern era.
1981 Fleer Basics
Fleer’s cards came in a colorful red box at a price of 30 cents per pack. It was also the only year Fleer issued its cards with gum after Topps retained the exclusive right to distribute packs with gum beginning in 1982.
Fleer’s first cards weren’t exactly the typical trading card that collectors were accustomed to. The card size was the same and with the picture/name on the front with statistics on the back, they resembled Topps cards in that aspect. But the Fleer cards were also a little sleeker with a slight gloss and thinner than the Topps sets that came before them.
In addition to the player’s name on the front, teams were included in a small baseball icon in at the bottom.
The cards had a white border with the backs offering more information about the player, including statistics and a card number. The numbering system grouped players on the same teams together with the defending World Series champion Phillies at the head.
1981 Fleer Stars … and Errors
Fleer obviously took advantage and included all of baseball’s biggest stars. Key veteran players in the set include Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, Gary Carter, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, Carl Yastrzemski, Rod Carew, Rickey Henderson, Willie Stargell, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Willie McCovey, Robin Yount, and others.
The company put an emphasis on the star players, giving several of them more than one card. Schmidt, Jackson, Brett, and Carlton, for example, are all players who appear multiple times.
In addition to the big names, it was also quite evident that Fleer was not quite ready for the undertaking of producing a major set. More than 20 errors exist in the set, many with corrections. These are wide-ranging and include things such as print variations, misspellings, and statistical errors. Some pictures were also reversed and some photos were not depicting the correct player. In other words, it was a comedy of errors.
Easily the most infamous error was in the first printing run when they spelled Graig Nettles’ first name “Craig” on the back. The cards became sizzling hot once word got out that the error was quickly corrected in a second printing.
While iconic rookie cards don’t exist in the 1981 Fleer set, there is a unique combination of first-year cards here that is somewhat appealing. Leading the way is arguably the Harold Baines rookie card. Baines isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but is considered one of the top designated hitters of all-time. He did play in the outfield for the majority of his early career, but became a mostly full-time designated hitter by 1987. Also there is 1988 World Series hero Kirk Gibson, whose card still draws interest.
The most interesting rookie, perhaps, is that of NBA player Danny Ainge. Before he suited up for the Boston Celtics, he was drafted in 1977 and tried his hand at baseball. After playing a few years with the Toronto Blue Jays, he jumped to the NBA. Finally, there are also rookie cards of All-Star Fernando Valenzuela (“Fernand” according to one of those early Fleer errors), Mike Scioscia, Joe Charboneau, and a few others.
1981 Fleer Prices
Despite being a landmark set of sorts, the 1981 Fleer release is extremely affordable due to its large quantity production. Complete sets can be found on eBay for approximately $20 – sometimes less. Stars and even the key rookie cards can easily be had for $1-$2.
In an obvious marketing ploy, Fleer opted to put two extra packs inside its boxes for a total of 38 rather than the traditional 36 and crammed 17 card in each pack. Even with an uptick of interest in vintage wax boxes, they can still be found online for $40-$60.