Baseball cards in 1981 entered a new era. Competition was alive and well again, and it was important for Topps to produce a product that would be superior to longtime rival Fleer and newcomer Donruss.
It was a turbulent time for Topps as it ended a long and winding legal road. That led to competition from the other two companies, but it also spurred Topps to produce a better-looking set.
The legal battles are a fascinating series of stories.
Topps had seemingly slammed the door on its competitors when it bought out Bowman in 1956. The two companies had battled for baseball players on their cards during the 1950s, with Topps eventually winning the war. Bowman’s last set was 1955, and the brand remained dormant until Topps resurrected it in 1989.
Fleer attempted to edge into the baseball card market, printing an 80-card Ted Williams set in 1959 and a Baseball Greats set in 1960 and 1961-62. It also produced a 67-card set of current major-leaguers in 1963, inserting a cherry-flavored cookie to counter Topps’ exclusivity claim of gum and confectionary products.
That prompted a lawsuit from Topps.
It wasn’t the first time Topps and Fleer had battled in court. In 1962, the Federal Trade Commission charged that Topps illegally monopolized the baseball card industry, using evidence provided by Fleer to bolster its case. However, Topps won the case and effectively blocked Fleer from producing a second set of current major leaguers. Fleer sold its contracts with players to Topps in 1965 for $395,000.
Fleer continued to produce offbeat baseball card sets, focusing on cartoon-oriented issues that featured cloth patches and quizzes, World Series results, Wildest Days and Plays, Baseball Firsts and Pioneers of Baseball.
Still, the Philadelphia gum company hungered for a piece of the major league baseball card market.
Fleer filed a $16 million lawsuit against Topps in 1975, charging that the baseball card giant had conspired with the Major League Baseball Players Association to violate antitrust laws and gain a monopoly in the manufacture and sale of cards.
On July 1, 1980, U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer in Philadelphia ruled that Topps, through its exclusive contracts with major league and minor league players and the MLBPA, had effectively blocked Fleer from the baseball card trading market.
Fleer was awarded $1 in damages, which was trebled under antitrust laws. But Fleer got much more than $3 worth.
So, in 1981, there were three card companies producing baseball cards: Topps, Fleer and Donruss.
Topps, with its wealth of experience, put out what most felt was the best-looking set in 1981, while Fleer and Donruss were saddled with errors and printing issues.
What is most unique about the 726-card set Topps put out in 1981 is the baseball cap that appears at the bottom left-hand corner of the card front. The Topps logo appears inside a baseball in the right-hand corner of the front. The player photos are vertical in design, and the color photos are framed by a colorful border that has a thin white line inside the frame. Teams shared the same color borders.
Rookie cards sport a horizontal front and contain three players per card. The cards are titled “Future Stars.”
The card backs are generous in providing player statistics, and in some cases, illustrations and a short biography.
Collectors quickly discovered that the double prints that had been part of Topps’ sets each year since 1978 would continue for one more year.
The first eight cards of the set are devoted to leaders in various statistical categories, Card Nos. 201 through 208 pay tribute to record-breakers, while cards 401 to 404 recap the league championship series and the World Series.
If there is a negative to this set, it is the lack of key rookie cards. While the 1980 set featured Rickey Henderson, the first-year Topps cards in 1981 can boast Hall of Famers named Baines and Raines. Harold Baines (No. 347), who will be inducted this summer, appears on a solo card. Tim Raines (No. 479), who was inducted into Cooperstown in 2017, shares a Future Stars card with Bobby Pated and Roberto Ramos.
Gibson (No. 315) also has a rookie card, and Fernando Valenzuela, who would become a pitching sensation during the 1981 split season, was paired on card No. 302 with Mike Scioscia and Jack Perconte.
Joe Charboneau (No. 13), who was the overwhelming choice for American League rookie of the year in 1980, had his own rookie card in the 1981 set.
While interest has picked up some with Raines and Baines being elected to the Hall of Fame, 1981 Topps sets remain readily available and fairly inexpensive with good quality sets available on eBay for a fairly reasonable cost.
As a capper, Topps added a 132-card “traded set,” numbering the cards from 727 to 858. The high-number cards were not sold in packs but were instead available through exclusively through baseball card dealers. The design is the same as the main set. Midseason trades and rookies who excelled were the featured players in the set.
The most notable rookie card belonged to two-sport player Danny Ainge (No. 727). Raines is included on a solo card (No. 816) and so is Valenzuela (No. 850).
The 1981 baseball season proved to be a turbulent one, with a midseason strike forcing a split season. The baseball card market was equally unsettled as Topps tried to keep its major share of the market while Fleer and Donruss worked on establishing their own niches. By the end of the decade Upper Deck would revolutionize the hobby with its high production values, UV coating and crisp photography.
But that’s another story.