It’s hard to believe that the 1982 Donruss baseball card set is now 40 years old.
Many collectors draw the line of demarcation between “vintage” and “modern” sets as 1981, when Donruss and Fleer issued their first sets in competition with longtime baseball card manufacturer Topps.
Donruss’ 1981 set was not impressive, with 605 cards that had 30 variations or errors. The thin stock gave the cards a flimsy feel. Things would change with Donruss’ sophomore set.
The Base Set
The 1982 Donruss was larger — 653 base cards and seven unnumbered checklists — had fewer errors and a thicker card stock.
The set also had a pair of innovations that set it apart from Topps and Fleer — Diamond Kings and puzzle cards depicting Babe Ruth. And it contained a rookie card of one of baseball’s beloved greats, Cal Ripken Jr.
The 1982 Donruss set held the line on pricing, again coming in at 30 cents per pack. The difference is that in 1982 there were 15 cards to a pack, which was three less than Donruss’ debut set. A box still had 36 packs. Today, those boxes typically sell for $250-$350.
There were rack packs that had three packs in cellophane, along with Super Value Packs, which included 13 baseball packs and 12 smaller assorted Donruss trading card packs. Donruss also issued a factory set, which included all 660 cards and two sets of Ruth puzzle cards.
The most notable innovation in the 1982 product was evident in the first 26 cards of the set — Diamond Kings. These cards feature a painting from artist Dick Perez. The San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, native as born in 1940 and attended art school in Philadelphia. He started his baseball art career with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972, and in 1982 began a 14-year run of producing Diamond Kings cards for Donruss.
The subset showcased one player from every team in MLB at the time. Diamond Kings would open Donruss’ baseball sets through 1991, and from 1992 forward they would become inserts.
The fronts of the cards after the Diamond King subset features the player’s name inscribed on a baseball bat icon, along with his position. His team name is positioned on a baseball situated near the bat handle. The fronts have a white border and a small, colored frame. The top right-hand corner of the card features the Donruss logo and an “82” to denote the year of the set.
The card backs had a horizontal design and featured year-by-year and career statistics of the players. Career highlights, which were the focus of the 1981 card backs, are condensed at the bottom of the ’82 set.
Along with the Ripken rookie, the other key cards in the set are those of pitcher Nolan Ryan (No. 419) and The Chicken — made famous as the San Diego Chicken by Ted Giannoulas — at No. 531). The Chicken card has two variations—one has a trademark by The Chicken logo on the card front, and one does not).
Strange as it may sound to those who weren’t around at the time, collectors went wild for The Chicken, who was nationally popular for his funny antics at ballparks around the country.
Puzzling Legal Matter
The puzzles were Donruss’ answer after the company (and Fleer) were prohibited by a court order from using gum in their packs.
Here is some context in this sticky situation.
The legal wrangling began in 1975, when Fleer filed a $16 million antitrust lawsuit against Topps to break that company’s hold on the baseball card market. On July 1, 1980, U.S. District Judge Clarence Newcomer ruled that Topps’ exclusive contract with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which was also a defendant in the case, violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and constituted “an illegal restraint of trade.”
Newcomer issued an injunction that essentially voided Topps’ agreement, so Fleer and Donruss quickly issued sets in 1981 and included gum in their packs.
“We have established that more than one (company) can play,” Donruss President Stewart Lyman told The Associated Press after the 1981 ruling.
The judge’s ruling was overturned in a unanimous by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on Aug. 25, 1981. The Supreme Court declined to hear Fleer’s appeal, but the company’s lawyers found a loophole in Topps’ contract.
As the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported on May 18, 1982, “Topps’ deal with the players’ union restricts the players from allowing their photographs to appear on any other brand of cards, packaged either alone or with candy.”
“The contract says nothing about cards packaged with a jigsaw puzzle painting of Babe Ruth (Donruss) or stickers designed after major league logos (Fleer),” the newspaper reported.
That was quite an irony for Donruss, which had produced the Super Bubble gum product. But the wording of the contract gave the company an opening.
Each pack in the 1982 Donruss set had a card with three pieces of the Babe Ruth puzzle. The 21 different puzzle cards yielded 63 punch-out pieces that formed an image of the Sultan of Swat. They were inserted into packs along with the 15 base set cards. Donruss called it a “hot new concept” in their advertising materials.
So, Donruss (and Fleer) were in the baseball card business for good. Collectors were pleased, too. In May 1982, readers of Baseball Hobby News voted the Donruss set as the best baseball card set of ’82.
The Ripken rookie (No. 405) is the marquee card of the 1982 Donruss set, as it is for Topps and Fleer. According to PSA, more than 12,000 Donruss cards of the Hall of Famer have been sent to the grading service. Of those, 660 have achieved a gem-mint grade of PSA 10.
Hall of Famer Lee Smith (No. 252) also has a rookie card in the set. Other notable first-year players include Steve Bedrosian (No. 401), George Bell (No. 54), Terry Francona (No. 627), Kent Hrbek (No. 557), Dave Righetti (No. 73), Dave Stewart (No. 410) and Tim Wallach (No. 140).
Oh, Those Errors …
While Donruss cut down on the number of errors for its 1982 baseball set, there were still some mistakes. Three of them centered around the Tigers’ Alan Trammell. In early press runs of the cards, the Tigers’ shortstop’s last name was spelled as “Trammel” on his Diamond Kings card (No. 5), the first unnumbered checklist and his base card (No. 76). All three cards were corrected with Trammell’s name spelled correctly.
Shane Rawley’s original card (No. 352) featured a smiling Jim Anderson shaking hands with another member of the Seattle Mariners. The correct photo shows Rawley kneeling with his left arm draped over his right knee. Card No. 422 was supposed to show Juan Eichelberger but instead depicted Gary Lucas.
Card No. 544 is a reversed photo of Phil Garner, but there is also a corrected version of the card of the infielder known as “Scrap Iron.”
And card No. 595 shows Randy Lerch playing for the Braves on one version and the Brewers on the other. The correct version is the latter, as Lerch played for the Milwaukee Brewers. He never played for the Braves; apparently, Donruss’ copywriter forgot that the Braves had moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta.
Today, most of those error cards are fairly plentiful and inexpensive.
Donruss was able to overcome some growing pains and embarrassing errors in 1981 and 1982 and finally gained a stronger foothold in the baseball card market. While the early 1980s was not known for innovative card designs, Donruss held its own and remained competitive.