One could say that 1982 was a watershed year for Topps. The company had ruled the roost in baseball cards for more than two decades, but the emergence of sets in 1981 by Donruss and Fleer called for some bold moves.
So in 1982, Topps produced the largest baseball card set to date, at 792 cards, up from 726. That effectively ended the need for double-printed cards. In addition, Topps had six different subsets, including 1981 highlights, League Leaders, Team Leaders, All-Stars, Future Stars and In Action cards.
Topps had to do something different to maintain its dominance. There were competitors nipping at its heels.
From Court to Competition
To look back, in July 1980, U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer ruled that Topps’ exclusive agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association violated federal antitrust laws and gained a monopoly in the manufacture and sale of baseball cards.
Donruss, of Memphis, Tennessee, which was a subsidiary of General Mills, and Philadelphia-based Fleer, which originally filed a $16 million lawsuit in 1975 challenging the exclusive agreement, were the beneficiaries. Fleer won the lawsuit and was awarded $3 in damages. That’s right, $3.
However, that decision was overturned at the appellate level, and the Supreme Court declined to hear Fleer’s appeal.
Topps thought it had won, but Donruss and Fleer took advantage of a loophole in Topps’ agreement with the MLBPA. Topps’ deal prevented players from allowing their photographs to appear on other card brands, packaged either alone or with candy. The deal said nothing about Donruss packs that contained with three pieces of a 63-piece jigsaw puzzle of Babe Ruth, a reproduction of a painting by noted artist by Dick Perez; or Fleer cards, accompanied by a sticker.
After all three companies had hustled to beat each other to market in the winter of 1981, the competition was now in full swing as the calendar turned to 1982.
Topps went to a 792-card set while Donruss and Fleer topped out at 660.
There were 36 packs to a 1982 Topps wax box. In a competitive mode against it upstart competition, the box had the non-too-subtle slogan, “The Real One!” with “Real” underlined. They also pushed out cello boxes, rack packs and smaller grocery rack packs.
In addition to Topps boasting the largest card set in history — that number would remain at 792 until 1992 — its 1982 set became famous for card No. 21, which was Cal Ripken Jr.’s rookie card. Ripken was flanked by fellow Orioles rookies Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider. They’re plentiful today and prices can vary greatly based on condition.
The design for the 1982 Topps card front was also distinctive, with a pair of stripes that travel down the left side of the card. Some collectors have likened those stripes to hockey sticks, and if one uses their imagination that is plausible. The stripes open up at the bottom left-hand corner of the card to list the player’s position, and his name and team name take up the bottom two-thirds of the card in capital letters.
The card fronts feature a color photo of the player, with a facsimile autograph running across the front. The card backs are green, with the player’s number and the Topps logo in the upper left-hand corner. Vital statistics are printed at the top of the card, and the player’s year-by-year statistics take up the bulk of the back.
The Other Rookies, Traded Cards
Other key rookie cards include Lee Smith (No. 452), Dave Stewart (No. 213), Steve Sax (No, 681), Chili Davis (No. 171) and Kent Hrbek (No. 766). Smith and Stewart were rookies but still had solo cards, while the others were paired with two other first-year players.
Many of the players featured on the Future Stars cards would appear in 1982 Topps Traded, a 132-card set that was released in September 1982. Even though it is not his rookie card, the Topps Traded version of Ripken Jr. (No. 98T) has become the most coveted card from 1982.
Ozzie Smith (No. 95) would appear in a San Diego Padres uniform in the flagship set but would be wearing Cardinals garb in the Traded set (No. 109T).
Topps opted to begin the checklist with a group of six “1981 Highlight” cards, a subset that includes three Hall of Famers: Steve Carlton, Tim Raines, and Nolan Ryan as well as Pete Rose. The leaders subset was printed on cards 161-168.
Stars on the Move, Card of the Year
There are plenty of established stars in the set who eventually wound up in the Hall, including Tom Seaver (No. 30), Ryan (No. 90), Mike Schmidt (No. 100), Carlton Fisk (No. 110), George Brett (No. 200), Reggie Jackson (No. 300), Johnny Bench (No. 400), Rickey Henderson (No. 610) and Carl Yastrzemski (No. 650).
Off-season moves meant collectors would have to wait until the Traded set to see some players like Jackson and Smith in the uniforms they actually donned during the ’82 season.
Fisk’s “In Action” card (No. 111) was voted as the ‘Baseball Card of the Year’ by Baseball Hobby News that year.
1982 Topps complete sets are readily available today for fairly modest prices, although much depends on the quality of the Ripken card.
A variation for the ’82 is referred to as Blackless cards. Owing to a printing error, the black plate was not used on about half of the set’s cards. Yellow, cyan and magenta made it through, but the lack of a black plate meant that the player’s facsimile autograph did not appear on the front of the card. That is the best way to pick out the Blackless variation.
Graded 1982 Topps
As of this time, more than 110,000 cards from the 1982 Topps set have been sent to PSA for grading. Of those cards, 14,731 have been graded PSA 10, with more than 34,500 cards receiving a PSA 9 grade. Predictably, the Ripken card has drawn the most attention, with 38,927 submissions and 542 gem mint cards.
Henderson is second with 293 gem mint cards out of 2,791 submissions, while Ryan is third with 188 PSA 10s out of 4,034 submissions.
With a larger set, better photography and tradition on its side, Topps was able to maintain its dominance in 1982 despite two new competitors. That would be challenged at the end of the decade after the debut of Upper Deck, but that was still seven years away.