The other night I was driving home and listening to Scott Walker’s speech in which he departed the 2016 presidential campaign. Some people would be thinking about how that would affect the 2016 Republican logjam while others would be wondering how a such a successful political governor could crash and burn in the national process. I, on the other hand, started thinking about a different governor who ran for president 35 years ago as we decided whether we wanted four more years of Jimmy Carter or the new approach we would see from Ronald Reagan. Well, as we know Reagan did emerge victorious and ever since the Republican Party has tried to emulate his success.
That same fall, another important event was taking place in the hobby. Topps was losing their baseball card monopoly and the card collecting field was now going to be wide open. The story got extensive play in newspapers around the country.
Found on Newspapers.com
Fleer had been chomping at the bit for more than 15 years to make a mainstream set in any sport and Donruss was ready to join the parade. For collectors, the reasonably stable world they had known for the past quarter century when you could buy the year’s one and old mainstream set for $10-20 was going to disappear. If you wanted one set of each manufacturer in 1981, it was now going to cost three times as much—maybe $50 or more. I didn’t think many people would and that gives you an idea of my prognostication ability because by the end of the 1980s, we would have two additional major manufacturers and a few right on the borderline.
Also, in one of the truest cases of unintended consequences, these products did not mean the end of baseball cards. Instead the hobby absolutely exploded. In fact the money generated over the next 14 years was enough to cover the emergency payments to the players during the 1994-95 strike.
Of course, Donruss and Fleer were so involved in the process of making their first sets available before spring training 1981 that there were tons of errors in those products as compared to Topps who had 30 years of experience by that point. The saga of the 1981 errors, highlighted by “Craig Nettles” is fodder for another day. Let’s just say, Fleer first run boxes were trading upwards of $50 during the height of the 1981 error mania. And that was just the first half of the first year.
In fact, so much news was occurring, Sports Collectors Digest actually started a mini publication called “SCD Express” to cover news during the time between their bi-weekly magazine. And when SCD took the next step and went weekly, the amount of ads and information was so immense one could hardly get though an issue before the next one hit the mailbox. Heck, they even had advanced services such as Fed Ex and Express Mail for those who wanted to get a jump on other collectors in browsing the ads for bargains (it’s how things were done before the internet). I know at Beckett, we were on the Express mail plan and the issues came just about every Wednesday unless there was a federal holiday along the way.
By the end of 1981, we had our first full-fledged Topps Traded set. And even those caused an issue as they were numbered as an extension of the 1981 set instead of a separate issue. By the following year, a different numbering scheme was created for those releases.
Fleer pushed out its Star Sticker set that was fraught with quality control issues in its first printing (later corrected) but still had collectors going ga-ga for something new and different. Topps created the first in its line of small sticker sets, then giant Scratch-Off cards. And on it went in the next few years with Donruss adding fresh sidebar sets to the mix. Suddenly, baseball cards were everywhere, all the time.
That’s just some of what was happening within a year after the momentous decision was made which ended Topps baseball card monopoly. The Reagan years coincided with a huge boom in sports cards. Who would have thought as 1980 began to wind down that both of those topics would continue to be huge throughout the decade…all because of a judge who said Fleer had a right to make baseball cards and an actor who once played Hall of Famer Grocer Cleveland Alexander and wound up in the White House.