There is little doubt that 1981 was a major turning point in baseball card hobby history. For the first time since 1955, more than one card company was producing comprehensive sets of active major leaguers without legal threats to hold back production of these cards. In the fall of 1980, a legal decision gave both Fleer and Donruss the right to produce cards. Now understand, the process of creating a set usually takes several months and there are a ton of details to get correct.
Those details include: Matching a correct player photo to his name, writing an appropriate informational blurb about the player, ensuring the people you picture are actually able to be in the set (that turned out not to be an issue in 1981) and generally crossing all your t’s and dotting all the i’s.
Now, understand the amount of time to release these sets was approximately three-four months from the court decision until the cards hit hobby and retail shelves. Topps, which was anticipating producing their 1981 set, released a generally error-free product. There were no major issues with 1981 Topps. However, the two newcomers, Fleer and Donruss, would produce plenty of “error” cards in 1981.
Since we as collectors were hungry for competition with Topps, the anticipation of both the Fleer and Donruss sets was great. Collectors pored over them and quickly discovered some quirks. The most notable error in 1981 was the “C” Nettles error. Someone at Fleer assumed Graig spelled his name like most Craigs did and thus his first name upon release was “Craig”. Now the only problems with that error were that Nettles was playing for the New York Yankees, then as now arguably the most popular major league franchise and secondly, they had to fix it. Cards were near and dear to fans and collectors’ hearts and screwing up that badly was a blow to Fleer.
The “mania” about the 1981 “C” Nettles error was absolutely astounding in the pre-internet era. More than thirty years after the fact, how much communication was involved in 1981 was fascinating. Sports Collectors Digest (SCD) began what they called SCD Express to fill in the gaps between the two weeks between issues. Issuing SCD as basically a newsletter in the in-between weeks with very little advertising was a forerunner of several hobby publications of the past decade which catered primarily to dealers. I do not think any hobby publisher has yet to figure out a profitable way of distributing hobby news without a ton of advertising to support the venture.
At the height of the frenzy, collectors paid $20 and up. Today, this card which was the key 1981 variation, now books at approximately $5 and has largely been forgotten.
Fleer had so many issues in their set, they went to three distinct printings but still were not able to correct all their errors. Case in point, 1981 Fernando Valuenzuela Rookie Card. Fleer spelled this card Fernand and never did add the O to his name. One might think with his amazing popularity in 1981, Fleer in the middle of correcting all their other errors, would have fixed this one as well. Oh well. The corrected Valenzuela goes with the 1974 Topps Washington National League Dave Winfield card as cards that never were.
(Here’s the list of ’81 Fleer variations. You can see 1981 Fleer cards on eBay here).
While Fleer was the big story of 1981, with the first printing “C” Nettles boxes selling upwards of $60-70 each during their peak, Donruss had their own issues in 1981. Those issues including terrible collation in packs. There were many boxes in which a collector may only receive 50 or so different players. Now if your box was loaded with players such as Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose or Tim Raines you were a happy camper. If your box had Bombo Rivera and Willie Norwood as the players you wondered what you had done wrong as a collector.
In addition, the card production was frankly just as bad as the collation. The very flimsy cards damage pretty easily and if you check the Keith Hernandez card, you will discover 95 percent of them have a noticeable surface crease. There was missing punctuation on the backs of some of the cards. Wrong photos (see left–that’s actually Ken Forsch). More misspelled names. You can see the complete list here. You can see 1981 Donruss on eBay here.
Sure enough, the errors kept being discovered till almost the end of the year, when an “ghosted finger” was discovered on some 1981 Fleer cards, most notably at the time on the Britt Burns Rookie Card. After that discovery the error search mercifully ended and we as collectors took a deep breath and waited to see what 1982 would bring.
Fortunately most of the rest of the 1980’s was peaceful and next time we’ll discuss the 1980’s with special emphasis on a Hall of Famer’s younger brother and an obscenity.
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]