Monday, November 8, 2010

1980s Baseball - Card Wars Project

This is an introduction to a project that I am starting to work on:  the 80s.  This decade comprised my main collecting years.  I started collecting in 78 and stopped trying to hand collate sets in 1986, but I kept collecting actively until 1994.  A few items to be noted before I get started, this is meant to chronicle a journey through the base sets of the 80s and not an assessment of who "won" the card wars of the 80s.  You could argue that Topps won as they are the last company standing, but each of the 3/5 companies had their strengths and weaknesses.  Donruss seemed to have some quality control issues (major errors for most of the years until 1992) and Fleer was decent.

First things first, an introduction.  I was 9 years old when the 1979 cards came out and I was disappointed when Topps did not have any World Series cards in their set that year, like the previous year.  But I collected because I liked baseball, and all of the stars were there.  Fast forward to 1980 and again I was disappointed with no WS cards.  I was mesmorized by the Pittsburgh teams that year (Pirates and Steelers) and thought for sure that there would be a card celebrating the Pirates title that year. Nope.  Looking back I think that Topps moved up the deadline to finalize the checklist and photos starting in 79.  This theory is due to a limited amount of airbrushed photos for players that changed teams in the off season.  In both 77 and 78 you can try and pinpoint the date the checklist was finalized by looking at the transactions on Baseball Reference.  Of course in 77 the expansion teams were included and 78 was another big Free Agent year.  Topps got away from that starting in 79.

In 81 I first discovered a new set of cards, Fleer.  Later that summer I found my first packs of Donruss.  Fleer was more readilly available in my area, but I did not buy a whole lot as Topps was the one set I focused on.  I organized my cards by teams during that time and did try and get "master" team sets containing cards from all 3 sets.  Some players were in all three sets, and some in only one.  Donruss had some crappy looking cards.  If you have never seen one, just picture a photo on a 3 x 5 card.  Diamond cut.  With gum that was impossible to get off of the card.  That was Donruss.  I belive that Donruss decided to issue a set at almost the last minute and it shows.

There are differences in how cards were marketed that year.  Topps branded itself as the Real One as it had been around for years.  Fleer offered more cards per pack, and more packs per box as a way to get kids to buy the cards and retailers to stock the cards.  Donruss offered more cards per pack also, but did not have the massive distribution channels that Fleer did.  Other differences between the brands is that Fleer had complete career stats on the back.  Yes, Steve Carlton did pitch in the minors at one time after looking at his Fleer card.  Donruss decided to issue multiple cards of the superstars of the time period thinking kids would have a better chance of getting cards of the big names.  Donruss backs had career highlights and minimal stats. 

Another difference between the companies was in photography.  If you notice where photos are taken on Topps cards, most of them were taken in the following locatins:  New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area (SF/Oakland).  These cities hosted teams in both leagues and gave the photographers living in those cities opportunities to catch teams from both leagues as they traveled thorough town.  Spring training photos are also popular in all 3 sets and the teams train close by and you had opportunities to get photos of the prospects.  Some of the Topps sets also had quite a few photos from Detroit and Cleveland.  The Fleer set that year seems to have quite a few photos from Boston, San Diego. Los Angeles, and Toronto.  Donruss has Chicago and Milwaukee as the main backdrops. 

I had always considered the set to be a reflection of the prior year and that is the focus on player selection during the team writeups.  I will look at the cards on a team by team basis more than a set by set.  At the end of each year I will try and come up with a "best" set for each year, but that will be subjective.

First up:  1981.

Rough count of set breakdown, don't take this as gospel.

Topps set is 648 individual players, 26 three player "Future Stars", 26 Team Checklists, 6 checklists, 8 League Leaders, 8 Record Breakers, and 4 Postseason highlights

Fleet set is 618 different players, 16 managers, 14 cheklists, and 12 special cards of players (MVP, SB Leader, etc.)

Donruss is 564 different players, 21 mangers/coaches, 5 checklists, and 15 cards that are repeats of players (Steve Stone, George Brett, Reggie Jackson, etc) or multi-player cars (Brett/Carew)

Both Fleer and Donruss have a boatload of errors.  I am not going to take the time to chronicle the errors as that would take a lot of time.  An early favorite for best set would be Topps, due to the sheer number of cards in the set.  It will be interesting to see what players were left out of which set as we go through this team by team.

Overview is division by division with AL East first, followed by AL West, NL East and NL West.


  1. Hey, great blog. I too and a Detroit Tiger fan, card collector, and blogger. We are roughly the same age and it's cool to see someone else's take on cards from way back when.

    If I were judging, I'd list 1981 as the best year of the 80's with the overall design of all three sets. I think '81 Fleer is the best design they ever had, and '81 Topps is right up there too. Personally, I like the Donruss from that year. It's not one of their best, but when you think about Donruss and the 80's, it's certainly not one of their worst either.

    To this day I love how Fleer used to sort their sets by having the World Champs first, then the runners up, then the other two division leaders, then the rest of the teams in order of record.

  2. I also liked how Fleer numbered their sets. It gave everything a proper order. When they went away from that in 91 it was disturbing.

    I tend to give Donruss crap due to problems (could not identify Tom Seaver in 85) but they do have a soft spot in my collection. They started from the ground up, and were not afraid to try different things. Look at the Hall of Fame Heroes (Dick Perez art cards), Action All-Stars (huge cards with COMPLETE stats on the back), which morphed into all star sets with pop ups of the starting lineups, and the 87 Opening Day set. Also, they built two sets around separate events. The 85 Highlights set was built around Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobbs' record and the 86 Rookies set around Bo Jackson.