Saturday, July 12, 2008

1981 Fleer Baseball Card Set

Before I cover the 1981 Fleer Baseball Stickers, I want to take a moment to remember the 1981 Fleer Baseball Card set given its historical significance of being the set that broke the Topps monopoly on baseball cards.


1981 was the first time that Fleer was able to produce baseball cards with current major league baseball players since this set from 1963:

After Fleer produced the 1963 set, Topps won an injunction against Fleer from producing more baseball cards. Topps' contracts gave the company not only a monopoly on major league baseball players, but also the exclusive right to market baseball cards with gum or any other confectionery product. The courts upheld Topps' exclusive rights in the case, and Fleer was forced to stop producing baseball cards. As a result, Fleer sold its players' contracts to Topps in 1966.

In the late 1960s, the Players Association approached Fleer with an offer: for $600,000, Fleer would gain exclusive rights to market baseball cards starting in 1973 with gum, once Topps' contracts expired. Since that would still be many years away, Fleer did not want to wait that long, and turned down the offer.

In 1975, Fleer took Topps to court, filing an antitrust suit against Topps and the Players Association in an effort to get back into the baseball card business. It took almost 5 years for the case to make it to trial, but in 1980 Fleer was granted the right to produce baseball cards and was awarded $1 in damages. Fleer could now begin working on producing its first baseball card set in almost 20 years.

In a later court action, Topps retained the exclusive right to package its cards with gum, which led Fleer to start inserting the team logo stickers in packs instead of gum in 1982. As a result, 1981 was the only year that Fleer issued baseball cards with gum,

and 1981 was also the last year that Fleer sold Baseball Team Logo Stickers as their own release, since the logo stickers would replace gum starting in 1982 and there was no need to sell them separately.


Fleer's return to baseball cards was greatly anticipated by collectors. For anyone who started collecting after 1981, it's hard to imagine what baseball card collecting was like prior to 1981. Collectors only had 1 set produced by Topps each year to collect. If you completed your Topps set you could work on the annual Kellogg's sets inserted in cereal boxes, or eat lots of Twinkies and Ho-Ho's to try to complete a set of the cards on the backs of Hostess products, but that really was about all you could find, other than maybe an occasional regional set like a Burger King Yankees set.

Once Fleer won their case against Topps, the collecting landscape changed completely. Since Donruss was quick to jump on the opportunity to get into the market given Fleer's victory, we had 3 different sets to complete in 1981!

I know this sounds like nothing to get exited about in 2008 when 3 new sets get released each week or so, but back then, this was the most amazing thing collectors could have ever imagined. You have to remember that before 1981, you usually only had 1 or maybe 2 cards of your favorite player released each year. Now we had the chance to get 3 or maybe even a couple of more.

Of course, like anything else, too much of a good thing can ultimately ruin it, which is where I'm afraid we find ourselves today with literally thousands of different cards produced for many star players which makes it all but impossible to complete many sets or have all the cards of your favorite player, but back then we were just excited to have the chance to collect more than one set and more than 1 card of our favorite players.


At the time, many people thought Fleer's 1981 release was the best of the 3 sets released.

Almost nobody was very pleased with the initial set produced by Donruss (given the very poor picture quality and the tissue thin card stock),

and reaction was mixed over the Topps design, with many people thinking it was not one of their better efforts, especially with the cap on the front of the card that didn't even have the team's logo but rather just the name of the team:

In fact, the 1982 Fleer Baseball wrapper mentions the 1981 set was ranked #1 by The Baseball Hobby News:

Besides the clean design, one of the things that many collectors liked about the Fleer set was that the cards were organized by team, as the cards were grouped by team in order of their 1980 record, with the World Series Champion Phillies leading off the set.

The thing that collectors didn't like was that the set was riddled with errors. Many of the errors were corrected over the course of the print run (there were 3 seperate printings) , but keeping up with the number of errors drove collectors crazy. One of the most sought after error cards in the set was the Graig Nettles card with his name mistakenly spelled with a "C"on the back:

I can remember wax boxes being sold at the time being identified by which print run they were from for collectors to determine whether they were buying the error cards or the corrected versions as many collectors were looking for "Craig" Nettles boxes.

In spite of the errors, the 1981 set was a very nice debut. Its hard to believe Fleer took such a major step backwards the next year after a promising initial offering with the universally panned 1982 set which has perhaps the worst picture quality of any set ever released, but they finally got back on course with their 1983 set and really hit their stride in 1984.

Because of its significance as being the set that Fleer wanted to produce that ultimately broke the Topps monopoly on the baseball card market, this set will always be one of my favorites. I have very fond memories of the Spring and Summer of 1981 building this set along with the Topps and Donruss sets, and remember how exciting it was to be a card collector at the time.

With the expansion in the number of card producers and collecting options, the hobby was getting ready for a wild ride ahead. The excesses (parallels, inserts, set proliferation, 1 of 1's, etc) which came as card makers continually tried to one up each other have caused the hobby to change dramatically were still many years away.

If Fleer hadn't decided to take on Topps back in 1975, its hard to say how many more years would have gone by before another company would have tried to enter the market. Its also an interesting question to consider how differently the hobby may have grown and evolved had Fleer not challenged Topps when it did.

Its a shame that the company that helped set the stage for the incredible growth the hobby experienced by breaking down the main barrier to entry into the market is no longer around.

In addition to baseball, they also revitalized the basketball card industry a few years later when they issued the 1986-1987 Basketball set with one of the most recognizable basketball cards of all time - Michael Jordan's rookie card:

Fleer created a lasting legacy in the sports card collecting world when they challenged Topps because they wanted to produce their own baseball card set. If Fleer had not wanted to produce cards that ultimately became the 1981 Fleer Baseball set, the hobby might look much different today.


RPH said...

Thanks for a great article. I had no idea of the significance of this year of cards. I came across your blog while researching this set. I am still trying to determine any visible difference with #419A and B (p1 and p2). I know there is a 419C that is a corrected card. Any help?

Anonymous said...

I started collection in 1977 and was obsessed with Topps cards for a few years. By 1981 my interests changed to things like girls and I stopped collecting after 1982. Reading the article reminded me of the impact Fleer and Donruss had. At the time I thought the debut sets would be extremely valuable in the future. I even bought complete sets from a local hobby shop. With adjustments for inflation, todays's values for the two at $40 (Fleer) and $50 (Donruss) is about the same. I sold the sets years ago during my starving student era. Now for pure fun and nostalgia, I've began to collect in recent years. It's sad to see the hobby boom with greed and drown in overproduction, poor quality, and mismanagement. Just like the American economy in general. But there is hope. The actual quality of certain sets are the best I've ever seen, and the hobby, with the professional leagues are taking steps to consolidate and bring back prestige. I was noticed a comment in the recent Beckett Sports Card Monthly complaining that the new Panini basketball set looks like it was geared for kids. (Long Pause) As if this is a bad thing. I implore, beg even for the adults who collect to seriously consider the future of the hobby. The companies are, so should you. If kids today can't find and afford cards, then all those high end cards purchased today won't have an new generation who will value them.
The children are the future, don't forget. And besides, try to remember that it's not just about "when I was a kid" because there a still kids every year and they should be able to have as much fun as you did. Support inexpensive sets, encourage all stores to carry them, and give packs as gifts. Don't wait for Christmas. Thanks.

Mark said...

Thanks for the excellent article.

I was a 10-year old boy at the time and was deeply immersed in baseball card collecting. I remember the Nettles error card, which every young kid was trying to score at the time. I ended up trading mine for a '72 Pete Rose.

Just out of curiosity, is the Nettles error worth anything today?

Thanks again.

Kraft1963 said...

Here is an interesting error card. Look at the back of # 542 - George Hendrick. The numbers do not add up. Also, compare it with Hendrick's Topps card of the same year.