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Completing the pioneer of confusing sets

I completed the 1981 Fleer set when this card arrived in my COMC order last week.

I'm pretty sure this Rickey Henderson card was the last card I needed because I thought I had it already.

But, of course, I didn't have it already, I had this card:

One is card #574 in the set and one is card #351 in the set and I hope you can see why I got a bit confused.

The 1981 Fleer set is full of confusion and I can say that as someone who had been collecting for six full years before Fleer decided to issue its first full set and, my goodness, what in the world do we have here?

We collectors were not used to what Fleer was throwing at us. Those collectors who came along later must wonder what all the fuss was all about, but, listen, collecting was pretty straightforward prior to 1981.

Players did not appear on a second card unless it was in some sort of special subset. But here was Fleer producing second cards of all kinds of stars, and -- to top it off -- confusing the card numbers and sometimes the positions and sometimes who the hell was who!

So if Fleer was that confused, where did that leave me?

Also confused.

I consider 1981 Fleer as the pioneer of the confusion that was to come. The many different cards of the same player, the error cards -- both real and artificial, two different cards sharing the same card number. All of this is common collecting territory today but it was way different in 1981.

I'm going to review some of the most confusing cards in that 1981 Fleer set. I'm sure you're aware of them if you've collected '80s sets.

Card #382 -- The Kurt Bevacqua reverse negative

I never saw a card like this -- both the correct version and the incorrect reverse negative available in the same set -- until the 1982 Donruss Phil Garner card.

I thought the Garner card was fascinating, but if I had known then about the Bevacqua card from a year earlier, I'd figure that Donruss was simply copying what Fleer had done.

There's also a reverse negative version for the '81 Tim Flannery card, but I don't own that one.

Card #480 - Stan Papi position switch

Stan Papi was a shortstop, not a pitcher. I had been pulling Papi cards since 1979 and his pitcher designation just looked ludicrous. I guess it could have been worse. Papi could have been shown batting or fielding his position.

#79/#650 - Reggie Jackson Outfield-DH/Mr. Baseball

#29/#653 - Willie Wilson Outfield/Most Hits-Most Runs

It's pretty apparent Fleer was in over its head that first year as it issued more than one card of several stars but goofed up almost all of them.

The Reggie Jackson Mr. Baseball card is also available at card No. 79 and the Willie Wilson Most Hits-Most Runs is also available at card No. 29.

Card #202/#216 - George Foster Slugger/Outfield

The "Slugger" version at card #202 is also available at #216 as it was a first-printing mistake. But I was baffled by these cards because:

1. Why was Foster's position listed as "slugger"?
2. There are really two photos of George Foster smiling?

Card #7/#657 - Tug McGraw Pitcher/Game Saver

Same deal as the Foster card above, the "Game Saver" version is also available as Card #7 on first printing. I just think this is goofy because obviously there weren't enough photos to make two Tug cards but that wasn't going to stop Fleer!

Card #5/#640 - Mike Schmidt MVP Third Base/1980 Home Run King

Same deal as the previous two examples -- the 1980 Home Run King image is also available at #5 in first printing, although it doesn't say "1980 Home Run King" but simply "Third Base." Unless you have that variation, you don't have a 1981 Fleer card that simply reads Schmidt's position as "third base." The "MVP" addition makes it appear as if it's a special extra card -- or at least it did to me back in '81.

Card #28/#655 - George Brett/390 Average

Card #32/#483 - Amos Otis/Outfield/Series Starter

Both Brett and Otis images are available at two different card numbers -- 28 and 655 in Brett's case and 32 and 483 in Otis' case.

Of course there are corrected versions at #28 and #32 respectively:

Both versions of #28 and #32 shown here.

I would like to point out that Fleer lists George Brett's average as "390" instead of ".390," which is statistically impossible as a hitter.

Also, gracious, I think there are maybe five cards in the entire '81 Fleer set that are not miscut.

Card #514/#525 - Billy Travers

Imagine pulling both of these out of packs in 1981. WTF?

The card on the left, #514, actually shows Jerry Augustine but incorrectly lists him as Travers.

I actually don't have the corrected version of the Augustine card. I'm not someone who insists on getting all the variations before considering 1981 Fleer complete, but I probably should get a card that properly represents Augustine.

(There is also a Don Hood/Pete Vukovich screw-up along these lines, but I have the corrected Don Hood card).

Card #6/#660 - Steve Carlton Pitcher of the Year/"Lefty" The Golden Arm

I consider this the "Fleerest of all Fleer Errors," at least until Billy Ripken and his bat came along eight years later (You could make a case for the 1982 Al Hrabosky and Darrell Jackson cards, too). I remember reading all the corrected versions of card #6 back in the day:

1. Version 1: "'Lefty' on front (with nonmustache image), Year 1966 on the back listed as 1066"

2. Version 2: Corrected photo but Year 1966 on the back still listed as 1066.

3. Version 3: Everything is finally correct

Also, Card #660 has an error 1066 version and a corrected 1966 version.

Got all that?

I have this theory that the reason that set collecting has declined over the last three or four decades is because who has the time?

When everyone started tracking error cards and variations in an attempt to fill their sets during the 1980s, a bunch of collectors probably figured: screw this. And so, player-collecting was born because who can be bothered with tracking every error in a 660-card-plus set.

But I'll always be a set collector. I just ignore most of that variation stuff.

For me, the '81 Fleer set is finished.


  1. Congrats on completing the set. I have several of these that I collected in 1981, but have not bought any since.

  2. I have that same '81 Fleer Henderson on my most wanted list because I made the same mistake you did. I have the "Most Stolen Bases" version, but never realized there was another Rickey in the set. I knew '81 Fleer was crazy -- didn't know it was THIS crazy though.

  3. I still love 1981 Fleer. I need 7 cards for the set... and 42 for the "master set".

  4. Any idea why the #483 Amos Otis is listed on the last "checklist card of checklists" instead of with the 400s like it should be?

    1. Just a guess: that it was an emergency addition caused by the screw-up at card No. 32. The Otis #483 card should have been listed on the Royals team checklist but isn't.

  5. I think the signature error card of the 1981 Fleer set is the Craig Nettles error card versus the corrected Graig Nettles version. My theory on the dual use of the same numbers errors is that the backs on the cards with multiple players (Otis, Brett, Schmidt, Carlton, Foster...) were the same except for the card numbers and someone might have confused the two though it's more likely Fleer just did it on purpose.

  6. You know, I have never checked my 81 Fleer set for errors or variations.

  7. I always wondered why that Reggie Jackson card said "Mr. Baseball" and not "Mr. October". Regardless, congratulations on finishing this wacky set!

  8. I put together a 1981 Fleer set about 10 years ago, I agree the variations and slight differences on the cards are sometimes tough to see and figure out. The errors took some time to track down. Congrats on knocking this set out.

  9. The 1981 Donruss is even more confusing! It’s the first set that I built as s kid ... couldn’t find packs if Fleer in my neighborhood..

  10. This is the first set I ever owned. One of the first things I did when I returned to the hobby was hand build this set the old school way by busting packs. One day, I need to go and actually add all of the different variations too.


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