Thursday, February 23, 2012

Best set of the year: 1981

I was going to do one of those Team MVPs posts tonight, but the next set on the docket is 1993 Upper Deck, and it's going to take at least a weekend to figure out the best card for every team in that set.

So, pressed for time -- as usual -- I decided on a spin-off series. Yes, another series that I may or may not complete.

This is one that I've had in mind for some time, and something other collectors have done in one form or another over the years.

What is the best set of the year?

Usually, this is reserved for end-of-the-year posts. But I'm going back in time here. I'm going to figure out which set was the best going back 30 years and then tracking forward. I'm going to do one year at a time -- whenever I feel like it -- so these posts will pop up randomly like every other series that I do. Or if I get bored with it, you'll eventually never see it again.

I'm starting with 1981 because that's the first year when there were more than two major card set releases (if there were more than two back in the '50s or early '60s, don't bother me. I don't have a lot of cards from that time).

Major releases is all I care about -- so no Kellogg's or Drake's or Hostess here. Just the big kids.

So let's see what was the best in 1981, the year our minds were blown because there were two other sets on the store shelves besides Topps.

1981 Topps -- the front

Plusses: The final year of All-Star designations on each previous year All-Star's card.  ... The final year (for a long time) of team photo cards. ... The ballcap graphic on each card -- the set's most distinguishing feature. The caps reflected each team's colors, too. ... The colorful borders. ... Lots of dugout shots, which is cool.

Minuses: The color borders didn't match the teams. Pink for Dodgers? Blue for Astros? Yellow for Twins? I also didn't like the shades of color used on some of the cards. The Reds received an awful puke green color.  The rust-orange color used with the Royals bothered me, too.

1981 Topps -- the back

Plusses: Dig the old-school Topps logo, although I probably didn't notice it back then. ... Continued presentation of full career stats. ... Large card number. ... First appearance of walks, strikeouts, stolen bases and slugging pct. for batters and games started, complete games, shutouts and saves for pitchers. ... Cartoons on SOME of the cards.

Minuses: Lack of cartoons on ALL of the cards. Backs are pretty dull without the cartoons. ... Black-on-red type not the easiest to read.

1981 Topps -- overall

Plusses: Tradition. ... Large 726-card set. ... Good ol' cardboard. ... Quirky overall card design. ... Focus on color. ... Emphasis on team's full complement of players. ... The first real traded set (although I think it was partly in response to its competition).

Minuses: This is actually one of my least favorite looks among Topps '80s card sets. Something about the color scheme always bothered me. ... Topps didn't feature some of the key up-and-coming players as prominently as its new competition did. ... The 1981 and 1982 sets are a prelude to the period of "serious" card backs. All stats and limited or no cartoon fun.

1981 Fleer -- the front

Plusses: Some of the photos were different from what Topps produced (both good and bad).  ... The design gives emphasis to the photo. ... The color border reflects the team colors. ... A baseball in the design is cliche, but always comforting.

Minuses: I hate yellow as a prominent color in card designs. Yellow belongs with fast food restaurants, sundresses, flowers and mustard bottles. Not cards. This one factor dominates my whole opinion on the front of the '81 Fleer card. But other than that, a lot of the photos were bizarre, off-center and not all that professional-looking.

1981 Fleer -- the back

Plusses: Not a lot. I thought the highlighting of the career average/career earned-run average was cool at first glance, although it's totally unnecessary. ... Full career stats is always good.

Minuses: Flat-out boring. ... More yellow. ... A large blank space where information could/should go.

1981 Fleer -- overall

Plusses: Something different to look at and buy after years of Topps. ... A nice, large set with emphasis on the team's full complement of players. ... Featured players on their own card that didn't get their own card in the Topps base set (i.e. Fernando Valenzuela). ... Some different photos that were kind of neat. ... A different kind of cardboard that is so sturdy that cards practically look mint even 31 years later.

Minuses: Plain, dull look to the front and back of the cards. ... Lots of errors (intentional or not). ... Set had a feeling of "let's just get this thing out."

1981 Donruss -- the front

Plusses: An interesting "family photo" look to the card fronts. (My nice way of saying there are lots of "stand there and smile" photos in the set). ... Much of the cards have a "this is baseball feel," probably because so many of the photos were taken in Wrigley Field. ... A clean design with a fun font for the team name.

Minuses: So many of the photos look the same. If I counted up all the "player with a bat on their shoulder" photos, I'm sure there would be at least 100. ... The photo quality isn't great -- lots of players' faces in the shadows. ... And, of course, the team names are yellow, which I don't like.

1981 Donruss -- the back

Plusses: I love timelines. These backs were fascinating to read in '81. And very different. ... Nice logo and drawing at the top, although it takes up a lot of territory.

Minuses: One-line of stats. Boooooo! Not crazy about the pink either.

1981 Donruss -- overall

Plusses: Again, it was nice to see how someone else would present a baseball card set. Three viewpoints! Crazy! ... Donruss, like Fleer, also had multiple versions of the same player. Two Seavers. Two Garveys, etc. This eventually became a minus in my eyes, but at the time it was kind of cool -- if confusing (hey! I thought I already pulled the Garvey card! What is THIS?). ... Cards of players who didn't get their own card in the Topps set (i.e. Tim Raines).

Minuses: Super thin cardboard stock that made the cards seem cheap. ... White cardboard stock that picked up any speck of dirt. ... A "here's our first set, be gentle" kind of look to the set. Seemed like a 1960s set issued in 1981.

And the winner as the best set of 1981 is ...


Yeah, I know. I'm not crazy about it either. It really wasn't a great year for cards, even though it was a great year for cards.

Ranking: 1. Topps; 2. Donruss; 3. Fleer


  1. You didn't throw it into the review but as someone who also collected in 1981, I'd rate the gum included in the packs in the following order:

    #1 Donruss (very sweet)
    #2 Topps (familar classic flavor)
    #3 Fleer (bland taste that came with too much powder).

  2. nice post - really well done! i am looking forward to more in this series!

    my ratings would be:
    3)fleer (too much white border on the front of the card, right? it's like they didnt know how to work to the edges and left way too much margin leeway!)

    ps- i was rating the sets in general - i didn't realize until a second check that the poster before me was rating GUM!

  3. I loved the look of '81 Topps when I first saw it back in '82, but nowadays I find the Fleer '81 set to be the best '81 set IMHO. Although I almost love the Donruss... the Donruss that year had too many errors on the backs and stuff.

    Ahhh i can just feel the dissin' of the '82 Topps coming up next :-P nobody loves my set.

  4. Back in the actual year of '81, I opened a pack of Topps and thought it was really ugly. I don't believe I bought much of it. With time, I think the '81 Donruss set has grown on me.

  5. My order would be

    1. Fleer - I liked the fact that they organized the set by team, so when you put the cards in sheets you have each team set all together. I also have a bias towards the set since it was Fleer that sued Topps and won which allowed the competition to flourish starting in 1981 with the release of this set. Without Fleer wanting to produce this set, who knows how the hobby would have progressed if they had not sued Topps. I have a hard time looking at the set without taking into consideration the significance of what the set meant to the explosion of the hobby that followed.

    2. Donruss - I liked the design, but the quality control is horrendous. The centering on the cards is horrible, and trying to track down all the error variations is quite a challenge (not that finding all the Fleer variations is much easier).

    3. Topps - I really don't like the design. If they would have actually used the cap logos instead of the colors and the team name, I would have a much different opinion as that would have made for a much better looking card.

  6. The best part of 1981 was it was the year I started collecting. Fleer first, then Topps and eventually Donruss at 8 packs for a dollar.

  7. First Place - Topps

    Over the years, I've grown to love the 1981 set design with the hats. Sort of how I slowly grew to love the 1986 Topps set design. I didn't like either of these designs ten years ago.

    Second Place - Fleer

    I'm not a fan of either the Fleer or Donruss designs from 1981. But Fleer gets a sentimental vote, because it was the first set I ever received from my parents. Two years ago, I found several cheap boxes and rebuilt the set. I can't remember a product that was off-centered as this stuff.

    Third Place - Donruss

    No Diamond Kings. End of story.

  8. Wow, what a great post! and then awesome replies!

    As someone that collects PSA Cards, 1981 is a real nightmare. SO tough to grade due to issues mentioned already, and the lousy "mush-like" paper stock used by Topps and Donruss.

  9. I'd go:

    1) Donruss
    2) Topps
    3) Fleer

    I like those backs on the Donruss card - different, in a good way. I just have to knock the 81 Topps set down to not being #1. It's not awful, but the design isn't great and the photography wasn't all that good either.


  10. I agree with what you said but I'm a little biased with 1981. It was the first year I collected and the Topps were a lot more readily available.

    I read in the book "Mint Condition" that MLB gave Donruss and Fleer their license with very little time to get the set out to compete with Topps. Hence on the mistakes and errors in rushing the product.

  11. The thin stock of this Donruss set drives me crazy. Also, the backs are a cluttered mess of worthless info.

    My Grades
    Topps 8.6
    Fleer 7.9
    Donruss 2.3

  12. I am a fan of 1991 Fleet for one reason only...a true Sunset Card of Willie McCovey. Mr. McCovey's last game played was 7/6/1980, but Fleet still produced a card for him; one that gives you his entire career stats on the back. One of my favorite cards!