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Looking Back: 1981 Fleer Baseball

Collecting the first of something can often be productive, if not financially rewarding down the line as an investment.

The 1981 Fleer and Donruss baseball card sets were glaring exceptions to the rule.

When Fleer and Donruss were granted licenses to produce baseball cards beginning in 1981, it seemed a refreshing concept to those who had been stuck with only Topps as an option for so many years.

Actually, 1981 was not the first year that Fleer produced baseball cards. In fact, Fleer produced baseball cards for many years, until ceasing production after the 1963 set.

Fleer – and Donruss – did perhaps the worst thing a new card company could do when each produced their 1981 sets: They tried to do too much too quickly.

The result was a massive batch of error cards, which led to subsequent print runs to correct many of the discrepancies. The amount of error cards in the 1981 Fleer set probably exceeded the number of error cards by Topps through the previous 50 years.

Fleer produced its cards on thin, white stock that, while having a more glossy look than the worn-out Topps cardboard stock, made the cards somewhat flimsy and easy to ding. The cards also tend to bow, rather than lay flat.

An interesting concept that Fleer brought to the table was the advent of sorting sets by team, rather than random selection. The 1980 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies started the set, followed by the American League champion Kansas City Royals, then down the line, based on standings.

Because there were so many error cards in the 1981 Fleer set – and because there were so many corrected versions during subsequent print runs – my goal became – and still is to this day – to collect two complete sets, one with the error variants and the other a complete corrected version.

The price, obviously, made my goal affordable. But like most card sets produced in the 1980s, affordability reigns supreme. This set is chock full of Hall of Famers at reasonable prices. There are multiple cards of such 1980s legends as Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson, to name a few.

The rookie cards are sorely lacking, but again, makes this an affordable low-budget option. Kirk Gibson was the top rookie, based on card value, with his card in the $5 range.

It was also the first opportunity to obtain a card of former Boston Celtics basketball player Danny Ainge in a baseball uniform. Ainge ushered in a new era of multi-sport stars that later included the likes of Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and even Michael Jordan.

I thought the 1981 Fleer cards looked nice and clean, although some of the photos appeared to be out of focus.

As Topps has shown of late, though, finding both versions of an error card is about the only challenging thing about this set. Topps, of course, took that to the extreme, allegedly printing “error” cards on purpose for the thrill of the chase, making sure to print the “error” version in an extremely short run.

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1981 Fleer Baseball

Complete set: 660 cards.

High book: NM, $30.

Top Stars: #1 Pete Rose ($3); #5 Mike Schmidt ($2.50); #28 George Brett ($2); #57 Nolan Ryan ($4); #79 Reggie Jackson ($2.50); #87 Graig Nettles – “Craig” on back ($4.50); #351 Rickey Henderson ($2.50); #488 Ozzie Smith ($2); #574 Rickey Henderson ($2.50); #640 Mike Schmidt ($2); #650 Reggie Jackson ($2); #655 George Brett ($3).

Top Rookies: #140 Fernando Valenzuela – “Fernand” on front ($1.50); #335 Jeff Reardon ($2); #346 Harold Baines ($3); #418 Danny Ainge ($3); #481 Kirk Gibson ($5).

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One Response to "Looking Back: 1981 Fleer Baseball"

  1. I always thought that the 1981 Fleer card stock was relatively solid, if fragile on the perimeter. The grey border on the back certainly allows for easy chipping on the edges and dings on the corners, but it certainly is far more durable than the tissue paper 1981 Donruss set.

    I do miss errors that were genuine and clearly errors because people were in a hurry, and just made honest mistakes. I remember the somewhat lasting fascination with the ‘rare’ Graig Nettles [Craig on back] error. The fact that he was a recognizable baseball name (and a Yankee to boot) made the card desirable throughout the 1980s, until everyone forgot about it, once Upper Deck debuted not only with Junior, but also the 1989 Upper Deck Dale Murphy RevNeg error.

    In a set chock full of every kind of error you can imagine, I was always surprised that Fleer didn’t bother with correcting “Fernand Valenzuela” to Fernando. They couldn’t have picked a better time to debut their set in the midst of the last player I remember often having the suffix “-mania” added to his name. Topps had a Fernando card with his name spelled right, but it was one of those triple photo Dodgers Future Stars cards. The only single-player card of Valenzuela at the time was Fleer’s (Donruss missed the boat completely). Fleer could have worked it out such that by adding a corrected version, whichever one that would be in shorter supply would have been chased after pretty hard, using Mr. Nettles as a template.

    I’ve also noticed after ripping packs of ’81 Fleer over the years, that there were variable finishes on the cards, but nobody seems to have ever bothered to see if it constitutes a variation. Some are smooth and glossy, some seem to have a rougher, matte finish. I’m guessing that Fleer was trying to get cards pushed out any way they could, probably using more than one (or several) printers to get the product out, especially with mid-stream corrections to errors. It would be interesting to talk to somebody who was at Fleer in 1981 that would know about how things worked that year.

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