Don’t be confused by its drab, almost amateur appearance. Simplicity, quirkiness, and historic value make 1981 Donruss Baseball one of the most significant and fascinating sports card sets ever produced.
The 1981 Donruss Baseball Card set was the first complete set since the early 1950s not to bear the name Topps. For the first time since 1955, more than one company was producing extensive sets representing major league players. A legal decision in the fall of 1980 gave both Fleer and Donruss the legal right to produce cards. The verdict cleared the path for Upper Deck to enter the fray and revolutionize the hobby with its premiere baseball card set in 1989.
Fleer and Donruss finalized their deals with the Major League Baseball Players Association in September 1980, leaving just five months to produce and deliver cards to stores by the last week of January 1981 to compete directly with Topps. Gathering
photos, matching players with photos, writing informational blurbs, and proofreading statistics, proved to be a daunting task for companies producing baseball cards on a grand scale for the first time.
There were more than 30 error cards in the 1981 Donruss Set. Houston Astros pitcher Vern Ruhle’s card actually pictures teammate Frank Lacorte. Cleveland Indians infielder Duane Kuiper was listed as “Dwayne” Kuiper. In a strange but true tale, Donruss listed Cardinals’ outfielder Bobby Bonds – father of current “Home Run King” Barry Bonds – with 986 homers, 231 more than Hank Aaron, the all-time home run leader at the time.
There has been interest in both the error and corrected versions for nearly three decades because both versions are more limited than the other cards in the set. The 1981 Donruss series has also kept the growing number of baseball historians and “oddball” card collectors entertained over the years.
Tim Raines’ induction into the Hall of Fame has given the 1981 Donruss Set a recent spark. Although Donruss somehow skipped over National League Rookie of the Year Fernando Valenzuela that year, it was the only company to picture Raines by himself on a rookie baseball card. Topps featured Raines with two other rookies on a prospect subset card, while Fleer swung and missed altogether. The series also includes rookie cards of Jeff Reardon, Mookie Wilson, and Toronto Blue Jays infielder Danny Ainge before he became a three-time championship winning guard and executive with the Boston Celtics.
Rushing into the production of the 605-card 1981 Donruss Set also caused collation and printing issues. Factory sets were not produced. Instead, hobby dealers had to buy wholesale from TCMA, Donruss’ exclusive hobby distributor. Cards of each player were shipped to dealers in 100-card lots secured by rubber bands. The cards then needed to be hand collated. The collation of wax packs caused further problems for collectors. Several of the same card were often found in a single wax pack, which was great news if the card featured Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski or Johnny Bench. Not such good news if the Leo Sutherland card was the featured player.
The cards bend easily and show tremendous wear over time due to flimsy paper stock. The lackluster design consists of predominantly blurry portrait or posed photos against mostly empty stadium backdrops. Time constraints prevented Donruss from airbrushing uniforms or caps. Players changing teams during the offseason appeared in their former uniforms with the name of their current team displayed across the bottom of the card.
Donruss also had considerable trouble securing player photographs. Ray Burris was traded by the Cubs to the Yankees who later sold him to the Mets during the 1979 season. Although he hadn’t played for the Cubs in nearly two years, Burris sports a Cubs uniform on his 1981 Donruss card. Many of the pictures were taken in Wrigley Stadium or Comiskey Park by amateur photographers as Donruss scrambled to put together a set. A handful of photos were taken by political and sports commentator Keith Olbermann, then a 21-year-old photographer with a passion for baseball.
Although limited in value, the 1981 Donruss Set has its own charm with an array of hard-to-believe mishaps and a unique history.
The 1967 Topps set is celebrated for its simple, yet eye-pleasing design, a Hall of Fame checklist, rookie cards of two baseball greats and card No. 355 featuring Carl Yastrzemski.
In 1967, the man they called Yaz had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, winning the Triple Crown and leading a fading franchise to the World Series. Yastrzemski hit .326 for his second consecutive batting title, tied Harmon Killebrew with 44 homers and and led the American League with 121 RBI. He also led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, and total bases to earn American League MVP honors. Thriving in the clutch, Yaz hit .417 and slugged .760 with nine home runs and 26 RBI in the month of September while leading the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox to the AL Pennant.
The ‘67 Topps Yaz card is a must for any long-time Red Sox fan or Triple Crown memorabilia collector. Excellent to near mint versions are readily available on eBay for $30-$45. Crisp, highly-graded samples sell for as much as $950.
The 1967 Topps set is arguably the most popular set of the decade. Advances in photo and printing technologies produced the most vibrant-looking cards to date. The clutter free, borderless design is ideal for both head-and-shoulders and close-up “posed action” shots featured throughout the series. Unlike other Topps issues from the ‘60s, the emphasis is clearly on the player, not the team name or card design.
The card backs lend a hand in grading the 50-year-old cards. The solid lime green backs help identify wear and damaged corners almost as well as the black borders of the 1971 Topps issue. With flaws easily identified, mint conditioned 1967 Topps cards are a true rarity.
The card backs also display a vertical design, allowing more length for season-by-season statistics, while leaving room for the Topps cartoon and player notes. Did you know that Yaz won two batting titles and finished second twice in his first eight seasons of professional ball? The card back also tells us that Yaz signed a $100,000 signing bonus while attending Notre Dame and worked at a Boston printing firm during the winter months early in his career. Amazing how much we learned about our favorite players on 2 ½ x 3 ½ in. baseball cards in the days before the internet.
The 1967 Topps Set also includes the first Topps card of Maury Wills and the last Topps card of Whitey Ford. Wills is pictured in a Pirates uniform (he played with the Pirates and Expos in the middle of a standout career with the Dodgers), while Ford is pictured completing his famed Hall of Fame pitching motion. At this stage of his career, Ford — still one of the game’s most popular players — battled injuries, while serving as an unofficial pitching coach for the Yankees. You will find classic cards of baseball greats Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and the last card to list Mickey Mantle as an outfielder.
The “Rookie Stars” checklist is headlined by Rod Carew and Tom Seaver. In 19 major league seasons with the Minnesota Twins and California Angels, Carew compiled 3,053 hits while winning seven batting titles and hitting .300 or better for 15 consecutive seasons. Topps didn’t include Carew in its original release, but after a hot start at the plate, the 22-year-old second baseman was added to the more limited high-number series. His ‘67 Topps rookie sells for $175 in excellent to near mint condition, while highly graded versions are valued over $1,000. This card is a double print, making it a bit more common than most cards from the high-numbered series.
Seaver achieved 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, and 61 shutouts over a 20-year career. His arrival in New York began to change the fortunes of the Mets, a perennial doormat since joining the league in 1962. The Mets all-time leader in wins, Seaver was the 1967 National League Rookie of the Year and a three-time Cy Young Award winner. His highly coveted ‘67 Topps rookie — an extremely limited high-series card — commands $700 or more in decent condition, while highly graded versions are valued over $2,000.
On this day 44 years ago, the world lost a Hall of Fame baseball player and a great humanitarian. Thirty-eight-year-old Roberto Clemente, revered as a national hero in Puerto Rico, was leading a relief aid team flying supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua when the small aircraft exploded and crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff.
Clemente’s untimely death occurred just a few months after he recorded his 3,000th career hit and prompted a special election that made the Pittsburgh Pirates great baseball’s first Hispanic Hall of Famer. At the time, Clemente was just the 11th man in baseball history to achieve 3,000 hits and his lifetime batting average of .317 was the highest among active players.
Clemente used a unique inside-out swing to produce four batting titles, a 1966 National League MVP, and 15 All-Star invitations. Quick, powerful — almost Hank Aaron-like — wrists allowed Clemente to stand away from the plate and drive the ball with ferocity to all fields. He also lead t
he Pirates to World Series Championships in 1960 and 1971, when he was named the Series MVP.
He got the most from his 5’-11”, 180-pound frame offensively and defensively. Most baseball experts and historians still regard Clemente as the best right fielder in baseball history. He patrolled Pittsburgh’s spacious Forbes Field for most of his career with speed and grace, earning 12 Gold Gloves and comparisons to Willie Mays as a defensive player. A strong and remarkably accurate arm kept base runners at bay.
Known for his charitable tireless charitable work, Clemente was recruited by relief organizations to organize relief efforts from Puerto Rico. He not only organized the efforts, but played a large role in gathering the goods and loading the plane. He was on aboard the plane because many people thought the relief supplies were falling in the hands of profiteers. Clemente wanted to ensure that people in need were receiving the goods. The plane carrying a crew of three and Clemente crashed in heavy seas just under two miles from shore.
Clemente’s professional career started on the West Coast and if the Brooklyn Dodgers weren’t so careless, history may have been different. The Dodgers originally signed Clemente out of high school with a deal that included a $10,000 bonus. In 1954, his first season as a professional baseball player, Clemente played for the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal.
Per rule of professional baseball at the time, all players signed for more than $4,000 had to be placed on the major league roster after one year of minor league service. Any player not added to the roster could be signed by any other club for $4,000. Instead of adding him to the roster, the Dodgers tried to hide Clemente in Montreal by not playing him. Obviously, a player of Clemente’s talent could not be hidden. He was scooped up by the Pirates for $4,000, making him one of the best bargains in baseball history.
In 1955, Topps issued the first Roberto Clemente baseball card. The colorful horizontal cards featuring portrait and action photos along with the team logo in the upper right-hand corner are considered one of the best-looking sets ever produced. Kudos to Topps for producing a card of a top prospect with no major league experience — a rarity in those days. The final card featuring Clemente as a player, was featured in the colorful 1972 Topps set.
Drab, ordinary, jurassic are terms that come to mind when describing the Hostess Baseball Cards of the the mid-late ‘70s. The sets were nothing more than marketing ploys to sell more Twinkies, HoHos, Suzy-Q’s and King Dons (Ding Dons if you lived on the West Coast) . Big on errors and small on creativity, the Hostess sets featured the game’s biggest stars with simple head shots displayed against uninspired spring training backdrops and white borders.
Yes, the Hostess sets were dull, almost cheerless, but just about every 40-something to 50-something
baseball fan/collector (like the guy I see in the mirror every morning) has fond memories of Hostess’s lame attempt at manufacturing baseball cards. After all, this was the set that we assembled piece by piece while waiting for Mom to rummage through the produce isle at the local grocery store. This is also the set that got us hooked on The Sporting News, which played a huge role in the development of our baseball fandom.
Back in the day,Topps dominated the baseball card hobby. If the single Topps set — there were no premium, platinum or chrome releases — didn’t satisfy your collecting needs, the Hostess sets produced from 1975-1979 gave you another option. Dealers and collectors couldn’t buy Hostess cards directly from the company, so they had to work and spend to complete these sets.
Beginning in 1975 Hostess cards were produced in three-card panels on the back of each multi-pack Hostess box. The best part of this new wave of collecting was seeing what you were buying, which encouraged set building. Hostess panels — complete with an offer for a free issue of The Sporting News — kept in tact are more valuable and coveted today that cards cut from the box. Some cards were printed on not-so-tasty products and are more difficult to find today. Cards printed on the back of the smaller HoHos multi-pack boxes are often creased at the corners from handling.
Proofreading, editing and reading the daily box scores were not priorities for Hostess baseball card editors. The initial set was loaded with mistakes. Slugger Bill Madlock was listed as a pitcher, Rangers catcher Jim Sandberg was named Mike and outfielder George Hendrick became George Hendricks. Robin Yount, a teenage phenom at the time, is one of the more popular players in the set. Unfortunately, Hostess did not include a rookie card of future Hall of Famer George Brett.
Despite the quality-control issues, the debut Hostess set remains popular today with over 3,000 listings, including a handful of graded panels, currently on eBay. The 1975 panel set is worth as much as $400 depending on the condition. The single-card set varies widely because of stain issues — creamy cake fillings sometimes seeped through the packages — and cards being miscut.
Celebrating the nation’s bicentennial, the Hostess 1976 set includes red, white and blue stripes surrounding the player’s name, team and position. Collectors familiar with the 1976 Topps set will recognize some of the same photos in the Hostess series. The set is loaded with stars, including Brett, Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, a Dennis Eckersley rookie and one of Hank Aaron’s final cards.
The 1977 Hostess set includes Hall-of-Famers-to-be Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Thurman Munson and Johnny Bench. By this time, collectors learned to save the cards as complete panels. The complete panel sets are valued as much as $300 with the single set selling for nearly three times as much due to scarcity.
Although Eddie Murray was considered just another player at the time, his rookie card in the 1978 Hostess sets remains highly coveted. For the first time, a few action shots were used to liven up the product. Unfortunately the cost of producing baseball cards out-weighed the marketing advantages. As a result, the 1979 edition was the final Hostess set. Hostess went out with a bang, featuring an Ozzie Smith rookie card on the same panel as Nolan Ryan as well as Willie Montanez.
Forty-five years ago this month, one of the worst trades in baseball history was made, prompting one of the most hideous-looking baseball cards ever to be produced.
On December 10, 1971, the New York Mets sent 24-year-old fireballer Nolan Ryan along with three prospects to the the California Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi. In hindsight, the deal was a disaster for the Mets, but the deal made sense for both clubs at the time.
The Angels obtained one of the liveliest — not to mention most erratic — young arms in baseball. Ryan posted a 29-38 record with an impressive 493 strikeouts, but an alarming 344 walks over five seasons with the Mets.
The Mets were adding an established big leaguer believed to be in the prime of his career. Manager Gil Hodges immediately moved Fregosi to third base, where 45 players had come and gone in the Mets’ 10 years of existence. The last of the original Angels of 1961, Fregosi battled numerous physical problems in his one season with the Angels, including a bad bout with the flu, a sore arm, a strained side muscle, and a tumor in his foot. The six-time All-Star batted just .232 with five homers, and 32 RBI in 101 games for the Mets.
Ryan moved on to a Hall of Fame career that included a major league record seven no hitters, 61 shutouts (seventh all-time), 324 wins, and became all-time strikeout leader with 5,714. This is just one of many trades of a big-armed, but erratic young pitcher dealt for a proven veteran. Unfortunately for the Mets it will be remembered as one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history.
In the early ‘70s baseball card sets went to press in late-December or early-January to be ready for distribution by the start of the baseball season. As a result, Ryan’s head shot for the 1972 Topps set was taken while he played for the New York Mets. The wrong Angels logo (they went to a capital A in 1972) was poorly airbrushed over Ryan’s Mets cap. For some unknown reason, the Topps production team failed to airbrush the pinstripes clearly visible from his Mets jersey.
To make matters worse, Ryan’s doctored image was printed inside the grotesque 1972 Topps tombstone design. Keeping up with the times and looking to change the drab designs of 1970 (gray borders) and 1971 (black borders), the 1972 Topps design features a bright, almost psychedelic color scheme.
One of the most controversial baseball card sets, the 1972 Topps series draws the ire of long-time collectors for emphasizing the product and team rather than the player. The team name above the player image is energized with bright, bold lettering that creates a three-dimensional look. The player name, however, is printed in a simple black font at the bottom of the card. Going against tradition, there is no mention of the player’s position.
The 1972 Topps set is not without merit. The series includes the rookie card of Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk, which he shares with Cecil Cooper (the featured player), and Mike Garman. The series also features the last regular card issued during Roberto Clemente in addition to late cards of Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Other featured Hall of Famers include Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, and Fergie Jenkins.
On this day in 1974, Hank Aaron smacked an Al Downing fastball over the leap of Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner for his 715th home run at Atlanta Stadium, breaking the record held by Babe Ruth for over 50 years. The night of April 8, 1974 still hails as one of the most iconic moments in baseball history. The celebration of Aaron’s accomplishment combined with new-found appreciation for home run hitters from a previous, untainted era has increased interest in Aaron baseball cards.
The 1954 Topps Aaron rookie pictures a raw teenager on the verge of greatness. The card design sports two pictures, a large headshot and a small in-action shot in the lower left-hand corner. Hard to find in mint condition due to wear, dullness, blurry lettering and off-centered photos, near-mint PSA-7 versions sell in the $2,400 range.
The slender 180-lb. outfielder would go on to hit an unblemished 755 home runs over his 23-year career. A right-handed hitter with remarkably powerful wrists and a smoothly crafted swing, Aaron was recognized for home runs, but his legacy included 3,771 hits (third all-time), 2,174 runs (tied for second), 2,297 RBI (first), and a career .305 average. Aaron also displayed outstanding speed and one of the better right-field arms of his time.
Topps, a chewing gum producer new to the trading card business, made a wide array of printing and production gaffes while Aaron was emerging as the game’s top slugger. After just a few years of producing baseball cards, Topps had yet to establish much of a photo library, so pictures were often recycled during the ’50s. The same Aaron head shot was used from 1954-1956.
The 1956 card (#31) also includes an action shot in the lower right-hand corner picturing Willie Mays sliding into home plate wearing a Braves uniform. A Topps artist painted the uniform. The actual photo of Mays appeared in a baseball card publication a year earlier. Near-Mint PSA versions of this hard-to-find relic accidentally picturing two of baseball’s greatest players sells in excess of $2,700.
Topps made an even bigger blunder on Aaron’s card the following year. The production staff accidentally reversed the negative on the 1957 card (#20), which displays baseball’s most prolific right-handed hitter batting left-handed. The card that has no-doubt triggered decades of bar room arguments sells for $100 in excellent condition.
The 1958 Topps “Baseball Thrills” card, picturing Aaron’s classic home run swing, celebrates Aaron’s Game 4 homer that helped propel the Braves over the Yankees to win the 1957 World Series. This Topps set is notorious for being mis-cut and off center. The rare gem is worth up to $125.
The ultra conservative Topps Co. rolled the dice in 1974 by printing “New All-Time Home Run King” on Aaron’s 1974 Topps card (#1) despite Aaron entering the ’74 season one home run shy of tying Ruth’s career mark. Fortunately for Topps, Aaron kept the suspense to a minimum, hitting a homerun on Opening Day. The ’74 Topps card became officially accurate a few days later when Aaron broke the record on a nationally televised Monday Night Baseball game with a homer against the Dodgers.
Aaron has gained popularity with today’s collectors, as baseball card manufacturers continue to combine baseball history with modern day memorabilia cards. His 2014 Topps Tribute “Game-Used Bat” card is a great find for $40.