Split Season sets (or, how writing a book invariably led to more cards)

The split season of 1981, the year of Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the strike that saved baseball, was Year One in the explosion in card collecting that marked the next decade and more. All of a sudden, there were a lot of choices for collectors.

An important historical note recounted in my book, Split Season: 1981,Fernandomania, The Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball (see how I subtly introduced the title in the opening sentence?) is the lawsuit that ended the Topps monopoly. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

In spring, millions turned to a time honored system of information gathering – baseball cards. The turmoil in baseball, the interweaving of business and sport, of tradition and progress, was mirrored in the collectible world. Topps, the only card company that generations had grown up on, had competition for the first time in 25 years. Like free agency, the decision came from an outside arbiter.

Cards were big business, 500 million traded, collected and clothes-pinned on bicycle spokes every year, generating $10 million in revenue. It was no wonder others wanted in.  When Fleer first challenged Topps in 1959, Topps had nearly every player under an exclusive deal. In 1975, the same year the first free agent, “Catfish” Hunter, was pushed out into an open market, Fleer filed a $13.6 mil suit against the Topps monopoly.

It took almost six years to end. On June 30, 1980, it was ruled that Topps and the players’ association had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, restraining trade in the card market violation of.  The players’ association, much to Miller’s shock, were sued as well because, they had only licensed Topps. Miller disagreed with Topps’ assertion of exclusivity, but by not granting other companies the same right, the union had helped Topps remain the only cardboard in town. The players’ association was thrilled, for once, to lose. They saw more licensing money on the horizon.

For all of Fleer’s work in the courts, it was a Memphis concern, Donruss, which jumped in first. Fleer, seeing the normal calendar compress, released its full set before the Super Bowl, rather than the customary mid-February date. Statistical errors were numerous, with Bobby Bonds credited with 936 career home runs. The cards came out too early to picture the recent crop of free agents in fresh garb. Winfield as a Padre, Fisk and Lynn as a Red Sox, made the new cards outdated on arrival. Each company had a hard time completely covering the expected top rookies. Topps featured Tim Raines in a triptych of future Expos stars. Fernando Valenzuela got the same treatment. Donruss offered a full, more in focus, solo card of an incredibly young looking Raines, his big Afro pushing his cap skywards, an empty Wrigley Field lower level in the background.  Fleer had the only Valenzuela card, though he was labeled “Fernand” Valenzuela.

The flood of new product, giving every purchaser a free choice, would lead to an explosion of the hobby. By year-end, three times the number of cards were collected. The union garnered an additional $600,000 in revenue. An open market was good for paper images of the players; why not for the real thing?

In those moments during research and writing, while my mind wandered, and needed to, I searched EBay for 1981 sets I didn’t have. Of course, I had the three big base sets, and the Topps Traded set, but there were plenty of new offerings.

1981 Topps Coca-Cola

Topps produced 12 card sets, for 11 MLB teams. (They produced a Yankee set but that was never issued. Only three players are out there – Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson and Rick Cerone.).

Rather than buy sets team by team, I held out for the full run of 132 cards. It was well worth it. They are very nice and, in some instances, have different pictures than the regular 1981 cards. The Sutton card is the missing link between his base card and his Traded card.

1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards 

1918-giant-burg

Perhaps in the Top 5 (at least Top 10) of most beautiful card sets, these 5” X 7” borderless glossies are a dream. Again, Topps issued team sets, or geographic sets, but the key for me was getting the whole set, all 102 oversized pics. I had a few of these when they came out but 1) only Yankees and Mets were sold in New York and, 2) who has the time to buy one card packs? This is the perfect set for Rob Neyer, who wrote recently for the blog about how much he likes borderless cards.

Tom Burgmeier never looked so good.

1981 Topps Scratchoffs

scratchoff

Perhaps in the Bottom 5 (at least Bottom 10) of ugliest and pointless Topps sets. Three game cards to a card, perforated, the pictures small, players looking at, or averting their eyes from, the 24 black dots as if they were the plague. Not worth the time or money (small though it is at around $10.)

1981 Topps Stickers and Album

1981-stickers

Topps obviously decided that the best way to counter the Donruss and Fleer cards that now cluttered the market was to flood the market with more Topps sets. These are kinda nice, kinda silly, this big set of 262 flimsy little stickers features enough fine photography to make it interesting. Plus, it’s ridiculously cheap, less than a ten spot. I bought the album as well but there’s no sticking in my future.

1981 Fleer Star Stickers

1981-bake-fleer

Maybe not as nice as the Topps sticker set, a bit more cluttered in design, a bit smaller set (128) but bigger cards. Plus, a loose-leaf binder is virtually naked without a Bake McBride sticker on the front.

1981 Drake’s

1981-drakes-super-joe

The first Drake’s set since 1950 (the awesome “TV Baseball Series” cards), this 32 card gem was made in conjunction with Topps and is sweet, with great action shots of the “Big Hitters” of the day – and Joe Charboneau.

 

There were a few other sets I picked up – Kellogg’s 3-D (oddly, I had stopped buying those sets in 1980), the O-Pee-Chee Expos/Blue Jays poster set – and I had a few others – the Dodgers Police set and about 22% of all the minor league sets put out in 1981. I have no desire to pursue any more minor league sets, but I will make note of perhaps the best card of 1981. The TCMA Albuquerque Dukes set at first had a Sandy Koufax card, and then didn’t. Koufax was coaching in the Dodger chain that year.

1981-tcma-koufax

As for what’s left, there are some Police sets that don’t grab me (Braves, Royals, Mariners) and MSA/Peter Pan/Sunbeam discs that are bland beyond belief. When I bought the Towne Club disc set in 1976, discs of logo-less players seemed cool. Not by 1981, not now.

I may go after the Granny Goose A’s set, though searching for the short print Dave Revering card feels like an empty hunt. The only set remaining in my sights is the Squirt set. It’s not that big, not that expensive and I feel that not having anything in my collection labelled “Squirt” is a big void.

1981-squirt

Author: Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.

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