Not long again, fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Mark Del Franco posed three questions about the 1981 Donruss set he was paging in his binder.
— Mark Del Franco (@delspacefranco) April 9, 2020
When the insider information Mark was hoping for didn’t arrive, I decided to make a day of delving deep into the Donruss checklist. Best case scenario, I’d have answers to all Mark’s questions. Worst case scenario, you’d get an article that at least brought back some of the nostalgia and fondness of the company’s debut baseball offering.
Apropos to Mark’s questions, let’s take a closer look at the cards that open the set.
Much like some of the early Bowman sets or even 1940 Play Ball, the set’s numerical checklist (cards 1-17 shown below, including both Duffy Dyer variations) includes small team runs. As already noted by Mark, cards 1-4 above are San Diego Padres and cards 5-10 are Detroit Tigers.
Were the pattern to continue throughout the set, no deep study or article would be warranted. However, the Mike Schmidt card is our first of many hints that the organization of the set is hardly as simple as your binder’s opening sheet might have suggested.
Was Schmidt’s presence simply a mistake? After all, like the Fleer set of the same year, the set did include several errors and variations. A look at the next two pages in the binder might shed some light.
Things start out simple enough: Astros, Astros, Astros, Astros, but then what’s this? Another lone Phil, this time Manny Trillo, appearing out of nowhere, before the run of Astros continues. Next up, a run of Rangers cards, a run of Blue Jays, and then…you guessed it! Another Phillie, this time Steve Carlton, pops in.
Were we forced to describe the structure of the set based only on what we’ve seen so far, I suppose the description would go something like this: groupings of 4-6 teammates, punctuated by the occasionally lone Phil.
This schematic of the set’s first hundred cards (excluding variations) illustrates that our description continues to hold, at least mostly, well past the cards we’ve seen so far. The only deviation comes from our lone Phils ultimately giving way to lone Braves.
The schematic also shows us that the placement of the lone Phils/Braves cards is not random. Geometrically, they form a perfect diagonal down the grid, meaning numerically they differ by exactly eleven. Specifically the cards are numbered 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99.
You might wonder if the numeric pattern extends further down the checklist. It does, at least sort of, but not for long. The next number in the pattern, 110, does correspond to a player all by himself, amidst a larger Yankees run. However, he’s an Oakland A’s player rather than a Phillie or a Brave.
Phillies? Braves? A’s? What does it matter, as long as these loners keep popping up every eleven cards. That’s the real pattern we care about, right? Well, I have bad news. Card 121 in the set, Dave Cash, is hardly a loner but instead the leader of a run of four Padres. Drat!
Are we done then? Not a chance! Inserted between a run of Tigers and Pirates is card 131, Pete Rose, another lone Phil! Then at 142, eleven cards later, Larry Bowa, another lone Phil! Card 153? Another lone Phil—
Does the pattern continue even further? As the signs used to say at Veteran’s stadium in 1980, DEL-IVERS! Card 164 is another lone Phil, Del Unser! Poppycock, you say? I think you mean Bull! Yes, Greg Luzinski does keep the Phillies solo parade going with card 175.
The loners continue every eleven cards like clockwork (if clocks had eleven numbers), just not with Phillies. As before, the team run interrupter baton is passed to Atlanta before (again!) having an Oakland player crash the party.
- 186 – Brian Asselstine (Braves)
- 197 – Rick Camp (Braves)
- 208 – Bruce Benedict (Braves)
- 219 – Chris Chambliss (Braves)
- 230 – Jeff Cox (A’s)
I wish I could say card 241 was another lone Phil or Brave or even Athletic, but I can’t—as before, the Oakland A’s player proved a harbinger of discontinuity. All we get at card 241 is Gene Tenace (first sheet, second card) initiating a run of four Padres.
Well talk about deja vu all over again! Again, Pete Rose restarts the pattern of lone Phils, this time with his second card in the set, number 251. (Recall Donruss included multiple cards of many top stars in 1981.)
Do a host of lone Phillies again follow the Hit King at intervals of eleven? You bet!
- 262 – Bob Boone (Phillies)
- 273 – Tug McGraw (Phillies)
- 284 – Sparky Lyle (Phillies)
- 295 – Lonnie Smith (Phillies)
And if you guessed some Braves would come after that, you are on a roll!
- 306 – Gary Matthews (Braves)
- 317 – Rick Matula (Braves)
- 328 – Phil Niekro (Braves)
- 339 – Jerry Royster (Braves)
And if you’ve really been paying attention, you can probably guess the next two things that will happen. (Bonus points if you can guess the next three!)
- Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
- Yes, nothing special happens at 361. We just get Bill Fahey kicking off a four-card run of Padres (first sheet, third card below).
“But what’s number three,” you ask!
It’s Pete Rose once again, with his third card in the set (371), serving as Grand Marshal of the solo parade:
- 382 – Keith Moreland (Phillies)
- 393 – Bob Walk (Phillies)
- 404 – Bake McBride (Phillies)
- 415 – Dallas Green (Phillies)
- 426 – Bobby Cox (Braves)
- 437 – Dale Murphy (Braves)
- 448 – Doyle Alexander (Braves)
- 459 – Glenn Hubbard (Braves)
- 480 – Mike Davis (A’s)
We’ve now made it through 80% of the set, ignoring the five unnumbered checklists, and we have seen a remarkably consistent if not perfect pattern all the way through. You may think you know the ending then: more of the same. Unfortunately (unless you like chaos), things get much more complicated in our final 20%, so much so that I’ll pause here and “solve the riddle” before unleashing the cacophony of the set’s final 100+ cards.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, that picture is an uncut sheet of the first 121 cards (sort of) in the set. (Like Topps at that time, the Donruss set used 11 x 11 printing sheets.)
Read from left to right and the sequencing appears random, but read top to bottom and you see that the sheet in fact runs in numerical order. Head down the first column and we have cards 1-11: our four Padres, six Tigers, and Mike Schmidt. Head down the next column and we see the run of Pirates and the start of an Astros run, interrupted briefly by Manny Trillo of the Phillies.
As for those darn Phils and Braves, we now see that they too are part of consecutive team runs, only horizontally rather than vertically down the sheet. But what about Mickey Klutts, or for that matter any of the A’s streak-breakers who seemingly crashed the parties solo? Mickey isn’t so much alone but simply nudged aside one slot by the first unnumbered checklist in the set. (That checklist is why I said the sheet “sort of” showed the set’s first 121 cards. From a numbering perspective, you are really seeing 1-120 plus an unnumbered card.) Swap Mickey with the checklist, and he’d fit right in with a nice vertical strip of A’s teammates.
The second uncut sheet in the set (cards 121-240 plus another unnumbered checklist) follows EXACTLY the same pattern, right down to the A’s player nudged by the sheet’s checklist.
Ditto for the third sheet, featuring cards 241-360 and the third unnumbered checklist.
And finally, sheet four, featuring cards 361-480 and the fourth unnumbered checklist.
While these sheets don’t answer every question about the set’s quirky checklist, they do provide a nice visual context for not only the patterns but the breaks in the patterns previously noted.
- The “every eleven” patterns of lone Phils, Braves, and sometimes A’s corresponded exactly to the bottom rows of each sheet.
- The breaks in our “every eleven” patterns (cards 121, 241, 361) were caused by the insertion of an unnumbered checklist at the end of each sheet.
- As for Pete and Re-Pete (sorry, wrong brand!) and Re-Re-Pete re-starting the pattern each time, his (honorific?) spot in the bottom left corner of sheets 2, 3, and 4 are what make it work. (For what it’s worth, the first sheet also had a Phils great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left corner.)
With the sheets in front of us, we can add two more observations to our list.
- The order of the teams on each sheet is identical: Padres, Tigers, Pirates, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, and A’s (with Phils and Braves along the bottom).
- Two teams are nowhere to be found: Cubs and Twins.
Now that you know just about everything about the set’s first 480 (or 484 counting checklists) cards, we are ready for the final sheet. Just be sure you’re sitting down…or standing on your head.
Again, we have a Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left hand corner and a checklist in the lower right. Next, notice…oh gosh, you’re not gonna let me do this to you, are you? Okay, fine, let’s try this again.
As promised, chaos. But not total chaos. I’ll illustrate the order by using thick red borders to identify contiguous team groupings (horizontal or vertical) and use big black “T” markings to identify cards like these.
A hallmark of the 1981 Donruss set is the subset of cards where player uniforms mismatch their team names. While Topps would have gotten out the airbrushes, Donruss left player photos intact, using only the team designation to reflect updates. If we include these players with their former (uniform) teams, we end up with twelve mini-team runs. Not surprisingly, half are Cubs and half are Twins.
The fact that Donruss placed all 17 of the “T” cards on the final sheet surprised me at first but perhaps isn’t surprising at all. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.
Ron LeFlore, photographed as an Expo, was granted free agency on October 28, 1980, but not signed by the White Sox until November 26. If we assume Donruss was in the homestretch of card-making for most players come November, then it makes sense that LeFlore would be moved to the back of the line while his team status was in limbo. (Note LeFlore’s bio opens with his signing by the Sox.)
On the other hand, what about Larry Milbourne, who was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees on November 18? While his team status changed, there was no prolonged limbo period attached. I can’t say what happened for sure, but there are a couple possibilities that seem viable.
- Donruss had already completed Milbourne’s Mariners card prior to the trade and then bumped him to the back of the line for correction once the trade took place.
- Donruss was aware of the trade when Milbourne’s card was being worked on, but they had not yet reached a decision on how to handle team changes. Would they ignore them? Would they go the airbrushing route? Would they race to Spring Training for a new photo? Or would they simply update the team name while leaving everything else the same? Again, back of the line makes sense pending a design decision.
You’ll notice the sheet has several other special cards not yet mentioned: a “Best Hitters” card featuring George Brett and Rod Carew, two MVP cards (Brett/Schmidt), and two Cy Young Award cards (Stone/Carlton).
We can add all of these cards to the “seems logical to have them here” pile, and we end up with 63 cards on the final sheet making sense. There may be a story to the remaining 58 (e.g., other pending free agents who stayed with their prior teams, rookies identified late in the process), but most are probably players who simply didn’t fit on the first four sheets.
To illustrate that there really are cards in this last category, consider Steve Howe (card 511). He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and had completely unambiguous team status as a Dodger. As such, Howe would have been an absolute lock for the set from the beginning but was nonetheless part of this final sheet.
UPDATE: From Keith Olbermann…
I have info. Donruss contacted me late in production for photos of ~15 guys. I believe I had taken 14 of them. 9 of these – Minton, Gross, Rivers, Oberkfell, Kaat, Hassler, Stapleton, Boggs, Perkins – are on the last sheet. I suspect card numbers correlate to photo availability.
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) April 25, 2020
I’m not sure my work here directly answers any of Mark’s original questions. At best I can say Ozzie Smith has card #1 because he is a Padre and the Padres lead off every sheet. Still, why Ozzie as opposed to other Padres, including bigger stars like Dave Winfield and Rollie Fingers? And why are the Padres with their last place finish in the top spot at all?
About all I can do is (maybe) add some rationale for the organization of the set into mini-team runs as opposed to complete team runs such as Fleer used that same year. I’ll start with a wrong answer but one that in some small way may inform a right answer.
At the very beginning of this article I mentioned the use of mini-team runs in 1940 Play Ball. For example, the New York Giants cards in this set occur at numbers 83-93, 154-159, 209-215. (There are also some “retired greats” cards at other checklist locations, but I’ll keep my focus on the active roster.) The Play Ball set was released in series, meaning had all 24 Giants cards been together on the checklist (e.g., cards 1-24), one series would have been jam-packed with Giants while the remaining series would have had none at all.
Of course 1981 Donruss was not released in series. All 605 cards came out all at once. As such, nothing terrible would have happened if the Padres simply opened the set with cards 1-18 rather than 1-4, 121-124, 241-244, 361-364, 525, and 595. On the other hand, let’s say that Donruss lacked whatever machinery Topps had in place for randomizing and collating cards into packs and boxes, something their past experience with non-baseball sets might have made clear to them going into the enterprise. If we assume that cards from the same sheet would have had a much higher than chance probability of going into the same packs, it’s easy to see that sheets with complete rosters would lead to collation issues more evident to consumers than sheets covering 24 different teams.
Personally, my own pack opening experience with 1981 Donruss (some as recently as last year) was that I still managed to open a great many packs with runs of 10-12 of the 18 cards spread across only two teams (e.g., Expos/Red Sox only). While this undoubtedly reflects poor collation, the fact is it could have been even worse. Had Donruss grouped entire team rosters together, those same packs might have yielded all Expos or all Red Sox.
Perhaps to address collation issues, the next year Donruss not only moved away from team runs entirely but also made several updates to their uncut sheets.
Among the other changes identifiable on this 1982 Donruss sheet are—
- New size of 11 x 12 (132 cards), with five sheets again building the complete set, this time of 5 x 132 = 660 cards.
- Change from vertical to horizontal sequencing of cards. For example, the top row run of Cal Ripken to Ray Burris covers cards 407-417 consecutively.
- Insertion of Diamond Kings every 26th card.
- Sheets covering a more complicated range of numbers. For example, the first six rows of the sheet shown (excluding Diamond Kings) cover cards 405-467 consecutively while the next six rows cover cards 279-341. (If you must know, the six Diamond Kings on the sheet are 16-18 followed by 11-13.)
Rather than go down the rabbit hole of 1982 any deeper, I’ll just close with some fond recollections of the 1981 set, some foggy and some vivid. I was 11 when the set came out, a perfect age for believing cardboard was magic while also being old enough to have more than a few cents in my pocket. We won’t talk about where the money came from, but I somehow “found” enough to ride my bike to 7-Eleven just about every day from March to October, often more than once.
I didn’t think in terms of monopolies and competition back then. In my world, more cards was a good thing, case closed. There was a lot for a kid to like about 1981 Donruss. More cards per pack, for one thing, and super colorful cards for another. Yes, there were plenty of errors, but boy were they fun to discover.
We had no internet back then to look this stuff up. (There were hobby mags, but I didn’t have subscribe yet.) It was just kids comparing notes at school: Steve Rodgers with a “d,” that’s not right! And then imagine the thrill of pulling a Rogers (no d) later that same year! Of course, some of the errors were funny too, like Bobby Bonds and his 986 home runs (giving father and son 1748 homers combined, by the way)!
Most of all though, I loved that some of my favorite players had extra cards in the set for no reason. Sure Topps might give a guy two cards if he was a Record Breaker, but here was Donruss with two Steve Garvey cards just because. Ditto Yaz. Tritto Pete Rose.
How about you? If you were a kid in 1981 what memories do you have of the set? And as you look back on it today, do you love it any more or any less?