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1981 Donruss Baseball

By Patrick Mondout

Memphis-based Donruss, which had been known to hobbyists for its non-sports set (such as the Elvis and Kiss sets of the late Super70s), produced their first set of baseball cards just a few months after the landmark court ruling that effectively ended Topps' monopoly on the baseball card market.

This first set of 605 cards was a remarkable achievement for the small firm. Everyone expected Fleer, which had brought the suit against Topps in the mid-Super70s, to compete but no one expected a set of this size to emerge from Donruss. The inaugural sets from these two companies altered the hobby dramatically. Sales grew for the Big Three over the next year as the extra sets created new collectors (and speculators).

The design was considered attractive at the time, certainly better than expected. In fact, if you replace the 3D text for the team name with script and correct the printing quality control problems, the cards would look a lot like the classic '78 Topps set. The backs of the cards (see below) had career highlights and stats - but only for the 1980 season plus career totals. The career highlights were nice, but Donruss soon learned that they hadn't included enough statistics. At least they were printed on white cardboard stock, which made them easier to read than Topps' cards.

That said, there were real problems. The cards were printed on thin cardboard and many collectors could not bring themselves to consider them "real" baseball cards (they went into the season expecting little from Donruss and the thin cards met their diminished expectations). The cards were also prone to quality control problems as well. Some from the initial shipment looked as though they had been cut with a chainsaw (or at least by the same machine O-Pee-Chee's had been using) while others had misaligned colors.

Reggie! Reggie!

So which of these Reggies is his real 1981 Donruss card? The answer is both. While it was common for Topps to feature big stars on a number of cards in their sets, the other cards had special purposes (such as honoring the player for setting a record or making the All-Star team) and could not be confused with the "regular" card. For the first time since the '69 Topps set, multiple "regular" cards were produced of some of the players in this set. Some collectors felt one of each was enough and this was the only year Donruss produced them.


In their rush to get the sets out the door, there were many errors. This plagued the Fleer set as well and collectors worked themselves into a frenzy chasing down those error cards once it became clear that a second and even third printing had been distributed with corrected versions of those cards.

Just about every type of error occurred: Reversed negatives, missing decimal points, incorrect or missing card numbers, misspellings, incorrect stats, wrong middle names, incorrect player pictured, and more. No fewer than 40 cards have error variation pairs.

Indeed, the rapidly rising prices of the two companies error cards was the story in the hobby once the season got underway. Since the errors actually seemed to boost business, some accused the companies of making the mistakes on purpose. But from a long-term standpoint, having the media claim that your product is flawed and had to be fixed after it was printed while Topps had no such problems was not exactly the positive spin you would hope for in your first year.

A third problem was the printing itself. It is not hard to find players who look as though they just emerged from six weeks in a tanning booth. The ink often extends beyond their borders more so than with contemporary sets. Some of the cards also seem to have slightly out of focus pictures, but it is more likely to be a result of color separation problems at the printers.

For those who bought these sets in hopes of long term profits, there's a another problem. More of these cards were printed than were bought by collectors at the time - a problem which would keep interest in both Donruss and Fleer cards at bay until 1984. This set has always been inexpensive to purchase and it is hard to imagine it hitting even $40 without the nation being hit by hyperinflation.

Special cards were produced for 1980 MVP winners George Brett and Mike Schmidt as well as Cy Young winners Steve Stone and Steve Carlton. Those and the "Best Hitters" card of George Brett and Rod Carew are the only special cards (see below). Donruss also signed the San Diego Chicken to an exclusive deal and the mascot appeared in the 1981-1984 sets.1 The card's presence might have made more sense if the Phillie Fanatic and Youppi had also been included as part of a mascots subset. As such, some veteran collectors were decidedly unimpressed. Us kids thought it was cool though.

Rookies cards of note in this set are Tim Raines, Jeff Reardon, and Danny Ainge. Donruss missed a big opportunity by not including a Fernando Valenzuela card. Fernandomania swept the country in the summer and their set was the only one not to include a card of him. Harold Baines and Kirk Gibson are also unaccounted for.

I do not know the name of the principle photographer for the set, but I do know what part of the country he/she was from. A large amount of the photos were taken in either Comiskey Park or Wrigley Field.

The cards were distributed in 18 card packs and a stick of awful gum (yes, I still remember what '81 Donruss gum tasted like) for a suggested retail of 30, which contrasted with only 15 Topps or 17 Fleer cards for the same price. While there were no factory sets, about 500 complete sets worth of uncut sheets were distributed.

A relatively cheap thrill these days is to buy an unopened wax box of these. Seeing the old gum from the only year Donruss had legal clearance to include it, the miscut and error cards, and the occasional multiples of the same player in the same pack all bring back precious memories of the spring of 1981 when an uninspired Topps finally had to compete for our loose change. 

A checklist for all 605 cards is available here

1981 Donruss at a Glance
Back Checklist Wax Pack
Best Hitters Manager MVP

1. Ted Giannoulas was also known as the "Famous" Chicken, since the San Diego Padres weren't happy with him using the city's name when he performed at other ballparks on his own as they didn't get a cut.



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Year: 1981

Manufacturer: Donruss

# of Cards: 605 (Checklist)

Value/Price: Check eBay (see links below)

Size: 2 x 3

Image courtesy of Donruss

'81 Donruss Sets!
'81 Donruss Singles!
'81 Donruss Unopened Packs!
'81 Donruss Lots!
'81 Donruss Cases!

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