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
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
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'
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.
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
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
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
A checklist for all 605 cards is available here.
||1981 Donruss at a Glance
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.