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1981 Fleer Baseball

By Patrick Mondout

Fleer's 1981 set of 660 baseball cards was the most anticipated set in decades. It was the company's first set since of current-player cards since 1963 and, along with the Donruss set, was the first non-Topps cards to be distributed with gum since the 1955 Bowman release. Distributed just a few months after the landmark court ruling that effectively ended Topps' monopoly on the baseball card market, the set was well received by collectors who were ecstatic to finally have a choice.

Unlike the other two companies, Fleer did not clutter the fronts of their cards with their logo. This uncluttered look appealed to veteran collectors who were dismayed with Topps. The backs of the cards were printed on a lighter color stock than Topps used, making the statistics easier to read. Fleer included stolen base, walks and strikeouts, something Topps did for the first time in 1981.

Baseball card collectors were used to the occasional variation, such as the Bump Wills "Blue Jays" card in 1979 or the "Washington, Nat'l League" cards in 1974. They were not used to 40 variations spread out over three distinct printings, which is exactly what Fleer produced. In fact, both of the new sets (see Donruss) were plagued with errors - or at least that is how it is seen now. At the time, it sparked collector interest in the cards with some buying box after box trying to get every last variation.

That the errors led to increased popularity and more sales is undeniable. This led some to question whether or not it was done on purpose. This seems inconceivable. This was Fleer's first set in a generation and they were taking on a company that was the only baseball card manufacturer many of us had ever known. They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This was potentially the set that would make or break your company with collectors. If you were the CEO of Fleer in 1981, would you knowingly release a flawed set that would be criticized as such just to try to get a few more sales because of error cards? 

Among the numerous errors was a reversed negative of the photo used on the Tim Flannery card. I asked Lou Sauritch, the Fleer photographer who took the photo, what happened. He explained that Fleer actually took the slides out of their mounts back then and placed them manually onto a thick, clear sheet of transparent plastic to scan them. They guy who did it simply flipped it upside relative to the other photos and no one caught it until after the first printing.

Switch Hitter?

Which one is correct? Flannery is left-handed, so the one of the right is correct. Would you have spotted this error?

Who caught the error? It was Lou himself: "I told them to send us (the photographers) the uncut sheets so we could proof them. (When) I was looking through them, I saw the Flannery card first, because I only shot in San Diego from one side (of the field). So I was like, "I wonder who else is shooting here?" It really kind of bothered me. But then I looked at the card and said 'wait a second, Flannery is left handed.' So I put it in the mirror and sure enough, there it was. It was hard to tell."

The most valuable error card remains the "Craig Nettles" card from the first printing. The back of the card misspells his first name, which is actually Graig. Sauritch caught this error too: "I had to call the guy at home and they ended up stopping the presses." As this error was the first one corrected, it is more scarce than the others. The Nettles card alone was selling for as much as $40 in the summer of 1981 which is far more than the whole set goes for now.

Despite the errors, collectors gave Fleer the highest ratings of the "Big Three." This and the error craze of the summer led to sales far in excess of projections. Fleer was also lucky. Aside from the strike, the biggest baseball story of 1981 was Fernando Valenzuela. He was the biggest rookie sensation since Mark "The Bird" Fidrych and Fernandomania swept the nation. The only company to produce a full card of him during his run was Fleer - a real coup for the company.1

If Fleer scored a coup with Fernando, this missed the boat by not including Tim Raines - the other star rookie of 1981. The other rookies Danny Ainge, Harold Baines, Kirk Gibson, and Jeff Reardon.

When the initial excitement over the new cards and the errors subsided, we gradually learned that there were far more of the cards printed than we required by collectors. This set became one of the first casualties of overproduction. By 1988, it was worth less than even the razor-thin 1981 Donruss set.2

A checklist for all 660 cards is available here.


1981 Fleer at a Glance
Back Checklist Wax Pack
Manager Most SB Triple Threat

1. Topps did print a 3-in-1 card with Valenzuela, but Fleer was the only company to produce a card that only featured Fernando. Topps addressed this with their first boxed Traded set in the fall.
2. "Price Guide" in Sports Collector's Digest, January 29, 1988; Page 130.



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Year: 1981

Manufacturer: Fleer

# of Cards: 660 (Checklist)

Value/Price: Check eBay (see links below)

Size: 2 x 3

Image courtesy of Fleer

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'81 Fleer Cases!

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