Last Updated on February 6, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
It’s just my opinion, but I think 1981 Fleer baseball cards get less respect than they deserve. It ended Topps’ 25-year monopoly on baseball cards and, frankly, I think it’s a nicer set than the Topps or Donruss sets from the same year.
Yes, compared to the smooth and polished Topps, the Fleer set at times looked like amateur work. But they didn’t make as many mistakes as fellow upstart Donruss did. And they tried some things with their set that Topps had been unwilling to do. The 1981 Fleer baseball cards got some critical accolades at the time, and frankly I think it’s an underrated ’80s set. It didn’t contribute a lot to the most valuable cards of the 1980s, but it certainly helped shape the decade.
The rush to market
Fleer sued for the right to market baseball cards in 1975. It finally won in the summer of 1980. Fleer rushed into the market with a strong offering, but printing and proofreading errors cast a pall on the overall effort.
The most glaring errors were Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles, Giants third baseman Darrell Evans, and Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela. Fleer misspelled Nettles’ first name as “Craig” on the back of the card, Evans’ first name as “Darrel” on the front, and Valenzuela’s first name as “Fernand” on the front. Steve Carlton’s card had the year “1066” in its statistics, which should have read “1966.” Numerous other cards had unusual printing artifacts on them. Fleer corrected most of these errors in a second printing, except Carlton’s card that took three printings to get right. Notably, Fleer did not correct the misspelling on rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela’s name.
Fleer’s set had fewer errors than the competing Donruss set, along with higher quality photography and better card stock. Fleer licensed a cache of photos from Sports Photo Associates of Hawthorne, New Jersey. Donruss bought anything they could dig up, including 15 fuzzy, poorly lit photos taken by a young Keith Olbermann. The photos Fleer licensed from Sports Photo Associates were better than the Donruss photos, but not all were as good as what Topps had.
But overall the errors made the set look a bit sloppy compared to Topps, who produced an error-free set in 1981.
One thing Fleer did to try to compete with Topps was to try to offer more value. Topps gave you 15 cards in a pack for 35 cents. Fleer gave you 17. By using bleached cardstock, the colors on Fleer cards looked brighter and more vibrant. Since I didn’t buy any baseball cards in 1981, I can’t comment on how the gum compared. It couldn’t have been any worse than Topps, but by 1981, the gum wasn’t the selling point anymore.
In the long run, maybe Fleer offered too much value. Topps still exists today. Fleer ran into financial difficulties in the 1990s and ended up selling its gum operations in 1998 and liquidated in 2005.
Printing and proofreading aside, Fleer clean design, featuring a large color photograph printed on bleached card stock. Topps won the 1950s based on the strength of its design. But Topps’ quality and imagination in the 1960s and 1970s was inconsistent. Today we remember Score and Upper Deck for pushing the envelope with high-definition cards late in the decade, but I give Fleer credit for showing it was possible to do better way back in 1981.
I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the hobby experienced a boom in the 1980s, after Fleer and Donruss established themselves as viable competitors. Most people I knew didn’t try to complete all three sets every year, but we enjoyed chasing cards of our favorite players from three different manufacturers.
Collecting 1981 Fleer baseball cards
Altogether, there were 67 variations in the 1981 Fleer set. Besides the errors, Fleer introduced a few other variations, and Fleer didn’t correct every error. This makes it a bit more interesting and challenging to collect than, say, 1985 Topps, where you can just plunk down $35 and walk away with a set.
You can start out by buying a complete set, which will run you around $15. Then you can spend time chasing down the 34 variations you don’t have, chasing higher-grade cards, or whatever you find fun.
Prominent 1981 Fleer rookie cards
The 1981 Fleer set contains plenty of Hall of Famers, but the only rookie Hall of Famer was Harold Baines. Other prominent rookie cards in the set are Fernando Valenzuela (misspelled “Fernand”) and Kirk Gibson.
Valenzuela was perhaps the best pitcher in the game from 1981-1986 when overuse caught up with him and derailed his Hall of Fame case. He was still a useful pitcher for 10 more years but makes one wonder what might have been.
Harold Baines had a reputation as one of the game’s most underrated players. He was a below-average right fielder but a dangerous hitter.
Kirk Gibson starred in the 1984 and 1988 World Series, including his dramatic game-winning home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 series while playing hurt on two bad legs.
The 1983 rookie class turned out to be better, but the 1981 Fleer set has a number of interesting cards of interesting players. Overall, the 1981 Fleer set offers more challenges than its later sets, but still without breaking most budgets.
1981 Fleer wrapper variations
When buying unopened 1981 Fleer wax packs, there is a printing variation on the wrappers themselves. One variant advertises a sendaway promotion for a baseball cap and has a registered trademark symbol next to the MLB logo. The other variation has a sendaway promotion for buttons, and omits the trademark symbol. I think it’s the first printing, with error cards, that has the trademark symbol and cap promotion. If you want to supplement a set with some unopened material, making sure you have both pack variants can give you an additional challenge.
1981 Fleer card error cards and variations
Below is a list of all the 1981 Fleer error cards and variations, if you want to build a master set. Keep in mind if you buy a complete set of 660 cards, you’ll have 33 of the cards below. You’ll need to figure out which 33, then chase down the 34 you don’t have.
6v1 Steve Carlton Golden Arm back error “1066”
6v2 Steve Carlton Pitcher of Year back “1066”
6v3 Steve Carlton corrected “1966”
24 v1 Kevin Saucier error (Ken on back)
24 v2 Kevin Saucier corrected
32 v1 Amos Otis batting pose outfield #32 on back
32 v2 Amos Otis series starter #483 on back
41 v1 Hal McRae Royals in black letters
41 v2 Hal McRae Royals in blue letters
87 v1 Graig Nettles error (Craig on back)
87 v2 Graig Nettles corrected
114 v1 Dave Lopes small hand on back
114 v2 Dave Lopes no hand
120 v1 Bob Welch (Bob on back)
120 v2 Bob Welch (Robert on back)
126 v1 Ron Cey small hand on back
126 v2 Ron Cey no hand
177 v1 Rick Dempsey small hand on front
177 v2 Rick Dempsey no hand
202 v1 George Foster Slugger error #216 on back
202 v2 George Foster Slugger corrected # on back 202
215 v1 Bill Bonham small hand on back
215 v2 Bill Bonham No hand
251 v1 Gary Matthews small hand on back
251 v2 Gary Matthews no hand
342 v1 Britt Burns small hand on front
342 v2 Britt Burns no hand
362 v1 Kent Tekulve error 1071 and 1078 on back
362 v2 Kent Tekulve corrected 1971 and 1978
382 v1 Kurt Bevacqua reversed, P on cap backwards
382 v2 Kurt Bevacqua corrected
419 v1 Jesse Jefferson Pirates on back
419 v2 Jesse Jefferson Blue Jays on back
436 v1 Darrell Evans (Darrel on front)
436 v2 Darrell Evans corrected
480 v1 Stan Papi front Pitcher
480 v2 Stan Papi front Shortstop
493 v1 Tim Flannery reversed, batting right handed
493 v2 Tim Flannery corrected
514 v1 Bill Travers error Jerry Augustine front & back
514 v2 Bill Travers corrected
547 v1 Don Hood error Pete Vuckovich front & back
547 v2 Don Hood corrected
640 v1 Mike Schmidt back says #5
640 v2 Mike Schmidt Home Run King
641 v1 Team checklist: Phillies-Royals #41 is Hal McRae
641 v2 Team checklist: Phils-Royals #41 is Hal McRae Double Threat
644 v1 Team checklist: Reds-Orioles #202 is George Foster
644 v2 Team checklist: Reds-Orioles #202 is Foster Slugger
645 v1 Rose Bowa Schmidt Triple Threat, no # on back
645 v2 Rose Bowa Schmidt Triple Threat
650 v1 Reggie Jackson Mr. Baseball error #79 on back
650 v2 Reggie Jackson Mr. Baseball corrected
652 v1 Team checklist:Tigers-Padres #483 listed
652 v2 Team:Tigers-Padres #483 not listed
653 v1 Willie Wilson Hits & Runs error #29 on back
653 v2 Willie Wilson Hits & Runs corrected
654 v1 Checklist Brewers #514 is Augustine #547 is Vuckovich
654 v2 Checklist Brewers #514 is Billy Travers #547 is Don Hood
655 v1 George Brett .390 Batting Avg error #28 on back
655 v2 George Brett .390 Batting Avg corrected
657 v1 Tug McGraw Game Saver error #7 on back
657 v2 Tug McGraw Game Saver corrected
659 v1 Checklist of Specials, Wilson Most Hits last line
659 v2 Checklist of Specials, Otis Series Starter last line
660 v1 Steve Carlton Golden Arm error on back “1066” Cardinals
660 v1 Steve Carlton Golden Arm corrected “1966” Cardinals