Thursday, September 3, 2009

When Topps Monopoly Ended

By now its old news that after 29 years with competition, in 2010 Topps will regain its status as the only producer of baseball cards. Today’s post isn’t to debate the merits of MLB’s decision, but instead, to look back to when the monopoly ended in 1981.

Here are 1981 wax packs from Topps and the news kids, Donruss and Fleer.

Topps knew that their monopoly was over and they used their wrappers to let everyone know two things. First, these are Topps cards, as the large, resigned logo on top shows. And second, their cards are “The Real One.” By implication, they are saying that the other two are just pretenders.

The Fleer and Donruss wrappers both stress baseball, not the brand. Fleer has “Base Ball” in huge letters. Donruss’ letters aren’t as large, but they also include a player drawing (like Topps did in the ‘70’s) and an MLB logo. I wonder if they knew the other guy was using red as the wrapper color? You would think they would each like their own color so as not to confuse the buyers.

Each of the three charged the same price, 30¢ per pack. But the number of cards in the pack varied, Topps with 15, Fleer with 17, and Donruss with 18. And both Donruss and Fleer had that number prominently displayed on their wrappers, while the 15 on the Topps pack was in pretty small numbers. The new guys were pushing value.

1981 was the only year Fleer and Donruss included gum. The next year Fleer replaced the gum with stickers while Donruss included puzzle pieces. The changes were due to a court ruling that gave Topps the exclusive rights as the baseball cards and gum seller. The other two had to include something else. But honestly, who cared? Most kids I knew didn’t buy the cards for the gum, and stickers or puzzle pieces weren’t going to make any difference either.

Looking at the new guys' wrappers, which seem like a typical Topps wrappers, you would assume the cards inside would be like Topps too. But you would be wrong! When Upper Deck debuted in 1989, they hit a home run right out of the box. But in 1981, Fleer and Donruss had at best an infield single.

Many of the pictures on the Donruss cards had a blurry look to them, like this card of Keith Hernandez.

And the Fleer cards weren’t much better. Here is a nice shot of pitcher Mike Krukow in a catcher's crouch.

And errors, the cards from both companies were full of them. In fact, at the time I remember some people speculating that the errors were done on purpose to help drive demand for the cards, as collectors would try to snap them up. But no, it wasn’t that, it was just poor production. Most errors were corrected in later printings.

Topps didn’t do anything special with their card design for 1981. As far as the cards go, it seemed like it was business as usual.

The one concession to the loss of the monopoly was that Topps put their name on the front of the card for only the second time in their history (Topps has now included their name on every set since 1981; I wonder if it will be included in 2010?) And their cards weren't full of errors.

Topps put additonal pressure on Fleer and Donruss when, for the first time, they issued a Traded set later in the summer. After seeing what the new guys put out, the Topps executives must have figured they would smash the competition and have their monopoly back in a few years. If you consider 29 to be a few, then the Topps people were right!

1 comment:

  1. I think , the 1981 set was the first time Topps included Slugging Percentage on the back of the cards (the 1971 set had TB on the back of the cards as part of the statistics.). I don't remember seeing to many packs of Fleer and Donruss available. When they first came out I thought Topps had the best set but as time has gone on, I feel the 1981 Donruss set was the best even though the card stock was thinner. The fronts and backs could be described in one word colorful. Something about the color scheme just stands the test of time. It also had the Tim Raines rookie (on his own card) and he was fantastic before the strike. Fleer did have Fernando's card and I remember that it reached $1 during the summer of 1981. Still I think the Donruss set is one of the best of all time.