(This is Day 21 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
If you began collecting baseball cards in 1981 or after, it might seem almost impossible to imagine a world where there was only one choice at the checkout counter.
I know it would have been rough for me — when I picked up the hobby in 1983, I could choose from Topps, Fleer, or Donruss nearly anytime I talked Mom and Dad into buying a pack or two.
We latecomers were spoiled.
But just because we didn’t live through the (first) Topps monopoly years doesn’t mean we were immune to its aftereffects.
For one thing, there was a price gap that separated the pre-1981 cards from all that came after them throughout most of the 190s. In particular, common cards issued in 1981 and after “booked” for three cents each throughout the decade while the 1980 Tpps versions listed at five cents each. That sum went up as you traversed backward through the Topps library, too.
That may not seem like much of a difference, but when you multiply those two cents by several hundred cards and propagate the age premium to stars and superstars, building pre-1980 sets became a bit tougher and more expensive.
My Kingdom for a New Joe Rudi
An even bigger consequence of the quarter century of Topps dominance was the lack of variety, especially for collectors of particular players or teams.
If you were the world’s biggest fan of, say, Fred Lynn, you were mostly at the mercy of good old T.C.G.
Some years, you might get a league leader or highlight card, or maybe a separate All-Star issue, but often there was just the base card, and that was it.
Oh, sure, for fairly big names like Lynn, you might luck into an O-Pee-Chee card if you visited Canada or had a friend from the Great White North willing to do you a favor. Even if you did score an OPC, though, it usually didn’t look much different than the Topps version.
No, if you wanted something new for your collection beyond the same old same old, you had to really dig for food issues or regional sets. Kellogg’s might have been able to help you out, or maybe local law enforcement would issue one of those black-and-white “safety” cards of your guy.
It was a real coup, then, anytime you could land a second full-size, full-color card outside of the base Topps set that featured a photo different from that Topps image.
Have It Your (Different) Way
Luckily, in 1980, observant card collectors got just such a chance when Burger King issued their “Pitch, Hit, and Run” cards during the week of July 7-13. During that run, a large order of fries also netted you a cello pack of three player cards plus a checklist, which meant you’d have had to slug down a lot of grease over seven days to complete the 34-card set.
It just might have been worth the effort and the heartburn, though, because the BK cards added a bit of color to the base Topps design in the form of the classic burger logo and a bright green “COLLECTOR’S SERIES” label on the top of the cards.
Sorta ugly, but different.
But what’s really cool about the Burger King offering — which was of course produced by Topps — is that a whopping 15 of the cards feature a completely new photo.
And, voila!, you’ve doubled your player-collection target for the year.
Since our goal here is to find the best card issued in 1980, this news should make your ears perk up, because there is little better when you’re talking about pre-1981 baseball cards than choice.
So which is the best card?
I’m going with the same guy who started this discussion: good old Fred Lynn.
At one time — 1975 to be exact — he was the best player in the game and among the youngest. He looked like the next Willie Mantle, for gosh sakes.
By 1980, Lynn was still an All-Star, but it was pretty clear he would not end up as an all-time great.
He did have a pretty cool base Topps card that year, one of my favorites in the set.
And then, in July, Burger King issued a colorful card of Lynn in a classic batting stance with a beautiful blue sky behind him inviting us all out to the ballpark to see that the once-phenom still had plenty to offer.
For the combined goodness of his two Topps-ish cards and for the very fact that he had two different cards, Fred Lynn is our guy.
His 1980 Burger King card was the best of 1980.