(This is Day 22 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)

Quick! What do Willie McCovey and Ted Williams have in common?

Well, yes, obviously, they’re both Hall of Famers.

And, OK, they were both left-handed sluggers who spent plenty of time in, um, the less demanding defensive outposts of the diamond.

If you’ve spent a lot of time studying baseball’s biggest numbers, you might also know that each man finished his career with exactly 521 home runs.

And, for the even more obscurely-tuned, you could remember that Williams and McCovey were the first two players to hit home runs in each of four different decades.

Those are pretty remarkable similarities and will forever link Teddy Ballgame and Stretch, but there is a bond that is even more important to baseball card collectors like you and me.

 

1981 Fleer Willie McCovey

 

Raiding Topps’ Coffers

You might remember that Williams bolted the friendly confines of his Topps contract after 1958 to sign an exclusive contract with Fleer.

In 1959, Topps’ would-be competitor produced an 80-card set of nothing but the Splendid Splinter, creating one of the hobby’s most sought-after scarcities in the process.

Then, in 1960 and 1961, Fleer produced two series of baseball greats and included Williams each time. The last of those was the final regular-issue card of Williams’ long career as he had retired at the end of the 1960 season.

This afforded collectors a capstone card that Topps would never have produced because The Old Gum Company didn’t do retired players. Look back through the catalog of Topps cards and you’ll find superstar after superstar whose last cards are missing stats from their final seasons.

Little changed in this regard over the next 20 years, and Topps entered their post-monopoly years without the strength of a last-year Willie McCovey card.

The original Big Mac had retired in July of 1980, and so was well beyond the scope of consideration for inclusion in the 1981 Topps set.

But that was the year both Donruss and Fleer entered the baseball card market, and both of the new competitors were hungry to make up ground quickly on the big dog of the industry.

Both companies made some mistakes in their rush to market, and you can see the consequences in the form of various error cards, shoddy card quality (especially in Donruss’s case), and the fact that both manufacturers issued their cards with gum.

Topps was quick to seize on that third misstep and went to court to reclaim their rights as the sole gum card provider for Major League Baseball. They won that battle handily, and Fleer and Donruss had to resort to other vehicles to carry their pasteboards — namely, team stickers and puzzle pieces, respectively.

Missing Superstars Found

The scramble for market share did lead to some wins for the upstarts, though.

For instance, Donruss issued the first solo card of Montreal Expos speedster Tim Raines — Fleer missed him completely, while Topps relegated him to one of those multi-player Future Stars cards.

As for Fleer, they picked up right where they left off in 1961 when it came to quasi-current player selection. In particular, they didn’t fetter themselves with hard-and-fast rules about when a player was too old or too retired for inclusion in their maiden reboot.

And the main beneficiary of this egalitarian approach — aside from collectors ourselves — was none other than Willie McCovey.

Even though he had been gone from the game for nearly nine months by the time the 1981 Fleer cards debuted, there he is on card #434.

 

1981 Fleer Willie McCovey (back)

 

It’s a beauty, too, featuring a fit-looking McCovey kneeling for the camera in his orange San Francisco Giants uniform, with blurry Spring Training activities proceeding in the background. The Fleer card stock is the best of 1981, too, thick and white, the perfect canvas for a simple design whose most prominent feature is a team-name-emblazoned baseball.

And on the back of the card?

You get McCovey’s complete career record, including those final 48 games with the 1980 Giants that produced his Splinter-tying 521st home run.

It’s an awesome card of a Hall of Famer.

In fact, you might even say it’s the best baseball card issued in 1981.