(This is Day 23 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Donruss had a rough year in 1981.
I mean, sure, they rode Fleer’s coattails into the baseball card market after decades of successful production in the non-sports card market, but that maiden set was something of a mess.
Consider the facts*:
- Of the 605 cards in that first Donruss issue, approximately 700 of them contained errors. (Yes, they even erred when making mistakes.)
- The 1981 Donruss cards were printed on blank pages rejected from a local Bible factory in Memphis.
- Donruss photographers were forced to keep their heads — and cameras — inside a dark, black box at all times (even while snapping photos) so no one would know they were taking pictures of baseball players. You know, just in case that Fleer lawsuit didn’t work out.
- Donruss photographers were only allowed to take photos of players in front of a cardboard replica of the brick wall at Wrigley field, draped with plastic ivy.
- The backs of 1981 Donruss baseball cards were made by pasting random sections of books that Donruss employees had at their desks onto the backs of the Bible pages (see above).
- Every stick of gum inserted into 1981 Donruss wax packs immediately melded at the atomic level with the card on top of the pack.
- That card was always of your favorite player, and you always ripped his face off trying to salvage the card (and the gum).
See, it was tough.
(* Plucked from thin air and maybe only partially — or none-ally — true.)
If Topps and Fleer hadn’t produced blah sets, Donruss might not have rebounded.
Tough All Around
On the field, 1981 was also a rough year for Carl Yastrzemski.
For starters, he was 84 years old when the Boston Red Sox broke Spring Training. He had only managed to make it into 105 games in 1980, and 49 of those were as a designated hitter.
In 412 plate appearances, Yaz still managed to hit 15 home runs, but his .275 average was a drag to his lifetime rate, which slipped to .288. Never blazingly fast, the Boston legend had managed to swipe 23 bases in 1970, and he had a career high of nine triples in 1964.
His combined stolen bases and three baggers dropped to one (a triple) in 1980, though, and he was thrown out in his only two SB attempts.
The 1981 season picked up pretty much where the 1980 campaign had ended, and by the time the players’ strike ripped through the sport in June, Yaz was sitting at .234 with just three dingers.
He was fading fast and looked almost frail at times when you’d catch a glimpse of him on This Week in Baseball or the nightly news. The only question seemed to be whether or not Yaz would come back when (if) the rest of Major League Baseball did.
Well, he did come back.
Whether the strike helped him catch his breath or gave him an added appreciation for his status as an elder statesmen of the game — or whether these things just even out over a long season (even a strike-shortened) one — the former Triple Crown winner turned in a more respectable second half.
Specifically, from August 10 through October 4, Yaz hit .262 with five homers and a .354 on-base percentage over 58 games.
Not great, certainly, but not pond sludge either. And it was enough to convince the cagey veteran that he had at least one more year left in him.
And so our two heroes disappeared into the late fall of 1981 each following a new road, ones they had never traveled before and that would bring them together the next spring.
Two Paths Converged
For their part, Donruss beefed up their card stock, cleaned up their photography, simplified their card backs, and redesigned their card fronts. Gone was the nondescript colored piping around each player photo, replaced by … well, more colored piping.
But also a baseball with the player’s team name, and a baseball bat with his name and position.
It was as close as we had ever seen to an Extreme Makeover, Baseball Card Edition in the history of the hobby, and it made the changes proffered by Fleer and Topps seem incremental at best, and maybe decremental.
And Yastrzemski reported to Red Sox camp about as healthy as you could ever expect a baseball nonagenarian to be. He was amped up for the season and would eventually see action in 131 contests, clubbing another 16 home runs and setting himself up for one final hurrah in 1983.
Before his swan song, though, he thrilled fans young and old from card #74 in that 1982 Donruss set.
There was Yaz, as old as Fenway Park itself, dragging his bat through the zone for a bunt, and his feet were already moving toward first base. If you squeezed your eyes tight and focused on the picture you’d just seen, this card would make you believe that your hero could fly.
That he was still young and would be there for you as long as you wanted. Season after season after season.
Jockeying for Greatness
So is this the best baseball card issued in 1982?
That’s a tough call.
It was a transition year for me, as I acquired a few cards but didn’t really collect. That makes me lucky, because all these years later, many of the 1982s still seem fresh and exciting.
And there are some great offerings …
The Topps Cal Ripken rookie cards are iconic.
The Topps Traded Reggie Jackson makes you smile.
The Fleer “Pete and Re-Pete” offering reminds you of your father, or your son.
Some of the inaugural Donruss Diamond Kings are downright spine-tingling.
But, man, if you want proof that it’s not just possible but OK to relive the good old days — whatever those might be for you — and to do it with grace, class, and beauty?
Well, then it’s hard to beat the 1982 Donruss Carl Yastrzemski card.