(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.

1980 Topps Fred Lynn

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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 he(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.

1982 Donruss Carl Yastrzemski

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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.

1982 Donruss Carl Yastrzemski (back)

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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.

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re 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?

1980 Topps Burger King Fred Lynn

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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.

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