Rick Langford was the 1981 Fleer Star Stickers of baseball players.

Or, maybe considering the order of things, 1981 Fleer Star Stickers were the Rick Langford of baseball cards.

See, Langford was originally selected in the 11th round of the 1971 January MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals but decided to stay enrolled in the State College of Florida instead.

Then, in the June 1972 Draft, the Cleveland Indians took him … in the 36th round.

Not exactly an awe-inspiring beginning to a pro career, and, in fact, Langford didn’t sign.

Instead, he became an amateur free agent the next June (1973) and signed on with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Next came a three-year trek through the Bucs’ minor league system before Langford finally made his MLB debut in June 1976.

His big league audition consisted of 23 innings over 12 appearances and yielded an 0-1 record with a 6.26 ERA.

That convinced the Pirates to move on, and they sent Langford to the Oakland A’s along with five other players in March of 1977. While that deal brought Phil Garner to Pittsburgh, it really helped set the stage for some fireworks in Oakland.

The next three seasons were tough ones by the Bay, as the A’s never lost fewer than 93 games nor finished higher than sixth in the old American League West.

But the general dilapidation of the team gave some young players a bit of space to work through their growing pains, and that group included three of the guys who came over from Pittsburgh — Mitchell Page, Tony Armas … and Rick Langford.

After posting 8-19 and 7-13 marks his first two seasons in Oakland, 27-year-old Langford stepped up to double-digit wins for the first time ever in 1979, going 12-16 with a 4.28 ERA.

Not too exciting, but his 218.2 innings and 14 complete games led the A’s staff and set him up as the rotation ace entering 1980 with fiery new manager Billy Martin taking the helm.

That first summer of Billy Ball, Langford made 33 starts among his 35 appearances and led the American League with 290 innings and a whopping 28 complete games.

The result was a 19-13 record and a 3.26 ERA, helping the A’s improve to 83-79 and a second-place finish.

It was more of the same in the strike-shortened 1981 season — Langford led the majors with 18 complete games and fashioned a 12-10, 2.99 ERA line as the A’s took the first-half title in the AL West and made it all the way to the American League Championship Series, where the New York Yankees swept them.

All in all, it was a performance and an outcome that hardly anyone could have predicted back when Langford was getting picked late, late in drafts … or when he was struggling with the Bucs … or early in his A’s career.

Langford was a surprise ace.

As it turns out, Billy Martin’s run with the A’s reached its peak there in 1981, corresponding exactly to the end of Topps’ (first) baseball card monopoly.

Because, thanks to Fleer’s victory in a long-fought antitrust lawsuit the year before, collectors were suddenly awash in new cards after decades of having just one option (plus whatever side projects Topps had brewing).

And then, just as the hobby was getting its feet under it after the high of ripping packs from Donruss, Fleer, and Topps in rapid succession, Fleer hit us again.

Although the name might have made us think of something less grand, the 1981 Fleer Star Stickers set was nothing less than a fourth set of standard-size baseball cards, albeit with card fronts that you could peel off.

You know, if you were into defacing your cards or ticking off your dad by sticking Rick Langford on the TV screen.

Because, oh yeah, Fleer definitely included the A’s new ace among their 128-card checklist, plopping him right there on #27, between Dave Parker and Amos Otis:

Find 1981 Star Stickers on eBay (affiliate link)

Find 1981 Star Stickers on Amazon (affiliate link)

It was a surprise card of a surprise ace in a surprise issue that no one really saw coming even a year before.

So, yeah, Rick Langford was 1981 Fleer Star Stickers.

And vice versa.

Hobby Wow!

Bill Martin and his Billy Ball A’s made it to the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season, and this eBay lot recaptures some of that old magic:

That’s a team-autographed ball, featuring Martin, Rickey Henderson, and most of the rest — including Rick Langford.

Check out the full listing on eBay right here (affiliate link).