1980-81 Player Movement And 1981 Topps, Fleer and Donruss

A couple of months ago I wrote a post that I thought was salvaging a failed idea, but it turned out to be more interesting than I’d expected… And that idea involved looking at how the transactions of the prior season and winter are reflected in a particular baseball card set.

The last time I looked at 1974 Topps and Topps Traded. Since I don’t want to be accused of beating the 1970s to death in this blog, I went forward to 1981 (where I have all of 1981 Topps and Fleer, and much of 1981 Donruss).

1981 was, of course, the first year since 1963 where a company other than Topps issued baseball cards in retail packs, and it was also the first year that Topps did a Traded set as a separate product (unlike the 1970s traded cards which came in later packs of that year’s regular set).

Now there’s nothing I’m trying to prove or disprove, nor any point I’m trying to make.  This is just a matter of laying the cards on the table (so to speak) and saying “Hey, check this out.”

The earliest transaction I found which resulted in airbrushing

One thing I found a fair amount of in 1981 Topps was instances where the photographers had, at least in theory, plenty of time to take photos of a player in a new uniform.  On April 6th, 1980 the Giants purchased Allen Ripley from the Boston Red Sox.  With an entire season to take photos, Topps ended up with an airbrushed portrait.

…But Fleer managed to get a photo of the talented Mr. Ripley.

I wouldn’t be completely surprised if there are players who were traded during the 1979 season and are airbrushed in 1981 Topps, but I didn’t want to go completely crazy with my research.

Latest trade reflected in 1981 Topps with actual photos

On August 14, 1980 the Yankees and Rangers made a trade where the two principals were future HOFer Gaylord Perry and swingman Ken Clay.

As these things often go, Clay ended up pitching just 8 games in 1980 for the Rangers and would get traded to Seattle that offseason.  He spent all of 1981 with the Mariners, and got a card in 1981 Topps Traded.

1981 Fleer, by the way, also showed Gaylord Perry with the Yankees.

A late August transaction that isn’t a “first” or “last”, but is interesting enough anyway.

On August 31st, Willie Montañez was traded by the Padres to the Expos for minor leaguer Tony Phillips (who would be involved in one more trade before making his Major League debut with the A’s in 1982).

Topps has Montañez airbrushed into an Expos uniform.

But Fleer has him still with the Padres (and his name misspelled “Willy”) while Donruss ignored Montañez altogether.

The final transaction reflected in 1981 Topps

On September 13, 1980 the Rangers sent Sparky Lyle to Philadelphia for a PTBNL.  Topps airbrushed Lyle into a Phillies uni.

Fleer and Donruss managed to get honest-to-goodness photos of Lyle (even if neither photo is the best).

The earliest transaction featured in the 1981 Topps Traded set

The Yankees traded Fred Stanley to the A’s for Mike Morgan on November 3rd, 1980.  Both players are included in the Traded checklist.

Last transaction which resulted in a team change in 1981 Donruss

One thing 1981 Donruss is known for is reflecting player movement by changing the team name on the front of the card, even when the photo doesn’t reflect that change.  The last transaction which shows this came on December 7th, 1980… The Cardinals signed Darrell Porter as a free agent.

What’s more interesting is that Don Sutton signed as a free agent with the Astros three days before Porter signed with the Cards, but Sutton’s card lists him with the Dodgers.  This is just a guess, but maybe Donruss finished the printing sheet featuring Sutton before they finished the sheet featuring Porter.


Side trip into the 1981 Topps/Coca-Cola sets

I’m not going to get into any great detail here, but it’s worth noting that Coca-Cola sponsored a number of team sets which came out during the 1981 season.  Any updates featured airbrushed photos, but those same players would have updated photos in the Traded set which came out later in the year.

I don’t have a lot of these Coke cards, but I figured I’d share a couple that I do have….

January 23, 1981: Frank Tanana, Jim Dorsey and Joe Rudi were traded by the Angels to the Boston Red Sox for Fred Lynn and Steve Renko.

February 28, 1981: The Cubs traded Dave Kingman to the Mets for Steve Henderson.  Henderson also got a Coke card.  I’m reusing a scan from a long-ago post, so here we’ve got Kingman’s traded card on the left and his Coca-Cola card on the right.

You can find out a little bit more about these cards from a number of posts I’ve written before (click here to scroll through them).


Back to the original theme of the post… such as it is…

The final transaction reflected in 1981 Topps Traded with a photo
The New York Yankees traded Jim Spencer and Tom Underwood to the Oakland Athletics for Dave Revering, Mike Patterson and a minor leaguer, May 20th, 1981.

This is a very underwhelming trade but you’d have to say that the A’s “won” this deal if only for the 22 wins Tom Underwood got for Oakland.

Last deal reflected in 1981 Topps
The Cubs traded Rick Reuschel to the New York Yankees for Doug Bird, a player to be named later (Mike Griffin), and cash, June 12, 1981

Players missing from Donruss and Fleer

1981 Donruss has fewer cards than the other two flagship sets, so it’s not surprising that there are fewer players represented… but it’s interesting to note which players are missing, because some of them are fairly notable  For instance, Rudy May won the AL ERA title in 1980, but he’s not in 1981 Donruss:

Rusty Staub was a 6-time All-Star and appeared in 109 games in 1980, but he’s also missing from Donruss.

Other notable players who are not in 1981 Donruss: Bill Campbell, Claudell Washington, Doug Bird, Ed Figueroa, Ellis Valentine, John Curtis, John D’Acquisto, Lee May (also not in Topps), Rick Rhoden, Ross Grimsley, Terry Forster, Willie Montañez

Notable Players who are not in 1981 Fleer: Andre Thornton, Cesar Geronimo, Duane Kuiper, Rick Wise

Notable players who are not in 1981 Donruss or Fleer:  Ken Brett, Pedro Guerrero


I will probably do another one of these in the future, I’m thinking about doing 1988 Topps since I have the complete set – my complete sets get spottier after 1981 – and because I wonder if I’m right in thinking that Topps would get more serious about these matters as that decade moved along. But I could be wrong as well.

A Quick Run Through The 1981 Topps Coca-Cola Mets Set

Back in 1981, Topps joined up with Coca-Cola to issue a series of regional team sets. If I had the money and the resources at the time, I would’ve chased down all 11 sets, but all I got at the time was the complete Mets set.

If you weren’t collecting back in 1981, these were pretty exciting.  The only other options early in the season were the big three sets plus Kellogg’s.  The Coca-Cola sets went to press later than Topps, Donruss and Fleer, so the Coke sets reflected some trades and free agent signings which weren’t in the big sets and wouldn’t be otherwise represented until Topps Traded later in the year.

Each set featured 11 players plus one header card.

On the back of the header was an offer for an uncut sheet of 1981 Topps. I may not have chased down the other Coke sets, but I did take advantage of the uncut sheet offer (something I wrote about 3 years ago).

Many of the cards are identical to the Topps set, although a number have cropping differences.

Had the Mets had any All-Stars, the “N.L. All-Star” banner would’ve been dropped to make way for the Coke logo.

Here’s a comparison of the two backs; the main difference is the Coke logo replacing the Topps logo and card number graphic on the left.  The easy-to-overlook Coke card number was moved to the right.

I find the most interesting cards are the ones which have photos which differ from 1981 Topps.  For the next three cards, the image on the left is from 1981 Topps Traded.

The Mets reacquired Dave Kingman, trading Steve Henderson to the Cubs in February 1981. (Henderson’s Coca-Cola Cubs card was also updated)

Randy Jones finished out his career with the Mets after a December, 1980 trade.

The guy the Mets got was a shadow of the guy who won the Cy Young in 1976.

Like Kingman, Rusty Staub was also starting his second tour of duty with the Mets. Staub signed as a free agent in December.

Getting back to some of the cropping differences… Some of them are much more noticeable than others.

Alex Trevino’s image was shifted ever so slightly to the left (look at the blue on his batting glove)

Doug Flynn’s image is shifted down slightly (look at his feet with regard to the card border).

Pat Zachry’s cropping difference isn’t all that noticeable until you put the two cards side-by-side (look at his stirrups).

I’ve found the Coca-Cola sets to be a mixed bag; for example, the Cardinals set has at least six players who were updated for the Coke sets. Other sets don’t have any significant differences… For example, I believe the Coke Royals are only different in that two cards have the All-Star banners missing.

Does anybody have any first-hand experience with one of the Coke sets for other teams?