By Drew Pelto aka *censored*

The 1981 Topps set is almost an afterthought because of the other events that surrounded that year in the hobby world.  The 1975 Fleer lawsuit finally came to a close and both Fleer and Donruss entered the card market with their debut offerings. While neither was particularly memorable, the 1981 Topps set wasn’t exactly blasting past them either.

1981 was also the year of the mid-season strike, causing a loss of 713 games and a massively screwy split-season schedule. Marvin Miller, MLBPA president and architect of this strike, turned professional athlete greed into an art form that has remained out of control on into today. If you want to know why everything sports-related is so expensive, just look to that schmuck and what happened when he was in charge of the union– the average salary rose from $19,000 in 1966 up to $241,000 in 1982. Factoring for inflation, that $19,000 salary in 1966 was equivalent to over $125,000 in 2010 dollars, while that 1982 average is equal to over $500,000 in 2010 dollars. So baseball salaries essentially quadrupled in the time of his leadership. Currently they’re over $3 million per player. In 45 years, salaries have gone up 2400%. And where did that extra money come from? Look in the mirror, reader. Tickets, jerseys, hats, cards, satellite/cable packages, games on pay-per-view, inflated food prices at the games… Thanks Marvin. You didn’t stick it to the owners. They’re still as rich as ever. You only stuck it to us, the fans, the only reason your players could play a game for a living in the first place.

I’ll get down off my soapbox now and back on topic.

Oscar Gamble once said "People don't think it be like it is, but it do." Truer words have never been spoken.

The 1981 Topps set had a fun design, but that was about all the set had going for it. I like the idea of the hat holding the team name, but why not use the actual hat of the team instead of a generic cap with everything in text on it? Likewise, I like the baseball in the opposite corner. But why have it say “TOPPS” instead of having the player’s position there? Instead, both the position and team name (instead of cap logo) are crammed onto the cap.  So while fun, it wasn’t particularly good. The photography was forgettable, and the player selection was poor. Big rookies in the set were Tim Raines, Harold Baines, Kirk Gibson, Fernando Valenzuela, and Jeff Reardon– no one who will be knocking on the doors to Cooperstown anytime soon (with Raines being a longshot exception). Notable is the fact this was the last set of less than 792 cards until 1995.

If you don't like Kirk Gibson, the door is to your left. Please go through it.

One of my biggest pet peeves with this set are each team’s “Future Stars” card. I don’t mind the idea of putting multiple players on a card, and at least Topps tried to get the rooks represented. But really now, how can they seriously swing and miss on so many opportunities? You have 26 teams, 3 players per team. That’s 78 players. I’m not asking for a Hall of Famer on each card, just a guy who might actually be a future star. A little truth in advertising. Of those 78 players, I’d call maybe three of them stars– Raines, Valenzuela, and Mike Scioscia. Valenzuela and Scioscia were even on the same card, along with Jack Perconte, a serviceable middle infielder. The only card that comes close is the Pirates card– Vance Law, Tony Pena, and a pre-jheri-curl Pascual Perez all ended up as serviceable major leaguers for about ten years each. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Phillies card with the trio of Marty Bystrom, Jay Loviglio, and Jim Wright. Wright never played a game as a Phillie and only 24 games as a Royals pitcher, Loviglio only appeared with the Phils in 1980 before hitting .200 over parts of three seasons with the White Sox, and Bystrom was a back of the rotation starter with a career ERA in the fours. Granted, Future Potential Serviceable Major Leaguers isn’t exactly a great moniker to whip on a card, but it would have at least been reasonably accurate with guys like Gary Ward, Bruce Hurst, Mike Boddicker, Chris Bando, and Hubie Brooks in the mix.

Considering both the Fleer and Donruss sets had him, you would think the 1981 Topps set would feature a card of Danny Ainge. Or they’d at least put him on the Blue Jays’ Future Serviceable Major Leaguers card, right? Instead, Topps believed that Luis Leal, Brian Milner, and Ken Schrom were better. Actually, they might have been right, as Ainge decided basketball would be the better route. Considering he hit .220 in parts of three seasons before taking his talents to the Celtics, it looks like Ainge made the right choice. But really, why not toss in a card of the 1980-81 John Wooden Award winner just for the sake of doing it?

Gem Mint or not, who in their right mind would get a 1981 Sid Monge card graded?

Overall, the 1981 Topps set was just another underwhelming, half-baked effort that was par for the course until Donruss and Fleer proved to be legitimate threats to Topps’ business.  The good news is that it helped to kick off a decade for the company that eventually would produce three of the top ten setsin my list and in in their history (but also three of the bottom ten; so it was feast or famine).

About the Author: Drew Pelto’s parents moved to Iowa in 1981, the state where Drew would later be born. He is currently awaiting his Indians to “Swoon in June, Die in July,” watching from North Texas with his wife and several cats who somehow avoided the fate of being named for Jeff Manto, Cory Snyder, Pat Tabler, Tommy Hinzo, Ron Tingley, or Paul Zuvella.