Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ranking Topps 1980's Baseball Card Sets: #4 - 1981

1981. What better way to seduce youngsters than to include mini hats on the baseball cards. The hats always reminded me of the overpriced cups of ice cream I used to get in Yankee stadium that were served in little plastic cups shaped like Yankee helmets. I used to eat a ton of those cups of ice cream. To quote a classic 1981 movie, when I was younger, I swallowed a lot of aggression...along with a lot of pizzas.

1981 was an interesting year for baseball and a fun year for the cards. The baseball season was ripped apart by a two-month strike from June 11th to August 9th that cost teams about 55 games from the regular season. The playoffs featured four teams in each league, a move deemed necessary to offset the curtailed regular season. Based on the legitimate enthusiasm generated by the three rounds of playoff action, it is sadly apt that it took the league fourteen years to formally expand the playoffs. Due to the strike, the playoffs were oddly set up that year. The season was broken down into a first half and a second half. The first half leaders from each of the four divisions played the second half leaders from each division. Conveniently for the sport, each division had different leaders in each half. Inconveniently for consistent NL teams, the team with the best overall records in the NL East and West for the entire year (Philadelphia and Cincinnati, respectively) failed to make the postseason because they finished in second place in each half. The takeaway? Strikes suck.

Most of us remember the salient details of the season and playoffs. In the NL, Rick Monday, Fernando Valenzuela and Fernando's weird eyeball trick led the Dodgers over Tim Raines and the coke snorting Expos. In the AL, the Yanks got past Billy Martin's A's. In the World Series, the Dodgers avenged their weak 1978 showing (when they won Games 1 and 2 but lost the Series) by losing Games 1 and 2 and then winning the Series.

So with that backdrop, let's look into the cards. To recap, here are the rankings to date:

#10 - 1986
#9 - 1988
#8 - 1982
#7 - 1980
#6 - 1985
#5 - 1987
#4 - 1981

Back to the mini helmets on the cards. I can't stress how much they rocked when I was a kid. They were a brilliant move by Topps to catch the eyes of bored youngsters at supermarket checkout lines and compel them to nag incessantly to their moms to buy them these cards. Sometimes your mom would buckle. And sometimes she would hit you, call you a loser and say she never loved you. But I digress. 1981 was the inaugural year for the Topps Traded sets, the Fall issuance that featured traded players and promising rookies. The traded set was possibly included to lessen the blow from the abominable decision to stuff three rookies onto one card, a move that premiered this year and hung around for far too long in the 1980's. Fernando got his own card in the traded set, as did Raines, Hubie Brooks, Ron "The Felon" LeFlore, Jeff Reardon and...wait for it...Danny Ainge. They were presented alongside newly relocated veterans like Rollie Fingers, Dave Winfield, Carlton Fisk and Gaylord Perry. And, last, and probably least, Mario Mendoza, who moved from Seattle to Texas in 1981.

As for the rookies, Fernando made the biggest splash in the league that year, albeit a splash that, with the use of hindsight, proved to be more like a fat man's cannonball than a future Hall of Famer's dive into stardom. He was the biggest import from Mexico since Corona. A man with throngs of Mexican American fans, a man whose cultural impact inspired numerous pieces of fine art. Like this. But there were other fine players with rookie cards that year. Like Raines, whose brilliance as the second greatest leadoff hitter of all time was overshadowed by coming to the big leagues at the same time as Rickey Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. And Rick Dempsey, Mookie Wilson, Mike Boddicker, Pascual Perez, Tony Pena and Bruce Hurst. But not the tragically named Rusty Kuntz.

On a different note, 1981 was a tremendous year for mustaches and/or bad glasses in the majors. Don't believe me? Check out Rich Gale, Joe Pettini and Mario Mendoza below.

Let's talk about Mr. Mendoza for a minute, seen in his regular 1981 card above. And I don't mean his low batting average, his hair or his resemblance to Harold Ramis with Down's Syndrome. I mean the player who signifies the cultural divide between the old school "purists" and contemporary fans with that tired story. Yes, THAT one. Every year, every city's baseball broadcasting team re-tells the tired old Mendoza line story. It usually happens in mid-May, when one of the local team's star players remains stuck in a season-starting slump. Retired color commentators like Jerry Remy or Ken Singleton will tell the play-by-play man of players in their era checking their batting averages to see how they stacked up against Mendoza. The story usually ended with forced chuckles and a comment that "the shortstop position isn't just for defense any more." It's one of those old fables that people over 50 like to present when they wax poetic about the idyllic glory of our national pastime, when boys were boys, and players were boozing pill-poppers who chased coke and tail, not PEDs.

So you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have a piss-poor 1980's theme song and the 1981 Topps set. Optically fantastic yet tragically flawed by a strike. A great postseason (where three divisional series and one championship series went to a deciding fifth game) after a shortened season that distorted statistics. In a sport that is definitively based on numbers, who wanted Eddie Murray to lead the AL with 22 HRs and 78 RBIs? Not me, that's who. So 1981 gets parked at #4.

Coming down the stretch, we are left with the top three years. In chronological order, they are 1983, 1984 and 1989. Stay tuned next week.


d-train said...

ya take the good ya take the bad ya take 'em all and there you have....the facts of life.

oscar gamble...veddy nice

Squeaky said...

Joe Pettini looks like a child abusing priest in that picture.

Side note, saw the Clash last night. Great show, Simonon was out of control with a booming bass. While Mick Jones was his usual cool self, though his guitar was under mixed for most of the set. Missed were Strummer and Topper.

Oh, and the boys in the back up band, gorillaz, sounded decent.

zman said...

There was a "Facts of Life" documentary on TV a few nights ago. This is proof that there are too many TV channels and thus too much air time to fill with not enough legitimate broadcast-worthy material.

Did you know the Clash was going to be there or was that a surprize? I thought it was just going to be a Gorillaz show.

TR said...

Is it really the clash without Joe Strummer? It's like the Doors sans Morrison, Journey sans Perry, Skid Row sans Bach...

d-train said...

tr - did you/do you own a mickey rivers card?

do you guys ever watch the 101 on direct tv? jane's addiction was on the other night - pretty good stuff...did not know DUFF was in the band.

TR said...

I don't remember a lot of my cards - they have been safely packed away for over 15 years. I use the googles to find these images.

Squeaky said...

Zman, knew it was a gorillaz show and both Jones and Simonon would be in the backing band. Just my stupid dry humor. Unfortunately, no clash songs.

Add you need Strummer to be there to count really as a Clash show. Just like seeing Donny without Marie doesn't count as seeing the Osmonds.

Good show all around but the acoustics were awful.

D-train you are correct Duff WAS in the band for 6 months before he quit last month.

Facts of Life was good reason to stay home sick from school.

Geoff said...

Learned a new political term today... So AK GOP Sen candidate Joe Miller when asked if Sarah Palin was qualified to be President responded with "She's of eligible age and is a US citizen, so yes." A classic non-denial denial. But liberals are accusing Miller of "dog whistling" to birthers (those who believe Obama is not a US citizen) via this comment. The accusation is preposterous...but I enjoy the term dogwhistling.