The Marketing Showdown of 1981: How Donruss, Fleer, and Topps Tried to Differentiate Their Baseball Card Products

Topps was the only game in town for baseball cards for around a quarter of a century (1956 through 1980). But on July 1, 1980, a Philadelphia judge ended Topps’ monopoly, opening the door for Fleer and Donruss to join the baseball card market in 1981, sparking a battle for baseball card supremacy. And while the story behind the end of Topps’ monopoly is intriguing (you can read more about it on the Donruss, Fleer, and Topps Wikipedia pages), this article will focus on how the three companies fought to develop and market their products in the most unique and eye-catching ways possible.

1981 Donruss Baseball

The biggest differentiator from Donruss was that their packs had 18 cards in them, three more than Topps and one more than Fleer (all three packs cost 30 cents), which was great for kids on an allowance. 

1981 Donruss Baseball Dealer Sell Sheet

Donruss also tried to appeal to dealers by highlighting a national advertising campaign with Superman Comic Books. Donruss put the ads on the back covers of May/June releases (which actually went out in February/March) with a purported reach of 25 Million kids. Here’s an example:

DC Comics Superman and Shazam No. 33 May – Front
DC Comics Superman and Shazam No. 33 May – Reverse With Donruss Ad

Donruss also sent dealers uncut sheets of eight cards to drum up interest.

1981 Donruss Promotional Sheet of 8 Cards

From the sell sheet and advertisement, Donruss also tried to differentiate themselves by claiming that they used the highest quality photography, had a unique design and that over 600 players were in the series; the Donruss Difference!

1981 Fleer Baseball

1981 Fleer Baseball Dealer Sell Sheet

Fleer’s sell sheets advertised five ways their product was better. First, their packs had 17 cards, two more than Topps but one less than Donruss. Second, they also claimed to use brighter, cleaner, sharper photos on a bleached card stock (Fleer made their cards thinner and tried to make them sleeker with gloss). Next, their 660 card set had better numerical collation with bigger type and statistics.

The biggest differentiator with Fleer was the 60-cent free goods offer. Instead of 36 packs in a box, dealers could make an extra profit since wax boxes had 38 packs (but they were only charged like there were 36).

On their wax case, you can see that they highlighted 17 trading cards in every pack, plus two free packs in every box.

1981 Fleer Baseball Wax Case

1981 Topps Baseball

Topps doubled down on their legacy, advertising their lineage and 40 years of experience making the finest, best-selling cards. They were trying to appeal to dealers, saying that kids knew that Topps was the real one, to entice orders, and throw a jab at their competitors.

1981 Topps Baseball Dealer Sell Sheet

Topps also advertised a full 726-card set with all the stars with action shots. I think the special bonus extras referenced the Hit to Win game advertised on the wrappers, and the All-American stars and stripes-themed box was a nice touch too.

1981 Topps Baseball Wax Wrapper – Play Hit to Win

Ultimately the Donruss and Fleer sets were littered with errors and printing mistakes. Still, it’s no coincidence that the hobby experienced a boom in the 80s once they established themselves, over a few years, as viable competitors to Topps. And while many kids probably couldn’t afford to complete every set, they did chase the cards of their favorite players from all of them. The re-introduction of competition, and innovative marketing, had a lasting effect and significantly changed the hobby. Happy collecting!

Don’t forget to check out The Post War Cards Newsletter for more hobby news and insights.

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