Every new baseball season brings a rookie who makes a bigger than expected splash, sending a wave of new energy into the card market. It was true 10 years ago with Mike Trout, and it was equally true 40 years ago with a pudgy pitcher from Mexico who generated buzz in two countries just as the baseball card world was getting turned on its ear.
In 1981, collectors suddenly had choices. Topps no longer had a monopoly on wax packs. A long-fought court battle finally ended in 1980 with Fleer and Donruss ready and eager to claim their share of a growing market for bubble gum cards.
The 1981 cards arrived with snow still blanketing much of the country, but by late April there was one rookie card in particular that had caught fire. Fernando Valenzuela had made his debut at the tail end of the 1980 season but had become a force of nature as the first month of the new season unfolded. He drew the Opening Day start in place of an injured Jerry Reuss and became almost unhittable. The 20-year-old from Sonora, Mexico won his first eight decisions with five shutouts and an ERA of 0.50. Mexican-Americans and those who lived across the southern border arrived at Dodger Stadium in droves, waving flags and cheering every strikeout like it would was the last game of the World Series.
As the season unfolded and “Fernandomania” took hold across the U.S. and his native country, Valenzuela’s Topps and Fleer cards (Donruss didn’t include him — a costly mistake) were scorching hot. Fleer, which made a litany of errors in its first printing, somehow forgot to put the “o” at the end of his first name that appeared on the front of its card. While collectors awaited a potential corrected version that never came, his Topps rookie card — one that included a young Mike Scoscia — was the hottest ticket at every card show and in the few shops that existed at the time. The company then pivoted to give Valenzuela his own card in its inaugural 1981 Traded/Update set.
In Mexico, a company created a bubble gum product devoted to him. The Dodgers and LAPD created a set of trading cards and, of course, Valenzuela was included. There were no “high end” issues — no autographs or relic cards — at the time. Baseball cards were still a dimes-and-dollars kind of business.
The 1981 baseball strike doused the flames a bit but he helped the Dodgers to a World Series title and enjoyed a career that lasted until 1997, tossing a no-hitter along the way.
While he’s not likely to make the Hall of Fame, Valenzuela’s rookie cards are still among the highlights of the 1981 baseball sets, especially to collectors who recall one of the craziest starts any player ever had. A portly pitching ace who had a windup that had him looking toward the heavens before unleashing a pitch no one could seem to hit was exactly the kind of player that kept collectors’ minds off the labor troubles that overshadowed and ultimately shortened the season.
The hobby — and baseball itself — are a little more sophisticated these days but before long, someone will emerge as the rookie everyone wants to collect and that hasn’t changed.