(This is the second in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

“Best 1981 Donruss baseball card” is an oxymoron on par with terms like “approving mother” and “effective hair regrowth”.

Donruss’s inaugural baseball set just wasn’t all that good. In most ways, it was pretty bad.

Bad photos.

Bad cardstock.

Small set size.

Gum stuck to card fronts.

But when you thumb through a stack of 1981 Donruss or peruse an online gallery of the cards, you’ll find there are a few that look OK. Maybe even good.

My personal favorite is the Jesus Figueroa Chicago Cubs/San Francisco Giants combo. But I’ve already written about that one.

And Gary Carter looks pretty good in his swing follow-through, but he “won” our 1980 Topps sweepstakes.

Other candidates include the lone single-player Tim Raines rookie card of the year, Danny Ainge looking rangy in the field, Willie Stargell crouched at first base, Nolan Ryan freight-training  a pitch toward home, and Byron McLaughlin with a right-at-you pitch delivery.

Even some of the many posed shots look pretty good from our perspective here in the 21st century — Pete Rose, George Brett, Dave Parker, and several others make fine displays.

But there is one card that combines good action, a clear shot of the player’s face, stadium ambiance, and a historical component that make it hard to beat …

1981 Donruss Joe Morgan

That would be card #18 of Joe Morgan.

This pasteboard captures Little Joe on the ready at second base, focused intently on an unseen batter, waiting for the action to unfurl. Morgan peers out from under flipped-up sunglasses in quintessential 1980s style.

What’s cool about this card — besides all I’ve already mentioned — is that Morgan sports a Houston Astros road jersey with rainbow shoulder stripes.

Morgan had signed with the Astros as a free agent after the Cincinnati Reds let him walk after 1979, but Houston released him after the 1980 season.

So this is a point-in-time shot during an uncertain moment in a Hall of Fame career. Morgan would log a few more seasons, first with the San Francisco Giants, then helping the 1983 Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series, then wrapping up with the Oakland A’s.

But nobody knew any of that when this card came out. All we knew was that Morgan had not impressed in his return to Houston, where he began his Major League career in the 1960s, and was trying to hang on with the Giants.

And that he still looked brilliant there in his Astros garb with the dazzling Wrigley Field ivy as his background.

Is it the best card in the 1981 Donruss set?

It sure has all the elements to lift it head-and-shoulders above the rest … even if Morgan himself always had to take a front-row seat during team photos.

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(This is the second in our series of posts about the best baseball cards from the 1980s. Check out the rest of those posts here.)

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