Rarely does the course of human endeavor pivot so abruptly as baseball cards did in the spring of 1981. Just ask Craig Nettles.

That was the year, you might remember, that Fleer and Donruss joined Topps as major manufacturers, each pushing out a full set of 600+ cards. That advent was made possible by the culmination of Fleer’s lengthy antitrust suit against Topps the previous summer.

Fleer won their court battle and was awarded the hefty sum of $1. The real prize, though, was the end of Topps’ monopoly.

Of course, with the verdict coming late in the baseball season, Fleer might have been forgiven for taking some time to gather their wits and resources and set their sights on 1982. But they had waited too long for this opportunity to wait one second longer.

In fact, both Fleer and Donruss went into scramble mode and managed to pull off the impossible — they planned, designed, manufactured, and released their first sets within the span of several months.

1981 Fleer Wax Pack

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It was a cardboard miracle, really, though collector opinions at the time were mixed.

On the one hand, it was fabulous to suddenly have roughly three times as many cards to pursue.

On the other, the new sets were predictably, um, challenged.

The photos were dark and grainy, the latter a considerable weakness for Donruss.

The cardstock was suspect — Donruss cards were printed on Bible pages and Fleer cards tended to warp.

Both Fleer and Donruss cards came packed with gum, which was great, but plenty of old collectors tell stories about card fronts ruined by cemented-on pink slabs. (Topps successfully blocked other manufacturers from issuing cards with gum the next year, so that concern soon passed.)

But hobbyists didn’t really mind any of that. These shortcomings were a small price to pay for the largesse bestowed upon us by the wax pack gods.

Beyond all of these missteps, though, the 1981 card-collecting season was marked by a major turn of events: the error card craze found its footing — and its face.

1981 Fleer Craig Nettles

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As you might expect with such a cardboard rush job, Fleer and Donruss made all sorts of mistakes — I mean beyond a few terrible choices and Donruss backs that read like War and Peace.  (If you’re getting the idea that Donruss was the bottom of the commons barrel, well, there’s a reason for that.)

Just take a look at the list of 1981 Donruss errors and variations over at The Trading Card Database: http://www.tradingcarddb.com/Errors.cfm/sid/83/1981-Donruss

There are 77 entries if you’re counting.

And Fleer didn’t fare much better with 73 lines on their E & V list.

It didn’t take long for collectors to notice, either, and we were chasing down Pete Rose with that number and this photo or Steve Carlton with or without his Golden Arm on the right or wrong card number.

But of all the errors that flooded wax packs and dealer tables that summer, none captured the imagination like the 1981 Fleer “C” Nettles card.

Now, Graig Nettles admittedly spells his first name funny, so it’s easy to see why someone at Fleer might have thought his name was actually “Craig.”

And so that’s how it appeared on the back of his card, #87, in the first print run.

1981 Fleer Craig Nettles (back)

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Nettles was a pretty popular and productive player for the New York Yankees, though, and it didn’t take long for this gaffe — and others — to get noticed. Fleer scrambled to correct the error, and in no time at all Graig Nettles was back where he should have been, on both sides of his 1981 Fleer baseball card.

1981 Fleer Graig Nettles (back)

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But enough of the “C” version escaped into the wild for stories of its existence to spread throughout the hobby, and soon everyone was clamoring for a copy of this rare card.

Thanks to card show buzz and press in Sports Collectors Digest and other publications, the hype built around “C” Nettles quickly and lasted for years.

At its height, collectors willingly paid $20 or more for a copy, and the Nettles error helped usher in a mad search for any other card mistakes we could find. Throughout the rest of the 1980s, error card mania was rivaled by only the rookie card craze in terms of collector fervor.

Today, the “C” Nettles card still draws hobby interest and can pull in decent money in higher slabbed grades. In raw form, it usually fetches $10 or less.  (You can find current prices for this hobby trendsetter on both eBay and Amazon — note that these are affiliate links).

So, is “C” Nettles really all that rare?

Well, as of this writing, PSA had graded 59 of the Graig Nettles variation and 69 of the “rare” Craig Nettles error card. Now, part of this discrepancy is due to the increased collector interest in the error version, but there seem to be enough of both to go around these days.

Demand ain’t what it used to be, after all.

Still, how often have you known a baseball card to have its own nickname?

It’s a rare honor, indeed, but the mere mention of “C” Nettles still makes any veteran collector’s heart go pitter-patter.

But then, history makers do tend to have that effect on folks.

(Check out our Fleer card posts here.)