A Breakdown Of The Major Randy Johnson 1989 Fleer Variations And Errors

January 24, 2023

The 1989 Fleer series is iconic because it gave us several famous cards which are still popular cards today. Randy Johnson’s 1989 card and all its variations are amongst the most chased cards from the era. Over 12 clearly defined versions, an aura of mystery, and Fleer’s rush to cover up an accidental Marlboro advertisement.

This article shall cover everything about the Randy Johnson 1989 Fleer error card and all its variations. Familiarizing yourself with the different variations is essential, as their values can differ significantly.

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The 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson #381

After making his debut with the Montreal Expos in 1988, Johnson quickly made a name for himself. Randy Johnson played as a pitcher for 22 seasons in the MLB. He is undoubtedly one of the most dominant pitchers to play the game.

With over 300 career wins and ten MLB All-Star selections, Johnson has the second-most career strikeouts of any pitcher ever and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It’s little surprise that his rookie card is a chase card for collectors.

While collectors pulled and hoarded cards from 1989 Fleer packs, they missed something important. A variation in card #381. Johnson had unknowingly posed in front of the Marlboro advertisement board. His pose and the picture’s angle ensured the word Marlboro was unobstructed and clearly visible over his left shoulder.

For obvious reasons, Fleer couldn’t allow a cigarette advertisement on a trading card. Children consisted of the vast majority of collectors in the 80s. Fleer stopped production and attempted to cover up the word in later print runs.

Usurping for the time, they tried out several methods before finally getting it right. These numerous attempts at covering up the logo birthed the various variations of the card we have today.

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The different variations of the 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson card

There are 12 clearly defined variations of the 1989 Randy Johnson card. Special shout out to the guys at Junk Wax Gems, who put together a list of these variations after years of research.

Marlboro Ad On Scoreboard – Clear Marlboro Version

This is the first version of the 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson card printed. The Marlboro advertisement is clearly visible as it was before attempts were made to cover it.

This un-tinted and unedited variation of the Marlboro card is the rarest of the pack-issued variation. According to Junk Wax Gm, three copies of this version have been confirmed. Getting a PSA population report is tricky as PSA lumps this variation with other common variations.

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Marlboro Ad On Scoreboard – Green or Red Tint

This is either Fleer’s first attempt at covering up the Marlboro advertisement or a variant of the clear Marlboro card itself. While the sign is slightly darkened, it is still pretty visible with a low level of green or red tinting. For years, this variant was typically traded as the “Clear Marlboro” variant, and it’s easy to see why.

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Marlboro Ad On Scoreboard – Red Tint

Here, we see an attempt to cover up the Marlboro sign by darkening it with a reddish filter. This hue of red is significantly more profound than what’s seen on the variant above. However, while this red filter effectively covers up the cowboy, the word “Marlboro” is still visible.

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Marlboro Ad On Scoreboard – Blue Tint

This variation of the “Ads on Scoreboard” is the rarest and was only just recently discovered. The sign has an aqua-coloured effect as if Fleer used a blue filter to cover up the sign. This was inadequate, as almost all the sign’s features are still visible. There’s also a tiny green mark by Johnson’s ear.

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Other variations of the Randy Johnson error card

In addition to various versions of the “Marlboro” sign, there are also a few different versions where the sign is less visible but still not fully edited.

Red Tint – Yellowish Tinting around the letters on the sign

This looks just like the red tint variation. However, a close examination would reveal subtle differences between both variations. One common difference is the presence of a yellowish tint around the lettering on the sign.

Shop for various versions of the 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson card with Ad Partially Obscured.

Slight green tint on sign

This closely resembles the Green Tint variation. However, the sign is darker, and the green tint isn’t as pronounced. Additionally, the cowboy is completely covered up with this variation.

Ad Partially Obscured – Black Scribble

As with the Billy Ripken card, once Fleer was done trying to “Tint out” the Marlboro sign, they moved on to crudely scribbling it out. This card has darkened background, and the word Marlboro is scribbled out to make it illegible. This short run is one of the rarest corrected variations to find.

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There are two variations of the Black Scribble version:

  • Black Scribble through the word Marlboro on sign – Green tint.
  • Black Scribble through the word Marlboro on sign – Reddish tint

We’ll explain the reason for the “red and green” tint in almost every variation later in this article.

Ad Partially Obscured – Black Bar

This variation has a Black Bar through the word Marlboro. The cowboy is completely blacked out and illegible. However, while the black bar effectively covers up the word’s lettering, it leaves the white area of the logo visible and stands out.

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Again, two variations of the Black Bar version exist.

  • Black Bar through the word Marlboro on sign – Reddish tint.
  • Black Bar through the word Marlboro on sign – Green tint.

Ad Partially Obscured – Negative or Stencil Version

Not wanting to leave any part of the Marlboro logo visible, Fleer’s next try was recoloring the white area of the Marlboro logo dark red. This leaves a dark greenish hue on the letters.

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Ad Completely Blacked Out – Black Box Around Sign – Red and Green tint

Fleer’s subsequent attempt to cover up the stubborn Marlboro logo was to place a black box around the logo. This “box” varies in size; in several cases, the letter of the word Marlboro is visible through the box.

The two versions of this Black Box variation of this card are Red and Green. In the Green Box version, the tint of the box is green. As mentioned before, this version comes in tons of varieties.

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A popular variation of this version is the “Red Box with bubble”. It is similar to the other versions but has a white circle visible where the cowboy should be. This bubble is constant in various cards, which suggests that something was obstructing the printing plates.

This “Black “box” around sign – white circle visible (where the cowboy hat is on sign)” variant is quite rare and sells for more than the regular Black Box version.

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Ads Completely Blacked Out – Full Blacked-Out Background

There are several variations of this version. Fleer decided to black out the entire part of the card background that contained the Marlboro sign.

Shop for the 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson “blacked out” version.

However, three popular variations exist.

  • This looks like the regular “Blacked Out” version. However, a bright light source will reveal a triangular black shape over the logo. It’s also missing spots and bubbles visible on other “Blacked Out” variations.
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  • While this version looks like the regular Blacked Out version, it is “clearer”. It lacks all visible residue on the sign and has no tint. There’s a small gap between Johnson’s head and the sign that’s primarily used to differentiate this version from the Blacked-Out variation.
  • Regular Blacked Out version– This is the final corrected version and the most common of Randy Johnson’s variations. It uses a fully blacked-out background to cover up the Marlboro logo. The gap between the sign and Johnson’s head has been fixed to look more natural, and all indication of the Marlboro lettering and logo is gone.
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Official PSA and Beckett recognized variations

While over 12 clearly defined variations exist, PSA officially recognizes only three simplified variations and lumps all cards under these three variations. The subtle differences between variations are disregarded, and PSA delivers a general variation to the cards. They are:

  • Marlboro Ad On Scoreboard
  • Ad Partially Obscured
  • Ad Completely Blacked Out

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Because of this, most collectors prefer to get their 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson card graded by Beckett. Beckett officially recognizes five variations of the 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson’s card in its population report. They are:

  • Marlboro sign clearly visible over left shoulder
  • Marlboro sign tinted red making/letters difficult to read
  • Small black box over Marlboro sign
  • Green Tint ERR/Marlboro sign illegible/tinted green
  • UER/Innings for ’85 and/’86 shown as 27 and/120, should be 27.1/and 119.2

However, while PSA indicates the variation of the particular card on its slab, Beckett doesn’t. This simplified generalization of the different variations ignores some of the rarest versions.

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All 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson variations

I want to point out that the variations listed here are not absolute, as many variations keep popping out. An errant dot, a blemish on the logo, a bubble near the cowboy’s hat or different levels of visibility.

There are several things one can consider as a variation. It’s left to you to decide on what you believe is a variation. All possible “variations” of this card are below:

  • Clear Sign.
  • Light Blue Tint over bottom half of sign.
  • Green Tint over Sign.
  • Red tint over sign/green background/green circle around first O in Marlboro.
  • Red tint over sign/black background/green circle around first O in Marlboro.
  • Red tint over sign/green+black background/NO green circle around first O in Marlboro.
  • Marlboro Scribbled out in Red, Dark Green Spotted around Scribble.
  • Marlboro Scribbled out in Red, Dark Green Spotted around Scribble/Green Haze over entire background.
  • Marlboro Scirbbled out in Black, Dark Green Spotted around Scribble.
  • Marlboro Scribbled out in Red, Light Green Solid around Scribble.
  • Green Letters of Marlboro Visible, Top Sign in Green/Bottom Sign in Dark Blue.
  • Entire Sign Blocked out in Red, Green Letters of Marlboro Visible.
  • Box V.1 Box in Green (No part of sign or Marlboro Visible, Only box)
  • Box V.2 Box in Red (No part of sign or Marlboro Visible, Only box)
  • Box V.3 Box in Pink (No part of sign or Marlboro Visible, Only box)
  • Box V.4 Box in Black (No part of sign or Marlboro Visible, Only box)
  • Ad completely blocked out in Green (Red scribble by face).
  • Ad incomplete blocked out in Black. (Space between bottom rim of hat and bell visible)
  • Ad completely blocked out in Black.

Value of the significant 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson variations

This value overview considers the officially recognized PSA variations. There are versions of the various variations that are valued more than others. For example, the Blue tinted Ad Partially Obscured variation sells for more than its Red counterpart.

Randy Johnson #381 Ad Completely Blacked Out$10 – $100, depending on the condition
Randy Johnson #381 Ad Partially Obscured$60 – $550
Randy Johnson #381 Ad on Scoreboard$80 – $2,000

The first “clear” version of the Ad on Scoreboard goes for over two times the value of more common versions. While PSA lumps them all together, experienced collectors know the difference between them and are willing to pay more for the rare variations.

Understanding the variations would help you make better buying (or selling) decisions.

1989 Fleer Glossy Randy Johnson

In addition to the regular set, a 1989 Fleer Glossy Baseball set was also released consisting of 672 cards. It was Fleer’s last Glossy issue for the decade. Cards from this set looked like the standard 1989 Fleer cards but were covered in gloss. While this set was less popular than the 1989 Fleer issue, its shorter print run ensures its cards hold fantastic value today.

PSA estimates that Fleer produced only 30,000 sets. There are no Glossy versions of all of Randy Johnson’s 1989 variations.

Why are there so many Randy Johnson 1989 Fleer variations?

This is a common question asked by collectors when it comes to this card. Once the Marlboro Advertisement was spotted, Fleer immediately attempted to cover it up.

This correction process wasn’t linear as they had several sets of plates running simultaneously. The first attempt was made, and the result was examined. Once it proved insufficient, Fleer tried another method until they settled on the last method, which finally covered the misplaced advertisement.

Fleer had likely produced coverups for the word “Marlboro,” then color masking/darkening of the sign area and then the box over the sign area before settling on the full blackout.

The entire correction process from the first to the final attempt was done before the set was released. Collectors have pulled the Bill Ripken “Fuck Face” error card from packs that contained the last “Blacked Out” version of the Randy Johnson card.

While this explains the major variations, there’s another reason every significant variation seemed to come with a red or green tint. Experts have tried to explain what made the multiple tint variations possible. While we’d never know the exact reason as Fleer never officially addressed this issue, this sounds very convincing.……multiple printing facilities!

It’s common knowledge that Fleer used multiple printing facilities during the period this set was released. Two printing facilities would account for the two tints – red and green – to every major variation. Supposedly, the green tint came from one facility, and the red came from another.

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Why are 1989 Fleer Randy Johnson variations interesting or valuable to collectors?

Although this card was printed during extreme market saturation and has a massive population, it is valuable to collectors for several reasons. The foremost is the fact that Johnson performed spectacularly well throughout his career.

His resume includes ten MLB All-Star Selection, 4,875 strikeouts, five CY Young Awards and an induction into the Baseball of Fame. This card is a must-have card for any Baseball collector because of its rich history.

Johnson baseball cards also hold significant value due to their nostalgic factor. He played during Baseball’s golden era, and several collectors grew up watching him play and collecting his cards. His 1989 Fleer card garnered lots of attention and was a point of conversation once Fleer spotted the error. Hence, this card holds a special place in the heart of several collectors.

Finally, the history and rarity of the Johnson’s 1989 Fleer card and its different variations make it particularly interesting to collectors. Several variations are rare and hard to find. This has ensured a healthy demand that has ensured this card holds significant value.

Final thoughts on the 1989 Randy Johnson Fleer variations

While the Junk Wax era was the dark age for the hobby, several valuable cards from that era are worth collecting. Johnson’s 1989 #381 makes that shortlist and it’s easy to see why. He ruled the mound as a player, and his popularity will keep his rookie cards in demand for years to come.

While I’d recommend adding any variation to your collection, the “clear” version is set to increase in value most over time. It’s extremely rare, shows the Marlboro advert and is the genesis for all other variations.

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