21 Most Valuable 1981 Donruss Baseball Cards

Most Valuable 1981 Donruss Baseball Cards

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While it's not known for any iconic cards like some of the other sets of the era, the 1981 Donruss baseball card set is iconic itself for one reason:

collectors now had an alternative choice to Topps for the first time in years.

After a decades-long stranglehold on the market, Topps lost a key court battle with Fleer that allowed other companies to produce sets of their own.

Donruss wasted no time breaking into the hobby as they spent huge marketing dollars, targeted key dealers across the nation, and filled their checklist with some of the game's biggest names to grab collector attention.

And some of those players appeared on multiple cards.

During the rush to market, they also ended up with many errors and variations in their debut set, but that was to be expected.

And they didn't know it at the time, but they also missed out on producing big-name rookie cards for Fernando Valenzuela, Harold Baines, and Kirk Gibson.

Despite the ups and downs, there is plenty to enjoy about this set.

And, in this guide, we look at the 25 most valuable.

Let's jump right in!

Let's be clear: most of the cards from this set do not have any value these days.

Like the 1981 Fleer and Topps sets, large print runs saturated the market with these cards, driving down their values.

So, for the cards on this list to be worth much, they'll have to be graded by PSA to be in perfect, gem mint condition.

That means the card needs to be flawless.

Now that we got that out of the way, let's take a look at the list:

1981 Donruss #119 Rickey Henderson

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $700

The 1981 American League MVP race came down to two men, Oakland Athletics left fielder Rickey Henderson and former A’s closer Rollie Fingers.

Now anchoring the back of the Brewers’ bullpen, Fingers won by a mere eleven points.

Was Henderson robbed? Maybe.

In 493 plate appearances (423 at-bats), Henderson posted a robust .319/.408/.437 slash line with nine home runs and 53 RBI while winning his first of three Silver Sluggers.

He also led all of baseball with 89 runs scored and led the American League in stolen bases (56) and hits (135).

Henderson was also top-notch on defense as he brought home his first-and-only Gold Glove.

With the 22-year-old star setting the table, the A’s earned a playoff spot with a 37-23 first-half record and finished with the American League’s best overall record at 64-45.

In 25 postseason plate appearances (22 at-bats), Henderson hit .273 with two doubles, one triple, one RBI, three runs scored, and four stolen bases.

Oakland swept three straight from the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS but, the tables turned in the ALCS when the Yankees eliminated them in three.

Henderson posted a brilliant 1.144 OPS against New York, but the rest of the Oakland lineup went dead silent.

1981 Donruss #119 Rickey Henderson Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #260 Nolan Ryan

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $250

On September 26, 1981, Houston Astros ace Nolan Ryan passed Sandy Koufax with a record fifth no-hitter on national television against Koufax's old team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ryan dazzled on that fall afternoon in Houston, striking out eleven and walking just three.

It was a fitting punctuation mark for one of Ryan's best seasons on the mound. In 21 starts, Ryan finished 11-5 with an MLB-best 1.69 ERA.

He also paced the Majors in ERA+ (195) and hits per 9 innings (6.0).

Ryan's stellar age-34 campaign earned him his sixth All-Star selection, a fourth-place finish in the National League's Cy Young race, and a 16th-place finish in the NL's MVP balloting.

Houston went just 28-29 in the first half but won the NL West's second half at 33-20.

Ryan went 1-1 in two starts with a 1.80 ERA in the team's five-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers, striking out 14 batters in 15 innings while walking just three.

After a complete-game victory in Game 1, Ryan allowed three runs (two earned) in six innings in the deciding Game 5.

The offense stagnated, and the Astros fell 4-0.

1981 Donruss #260 Nolan Ryan Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #538 Tim Raines Rookie Card

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $250

Tim Raines first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2008 but wasn't elected until 2017 when he received a convincing 86% of the vote.

The continued adoption of Sabermetrics no doubt helped push him across the finish line and into Cooperstown.

Still, as one of the game's greatest leadoff hitters and baserunners, he was overdue to get in anyway.

And ever since his induction into the Hall of Fame, his 1981 Donruss rookie card has enjoyed a nice bump in value.

If not for Fernando Valenzuela's incredible rookie performance and "Fernandomania" taking the sport by storm, Raines would've easily won the 1981 NL Rookie of the Year Award.

Raines showed the world that Rickey Henderson wasn't the only guy who could light up the basepaths as he led the Majors with 71 stolen bases while slashing .304/.391.438.

The NL Rookie of the Year Award was close, with Raines receiving 85 vote points to Valenzuela's 107, but the Expos and all of baseball knew that Raines was something special.

1981 Donruss #538 Tim Raines Rookie Card

1981 Donruss #1 Ozzie Smith

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $200

Smith continued his outstanding defensive work in 1981 by leading the National League in assists for the third straight year to pick up his second straight Gold Glove.

Fans and media began to take note of his incredible defensive talent, giving him the nickname "The Wizard."

However, his relationship with the San Diego Padres ownership continued to sour and by season's end, both were looking to move on from each other.

During the offseason, the Padres and Cardinals worked a multi-player deal headlined by sending Smith to St. Louis and Garry Templeton to San Diego.

Smith felt more welcomed by the Cardinals ownership and management and settled in quite nicely to be one of the franchise's most beloved players in team history.

For 15 seasons from 1982 to 1996, Smith was a key cog in the Cardinals lineup as he went on to win 11 more Gold Gloves and appear in 14 more All-Star Games.

1981 Donruss #1 Ozzie Smith Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #537 Best Hitters

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $125

Rod Carew and George Brett were not only two of the greatest hitters of their era but of all time, so seeing them both on the same card is quite a treat.

The reverse of the card mentions that over the last nine seasons dating back to 1972, Brett (2) and Carew (6) had combined to win eight batting titles.

Had Fred Lynn (.333) not barely edged out Brett (.329) for the title in 1979, then they would've had all nine of them.

By the time these Hall of Famers retired, Brett had three batting titles and Carew had an eye-popping seven.

Carew's career batting average ended up at .328, while his best single-season average was .388 in 1977.

Brett's career batting average of .305 wasn't quite as good, but he did put up the better single-season effort when he batted. 390 during the 1980 season.

1981 Donruss #537 Best Hitters Brett and Carew Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #11 Mike Schmidt

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

While Pete Rose set records elsewhere in the Phillies lineup, third baseman Mike Schmidt set the National League ablaze.

Back-to-back MVP awards, anyone?

In 1981, Schmidt became the eighth player in MLB history to do just that.

He also finished fourth in the NL with a .316 batting average, narrowly missing out on a Triple Crown.

However, Schmidt led baseball in multiple offensive categories, including home runs (31), RBI (91), OBP (.435), slugging percentage (.644), OPS (1.080), OPS+ (198), and total bases (228).

He also led the National League in runs scored (78) and walks (73). Schmidt was, arguably, the game's best player for the second-straight season.

To top it all off, he earned his sixth All-Star selection, sixth Gold Glove, and second Silver Slugger award.

Accolades aside, Schmidt felt his best accomplishment was in one of the few offensive categories in which he didn't pace the Majors: batting average.

"I had hit .300 before, but I couldn't hold it," he said. "I've learned to stay within myself, not be afraid to fail."

In the team's NLDS loss to the Expos, Schmidt hit .250 (4-for-16) with one home run, two RBI, and four walks.

1981 Donruss #11 Mike Schmidt Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #62 Johnny Bench

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

After nearly a decade-and-a-half as the standard for MLB catchers, Cincinnati Reds Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench changed positions for the 1981 season.

The Reds put him at first base for the first time as he dealt with nagging injuries.

The problem was that the 33-year-old Bench simply wasn't healthy.

Furthermore, he was unlucky in 1981.

On May 29th against the San Francisco Giants, Bench slid into second base, attempting to break up a double play but fractured his left ankle in the process.

All told, Bench played in just 52 of Cincinnati's 108 games.

1981 Donruss #62 Johnny Bench In Batting Cage Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #100 George Brett

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

In 1980, Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett graduated from All-Star to crossover superstar.

He won the American League MVP award with one of the best offensive seasons in league history, flirted with .400, and made his first World Series appearance.

Heck, he even dated "Miss New York" Debra Sue Maurice from the Miss USA Beauty Pageant.

And while his offensive numbers dropped in 1981, Brett's star was still quite bright.

In 379 plate appearances (347 at-bats), Brett slashed .314/.364/.484 with 24 home runs and 118 RBI to make his sixth-straight All-Star Game and finish 27th in the AL MVP race.

The defending AL champions were a mess early, though.

Kansas City went 20-30 in the season's first half and started the second half slowly, with Manager Jim Frey taking the heat.

After the Royals split their first twenty games of the second half, he was fired, and former Yankees manager Dick Howser took the reins.

The move worked as the Royals responded by winning 20 of their last 33 to make the playoffs.

However, once they got there, the Oakland Athletics promptly swept them in the ALDS as Brett went just 2-for-12 (.167) in the three games.

1981 Donruss #100 George Brett Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #131 Pete Rose

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Several of the game's biggest stars of the day appeared on two cards in this set, but I think Pete Rose was one of only two guys, along with Reggie Jackson, who appeared on three.

To make things even stranger, you could even say that Rose appeared on four cards in this set because this one comes in two variations.

And the difference lies on the reverse of the card, as one version will point collectors to see card #251 for more Rose highlights while the other will direct them to see card #371 for more.

The reverse of this card is just one of the many quirks found inside Donruss's debut set.

1981 Donruss #131 Pete Rose Baseball Card
"See Card 251"
1981 Donruss #131 Pete Rose Baseball Card Reverse See Card 251 Variation
"See Card 371"
1981 Donruss #131 Pete Rose Baseball Card Reverse See Card 371 Variation

1981 Donruss #182 Johnny Bench

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

When Bench managed to stay healthy enough to be in the lineup, he was quite productive.

In 196 plate appearances (178 at-bats), he slashed .309/.369/.489 with eight home runs and 25 RBI.

Yet, Bench's lousy injury luck was the real story.

His team also had plenty of bad luck.

Cincinnati finished the year with the best composite record in all of baseball but the nature of the strike-shortened season's playoff format bit them in the backside.

The Reds finished a half-game behind the Dodgers in the NL West in the first half.

In the second half, they finished 1.5 games behind the Astros to miss the playoffs entirely.

1981 Donruss #182 Johnny Bench Batting Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #228 Reggie Jackson

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Coming off a 1980 season in which he finished runner-up for the AL MVP award, New York Yankees right fielder Reggie Jackson looked to keep the momentum going in 1981.

Unfortunately, the strike-shortened season and growing tensions with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner got in the way.

Before the season, Steinbrenner went to Jackson for his thoughts on the team's pursuit of free-agent slugger Dave Winfield.

Jackson green-lighted the eventual signing but expected Steinbrenner to offer him a new deal as well.

It didn't happen and Jackson played the 1981 campaign as a free agent. 

1981 Donruss #228 Reggie Jackson Bat Over Shoulder Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #251 Pete Rose

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Baseball’s hit king, Pete Rose, led all of baseball in total hits on seven different occasions.

The 1981 season was the seventh and final time.

Rose collected 140 hits in 1981, slashing .325/.391/.390 in his third year with the Philadelphia Phillies.

One of those hits was an all-timer.

In the team’s first game back following the players’ strike, the 40-year-old recorded hit number 3,631, passing Stan Musial as the National League’s all-time hits leader.

And while Rose hit no home runs in 1981 and drove in just 33, he was a fantastic table-setter for the Phillies.

Even though the image is kind of ghostly (see his right shoulder) on this card, it's my favorite of his three cards in this set given its an action shot.

1981 Donruss #251 Pete Rose Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #348 Reggie Jackson

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Jackson slumped out of the gates in 1981, prompting Steinbrenner to invoke a clause in his contract that forced him to undergo a full physical examination.

Reggie was furious and blasted The Boss in the media.

On the field, Jackson had his worst offensive season since his sophomore campaign as he slashed a modest .237/.330/.428 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI.

His .758 OPS marked the first time he'd dropped under .817 since 1968.

Despite the poor production, Jackson still earned a spot on the All-Star team for the eleventh time in his career.

1981 Donruss #348 Reggie Jackson Batting Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #371 Pete Rose

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

For his regular-season efforts, Rose earned the only Silver Slugger Award of his career, his 15th All-Star selection, and a tenth-place finish on the NL MVP ballot.

He also had a flair for the big hit and helped Philadelphia to a 34-21 record in the first half to secure a playoff spot for the Phillies halfway through the season.

Philadelphia fell in five games to the Montreal Expos in an entertaining National League Division Series.

Rose hit .300 (6-for-20) with two RBI and a run scored in the losing effort.

1981 Donruss #371 Pete Rose Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #422 Tom Seaver

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Tom Seaver came within a handful of votes of winning his fourth Cy Young on the 1981 season with an incredible pitching display that saw him lead the Majors in wins (14) and winning percentage (.875).

In other years, Seaver used his overpowering stuff to outduel hitters but in 1981, he wasn't quite the fireballer as he struck out only 4.7 batters per nine innings, the second-lowest rate of his career.

Instead, he was more of a craftsman on the mound and outsmarted hitters to allow a career-low 6.5 hits per nine innings.

Seaver was nothing short of incredible for the Reds that season but Los Angeles's Fernando Valenzuela was just a bit better and out-pointed Seaver in the Cy Young vote 70 to 67.

1981 Donruss #422 Tom Seaver Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #425 Tom Seaver

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Cincinnati finished second in both halves of the 1981 split-season but ended the year with the best overall record in the National League.

It didn't matter, though, as the Reds missed out on the playoffs and a rejuvenated Tom Seaver was denied one last hurrah in October.

He finished the year with the best winning percentage of any starter in baseball (.875), notched his 3000th career strikeout on April 12th, and earned his twelfth-and-final All-Star appearance after a two-year absence.

Seaver would play one more year for the Reds in 1982 when he posted a 5-13 record before heading back to the New York Mets the following year.

1981 Donruss #425 Tom Seaver Pitching Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #437 Dale Murphy

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

The Atlanta Braves had used Dale Murphy at first base and catcher during his early years in the 1970s, but in 1980 they moved him to the outfield.

And that's when his career started to take off as he made his first of seven career All-Star Games during the 1980 season and would finish twelfth in the MVP vote.

Murphy struggled a bit during the 1981 split season as his batting average fell to a paltry .247 and his slugging percentage plunged to .390 from .510 the year before.

His struggles didn't last long, though, and maybe it was seeing Mike Schmidt win back-to-back MVPs in 1980 and 1981 because, by the following year, Murphy's production skyrocketed as he'd go on to win back-to-back MVPs of his own in 1982 and 1983.

Murphy was outstanding during the 1980s as he racked up two MVPs, seven All-Star selections, five Gold Gloves, and four Silver Sluggers on his way to becoming one of the most popular players in baseball.

Unfortunately, his production fizzled out in the 1990s, so he didn't quite finish off a career worthy of Cooperstown.

Still, his popularity continues today, and his cards remain in high demand by kids now turned adults who grew up idolizing him.

1981 Donruss #437 Dale Murphy Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #468 Reggie Jackson

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Jackson found a groove in the team's ALDS victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, hitting .300 with a .933 OPS, two home runs, and four RBI.

Things screeched to a halt, though, when Jackson injured his calf running the bases in Game 2 of the ALCS against Oakland.

In Game 4 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he'd return with New York holding a 2-1 advantage to try and help the team across the finish line.

He did his best, hitting .333 with a 1.095 in the final three games, but New York dropped all three and the series.

As his time with the Yankees had come to a close, Jackson packed his bag and headed back to the West Coast, signing to play for the California Angels.

During his first year with the Angels, Jackson proved he still had plenty left in the tank and led the Majors with 39 home runs and finished sixth  in the MVP vote.

1981 Donruss #468 Reggie Jackson Sliding Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #491 George Brett MVP

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

To commemorate Brett's 1980 MVP Award, Donruss basically changed the borders from green to red on his base card and slapped the "MVP" logo at the bottom while removing the team name and position.

If you look closely, though, you'll notice the images are just slightly different as you can see two of his teammates in the background on his MVP card versus one (plus the arm of another) on his base card.

1981 Donruss #491 George Brett Baseball Card MVP
1981 Donruss #100 George Brett Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #569 Danny Ainge Rookie Card

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Before Danny Ainge found success at the professional level in basketball as a player, coach and executive, he made his professional sports debut for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1979...while he was still in college.

Beginning with the 1977-78 NCAA Basketball season, Ainge starred for Brigham Young University and capped things off in 1981 by being named a first-team All-American and winning the John Wooden Award as the nation's best player.

Somehow during all that success with college basketball, he also found the time to play for the Blue Jays from 1979 to 1981.

In 665 at-bats for Toronto, Ainge batted .220, hit two home runs, scored 57 runs, drove in another 37 and stole 12 bases.

After the 1981 season, however, Ainge decided to call it quits with baseball.

The Boston Celtics drafted Ainge in the 1981 NBA Draft and bought his contract from the Blue Jays and the rest was history.

1981 Donruss #569 Danny Ainge Rookie Card

1981 Donruss #590 Mike Schmidt MVP

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $75

Unlike George Brett's MVP card, Schmidt's featured an altogether different image than that of his base card.

And unlike Brett, Schmidt followed up his 1980 MVP campaign with another one during the 1981 season.

While some of the game's big names struggled with the split-season, Schmidt held things together all year to lead the Majors in home runs (31), RBI (91), OBP (.435), slugging percentage (.644), OPS (1.080), OPS + (198), and total bases (228).

He was the clear choice for National League MVP and also picked up a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger.

1981 Donruss #590 Mike Schmidt MVP Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #112 Eddie Murray

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $60

The 1981 season stands out for Eddie Murray in a unique way: somehow, it was the only season where he managed to lead the American League in home runs (22) and RBI (78).

Given how consistently great Murray was for so many years, it just seems unimaginable that he didn't lead in one of those two categories at least one other time.

Murray appeared in his second All-Star Game that season and finished things off with a fifth-place finish in the MVP vote, one of six times he finished in the top five in his storied career.

Incredibly consistent and productive during his 21 years in the Big Leagues, Murray ended his Hall of Fame career with 3,255 hits, 504 home runs, 1,917 RBI and set the all-time record for sacrifice flies with 128.

1981 Donruss #112 Eddie Murray Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #575 Mookie Wilson Rookie Card

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $60

One of the most beloved New York Mets in franchise history, Mookie Wilson finished seventh in the 1981 NL Rookie of the Year race and went on to a very successful career until he retired in 1991.

Wilson was incredibly speedy and was the Mets' career stolen base leader before Jose Reyes eventually broke his record many years later.

Perhaps Wilson's finest point of his career came during one of the most memorable at-bats in baseball history that lasted ten pitches, sent Mets fans soaring, and broke Red Sox fans' hearts.

In the tenth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Wilson stepped up to the plate with runners on first and third with his team trailing 5-4.

After Wilson dodged a wild pitch from Boston's Bob Stanley, Kevin Mitchell scored from third to tie the game.

And then, the "Buckner play" happened...

Wilson hit a weak grounder towards Boston's Bill Buckner at first base, and the ball squeaked by him, allowing Wilson to reach first base safely while Ray Knight scored the winning run.

Mookie came up big for the Mets again in Game 7, going 1 for 3 with a run scored to help the Mets beat the Red Sox 8-5 to win the title. 

1981 Donruss #575 Mookie Wilson Rookie Card

1981 Donruss #94 Carl Yastrzemski

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $50

At 41 years of age, it seemed time had finally caught up to Boston Red Sox designated hitter/first baseman Carl Yastrzemski in 1981.

Struggling through back issues and other accumulated aches and pains, Yastrzemski had the worst offensive season of his 21-year career thus far.

In 390 plate appearances (338 at-bats), Yastrzemski posted a .246/.338/.355 slash line with a career-low seven home runs and 53 RBI.

Like everyone else, the shortened season didn't help his overall output but some key indicators had fallen off noticeably.

For example, his .693 OPS was the worst of his career by nearly 40 points (.721, 1961), and it was almost 150 points less than his career mark of .841.

His .246 batting average and .355 slugging percentage were also career lows.

1981 Donruss #94 Carl Yastrzemski Batting Baseball Card

1981 Donruss #214 Carl Yastrzemski

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $50

After fifteen-straight All-Star appearances from 1965-79, Yastrzemski was left out of the Midsummer Classic for the second year in a row in 1981.

Many thought his career was slowly but surely coming to an end.

Boston missed the playoffs by 1.5 games in the second-half AL East race.

But rather than hanging them up after the season, Yastrzemski got to work.

And incredibly, he’d come back with a vengeance.

Yastrzemski played two more seasons in Boston before retiring, making All-Star appearances at the age of 42 and 43 during the 1982 and 1983 seasons, respectively.

1981 Donruss #214 Carl Yastrzemski In Batting Cage Baseball Card

1981 Donruss Baseball Cards In Review

Clocking in at 605 cards in total, this set made history when it first debuted.

And, over the years, it's started to grow on collectors more and more after nostalgia for that era has increased and many collectors have a newfound appreciation for hobby history.

Yes, the checklist is quite messy at times with the errors and variations.

And, yes, it would've been nice to see rookie cards of Fernando Valenzuela, Harold Baines and Kirk Gibson as well.

But, I'm a big fan of this set regardless.

Unopened Box of 1981 Donruss Baseball Cards

Donruss would take the experience with this set and continue to churn out many improved and memorable sets for years to come.

But, this will always be the set that got their foot into the red-hot market of the 1980s.

Ross Uitts
 

Ross is the founder of Old Sports Cards and has been collecting sports cards for over 30 years. He also loves to write about the hobby and has written for Beckett, Topps, SABR and of course, this website. Need help buying or selling cards or have a general question about the hobby? Contact him at [email protected]

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