20 Most Valuable 1981 Fleer Baseball Cards

Most Valuable 1981 Fleer Baseball Cards


For decades, Topps was the only game in town for sports cards, but the 1981 Fleer baseball card set changed that forever.

After years of litigation, a court ultimately decided that Topps enjoyed an unfair grip on the market and other companies like Fleer and Donruss quickly earned the green light to enter the hobby.

But things didn't exactly go smoothly for Fleer after they fired up the printer...

As you dive into the 660-card checklist, you'll find errors and printing mistakes all over the place.

Some cards have multiple variations, others contain misspellings, and the reverse of every pitcher's card in the set shows his "batting record" instead of his "pitching record" over his stats.

But, after three different print runs, Fleer had finally delivered its first baseball card product in many years.

With several Hall of Famers and rookie cards of Fernando Valenzuela, Kirk Gibson, Harold Baines and even Danny Ainge, there is plenty to enjoy in this set.

And, in this guide, we look at the 20 most valuable.

Let's jump right in!

Ross Uitts

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

Like the 1981 Donruss 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 Fleer #140 Fernando Valenzuela Rookie Card

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $350

During the last stretch of the season in September 1980, the Los Angeles Dodgers called up their prized 19-year-old lefty, Fernando Valenzuela, for bullpen help.

Valenzuela was an immediate success, pitching 17 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in ten outings for the Dodgers, showing off a nasty screwball he'd learned the year before.

In 1981, the Dodgers named Valeunzuela the team's Opening Day starter after Jerry Reuss injured himself 24 hours before his scheduled start.

With his skyward glance and his unusual pitching motion, Valenzuela captivated 50,511 fans at Dodger Stadium with a complete-game shutout in a 2-0 win over the Houston Astros.

He'd continue to dominate throughout the 1981 season, becoming a media megastar and setting off "Fernandomania" in the process.

Valenzuela was nearly unhittable during the Dodgers' run to a first-half NL West win.

He was less dominant in the second half but still finished the year with a 13-7 record and a stellar 2.48 ERA while leading all of baseball in shutouts (8), complete games (11), strikeouts (180), and innings pitched (192.1).

In doing so, Valenzuela became the first player to win a Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year Award in the same season.

In the playoffs, Valenzuela went 3-1 with a 2.21 ERA to help win his first of two World Series rings while with the Dodgers.

His rookie card sits at the top of this list but note how his name is misspelled "Fernand" on the front.

1981 Fleer #140 Fernando Valenzuela Rookie Card

1981 Fleer #79 Reggie Jackson

Estimated Portrait PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $300

Estimated Batting PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $200

Expectations were as high as ever for Reggie Jackson heading into the 1981 season after the Yankees slugger finished second in the AL MVP race the year before.

But, things didn't go smoothly for Jackson at all.

Jackson slumped early and struggled at the plate all season long, turning in the worst offensive performance of his career at that point.

His .758 OPS was lower than .800 for the first time since he turned in a .768 OPS during his first full season in 1968.

Tensions between Jackson and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner didn't help.

Jackson grew angry when Steinbrenner called on him to take a physical after his early-season slump.

And a failed attempt at landing a lucrative deal like newcomer Dave Winfield achieved only added to Jackson's resentment.

After the Dodgers knocked off the Yankees in the World Series, Jackson's time in pinstripes came to a close, and he'd sign with the California Angels for the following season.

Fleer produced two variations of several cards in this set and this was one of them.

One version of the card features a close-up of Jackson in his batting stance while the other shows an up-close portrait of the Hall of Fame slugger with his "Mr. October" designation in place of his name.

The portrait variation is rarer in top grade so it should command a price premium.

However, the quirks didn't end there.

For some reason, Fleer recycled the portrait version of card #79 and replicated it as card #650, which we'll look at later on this list.

1981 Fleer #79 Reggie Jackson Batting Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #79 Reggie Jackson Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #79 Reggie Jackson Baseball Card Reverse Side

1981 Fleer #574 Rickey Henderson

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $275

Rickey Henderson was arguably at his all-around best in 1981 as he snagged the only Gold Glove of his career while continuing his blistering output on offense.

To go along with that Gold Glove, Henderson picked up the first of three career Silver Sluggers after batting .319, leading the Majors in runs scored (89) and leading the American League in stolen bases (56).

Henderson also impressively led the AL in hits (135) for the only time in his storied career.

His talents were unquestioned, and he had established himself as the best leadoff hitter in baseball and one of the top all-around threats in just his third season.

Given the year he had, many were shocked when he finished second in voting in the AL MVP race to his former teammate and Milwaukee Brewers reliever, Rollie Fingers, by just eleven points.

Fingers was incredible in his own right that season, but many believed the MVP nod should have gone to Henderson.

1981 Fleer #574 Rickey Henderson Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #351 Rickey Henderson

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $260

When Lou Brock set the modern mark for most stolen bases in a season in 1974 with 118, most assumed that it would stand for years, if not forever.

And then Rickey Henderson came along.

Just six years later, during the 1980 campaign, Henderson used his incredible speed to swipe 100 bases, the first of three times in his career that he crossed the century mark in that category.

To commemorate his MLB-leading achievement, Fleer produced this card that is nearly identical to his base card, save for the "Most Stolen Bases AL" notation near the bottom.

And, though he couldn't get a decent shot at 100 stolen bases in 1981 because of the shortened season, Henderson was back and even more impressive on the base paths in 1982.

During the 1982 season, Henderson blew past Brock and his 118 stolen bases by snagging 130 of his own and setting the new modern mark.

1981 Fleer #351 Rickey Henderson Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #481 Kirk Gibson Rookie Card

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $175

In August 1980, doctors had some troubling news for young Detroit Tigers outfielder Kirk Gibson.

Gibson injured his left wrist a month or so earlier, but doctors had no clue what the problem was.

After visiting the Mayo Clinic in August, the medical staff determined that his arm bone was abnormally developed, and no one knew if he’d be able to play baseball again.

The surgeons shortened his ulna bone, inserted a metal plate, and gave him an eight-month recovery schedule with no guarantees.

During spring training in 1981, the third-year slugger tested his wrist out and things looked to be a go.

And while Gibson did miss three weeks after re-injuring it, he still put together one heck of a year.

In 290 at-bats, Gibson hit a career-high .328 with nine home runs and 40 RBI.

He posted a .848 OPS and was the key offensive piece for a Tigers team in playoff contention down the stretch.

Unfortunately, Detroit was eventually mathematically eliminated during the season’s final series against Milwaukee.

But, Gibson’s resilient breakthrough season was just one of many reasons for optimism.

1981 Fleer #481 Kirk Gibson Rookie Card

1981 Fleer #346 Harold Baines Rookie Card

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $125

The 1981 season was a critical transition year for Harold Baines.

The young Chicago White Sox right fielder hit a paltry .159 against left-handed pitching in his rookie season the year before.

Because of this, manager Tony La Russa relegated him to a platoon role for most of the 1981 season, and Baines rarely saw at-bats against lefties.

Yet, he showed vast improvement when given the opportunity, hitting .320 against southpaws, tracking off-speed stuff better, and showing increased patience.

Overall, he slashed .286/.318/.482 with ten home runs and 41 RBI in 280 at-bats, while his 131 OPS+ was a full ten points better than his eventual career average.

With added confidence after a successful sophomore campaign, the diminutive Baines went into the offseason with one goal in mind: bulking up.

Baines went from 175 to 191 pounds over the winter, adding 16 pounds of muscle thanks to free weights and a 3,300-calorie diet.

Coupled with the tutelage of new batting coach Charlie Lau, Baines’s physical transformation helped him level up from platoon player to everyday contributor.

Two decades later, he’d have an extensive Hall-of-Fame resume to show for his efforts.

1981 Fleer #346 Harold Baines Rookie Card

1981 Fleer #645 Triple Threat

Estimated Without Number on Reverse PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $100

Estimated With Number on Reverse PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $30

Card #645 in the set is attractive for a couple of reasons as it paid homage to one of the game's strongest infields that featured five-time All-Star Larry Bowa and Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose.

It can also be found in one of two variations: one that displays card #645 on the reverse side and one without that distinction.

The version that doesn't contain the card number is a bit rarer in high grade and therefore carries a premium in price.

1981 Fleer #645 Triple Threat Rose Schmidt Bowa Baseball Card

With #645 On Reverse

1981 Fleer Triple Threat With Number on Reverse Baseball Card

Without #645 On Reverse

1981 Fleer Triple Threat Without Number on Reverse Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #57 Nolan Ryan

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $100

The 1981 season was Nolan Ryan's second of nine campaigns with the Houston Astros.

And, it was arguably the fireballer's finest in Space City.

His minuscule 1.69 ERA and eye-popping 195 ERA+ paced the Majors and allowed him to post a career-high .688 winning percentage with his 11-5 record.

Ryan was an easy choice for his sixth All-Star team, but he finished well behind Fernando Valenzuela, Tom Seaver, and Steve Carlton at fourth in the NL Cy Young vote.

Let's face it, though, nobody was going to overcome Valenzuela and "Fernandomania" that year.

But, in a season full of remarkable achievements, perhaps the finest highlight occurred late in the season on September 26 when Ryan surpassed Sandy Koufax with his fifth no-hitter.

On national television, Ryan dazzled the Houston home crowd as he dominated Koufax's old team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, by striking out eleven, walking three, and leaving them hitless to seal the 5-0 shutout.

The Dodgers would get the last laugh, though, as they defeated Ryan and the Astros 4-0 in Game 5 of the NLDS.

1981 Fleer #57 Nolan Ryan Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #28 George Brett

Estimated MVP PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $65

Estimated .390 Average PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $65

George Brett put on one of the most remarkable hitting clinics in MLB history in 1980 when he batted an incredible .390 to capture his second of three career batting titles.

His performance also landed him the only MVP Award of his Hall of Fame career.

Curiously, Fleer decided to use card #28 in the set to mark both achievements.

One version of the card features a close-up of Brett and celebrates his MVP selection.

The other shows a nice action shot of Brett at the plate while giving the nod to his .390 batting average.

Fleer took the version of card #28 that celebrated Brett's .390 batting average and replicated it as card #655, which we'll look at next.

1981 Fleer #28 George Brett Portrait Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #28 George Brett Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #28 George Brett Baseball Card Reverse With Stats and Biography

1981 Fleer #655 George Brett

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $65

Here's a look at card #655 which is identical to the one variation of card #28 mentioned above except for the difference in numbering.

In their first year back in the business of printing sports cards, Fleer still had some quality issues.

1981 Fleer #655 George Brett Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #655 George Brett Baseball Card Reverse With Stats and Biography

1981 Fleer #650 Reggie Jackson

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $50

And, here's a look at the Reggie Jackson card that used the same image on the front as the "portrait" variation of card #79 that we reviewed earlier on this list.

Jackson and Brett weren't the only two players who had this unusual combination of cards in this set.

Mike Schmidt also received this treatment and we'll get to him in a bit.

1981 Fleer #650 Reggie Jackson Portrait Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #1 Pete Rose

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $50

When the 1981 season came to a halt on June 12 because of the strike, the interruption was likely extra nerve-wracking for Pete Rose.

At the time, Rose was in the middle of a fifteen-game hit streak and sat tied with Hall of Famer Stan Musial for the most hits in National League history with 3,630.

Interestingly, play resumed on August 10 when Pete Rose and the Phillies squared off at home against Stan Musial's old team, the St. Louis Cardinals.

And then, after failing to get a hit in his first three at-bats of the game, Rose slapped a single into left field in the eighth inning to surpass Musial with his 3,631st career hit.

Fittingly, Musial had made the trip to Veterans Stadium to watch the game and ran out to first base to congratulate Rose on his remarkable achievement.

Rose continued his superior hitting the rest of the season and capped things off by leading the Majors in hits (140) for the seventh and final time of his career.

1981 Fleer #1 Pete Rose Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #488 Ozzie Smith

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $40

Ozzie Smith cemented his reputation as one of the best defensive shortstops in the league during the 1981 season when he picked up his second-straight Gold Glove.

Little did everyone know, it would be the second of an incredible thirteen Gold Gloves in a row.

Though he quickly became known as "The Wizard" for his defensive efforts, he still struggled at the plate with a .222 batting average over an MLB-leading 507 plate appearances.

Those weren't his only struggles either.

Tensions continued to build between Smith and the San Diego Padres ownership to the point that the team decided to trade him after the season to the St. Louis Cardinals for All-Star shortstop Garry Templeton.

Tensions between Templeton and Cardinals ownership weren't great either, so the timing of the trade worked out well for everyone involved, though feelings and pride were undoubtedly hurt.

History would show that St. Louis got the better end of the deal as Templeton appeared in just one more All-Star Game with the Padres while Smith earned fourteen more All-Star trips on his way to Cooperstown.

1981 Fleer #488 Ozzie Smith Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #5 Mike Schmidt

Estimated Portrait PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $40

Estimated MVP PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $50

As I mentioned earlier, Mike Schmidt was another guy that had multiple cards and variations in this set like George Brett and Reggie Jackson.

But unlike Brett and Jackson, Schmidt was the only one of them to win multiple regular season MVP Awards during his career.

Schmidt would be named MVP three times over the eighteen years he played, and in 1981, he became just the eighth player in MLB history to win back-to-back MVPs.

It's tough to say whether he was better in 1980 or 1981 as he played phenomenally well during both seasons.

Along with the MVPs, he picked up a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger each year, though his slash line in 1981 (.316 / .435 / .644) did improve over the season before (.286 / .320 / .624).

Schmidt led baseball in home runs (31) and RBI (91) but, unfortunately, his fourth-best batting average of .316 was far enough behind Pittsburgh's Bill Madlock and his .341 average to prevent a Triple Crown.

The "portrait" version of card #5 presents a nice close-up look at Schmidt in his Phillies jacket, while the other version gives a nod to his 1980 MVP Award.

1981 Fleer #5 Mike Schmidt Portrait Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #5 Mike Schmidt Batting Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #5 Mike Schmidt Baseball Card Reverse With Stats and Biography

1981 Fleer #640 Mike Schmidt

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $40

And, here's a look at Schmidt's other card in this set (# 640) which is identical to the one variation of card #5 on the front.

1981 Fleer #640 Mike Schmidt Batting Baseball Card
1981 Fleer #640 Mike Schmidt Baseball Card Reverse With Stats and Biography

1981 Fleer #196 Johnny Bench

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $35

Things didn't go smoothly for Johnny Bench during the 1981 season.

And, it had little to do with the season itself being split in two.

Instead, after so many years of wear and tear on his body from serving as the Cincinnati Reds' everyday catcher, the team decided to move him to first base to limit further injury in early May.

The transition seemed to pay off as Bench's batting average climbed to .343 to go along with a .414 OBP as of May 28 during a home game against the San Francisco Giants.

But, things took a turn for the worst during the seventh inning of that game when he broke his left ankle while attempting to break up a double play while sliding into second base.

Bench would not return until late August and finished the disappointing season with a .309 batting average, eight home runs, and 25 RBI in 52 games.

1981 Fleer #196 Johnny Bench Baseball Card

1981 Fleer #418 Danny Ainge Rookie Card

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $35

During his college days at Brigham Young University, Danny Ainge found so much success on the basketball court that he eventually became a first-team All-American and won the John Wooden Award during his senior 1980-81 season.

Perhaps even more impressive than his college basketball success was that he somehow also found time to play professionally for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1979 to 1981 while still at BYU.

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

But, after winning that John Wooden Award, Ainge's baseball career came to a close when the Boston Celtics drafted him in the 1981 NBA Draft and purchased his contract from the Blue Jays.

Danny Ainge found plenty of success and fame in the NBA as a player, coach and executive, but before all of that, he also tried his hand in Major League Baseball.

And he was with the MLB just long enough to have his own rookie card in this set.

1981 Fleer #511 Robin Yount

Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $30

The Milwaukee Brewers selected Robin Yount with the third overall pick of the 1973 MLB Draft and he made his debut in April 1974 at just 18 years old.

During Yount's first six seasons from 1974 to 1979, his production and performance didn't really scream "future Hall of Famer."

However, after improving his strength and power via weight training, his power increased substantially during the 1980 season when he slashed .293 / .321 / .519 while smacking 23 home runs and an MLB-leading 49 doubles.

For his efforts, he earned his first of three career trips to the All-Star Game that season and took home his first of three Silver Sluggers as well.

Young played solid baseball again during the 1981 season, but his production dropped enough to where he missed out on the All-Star Game but still finished seventeenth in MVP voting.

The following season in 1982, however, Yount caught fire and dominated, winning his first of two career MVP Awards, his second Silver Slugger and the only Gold Glove of his Hall of Fame career.

Yount spent all twenty years of his MLB career with the Milwaukee Brewers and his 3,142 career hits put him at number twenty on the all-time hits list.

1981 Fleer #511 Robin Yount Baseball Card

1981 Fleer Baseball Cards In Review

You have to appreciate this set for its historical importance in the hobby if nothing else.

Fleer and Donruss gave collectors an alternative to Topps in 1981 and that alone keeps their debut sets relevant to this day.

Within the 660-card checklist, Fleer offered collectors plenty of future Hall of Famers and key rookie cards.

Where Donruss missed the mark by not including rookie cards of Fernando Valenzuela, Harold Baines or Kirk Gibson, Fleer was able to deliver.

Unopened Box of 1981 Fleer Baseball Cards

However, Fleer did miss out on a Tim Raines rookie card in this set.

Still, overall, the checklist is excellent and the design is decent despite the many printing mistakes that are found within it.

This set was a game-changer when it first made its way into the market and has a special place in hobby history.

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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