15 Most Valuable 1981 Topps Baseball Cards
When 1981 Topps baseball cards first hit store shelves, there was something different about the sports card market:
Donruss and Fleer had just entered the mix, providing fresh competition throughout the hobby...
After several years of litigation, a federal judge ended Topps' exclusive rights to sell baseball cards, opening the door for Donruss and Fleer to enter the market.
With competition came innovation, however.
To set itself apart, Topps famously created its Traded set at the end of the year that revolutionized the hobby for years to come.
Like the 1981 MLB split-season itself that gave baseball fans two "seasons" more or less, collectors now had two Topps sets to try and assemble.
And in this guide, I'll run through the fifteen most valuable across both sets.
Let's jump right in!
1981 Topps #302 Dodgers Future Stars
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $
When it comes to rookie season debuts, the Dodgers have developed a reputation for some of the finest on record.
Jackie Robinson, Mike Piazza, Hideo Nomo and, you guessed it, Fernando Valenzuela each took the league by storm as soon as they stepped on the field.
After Fernando started 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA with eight complete games and five shutouts in his first eight starts, "Fernandomania" swept across the country.
At season's end, Valenzuela stood with a 13-7 record, 2.48 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 180 strikeouts, all good enough to win him both Rookie of the Year and Cy Young honors.
Valenzuela remains the only rookie ever to win the Cy Young.
The thing that makes this card interesting is that there are no PSA 10 examples of it on record at the time of this writing, so estimating its PSA 10 value is difficult.
If one were to ever surface in that grade, though, I am sure it would command a steep enough price tag to easily make it the most valuable PSA 10 card in the set.
1981 Topps #180 Pete Rose
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $1,700
Pete Rose would lead the league in hits (140) for the seventh and final time in his storied career during the shortened 1981 season.
He also picked up his only Silver Slugger award and was named to his fifteenth All-Star game, seemingly on a surefire trajectory to the Hall of Fame at that point in his career.
However, the baseball world was stunned years later in 1989 when allegations surfaced that Rose gambled on baseball while a player and manager for the Reds from 1985-1987.
As a result of the legal process, Rose accepted his placement on baseball's permanently ineligible list, which would ban him from the game and Cooperstown for life.
Some hold out hope that baseball will someday forgive him and allow the all-time hits leader into the Hall of Fame, but it still seems highly unlikely.
Despite his complicated legacy, Pete Rose cards remain some of the most desirable in the hobby.
1981 Topps #240 Nolan Ryan
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $1,650
Nolan Ryan made his debut with the Houston Astros in 1980 and that season was a bit unusual for him for one glaring reason: he did not lead the league in strikeouts.
After pacing the league in strikeouts during seven of his previous eight seasons with the Angels, nearly everyone expected that he would be at the top every year.
Adjusting from the American League to the National League may have been the root cause for the drop-off.
Whatever the reason, Ryan turned in the second-lowest K/9 ratio of his career (7.7) outside of his final season in 1993.
Interestingly, he bounced back in 1981 to dominate not in strikeouts but by turning in an incredible 1.69 ERA with a .688 winning percentage, both career bests, while finishing fourth in Cy Young voting.
I love how Ryan's orange Houston Astros cap and the cartoon hat in the lower-left corner work in unison to give this card some fantastic visual pop.
Nolan Ryan cards, especially in high grade, remain incredibly popular among hobbyists.
1981 Topps #600 Johnny Bench
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $1,150
After making the All-Star team the previous thirteen seasons in a row, Johnny Bench did not make the 1981 NL roster as Gary Carter, Bruce Benedict, and Terry Kennedy would represent the NL at catcher instead.
However, Bench's career body of work outshines all three of them as many consider him to be the greatest catcher in baseball history.
Even though the two-time MVP and 14-time All-Star was incredible behind the plate, as noted by his ten Gold Gloves, Bench was perhaps best known for his incredible bat.
Take his two MVP seasons of 1970 and 1972, for example, where he led the league in home runs and RBI.
That was unheard of for a catcher to do that.
Indeed, Bench was something special, and he was a critical reason why the "Big Red Machine" rolled through opposing teams year after year during the 1970s.
1981 Topps #347 Harold Baines Rookie Card
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $1,000
Over 22 seasons in Major League Baseball, Harold Baines appeared in six All-Star games, hit 384 home runs, tallied 1,628 RBI, and scored another 1,299 runs.
Baines also won a Silver Slugger in 1989 and led the American League in slugging percentage (.541) in 1984.
He would lend his bat to several teams, including the White Sox, Orioles, A's, Rangers, and Indians, as he bounced around quite a bit.
Overall, he had a solid professional baseball career, but he didn't quite put up the kind of Hall of Fame resumé needed for induction when he was first eligible in 2007.
His percentage of the voting total peaked at 6.1% in 2010 and he would fall off the ballot the next year after receiving just 4.8% of the vote.
However, he and Lee Smith both received the nod to Cooperstown when the Today's Game Era Committee selected them as part of the Hall of Fame Class of 2019.
The young, bearded lefty poses in his White Sox uniform on his 1981 Topps rookie card, which has received a nice boost in price ever since his Hall of Fame induction.
1981 Topps #315 Kirk Gibson Rookie Card
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $1,000
For whatever reason, some moments in sports history seem to resonate with people in such a way that they almost become locked in memory.
Consider Michael Jordan's buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo during the 1989 Playoffs that sent the Cavaliers packing.
Or take Joe Montana's pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone during the 1981 NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys.
And then there was Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series against the Oakland A's.
Gibson pumping his fist in excitement as he rounded the bases is one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.
The entire 1988 season was memorable for Gibson as he picked up the only MVP and Silver Slugger awards of his career that year.
Now that he's forever a Los Angeles sports hero, Gibson's rookie card can be worth a pretty penny in high grade.
1981 Topps #261 Rickey Henderson
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $1,000
No position player in the American League enjoyed a better all-around season as Rickey Henderson did in 1981.
In addition to picking up his only career Gold Glove, he also snagged his first Silver Slugger and finished second in MVP voting to Milwaukee pitcher, Rollie Fingers.
The young speedster was brilliant on offense as he batted .319 (nearly a career-high) and led the league in runs scored (89), hits (135), and stolen bases (56).
Even though some baseball cards might not necessarily be iconic, they can stick out in your memory for simpler reasons, and Henderson's second-year card is one of those in my case.
When I was a kid, my older brother traded for this card and, at the time, we both admired it as it was one of the oldest cards either of us had in our collections.
And, the fact that it was "almost his rookie card" made it even more special to us.
Those are the kinds of memories that make this hobby so great.
1981 Topps #400 Reggie Jackson
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $850
After leading the league in home runs (41), finishing second in MVP voting, and batting .300 for the only time in his career in 1980, Yankees fans had high hopes for Reggie going into the 1981 season.
t was the last season on his five-year contract, and things did not go smoothly, to say the least.
Friction developed between George Steinbrenner and him after the Yankees owner showed little interest in working out a new contract.
Things became even more interesting after Steinbrenner forced Jackson to take a physical during the strike after Reggie's slow start to the season.
Once play resumed, Reggie's production improved as the Hall of Famer set on a defiant course to prove there was nothing wrong with him physically at that point in his career.
Nevertheless, Steinbrenner never did resign him but years later admitted that it was one of his biggest regrets as an owner.
1981 Topps #504 Dale Murphy
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $750
This hobby loves Dale Murphy as he was one of the game's biggest superstars during the 1980s when card collecting was.
Few players were as hot as Murphy as he would pick up two MVP awards, seven All-Star selections, five Gold Gloves, and four Silver Sluggers from 1980 to 1987.
Interestingly, the 1981 season was the only season during that stretch in which he did not make the All-Star team.
Unfortunately for Murphy, it is precisely the fact that he was so hot during such a short period that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
At least baseball writers and Cooperstown feel it was too short of a timeframe, anyway.
Kids who grew up collecting during that era, one of the hobby's most notoriously popular, are now grown adults always on the lookout for his cards.
1981 Topps Traded #850 Fernando Valenzuela
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $700
With Donruss and Fleer both now in the baseball card business, Topps began searching for new ways to set themselves apart from the competition.
So, in 1981 they revolutionized the hobby by issuing their 132-card Traded set at the end of the season.
As players' situations changed throughout the season, the intent of the Traded set was to feature players who were traded (hence the name), rookies, free-agent signees, or players called up from the Minors.
Valenzuela had already appeared on the "Dodgers Future Stars" card in the base set, but since he was one of the biggest stars on the World Series Champion Dodgers, Topps gave him his own card in their Traded set.
Valenzuela did appear in the Fleer's set that year but Donruss missed out on the hype.
With this card, Topps was able to satisfy some of the red hot collector demand for his cards.
1981 Topps Traded #816 Tim Raines
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $650
Like Valenzuela, Tim Raines also appeared in the base set on the "Expos Future Stars" card, but Topps decided to give him his own card in the Traded set as well.
The timing was perfect as Raines was coming off an incredible rookie campaign in which he would finish second in Rookie of the Year voting to Valenzuela.
Fans were amazed at the sensational rookie's explosiveness on the basepaths as Raines remarkably set a then Major League record with 71 stolen bases in just 88 games during the strike-interrupted season.
If he could do that in 88 games, what could he do in a full season?
Collector demand shot through the roof.
Donruss did feature Raines in their set that year but Fleer did not, and, like Valenzuela's Traded card, this was Topps' way of capitalizing on the hype and elevated demand.
1981 Topps #630 Steve Carlton
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $600
Expectations were high for Carlton going into the 1981 season as he had just picked up his third Cy Young award for his body of work in 1980 in which he led the league in wins (24) and strikeouts (286).
His ERA of 2.34 was also phenomenal and had the Dodgers' Don Sutton not turned in a bit better 2.20 ERA, Carlton would've sealed off the pitching Triple Crown as well.
He followed up his 1980 campaign with another solid season in 1981, going 13-4 with a 2.42 ERA, good enough to finish third in Cy Young voting.
Carlton also picked up his only career Gold Glove in 1981.
"Lefty" was one of the greatest pitchers in MLB history, and nobody could describe how difficult it was to hit against him better than Willie Stargell, who once said it was "like trying to drink coffee with a fork."
1981 Topps #52 Hector Cruz
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $600
Hector Cruz finished third in Rookie of the Year voting in 1976, but unfortunately, that was the peak of his career.
From then on, he would bounce around between the Cardinals, Cubs, Giants, and Reds with limited playing time until he retired in 1982.
While he may seem a bit out of place on a list full of big-name stars and Hall of Famers, his card's value in PSA 10 condition is based purely on its rarity.
There is only one example of Hector Cruz's card slabbed in a PSA 10 holder as of this writing.
And, set builders will pay big bucks to have it.
There are other examples of lesser-known players, like Dave Skaggs and John Ellis, who also have just one PSA 10 example to their names.
And, those could just as easily sell for several hundreds of dollars, too.
It just depends on when they pop up for sale and how badly 1981 Topps set builders are willing to fight over their cards.
1981 Topps #700 George Brett
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $500
Like Carlton, George Brett entered the 1981 season coming off a remarkable 1980 season.
That season was a career year for Brett as he set personal bests in batting average (.390), RBI (118), OBP (.454), slugging percentage (.664), OPS (1.118).
It was enough to capture his first Silver Slugger and the only MVP Award of his iconic career.
Brett's .390 batting average that year was only outmatched by Tony Gwynn's .394 batting average in 1994 as being the highest since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941.
Though his batting average in 1981 fell back down to Earth at .314, Brett was still one of the game's best players and earned his sixth-straight All-Star selection for his efforts.
The red borders and the baby blue Royals uniform give this card huge eye appeal.
1981 Topps #479 Expos Future Stars
Estimated PSA 10 Gem Mint Value: $450
While neither Roberto Ramos nor Bobby Pate spent much time in the Majors, Tim Raines spent twenty-three years playing at the highest level for six different teams when all was said and done.
During his career, Raines appeared in seven All-Star games, won a batting title in 1986, picked up two World Series rings, and led the league in stolen bases four straight seasons from 1981 to 1984.
I already mentioned his eye-popping 71 stolen bases in just 88 games during the 1981 season that would pretty much set the tone for how the league would come to know Tim Raines: a nightmare on the basepaths with blazing speed.
Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017, in his tenth year of eligibility, Raines ranks fifth all-time in stolen bases with 808.
Given the way the game is played today, he'll likely remain at fifth until stolen bases make a return as a critical element of game strategy if they ever do.
1981 Topps Baseball Cards In Review
Even though there are some Hall of Fame rookies and plenty of stars, this set still seems to fly under the radar in terms of popularity among hobbyists.
Newfound competition from Donruss and Fleer tested collector loyalty at the time but Topps would ultimately remain on top as the years rolled on.
Released in one series, the 726-card set is a fairly simple and straightforward set to collect with a nice design.
But, it just seems to lack the appeal that other Topps sets from the 1980s had and kind of takes a backseat, as a result.
However, if you're looking for a relatively cheaper set with plenty of star power then this one could be up your alley.