In 1980, Fleer won an antitrust lawsuit against Topps, forcing the Brooklyn card manufacturer to pay the princely sum of $1 — tough to withstand, for sure — but also opening the door for Fleer to produce baseball cards of active players in 1981.

And not just Fleer — other companies could also apply for MLB and MLBPA licenses, then join the fray.

That’s exactly what Donruss did, pumping out a 605-card set that is among the flimsiest, most error-ridden issues ever produced, but it was a welcome addition for hobbyists hungry for more cardboard.

Four decades later, the set is still a mess, but graded copies of its most important cards can bring decent prices.

Here, then, are the ten most valuable 1981 Donruss baseball cards, as ranked by the PSA Sports Market Report Price Guide.

(Check out our full series of posts on the history of Donruss baseball cards.)

1981 Donruss Rickey Henderson (#119)

1981 Donruss Rickey  Henderson

Donruss didn’t make a Henderson rookie card at all in 1980 — guess they just didn’t do their homework on that one.

Oh, right. Right

There was no Donruss set in 1980, since they didn’t start making baseball cards until 1981. Given that, then, this Rickey qualifies as a sort of rookie card once removed. It’s a First Donruss Card, for sure.

And, really, is it any surprise that the FDS of the greatest leadoff hitter and sparkplug of all time sits at the top of this value list?

Nah. Expect to pay deep into the double digits to land the Rickey Henderson FDC.

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1981 Donruss Nolan Ryan (#260)

1981 Donruss Nolan  Ryan

You know the drill with the Ryan Express …

If there is a baseball card set, and that baseball card set includes a Nolan Ryan card, then that Nolan Ryan card will be among the most valuable cards in the set.

Like, always.

That’s the case here, where Ryan falls in right behind Rickey and right in line with the first big true rookie card Donruss ever pushed out …

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1981 Donruss Tim Raines Rookie (#538)

1981 Donruss Tim  Raines Rookie

Yep, that rookie card belongs to none other than Tim Raines, the guy who always gets second billing to Henderson when it comes to all the things they both did so well — run, get on base, run, pop some occasional power, steal bases, take walks, run.

This card is better than Raines’ Topps card because it shows him alone and not leading off for Roberto Ramos and Bobby Pate. Though, it’s worse than the Topps card, too, because this one is a Donruss card and that other one is a Topps card.

The 1981 Donruss Tim Raines RC is definitely better than the 1981 Fleer Tim Raines RC, though, since that other one doesn’t exist.

Bottom line — if you wanted a solo Raines rookie card during the summer of 1981 when the players were on strike, you had to go for Donruss.

That’s why it’s about as valuable as the Nolan Ryan card.

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1981 Donruss Tom Seaver (#425)

1981 Donruss Tom  Seaver

Tom Seaver was one of the greatest righthanded pitchers to ever stand astride a big league mound, and he’s in just about everybody’s top 10 when it comes to naming the best pitchers of any kind.

This card shows a great action shot of Tom Terrific delivering a pitch in a Cincinnati Reds road uniform. And, while he did most of his big stuff with the New York Mets, he did plenty of great things with the Reds, too.

Enough great things overall, in fact, to land him in fourth place here, solidly in double-digit territory for PSA 9 copies of his 1981 Donruss card.

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1981 Donruss Mike Schmidt (#11)

1981 Donruss Mike  Schmidt

Mike Schmidt was on top of the world as 1981 dawned, having copped his first National League MVP award in 1980 and having helped his Philadelphia Phillies to their first World Series championship since Ben Franklin was roaming center field and Lib Bell was their manager (Lib, it has been said, always asked for advice from his coaches but would chime in when it was time to make a final decision.)

To celebrate, Donruss stuck Schmitty in a Steve Austin running suit, tossed him in Dick Perez’s basement, and snapped a quick glamour shot.

Solid choices all around, leading to a $10+ price tag today.

(And, OK, OK, Donruss did make another Schmidt card in 1981, the MVP special at #591 — just about as valuable but not quite as much fun to make fun of.)

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1981 Donruss Willie Stargell (#132)

1981 Donruss Willie  Stargell

Pops was a year and change removed from his heroics with the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates when Donruss issued their first card(s) of the future Hall of Famer.

Their very first card of Willie, at #12, is a nice looking fielding shot at Wrigley Field.

This one, though, gives us the back story, capturing Stargell grabbing a few minutes in the sauna after a day … uh … on the road? … um … driving the Donruss truck, maybe?

Whatever’s happening here, Pops will set you back $10 or more in PSA 9.

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1981 Donruss Reggie Jackson (#468)

1981 Donruss Reggie  Jackson

Reggie was still the straw that stirred the drink in New York as 1981 dawned, even though he was three-plus seasons removed from his three-homers-in-a-game 1977 World Series heroics.

As if mimicking life, Donruss loaded up their inaugural set with three Jackson cards. They’re all good, solid representations of the game’s then-reigning Hot Dog Supreme, but this one does show more of the Yankees pinstripes than any of the others.

It’s a double-digit buy in PSA 9.

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1981 Donruss George Brett (#100)

1981 Donruss George  Brett

Like Schmidt, Brett was a superstar third baseman who had risen about as high as a baseball player could in 1980 — .390 batting average that came with a serious run at .400, an American League MVP award, and a Kansas City Royals team that finished runner-up to Schmidt’s Phils in the World Series.

Like Schmidt, Brett scored a base and “MVP” card in the 1981 Donruss set, though they featured the same image in each case. Brett did make another appearance, though, alongside Rod Carew on card #537, “Best Hitters.”

Unlike Mike, George didn’t get to sit down in any of his Donruss cards, likely a consequence of his inability to do so at the time.

This Brett card will set you back $10+, which is enough to nick your budget for necessary items like, say, a tube of Preparation H.

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1981 Donruss Johnny Bench (#182)

1981 Donruss Johnny  Bench

The Big Red Machine was just a memory by the time Donruss entered the playing field in 1981, but Cincinnati had made it to the NLCS in 1979, and they would post the best record in all of baseball that first summer that featured three baseball card manufacturers.

Of course, Cincy wouldn’t even make the playoffs in ’81, thanks to the inane “split-season” format MLB adopted to cope with the players’ strike.

What the Reds did have, though, was the greatest all-around catcher of all time, rounding out his playing days. Bench lasted just two more years after that rough-and-tumble summer, but you have to consider this his First Donruss Card … right?

Right … except he also appears on card #62.

Either way, collectors like both of them enough to make them double-digit buys in PSA 9 condition.

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1981 Donruss Pete Rose (#251)

1981 Donruss Pete  Rose

Rose was sort of an amalgamation of Bench and Rose, a remnant of the Big Red Machine but riding high as a member of the reigning world champion Phillies.

And, of course, Pete was turning the corner on his assault of Ty Cobb‘s all-time hit record, so it’s not surprising that Donruss loaded up with three cards of Charlie Hustle.

Any one of them is liable to set you back $10 or more in graded MINT condition.

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