Can you imagine the pressure on 1981 Fleer baseball cards?

I mean, here they were, simple cardboard rectangles, but they had the weight of decades on their shoulders.

See, Fleer had been battling Topps since at least the late 1950s (remember that 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set?) for the right to issue cards of current players.

The cardboard giant shot down the upstart time and again, and the skirmishes eventually escalated to a full-on court battle in the 1970s.

That dragged on for several years until Fleer finally prevailed in 1980 — they could print their own cards! (And they got a cool $1 settlement out of the deal).

1981-Fleer-Baseball-Cards-Wax-Box

Against that backdrop, Fleer rushed to work and put together an inaugural set that looked pretty decent on the surface but that was riddled with problems once you looked a little deeper — errors, suspect print quality, etc.

Still, this is a historical set, and it remains a popular target for collectors all these years later, and that means there’s some dollars in them there stacks — at least in some cases.

Here, then, are the most valuable 1981 Fleer baseball cards, as listed in PSA 9 condition by the PSA Sports Market Report Price Guide.

Let’s rip right in …

1981 Fleer Fernando Valenzuela Rookie Card (#140)

1981 Fleer Fernando Valenzuela

Fernandomania swept through not just baseball, but all of America in 1981, as 20-year-old left-hander Fernando Valenzuela emerged as maybe the best pitcher in all of baseball.

As a rookie for the Los Angeles Dodgers — who would win the World Series that fall — Fernando led the National League with 25 games started, 11 complete games, eight shutouts, and 180 innings.

Those numbers were all the more amazing given that the 1981 season was ripped apart by the players’ strike, and Valenzuela’s sterling performance resulted in a 13-7 record with a 2.48 ERA. That showing garnered the youngster both the NL Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.

While he was piling up those gaudy marks, collectors were busy looking for Fernando cardboard, and that’s where Fleer was able to make hay.

Because, while Topps featured Valenzuela on a three-player future stars card with Mike Scioscia and Jack Perconte, and while Donruss whiffed on him completely, Fleer put the Mexican hero on a solo card.

Too bad they spelled his name “Fernand”!

Oh well, this has been a popular card forever, and today, it sells for $15+ in PSA 9 condition.

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1981 Fleer Harold Baines Rookie Card (#346)

1981 Fleer Harold Baines

Fernando was a bona fide superstar in the early 1980s, and he looked to be headed for the Hall of Fame by the time he was 25.

Spotty health as he approached his 30s, though, led to inconsistent results, and Valenzuela fell short of Cooperstown levels when he hung up his spikes in 1997.

And … well, Fleer pulled a Donruss when it came to Tim Raines, neglecting the Montreal speedster entirely.

So for years, it looked the 1981 Fleer set would never sport a Hall of Fame rookie card.

Then came the 2019 Veterans Committee vote, and suddenly designated Harold Baines hitter was in.

No matter what you think of Baines’ candidacy, he’s now a Hall of Famer — and he was a darn good hitter, for sure. I remember clearly a lot of folks thought a plaque was a strong eventual possibility for Baines back when he was toiling with the White Sox in the 1980s.

Today, that’s a reality, and his 1981 Fleer rookie card is about a $20 item in graded MINT condition.

(For what it’s worth, Donruss missed out on Baines in ’81, too.)

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1981 Fleer Rickey Henderson (#351)

1981 Fleer Rickey Henderson Most Stolen Bases

While the newcomers (Fleer and Donruss, that is) were spotty with regards to rookies, they were spot-on with it came to another young superstar.

Fleer, in particular, seemed pretty enamored with Rickey Henderson, who had broken out with a .303 batting average and 100 stolen bases for the Oakland A’s in 1980.

I mean, they gave Rickey not one, but two cards, and you could make the case that they’re both “First Fleer” cards of Mr. Hot Dog.

They’re also both still pretty popular with collectors today, and you can expect to pay about $10 for a PSA 9 copy of either one.

First up, at #351, was this card that commemorates Henderson’s basepath exploits and is titled, “MOST STOLEN BASES AL.”

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1981 Fleer Rickey Henderson (#574)

1981 Fleer Rickey Henderson

And then, checking in at #574, is Henderson’s base card, which looks almost exactly the same as the “stolen bases” cards.

“Hey, Rickey! Turn to the right!”

Still, both are great-looking early-career cards of a stone-cold baseball legend.

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1981 Fleer Pete Rose (#1)

1981 Fleer Pete Rose

And speaking of stone-cold baseball legends, Fleer picked one to lead off their inaugural fully-licensed set.

In 1980, his second season in Philadelphia, Rose had helped the Phillies win their first-ever World Series. And, although he was closing in on 40 years of age, the fire in his belly was as evident as ever.

The ravages of time and scandal have diminished Pete’s luster, of course, but the man who broke Ty Cobb‘s all-time hit record in 1985 still carries plenty of hobby clout.

This is about a $10 item in PSA 9 these days.

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1981 Fleer Nolan Ryan (#57)

1981 Fleer Nolan Ryan

Is there a Nolan Ryan card in a particular baseball card set? Yes?

Then you can bet dollars to strikeouts that that card will be among a handful of the most valuable cards in said set.

The 1981 Fleer Ryan is no exception, even though it’s slightly misleading, what with the grinning Express looking like someone who wouldn’t even think about mowing you down with his monster fastball.

The deception can be yours for around $10 in PSA 9.

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1981 Fleer Kirk Gibson Rookie Card (#481)

1981 Fleer Kirk Gibson

Not only is Kirk Gibson not in the Hall of Fame, the man never even made it to an All-Star Game (look it up!).

None of that negates the fact that he was a superstar at various times in his career, and one of the most hard-nosed players of his generation.

Or that his 1988 World Series “gimp” home run still gives us chills … every … darn … time.

The 1981 Fleer rookie card of the 1988 NL MVP sells for $5-10 in PSA 9 condition.

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1981 Fleer Mike Schmidt (#640)

1981 Fleer Mike Schmidt Home Run King

Schmidt has a couple of solo cards in the 1981 Fleer set, and there are enough variations among photo/caption/card number combinations that it gets a little confusing.

None of them are worth a ton more than the others except maybe to some diehard Schmidt error and variations collectors.

For the purposes of this list, just know that Mike was a third baseman, the 1980 NL Most Valuable Player, and the 1980 home run king

Oh, and Steve Austin had nothing on Schmitty when it came to wearing 1970s/1980s running suits.

Schmidt is a $5-10 buy in PSA 9.

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1981 Fleer Reggie Jackson (#79)

1981 Fleer Reggie Jackson Batting

Reggie, too, scored a couple of singles in the 1981 Fleer set.

And again, while you might spend time tracking down various versions and commons, you can generally bank on a $5-10 price tag for Mr. October.

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1981 Fleer Carl Yastrzemski (#638)

1981 Fleer Carl Yastrzemski 400 Home Run Club

All of the same stuff I said about Schmidt and Reggie applies to Yaz, as well.

The Red Sox legend was getting close to the end of the line by the time 1981 Fleer debuted, but he was still racking up milestones.

In 1979, he surpassed both 3000 hits and 400 home runs, and this 1981 Fleer card commemorates that latter mark.

Whichever Yaz you pick up, expect about a $5 spend for the privilege.

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1981 Fleer George Brett Portrait (#28)

1981 Fleer George Brett Portrait

Another superstar, another cache of 1981 Fleer variations to collect.

Having hit .390 and nabbed the 1980 American League MVP award, Brett was the talk of the baseball world heading in 1981, and the tantalizing possibility of .400 followed him the rest of his career.

These 1981 Fleer cards celebrate Brett’s 1980 achievements, and they sell for $5-10 each in slabbed MINT condition.

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1981 Fleer Johnny Bench (#196)

1981 Fleer Johnny Bench

Bench is somewhat of an anomaly on this list, showing up with only one 1981 Fleer card, and all.

The nerve!

But what Bench lacks in cardboard variations, he more than makes up for in NL MVP awards, Big Red Machine savvy, and greatest-catcher-ever swagger.

JB’s 1981 Fleer card is a $5 (or so) buy in PSA 9 condition.

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