When 1981 Topps baseball cards hit store shelves that spring, they were playing in a brave and scary new world.

To wit, for the first time since 1955, Topps was not the only game in town — both Fleer and Donruss issued baseball cards in 1981 after Fleer’s landmark antitrust victory over Topps in 1980.

While none of the three sets was spectacular, Topps cards were arguably the most solid and consistent of the bunch. And, even after all these years and even though there are still plenty to go around, they continue to draw interest on the secondary market.

So, which of the 1981 Topps baseball cards are most valuable?

To find out, I consulted PSA’s Sports Market Report (SMR) price guide, which compiles card value based on auction results of PSA-graded cards.

(In the listings below, when you see three prices listed for a card, they correspond to sales of PSA 8, 9, and 10 copies, respectively. Rankings were chosen based on the “9” price, and I took the liberty of throwing out some flukishly high commons prices.)

Here are the top 11 …

1981 Topps Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Scioscia Rookie Card (#302)

1981 Topps Fernando Valenzuela Rookie Card (1981 Topps baseball cards most valuable)

When Fernandomania swept the nation in 1981, the hobby fell right in line.

Hot on the heels of Joe Charboneau‘s slugging rookie season and not far removed from the excitement of  The Bird — Mark Fidrych — in 1976, we were ready for our next phenom. And, boy did Fernando Valenzuela deliver!

In that strike-torn season, Fernando went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and tossed eight shutouts among his 11 complete games while helping the Los Angeles Dodgers win the World Series. All of that was good enough to snag both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in the NL for Valenzuela, and he finished fifth in MVP voting.

Fernando shared his Topps rookie card that year with second baseman Jack Perconte and catcher Mike Scioscia, the latter of whom you might recognize.

Valenzuela never quite lived up to his hype after that amazing rookie season but still turned in a long, productive career. Couple that with Scioscia’s own solid numbers as a player and his success as a manager, and it’s little wonder SMR has this combo rookie at $6 in PSA 8 and $70 in PSA 9.

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1981 Topps Kirk Gibson Rookie Card (#315)

1981 Topps Kirk Gibson

Unlike Valenzuela, it took Kirk Gibson awhile to get rolling in the Big Leagues after the Detroit Tigers made him their first-round pick in the 1978 draft out of Michigan State.

By the time his rookie cards hit store shelves in 1981, though, Gibsion was ready to show his goods and batted .328 with nine home runs, 40 RBI, and 17 steals in the short season. He was a key part of Detroit’s historic World Series run in 1984 and then had his signature moment in Game 1 of the 1988 Fall Classic with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In case you don’t remember, that was the night Gibson basically crawled out of the dugout to hit a game-winning home run into the Los Angeles darkness. Anyone who didn’t see Roy Hobbs rounding the bases that evening just wasn’t paying attention.

Gibson’s path to the Hall of Fame was littered with busted bodyparts, and he never quite made it as far as some thought he might have.

Still, his 1981 Topps rookie card — on which he appears alone — checks in at $8 (PSA 8), $50 (PSA 9), and $1100 (PSA 10) according to SMR.

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1981 Topps Nolan Ryan (#240)

1981 Topps Nolan Ryan

From just about the time he signed with the Texas Rangers in 1988, Nolan Ryan has sat at or near the top of every baseball card set he ever appeared in.

That’s the point at which fans and collectors started to realize that The Ryan Express just may roll on forever, and that meant he had a shot at all sorts of records and milestones.

The hell of it is … he reached most of them — seven no-hitters, 5000+ strikeouts, 300+ wins, an epic punch to Robin Ventura‘s face.

Yep, Ryan stamped his legend for good in the early 1990s, and cards like this 1981 Topps Astros issue were pulled along for the ride.

SMR lists Ryan at $6 in PSA 8, $40 in PSA 9, and $900 in PSA 10.

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1981 Topps Johnny Bench (#600)

1981 Topps Johnny Bench

Even all these years later, Johnny Bench is still widely considered the greatest catcher of all time, even though most of his records have fallen to others over the last three decades.

No matter what, though, Bench is the guy who revolutionized offensive production from the catcher position and helped drive The Big Red Machine to all that 1970s glory.

Fans and collectors haven’t forgotten Bench’s accomplishments, either, as evidenced by the value of his baseball cards and regular appearances on lists like this.

As for current value, SMR has the 1981 Topps Johnny Bench card at $7, $40, and $900 for PSA 8-10 copies, respectively.

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1981 Topps Tim Raines Rookie Card (#479)


If it weren’t for Rickey Henderson (see below), we might be talking about Tim Raines as the greatest all-around leadoff man in Major League Baseball history.

As it stands, Raines was a dynamite package of power and speed who terrorized pitchers for two decades, even though he played in the shadow of teammates Andre Dawson and Gary Carter with the Montreal Expos for much of his prime.

And, of course, in Henderson’s shadow like, forever.

Still, his 1981 Topps rookie card has been a collector favorite for nearly four decades now, and SMR has it at $10/$30/$300.

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1981 Topps Reggie Jackson (#400)

1981 topps reggie jackson

Few players were as loved and hated at the same time as Reggie Jackson was during the 1970s and early 1980s.

But, hey, that’s what happens when you talk a lot of smack and then go out on the field and back it all up with your bat.

Even though he was already a superstar when he hooked on with the New York Yankees in 1977, it was his time in the Bronx that turned Reggie into a bona fide legend, a Candy Bar, and Mr. October.

By the time this card was issued, Reggie was starting to show his age just a bit, but superb conditioning and that ego kept him swinging away and producing at near-peak levels.

And, sometimes, baseball cards get a boost by just looking so darn good — like this one.

As for prices, SMR pegs this card at $5, $30, and $600 for PSA 8-10 copies, respectively.

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1981 Topps Pete Rose (#180)


Yep, Pete Rose bet on baseball, and maybe even in more nefarious ways than we already know about, than he’s already admitted.

We may never know the full truth, and it’s looking like Pete’s lifetime ban will never be lifted. If that holds, he won’t gain Hall of Fame election while he’s still alive.

But for baseball card collectors, Pete Rose achieved Cooperstown status long before the hobby boom of the 1980s, and he never really lost it.

Thanks to Rose’s run at Ty Cobb‘s all-time hits record in 1985, right as the cardboard frenzy was skyrocketing, Charlie Hustle became the second living player ignite a constant and escalating demand for his cards.

Mickey Mantle was the first.

When Rose tumbled in 1989, his cards slid back a bit, and then the explosion of the 1990s and 2000s sorta soured everyone on most everything. But, while Mantle more or less held his own, Rose cards took to the comeback trail.

Today, despite his Hall of Fame deficiency, Rose cards are back near the top of every set they’re in.

This 1981 Topps card is something of an early Junk Wax Era classic, showing Rose as he looked in helping lead the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1980 World Series title.

For all that, this card trucks along at $5/$20/$900 according to SMR.

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1981 Topss Rickey Henderson (#261)


After a mid-season call-up in 1979, Rickey Henderson turned in his first full season in the Major Leagues in 1980.

Oh, and coincidentally, he also turned in his first 100-stolen base season and served notice that the recently retired Lou Brock might have reason to sweat. The former St. Louis Cardinals superstar had set just about every stolen base record you could imagine, but Rickey had the tools and drive to demolish them all.

And so he did …

In 1982, Henderson set the single-season mark with 130 steals, then added 108 in 1983 to become the first three-time 100-steal guy.

Brock’s all-time stolen base record fell early in 1991, and then Rickey kept piling on for another 12 years.

By the time he retired in 2003, Henderson had established himself as one of the all-time greats — not just on the basepaths but at the dish, as well.

Final numbers included 3055 hits, 297 home runs, 1115 RBI, 2295 runs, 2190 walks, and 1406 stolen bases. The runs and SBs are all-time records and helped build Henderson’s reputation as the greatest leadoff hitter ever.

No wonder his second-year Topps card checks in at $6/$20/$350.

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1981 Topps Tony Pena (#551)

1981 topps tony pena

We’re starting to get down into the range of cards and values where it’s tough to differentiate one rookie or one superstar from another.

Is a Tony Pena rookie card really worth more than a Harold Baines rookie card, for example?

SMR thinks so, at least at this moment in time.

Now, don’t get me wrong … Pena was an all-star-caliber catcher through most of the 1980s and finished with a career that looks roughly like those of Bob Boone and Brad Ausmus (according to Baseball Reference).

Pena also raised his national profile with a rough three-year run as Kansas City Royals manger from 2002-2005, and it probably also helps that he shares this 1981 Topps card with Vance Law and Pascual Perez.

SMR has the trio, headed by Pena, at $6, $20, and $200 for PSA 8-10 copies.

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1981 Topps Steve Carlton (#630)

1981 Topps Steve Carlton

Same story here …

Is a 1981 Topps Steve Carlton card really worth more than a 1981 Topps Mike Schmidt card?

I’d take Schmitty every time, but SMR’s current analysis gives the nod to Lefty.

And, as was the case with Pena, you can’t say Carlton is a bad choice for this list.

After all, when this card was issued, he had just snagged the third of his four Cy Young awards and was probably already a cinch for the Hall of Fame.

On the negative side, this card is sort of the anti-Reggie of the 1981 Topps set — what an awful pic of a great pitcher!

Nevertheless, SMR has Lefty at $5/$20/$425.

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1981 Topps Harold Baines Rookie Card (#347)

1981 Topps Harold Baines

To round out this list of the most valuable 1981 Topps baseball cards, we have a classy guy who was among the first players to play more games at designated hitter than in the field.

Over 22 years, Baines collected 2866 hits and 384 home runs for five different franchises, all in the American League. You have to wonder if 3000 hits or 400 homers or maybe another few hundred games in the field would have gained him a Hall of Fame plaque.

As it stands, Baines was a six-time all-star who fell off the Cooperstown ballot after five tries.

Even so, Baines was a pretty awesome hitter who somehow avoided the multi-player purgatory of 1981 Topps rookie cards.

His Harold-only issue goes for $4, $10, and $300 for PSA 8-10 conditions according to SMR.

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(Check out our other posts about card values here.)


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