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 Auction Prices Realized tool, which compiles auction results for PSA-graded cards.

Here, then, are the top 15 “little hat” cards, based on sales of PSA 9 copies (the most common grade PSA has handed out for this set).

(Note: The following sections contains affiliate links to listings for the cards being discussed.)

15) 1981 Topps Tom Seaver (#220)

1981 Topps Tom Seaver

If it weren’t for a certain young phenom wearing Dodger blue, Seaver almost certainly would have won the 1981 National League Cy Young Award.

As things turned out, Seaver had to settle for leading the majors — for the last time — in wins, with 14, while sporting a stingy 2.54 ERA.

And, though the Reds put up the best record in the majors, Cincy missed out on the playoffs thanks to the funky split-season format, leaving this classic card as perhaps our best reminder of a glorious — if truncated — summer.

Value: $35-40

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14) 1981 Topps Willie Stargell (#380)

1981 Topps Willie Stargell

By the time 1981 rolled around, Stargell had just three home runs left in his powerful bat, but his status as Pirates legend had long been established.

And the (yes!) powerful image on his 1981 Topps card is enough to remind us — if we’ve somehow let it fade — of just how great he was.

It’s also enough to fit right in with the Hall of Famer’s other classic baseball cards.

Value: $40-45

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13) 1981 Topps Steve Carlton (#630)

1981 Topps Steve Carlton

Carlton copped his third NL Cy Young award in 1980 at the “advanced” age of 35 … and he’d add a fourth two years later.

And even a year after THAT, Carlton won a strikeout title as the Phillies returned to the World Series in 1983.

Though he’s been out of the limelight for a long time now, Lefty remains one of the greatest to ever trod the mound, and his cards sort of simmer along in the upper reaches of each set without making a lot of noise.

This 1981 Topps card even features a smile – sort of a rarity with Carlton.

Value: $35-50

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12) 1981 Topps Mike Schmidt (#206)

1981 Topps Mike Schmidt

Was Mike Schmidt the greatest third baseman of all time?

All signs point to yes, and this card points to Schmitty right in the midst of his absolute prime.

He had just won the 1980 NL MVP award, after all, and led the Phillies to a championship, and he’d win another MVP in 1981.

And yet another in 1986.

Schmidt’s cards don’t set off alarm bells very often, but like the man himself, they maintain a huge and dedicated fan base today.

Value: $40-50

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11) 1981 Topps Dale Murphy (#504)

1981 Topps Dale Murphy

This card may have raised a few eyebrows outside of Atlanta in 1981, but the arch was probably fairly low.

After all, though Murphy was emerging as a real power threat, crashing 23, 21, and 33 home runs from 1978 through 1980, the Braves were bad … improving to merely mediocre as a new decade dawned.

And besides, it was third baseman Bob Horner who was going to be the REAL star in Atlanta.

Then, of course, Murphy won MVP awards in both 1982 and 1983 as he emerged as one of the top handful of players in the game.

Though Murphy’s Coopertown star dimmed during a rapid decline phase, his cards still scorch today, and there is plenty of groundswell for him to eventually make the HOF cut.

This 1981 Topps issue is a microcosm of all that, capturing the young Murph just on the precipice of his breakout.

Value: $45-55

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10) 1981 Topps Pete Rose (#180)

1981 Topps Pete Rose

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 and just about every other Rose are pretty much as popular as ever.

Value: $45-60

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9) 1981 Topps George Brett (#700)

1981 Topps George Brett

Coming off an amazing 1980 season that saw him hit .390 and lead the Kansas City Royals to the World Series en route to an American League MVP award, George Brett was one of the hottest names in the game entering the 1981 season.

And, though, the Pine Tar man cooled off considerably during that strike-torn summer, he still made another All-Star appearance and helped K.C. to yet another playoff appearance.

And, of course, Brett went on to fulfill his Hall of Fame promise while also finally landing a World Series trophy with the Royals (in 1985).

These days, all of Brett’s baseball cards are hobby royalty, and the 1981 Topps is no exception.

Value: $50-65

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8) 1981 Topps Tim Raines Rookie Card (#479)

1981 Topps Tim Raines Rookie Card

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.

Value: $65-75

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7) 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.

Value: $75-95

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6) 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.

Value: $75-115

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5) 1981 Topps Harold Baines Rookie Card (#347)

1981 Topps Harold Baines Rookie Card

By all accounts, Baines is a classy guy who was among the first players to play more games at designated hitter than in the field.

Over 22 years, he collected 2866 hits and 384 home runs for five different franchises, all in the American League. His Hall of Fame election has come under a ton of scrutiney, but , with close to 3000 hits and 400 homers, there’s no doubt Baines was a star during his career.

In the end, Baines was a six-time all-star who fell off the Cooperstown ballot after five tries … but then made the Veterans Committee cut in 2019.

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

Thanks to that Cooperstown plaque, his Harold-only issue is a bit more desirable than it was a few years ago.

Value: $90-105

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4) 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.

Value: $100-125

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3) 1981 Topps Rickey Henderson (#261)

1981 Topps Rickey Henderson

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 is STILL a collector favorite.

Value: $120-130

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2) 1981 Topps Kirk Gibson Rookie Card (#315)

1981 Topps Kirk Gibson Rookie Card

Unlike Fernando 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 — maintains a strong hobby presence these days.

Value: $125-175

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1) 1981 Topps Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Scioscia Rookie Card (#302)

1981 Topps Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Scioscia Rookie Card

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 this card is still a hobby star.

Value: $150-200

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1981 Topps Traded

Topps had been dabbling with various forms of “traded” cards for about a decade (or more!) by the time Fleer and Donruss entered the market.

But it was in the fall of 1981, on the heels of a full season of head-to-head competition that Topps finally took the plunge and issued a full-out, standalone boxed set featuring rookies and players who had been traded during the season (or too late in the 1980-81 offseason to be reflected in the base set).

Though it was slow to catch on, 1981 Topps Traded has become a hobby standard over the years.

Here are the most valuable of the lot, starting at the bottom of the top 7 and moving up from there.

7) 1981 Topps Traded Dave Winfield (#855)

1981 Topps Traded Dave Winfield

Dave Winfield had a lot to live up to entering the 1981 season, thanks to the 10-year $23-million contract he signed with the Yankees late in 1980.

The future Hall of Famer eventually gave George Steinbrenner plenty of production and memories (and some turmoil) for all those dollars, and he also gave collectors a thrill by bringing yet another big bat to Yankee cardboard.

Starting, of course, with this 1981 Topps Traded dandy.

Value: $15-20

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6) 1981 Topps Traded Rollie Fingers (#761)

1981 Topps Traded Rollie Fingers

This may be the most iconic 1981 baseball card of all, thanks to 1) Fingers signature mustache, 2) the old-school kneeling pose, 3) the Cy Young-MVP twofer Rollie pulled off in 1981, and the 1982 Topps Kmart set that immortalized the entire card in miniature.

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that Fingers took his show all the way to Cooperstown.

Value: $15-20

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5) 1981 Topps Traded Carlton Fisk (#762)

1981 Topps Traded Carlton Fisk

You can thank Haywood Sullivan for this cards, seeing as how the Boston general manager “accidentally” mailed out a 1981 contract to Carlton Fisk two days after the deadline.

Oops.

That eventually rendered Pudge a free agent, and he ended up with brand new Sox … and a nod to the same from Topps.

Value: $15-25

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4) 1981 Topps Traded Bert Blyleven (#738)

1981 Topps Traded Bert Blyleven

Blyleven may look like he’s 50 years old on this card, but he’s really right around 30.

Probably the stress of moving from the always-stout Pirates to the mistake-by-the-lake Indians that have him all crinkly looking … or maybe it’s all the home runs he gave up.

Whatever the case, Cleveland turned out to be a pretty decent stop for Blyleven’s career, as he put several more Hall-of-Fame building blocks into place while toiling for some pretty bad teams.

And this card was there at the very beginning. Booyah!

Value: $15-30

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3) 1981 Topps Traded Danny Ainge Rookie Card (#727)

1981 Topps Traded Danny Ainge Rookie Card

Before Ainge helped the Boston Celtics gun for NBA titles on a perennial basis in the 1980s, he was a 15th-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977.

Toiling for an expansion franchise has its benefits, and Ainge managed to climb the minor league ladder despite mediocre numbers. His three-year run in the majors ended the same year – 1981 – his rookie cards debuted, as he wisely decided to return to the hardwood.

Still, Ainge’s hoops success and his continued high profile as a Celtics executive have kept his RC afloat all these years.

Value: $30-40

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2) 1981 Topps Traded Tim Raines Rookie Card (#816)

1981 Topps Traded Tim Raines Rookie Card

Raines may not have engendered a “Timania” to match Fernando’s own hype wave, but the Montreal speedster had the last laugh – a Cooperstown plaque.

And, like Valenzuela, Raines made the jump from three-man anonymity in the base set to single-player rookie card stardom in 1981 Topps Traded.

Value: $80-110

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1) 1981 Topps Traded Fernando Valenzuela Rookie Card (#850)

1981 Topps Traded Fernando Valenzuela Rookie Card

You could make a pretty strong case that this card is the entire reason the 1981 Topps Traded set and standalone traded/update sets in general exist at all.

After all, with a full-blown mania underway and real competition for the first time in a quarter century, Topps saw an opportunity to make some hay, and they struck … hard.

This first standalone Topps Fernando card is as iconic as any pasteboard issued by any company that year, and it remains a strong seller.

Value: $150-200

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