You won’t have to look too hard if you want to find a set that gets more attention than the 1981 Topps Traded issue.
After all, the 1980s were chock full of landmark and standout issues like 1981 Fleer, 1983 Topps, 1984 Donruss, 1987 Topps, 1988 Score, 1989 Upper Deck.
Everyone of those sets either a) changed the complexion of the hobby forever, b) became a beloved classic thanks to design and player selection, or c) both.
By contrast, the 1981 Topps Traded set … well … there were plenty of collectors who didn’t want anything to do with the issue. Thought it wasn’t a legitimate issue at all. Thought it was the shark that Topps jumped.
But I’m here to tell you that the hobby wouldn’t even exist as we know it today without the funny little box set that popped up late in 1981, after the split-season mess of a strike-torn campaign finally managed to crown the Los Angeles Dodgers as World Series champions.
Don’t believe me?
Consider that 1981 Topps Traded …
Completed the Thought
After experimenting with “traded” cards in their 1972, 1974, and 1976 sets, and after adding “traded to” taglines to various cards over the years, Topps pulled it all together as 1981 came to a close.
Here we had 132 cards featuring players who had been traded during the season, or too late in the 1980-81 to appear for the “right” team in the base set … or rookies who made an impact during the 1981 season.
(Topps would further refine that thought in 1982 when they gave their Traded set its own numbering scheme rather than just continue on from the end of the base set, as they did in 1981.)
Gave Us the First Solo Fernando Card
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Speaking of rookies, the whole world was awash in Fernandomania by the end of 1981, but he didn’t have a true, single rookie card until the 1981 Topps Traded set hit the hobby.
It’s true — he shared his base Topps card with two other gents and had no 1981 Donruss card at all.
“But, but FLEER,” I can hear you say.
Take another look at that one, though, and you’ll see it’s actually a “Fernand” Valenzuela RC.
So, if you wanted (want) a full and complete Fernando Valenzuela rookie card, 1981 Topps Traded was your game.
Made Topps the Winner
Even without a Fernando card, the 1981 Topps Traded set would have been a winner for Topps … and made the Old Gum Company the winner of the 1981 card wars.
After battling with upstart Fleer and Donruss for hobby press and supremacy all summer long, Topps plopped down their Traded set just as collectors were settling in for a long winter with no baseball cards.
So, at a time when we were pulling Joe Montana rookie cards from football wax packs — BOOM! — Topps baseball was back in our faces.
No other company could say that.
Set a Precedent
Well, at least they couldn’t for another few years.
By 1984, Fleer had entered the late-year game with their Update set, and Donruss followed suit in 1985 with Highlights.
And, of course, rookie card mania washed over the hobby in the 1980s, and that tide never subsided. Soon enough, card companies were pushing to get RCs out to collectors earlier and earlier — Rated Rookies, Prospects cards, The Rookies, and, eventually, Bowman became bastions of first, firster, firstests cards.
All could point back to 1981 Topps Traded as their cardboard forefather when it came to swelling the boundaries of rookie card timing.
With the proliferation of year-end sets and “hobby only” issues that were sold only through dealers and not through retail outlets, many old-time gatekeepers began ringing their hands over the logistics involved and the implication for collectors.
Semantics became a thing in this hobby, and so did detailed glossaries around various rookie card definitions.
Generally speaking, the hobby landed on calling something a “rookie card” if it were widely distributed through retail outlets (think wax packs), and a “first X card” — where X is the company involved — if the card were distributed only to hobby outlets.
So that 1986 Topps Traded Kurt Stillwell you love so much is a First Topps Card (FTC), not a rookie card.
Yeah, I know — “potato, lasagna.”
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See everything 1981 Topps Traded did for the hobby? Or to the hobby?
And here you thought 1988 Donruss defined the modern hobby!
Well, about that …
Nah, we can talk about that some other time.
For now, you should know you can usually buy complete 1981 Topps Traded sets for around $50 if the factory tape holding the box closed is still intact.
If not, prices range from $10-40 or so, depending on condition.
And singles range from a buck or so for raw commons or even some stars all the way up about $1000 PSA 10 copies of Tim Raines’ first solo Topps card and double that for Fernando.
Those are sorta hefty top-end prices, but everything else is affordable, which is a pretty amazing thing to be able to say about a 40-year-old hobby game-changer.
Don’t you think?
(Check out our rundown of the most valuable 1981 Topps baseball cards.)