Nowadays, traded and update sets are a popular staple of card collecting for most brands. That, however, wasn’t always the case. Until the 1981 Topps Traded set was produced, collectors were forced to wait later to acquire cards of newly-traded players and individual cards of rookies.
Topps actually introduced the idea of traded cards in the 1970s. In both 1974 and 1976, traded versions of cards were printed in late runs of Topps cards. But they also missed players traded later or, in some cases, included shoddily produced airbrushed photographs. Further, neither was a true traded or update set as a standalone product that could be individually bought by collectors.
The 1981 Topps Traded set was boxed on its own and sold as a separate product. The traded cards were desirable because the only way that collectors could get their hands on them was from dealers. Often, those dealers did not want to break up entire sets to sell individual cards so that made finding singles a bit more difficult. It wasn’t until 1990 that Topps first introduced the idea of selling unopened packs of its traded cards.
Interestingly enough, 1981 was a landmark year for Topps aside from the trading cards. For the first time, they saw real competition from both Fleer and Donruss, who were able to fully enter the baseball card industry after winning a lawsuit. Topps’ stranglehold on the market was lost to some degree that year and the Traded set helped create a new niche for the company.
1981 Topps Traded Distinctions
Like previous efforts (and a practice they would continue), the 1981 Topps Traded cards mirrored the regular 1981 Topps set in terms of design. The player’s color image was on the front along with their name, a small Topps baseball icon, and a baseball cap with the player’s name and position on it.
One interesting note is that Topps did not yet introduce the famous ‘T’ after the card number as they did in later Topps Traded sets. Instead of starting the numbering process over again with a No. 1T, the company merely continued with No. 727 since No. 726 was the final number in the regular Topps set. The ‘T’ numbers would begin starting with production of the 1982 set. Another difference is that the card backs were exactly the same as the regular 1981 cards. In later years, Topps would change the coloring/texture of its traded sets.
While the 1981 Topps Traded set helped pave the way for the emerging popularity of traded/update sets, it didn’t go on to much prominence as an individual release.
Topps didn’t use the opportunity to create many new rookie cards in the issue and there’s not much of a ‘Wow’ factor associated with the product. The closest they came to that was the introduction of individual cards some key players, such as Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines. Both Valenzuela and Raines were already in the regular 1981 Topps set, so their 1981 Topps Traded cards weren’t first editions. But they were at least a bit different as they were featured along with others in Topps’ old rookie trio cards in the 1981 Topps set. Valenzuela and Raines were given their own card in the 1981 Topps Traded release.
The best true rookie card in the set was likely that of Danny Ainge, who would go on to star in the NBA, was a Toronto Blue Jays prospect at the time. He was included in Donruss’ and Fleer’s 1981 sets but left out of Topps’ regular issue. The corrected that mistake by adding him into their traded release. The only other key cards in the set were some stars that were on new teams, headlined by Dave Winfield, who went from the San Diego Padres to the New York Yankees. Other key veterans in the set include Rollie Fingers, Carlton Fisk, Joe Morgan, Gaylord Perry, and Don Sutton.
1981 Topps Traded Prices
Despite being a landmark set, the 1981 Topps Traded set is beyond affordable, with complete sets often available on eBay for under $20.