For fans who have followed the franchise since it rose to prominence in the early-1980s, it can be a bit hard to believe that more than three full decades have passed since the face of the franchise arrived in the Bay Area via the University of Notre Dame. While many season ticket holders can still remember the calm pocket presence, smooth delivery and pinpoint accuracy, many card collectors think of the highly coveted 1981 Topps Joe Montana rookie card when they hear his name.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
Back in the early-1980s, The Topps Company would photograph a player during their first season and then release their official rookie football trading card in what was actually their second season in the league. After a season where he threw only 23 passes and was hidden in the large shadows cast by the popular and capable Steve DeBerg, Topps actually waited until the beginning of Montana’s third season to put Montana on a card, as number 216 out of a set of 528.
Topps was convinced that Montana deserved pictorial representation after a solid second year where he achieved an impressive 64.5 completion percentage and racked up almost 1,800 passing yards and 15 passing touchdowns after taking over the starting role in mid-season.
The 1981 season was his coming out party. The year, as most NFL fans know, was capped off by a miraculous run through the playoffs, which was highlighted by a Montana to Dwight Clark pass that would come to be known as “The Catch” and a Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, in which his name was added to the list of Super Bowl MVPs for the first time.
As any football fan knows, that season began a dominant decade-long run for the Niners that catapulted Montana up the ranks of the all-time greats and catapulted the value of his 1981 Topps rookie card to the most expensive card of the decade. Collectors who were wise enough to take care of their Montana rookies have been rewarded over the years, as high-grade examples of the card have sold for staggering amounts in some instances. In early 2015, a PSA 10 Montana sold for over $14,000. That’s an aberration, of course, because only a small number of the more than 12,000 submitted for grading have been awarded a 10. PSA 9 rated examples bring $400-700 with prices dropping further according to condition.
The Montana rookie card itself is simple in design and hearkens back to an era where face masks only involved a few welds and wrist bands were meant to soak up sweat instead of relay information. The picture captures a young Montana in the midst of his smooth delivery with his right arm cocked back and his right elbow covering the visibility of the bottom half of the ball. The picture was taken during warm-ups of a regular season game and certainly isn’t the most thrilling action photo that Topps has ever printed, but the sight of the legend in his youthful form is hard to resist.
It’s not old enough to be truly rare but the value of Joe Montana’s 1981 Topps rookie card has steadily risen over the past 30 years as a result of a few factors. Perhaps the most important is the fact that Montana became a legitimate football legend over the course of his 16-year career and did so on a team that had suffered through years of futility before his arrival.
Montana is woven into the fabric of football for having been the front man of Bill Walsh’s west coast offense, and he has also proven to be a quiet role model, staying away from temptation and trouble while being the patriarch of a successful family. As a result of all this, his rookie card is certainly on the Mt. Rushmore of great football cards made over the past 35 years. The first one issued of Montana’s favorite target, Jerry Rice, and the 1984 Topps Dan Marino and John Elway are among the other top 1980s football rookie cards.
Prone to centering issues, minor print defects and a general lack of care in an era when football cards were considered an afterthought, the supply of ultra high-grade Montana rookies isn’t huge. It’s the key card in an otherwise fairly pedestrian modern era set and a must have for those putting together sets of Hall of Fame quarterbacks or just an accumulation of the hobby’s most iconic cards.
The 1981 Topps Joe Montana rookie card isn’t hard to find. You can see what’s available on eBay here and as always, a good approach is to buy the best one you can afford.