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While Mickey Mantle is on both the New York Yankees and the Baseball Card Mt. Rushmore, his superstar legend still goes above and beyond that. “The Mick” is also on both baseball Mt. Rushmore and #TheHobby Mt. Rushmore. Mantle’s 1952 Topps Rookie Card, #311, is without a doubt the first-ballot hobby hall of fame.
Despite not being his first major card (that would be the 1951 Bowman), so in essence, not his “real” rookie card, it is by far his most iconic issue. A multitude of sports card dealers and auction houses, all across the country, have appropriated it into their company logo and/or social media avatar.
That’s just how emblematic it is, as the only baseball card that could possibly be considered more “holy grail” than this one is the 1909 Honus Wagner T206. Amidst the 70th anniversary of the most well-known sports card of the postwar era (some would say all time), let’s look at how it got to be scarce, via intentional manipulation by the Topps Chewing Gum Company.
Thousands of 52 Mantles Were Sent to Sleep with the Fishes
The stars truly aligned here- the most important modern era set, a first-ballot Hall of Famer subject, and a backstory that reads like a top-notch Hollywood script.
While there are numerous Mantle cards out there capturing the hearts and minds of collectors, this one is extra special, and the scarcity is a big reason why. Even if it was not “organic” scarcity, how it happened is a story all within itself.
In the autumn of 1951, cartoonist-artist-writer Woody Gelman and Sy Berger, then a 28-year-old World War II veteran, and also the man who came to be regarded “the father of modern baseball cards,” designed the 1952 Topps baseball card set. Their drawing board was the kitchen table of Berger’s apartment on Alabama Avenue in the Broadway Junction section of Brooklyn.
The duo had found some initial success in 1951, with the first Topps set, but in order to match or surpass Bowman, the Brooklyn boys knew they had to go big or go home. It would turn out they went a little too big (at least in terms of the print run), but the card design itself is very beautiful. Its boxy theme evokes the Bauhaus ideal of “less is more,” with form truly following function.
The ’52 Topps set was unlike anything the trading card industry had ever seen before, as it was massive in size and scope, for the times. The low numbers, which debuted in spring, sold like hotcakes, but the tide turned when the high numbers premiered in late summer/early fall.
Mantle was the very first card to appear in the higher numbered portion of the set, which had trouble selling due to its having to compete with football for attention.
The American sports fan always shifts their focus to the gridiron during the harvest season, and with that interest in the high series and baseball cards plummeted. Returns started to pour in, and a severe inventory backlog developed in the Topps warehouse.
For years, Berger tried to counteract this problem by hawking these cards at carnivals for a penny apiece, and then it even went to ten cards for a penny. Honestly, he couldn’t give them away. Finally, by around 1959 or 1960, the lack of storage room in the warehouse meant that drastic action had to be taken.
“They were put in boxes,” he said to Tuff Stuff magazine’s Topps 50th anniversary issue in 2001.
“It took three garbage trucks. I would say 300-500 cases. All high series of 1952 Topps. I found a friend who had a garbage scow and we loaded three trucks worth on the barge. I was out there with it a few miles out.”
Yes, it sounds like a scene out of “Goodfellas” or “The Irishman,” but it’s true. Berger led a truck to barge outing from the Brooklyn warehouse to the East River and then out into the Atlantic Ocean. Literal boatloads full of double printed 1952 Topps high numbers (featuring Eddie Mathews and Jackie Robinson in addition to Mantle) met a watery grave.
It’s all such a very New York tough guy kind of story, and it evokes dialogue from a mafia movie (“eh, I’m telling youse, that it fell off a truck, you know, so just fuggedaboutit.”) While these events obviously power some of the mystique of this card, it’s also pretty sad at the same time. All those lost hobby treasures, including thousands of copies of the most iconic sports card ever, met a saltwater demise.
It is estimated that less than 2,400 copies of this card still exist today. In 2004, Topps created a Sy Berger card, modeled of course, in the 1952 design.
Why the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle Rookie Card #311 Has Mythical Status
Eric Norton, a grading expert with Beckett Media, conversed with Gold Card Auction about a week after a very subpar condition version of this card commanded five figures at auction.
“It didn’t even have a grade on it,” said Norton.
“It was just labeled as authentic; looked like it had been run through the wringer, it was beaten up. It had scotch tape on it, scratched, and creased, it was disgusting, and it sold for almost $11,000.
Yes, that’s how valuable this card is.
“There are some cards that defy the logic (of condition factoring into pricing), but there are not many, and that 52 Mantle is one of them,” Norton added.
The back of the card reads “Mickey is heralded as Joe DiMaggio’s successor,” so even at the time, everyone knew he was going to be something really special.
A PR 1 graded version of this card can be had for about $25,000. When you get into the “Good” or PSA/BGC/SGC 2, it would most likely set you back over $30,000. Moving up to a VG, or a PSA 3 range, typically costs around $90,000. Once you move up to EX (excellent), the asking price is in the $100,000s.
Mint condition Mantles will cost you well into the high six figures, and PSA 8s (only 35 of these are known to exist) or 9s (only six in the population) go for millions, plural. There are only three PSA 10s verified to exist and when they surface for public viewing, it’s the main event.
These are such crown jewels that their owners and the cards’ provenance are well known within the hobby, and they don’t leave the bank vault unless it’s via an armored car.
PSA, in their 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 card facts article, provide a paragraph that sounds rather hyperbolic, but when you think about it, is actually very accurate.
“The card is more pop culture art than mere baseball card at this point,” PSA writes.
“There is no doubt that it is the anchor of the most important postwar baseball card set ever made, but the power of its image is greater than the sum of the card’s parts or attributes.”
In January of 2021, Rob Gough, an actor, and entrepreneur purchased a PSA 9 edition of the card at PWCC Marketplace for $5.2 million. It became the most expensive sports card of all time and held the title until August when it was surpassed by an SGC VG 3 graded Honus Wagner T206 which commanded $6.6 million at Robert Edwards Auctions.
This card is so special and unique that even reprints can be expensive. It’s not just the originals that cost a pretty penny, but even the reproduction variants, which mostly came out in the 1990s, are pricey. Some reprints cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
Why The Mick Himself Has Immortal Legendary Status
In order to truly understand why the ’52 Mantle is so special and astronomically valuable, you have to be schooled on why the Commerce Comet himself is so legendary. A lot had to come together for Mantle to reach this rarified air. First off, the New York Yankees are arguably the most prolific club in all of the professional sports. Like Manchester United in soccer, the L.A. Lakers (or one could argue the Boston Celtics) in basketball (Kentucky for the college ranks), and the New England Patriots in football (Notre Dame for the college game), they are the creme de la creme.
So when you’re Yankees’ best of the best, well, you’re in the most truly rarified air of the entire pantheon of pantheons. Go to Yankee Stadium and visit Monument Park (although you’ll have to get there as soon as the gates open in order to get in) and you’ll understand this.
Thirty-seven members of the Yankee organization are honored in Monument Park, with 22 having had their uniform numbers retired. However, there’s also an additional, elevated honor, consisting of a large red granite block, and this has been bestowed on just six legendary Yankees:
Mantle’s plaque is titled “a great teammate,” and that’s exactly how he has been remembered on the field. Off the field, he was a complicated, colorful character, who no doubt had plenty of vices. But at the end of the day, all larger-than-life athletes come with baggage.
His block lists out some of his most distinguished accomplishments: the record for most World Series home runs (18), his 1956 triple crown, 20 All-Star appearances, three MVP awards, and enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Throughout his career, all of which was spent with the Yanks (1951-1968) he was regarded as one of the best all-around players. He was a slick fielder, with speed and agility, but also with the ability to hit with light tower power.
Considered the greatest switch hitter in baseball history, he was a precursor to the modern era baseball superstar. In addition to being the all-time leader in World Series home runs, he’s also topped the all-time Fall Classic list in total bases (123) runs scored (42), and RBI (40). While another Yankee, Reggie Jackson, is known by the moniker of “Mr. October,” the title truly belongs to Mantle.
He is also responsible for the term “tape measure home run.” The Mick hit a 565-foot homer at Washington D.C.’s Griffith Stadium on April 17, 1953, and when the Yankees PR Director got the tape measure out for it, this specific baseball terminology was born. The exact tape measure is on display at the Yankee Stadium Museum today.
Only Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson and Babe Ruth himself are thought to have ever hit one farther.
Mantle also hit one off the ornamental frieze of Yankee Stadium, on May 30, 1956, and again this home run came versus the Washington Senators. Observers said this shot was just 18 inches away from leaving Yankee Stadium entirely.
Talk about a Ruthian blast in the House that Ruth Built! Mantle also gave Roger Maris a run for his money during the immortal 1961 baseball season, but eventually, he just could not stay healthy enough over the course of the 162 game grind and join Maris in passing up Ruth’s record for home runs in a single season (60, 1927).
Nowadays it’s all about exit velocity and launch angle, and that’s where the Yankees’ current bash brothers of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton come in.
Related: Aaron Judge Rookie Cards
Stanton’s 504-foot home run, in 2016 at Denver’s Coors Field, is the longest homer ever recorded since MLB installed Statcast in every stadium in 2015. The new system pinpointed a 115.8-mph exit velocity with a launch angle of 18.3 degrees. This is much more accurate than the estimates of yesteryear, which were less than an exact science.
Stanton consistently ranks number one in the Major Leagues in exit velo, so you never want to miss one of his at-bats. Of course, “all rise for the judge” too, as he hits the ball with almost as much force and power.
But above Judge, Stanton, Maris, Jackson, and yes, even Ruth, Mantle is the guy whose cards are so strongly coveted by collectors, and most likely that will never change. Jackson is the only other Yankee with a baseball card among the top 20 most expensive of all time, and while Ruth has some very valuable cards in his own right, they still only command a fraction of what this specific issue does.
The Mick is especially unique in that his fame occurred in an era when the press was often willing to look the other way or even help cover-up, up his excessive drinking and extramarital affairs. Mantle himself wasn’t exactly all that discreet about either his alcoholism or his repeated adultery though.
However, the reality of the very flawed human being has been submerged enough so that the mythical hero of #7 could live forever. In his day, he was considered the ultimate man’s man, and while that term has evolved and taken on a different meaning over time, The Mick’s rep has held up nicely. It was baseball’s all-time golden era, and he was the golden boy. You know the song: “Willie, Mickey and The Duke (Talking Baseball).”
His hero status, coupled with the time and space in which he achieved his accomplishments, have made him one of the foremost figures in the history of the hobby.
Both he and this Topps card/set came along at just the right time. And it’s astounding when you think about it today- something Berger tried to give away through toy companies in the 1950s, it now fetches hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even millions, of dollars these days.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”