Mickey Mantle passed away well over a quarter-century ago, but his idol status has not waned. At the 41st annual National Sports Collectibles Convention, just last month in Rosemont, IL, you could see and hear what makes Mantle such an immortal, timeless legend.
Panel discussions at The National discussed the hobby Mt. Rushmore, and The Mick was a consensus pick, along with Michael Jordan. Who completes the fab four is debatable, but Tom Brady, Ken Griffey Jr., Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, and Lebron James are leading contenders.
Mantle’s 1952 Topps Rookie Card is a first-ballot hobby hall of fame card. Numerous trading card dealers and auction houses have it as their company logo or social media avatar.
What better testament is there to a card’s prestige and value? When discussing and analyzing the best and most valuable Mickey Mantle cards, you must begin there.
1952 Topps Mickey Mantle Rookie Card #311
We spoke with Eric Norton, of Beckett Media, by phone a week after an inferior condition version of this card could still command five figures at auction.
“It didn’t even have a grade on it,” said Norton. “It was labeled as authentic; it looked like it had been run through the wringer and beaten up. It had the scotch tape, scratched, and creased; it was disgusting and sold for almost $11,000. Some cards defy the logic (of condition factoring into pricing), but there are not many, and 52 Mantle is one of them.
A PSA version of this card can be had for about $55,000. A VG/PSA 3 typically costs around $90,000; a mint edition will cost you well into six figures. A significant reason why this card is so special is its scarcity. Even if it was manufactured scarcity, and how that happened is a great story all within itself.
Mantle appeared in the higher numbered portion of the set, which had trouble selling due to its competing with football and football season. The problem got so bad that a severe backlog developed in the Topps warehouse. By 1960, the action taken, led by Topps designer Sy Berger, was to organize a barge to go into the East River, others say the Atlantic Ocean, and dump crates and crates full of 1952 Topps high numbers into the body of water.
It’s a very New York kind of story “eh, it fell off a truck, you know,” and it only adds to the mystique of the card. It’s pretty sad, too, all those lost hobby treasures, some would say the most iconic sports card ever, finding a watery grave.
1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle RC #253
While the ’52 Topps Mantle is considered his authentic rookie card, this one was issued a year earlier and is, therefore, his earliest known, widely distributed card. Like the ’52 Topps, this card will cost you tens of thousands, for the most part, in just about any condition.
You’re talking six figures easy for a good or better condition card. Another commonality to ’52 Topps, even the special edition reprints and reworkings of this card issued decades later go for hundreds of dollars. Like the ’52 Topps, this one is highly ironic. It’s a work of art, both literally and figuratively.
1953 Topps Mickey Mantle #82
There are tables upon tables at The National that feature entire cases of nothing but Mantle cards. What makes the switch-hitting Spavinaw, Oklahoma native, such a hobby legend among legends? Well, he was arguably the best overall player who happened to come along at the exact right time.
It also helped that he played for the most dynastic franchise in American sports, and his rise coincided with the peak of the Yankees’ longest and most successful dynasty. Mantle was baseball’s best player during its golden era, and he was the top dog when the hobby was starting to emerge. In short, he was in the exact right place at the right time. This card conveys these realities unlike any other.
1955 Bowman Mickey Mantle #202 (the “TV card”)
This unique card celebrates a time when an emerging technology, television, was starting to change the world forever. Part of the Mantle mystique is that he was MVP for a team in the world’s media capital when a new medium was starting to take over and grow the game.
This card, all of which are greatly off-centered due to the inherent design of the issue, accurately conveys that. In researching this article, I spoke with a dealer at The National about Mantle’s cards and their valuation. Once we finished talking, she overtly tried to scam me. She excessively hyped up the “once in a lifetime deal” she was about to offer me: this card for $900 instead of the $1,000 they initially asked. All that hype and build-up for a discount of only 10%?
All I could say to this living, breathing New York stereotype was “fuggedaboutit!” I immediately walked and saw this card priced elsewhere for $550.
1952 Bowman Mickey Mantle #101
Again if you can’t afford the ’51 Bowman XRC, get the next best thing from the very next year. It’ll still set you back a few grand, but if you want to celebrate the Mantle myth, this might be your card. The artist did a fantastic job of showcasing Mantle, the baseball player, when that was all almost everybody knew of the man.
Mickey Mantle, the alcoholic, adulterous philanderer, and soul tortured by a family repeatedly stricken by severe illness, are not reflected here. Nor should it be in baseball cards because, in these pieces of cardboard, we see the hero, not the actual human being.
1956 Topps Mickey Mantle #135
Mantle wrote a memoir, “My Favorite Summer 1956,” about his best year in baseball, the magical season in which he won the American League triple crown. Batting triple crown winners are exceedingly rare. If you went back to the first one in 1878 (Paul Hines), only 14 more players have ever accomplished it, and just one since 1967.
On this card, Mantle’s genuine smile seems to indicate that he knew what he was about to do- lead the major leagues in batting average (.353), home runs (52), and runs batted in (RBI) (130). It’s a very well-designed card, with the player’s close-up profile being the dominant foreground image, with an in-action shot serving as the background image.
1953 Bowman Mickey Mantle #59
As the Field of Dreams game reminded us, nostalgia is the number one factor Major League Baseball utilizes to market itself. James Earl Jones, portraying Terrance Mann, gives a monologue that perfectly summates the nostalgic appeal of the game.
While nostalgia is a reactionary impulse, it permeates every aspect of the national past, with the 1950s and 1960s being the era most harkened back to. Suppose you want to see that in a Mickey Mantle card. This is the one for you. Everything about the image and angle of The Mick says “All-American Golden Boy.”
1965 Topps Mickey Mantle #350
We had to include a twilight of his career Mantle card in this list for two reasons. First, his cards of the mid to late ’60s reflect upon all he accomplished (16 All-Star appearances, 7 World Series titles, 12 World Series appearances, three MVPs) and celebrate it.
Second, cards from the end of his career are much more affordable than the issues from the early and middle years. This one is especially desirable and sought after because it has one of the best designs Topps ever came up with. The “pennant” cards of ’65 still captivate collectors today.
1960 Mickey Mantle Topps #523 All-Star
While the regular ’60 Topps Mantle is a fine card, this one stands out a peg or two higher. At The National, I saw many more of these changing hands than I did the regular Mantle card in that set. This issue had a unique and eye-catching design, but the All-Star subset was even more memorable, with its big blue and orange numbers dominating the background.
The “60 is undoubtedly unmistakable and makes this card unforgettable. The image of Mantle himself and the shadow he casts add a stark contrast to the design and overall upgraded intensity to the visual presentation.
1961 Topps Mickey Mantle #475 American League MVP
We couldn’t make a list without covering the magical year in which Mantle and teammate Roger Maris contended almost all summer to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60. After all, Billy Crystal even made a movie about it.
Eventually, Mantle faded down the stretch, and Maris accomplished 61 homers in ’61. He also took the 1960 AL MVP award over Mantle, so one has to wonder what is going on with this card. It looks back on Mantle’s MVP seasons in 1956 and 1957 because that’s what Topps decided it wanted to do in their 1961 issue.
Mickey Mantle Baseball Card Investment Analysis
When we began writing this article, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card that sold for $5.2 million in January of this year was the co-record holder (matched only by a 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection LeBron James-autographed rookie jersey card sold in April) for the most expensive sports card ever sold.
By the time we completed this piece, the record had been broken by a T206 Honus Wagner, which sold for $6.606 million, which included a 20% buyer’s premium.
Certain cards are just inherently special to a specific individual; we all have them. During my conversation with Eric Norton, I said that 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. is mine.
He gave a unique answer when I asked him his.
“89 Upper Deck Griffey is a perfect example; everyone says that, though,” Norton said.
“I’m going with the 1987 Topps Bo Jackson rookie. It’s a card that is incredibly cheap considering who Bo Jackson is. He’s not going to be a Hall of Famer, but the legend of who Bo Jackson is that either people know and they understand it, or they watch 30 for 30 and say ‘oh my god, Bo Jackson was amazing’ compared to the 89 Ken Griffey, that Bo Jackson can be had for $10, if not cheaper.
That 89 Griffey is $40, $50, $60 all day long, so when it comes to what card I’m picking up, I’m picking up the Bo Jackson all day.”
The Commerce comet is that guy whose cards are the card to many collectors, which will never change.
Mick is incredibly unique in that his fame occurred in an era when the press was sometimes willing to look the other way or even help cover up his excessive drinking and extramarital affairs. Mantle wasn’t exactly discreet about either his alcoholism or his repeated adultery.
He was shameless enough that in 1973, when the Yankees sent several of their players questionnaires, seeking their favorite moments at Yankee Stadium to be shared with fans in a pamphlet honoring the ballpark’s 50th anniversary, Mantle got very snarky.
He responded that his best memory was when a female fan performed oral sex on him under the right-field stands.
Making the response even more smart-ass, he signs his letter “The All-American Boy,” indicating that he was pretty self-aware of who he was as a human being versus the glorified mythology that defined him and just how far apart these two realities were.
When eulogizing Mantle in 1995, legendary sportscaster Bob Costas probably summated the man, his aura when he was alive, and the legacy he left behind as well as anybody possibly could.
“In the last year of his life, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero,” Costas said.
“The first, he often was not. The second, he always will be. And, in the end, people got it.”