Today’s guest columnist is Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions for Heritage Auctions.
When the Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for a record-shattering $12.6 million on Aug. 27 at Heritage Auctions, the question most often asked was: Why would anyone pay that much for a baseball card?
That reaction is predictable when any item goes for such a significant sum. There’s no simple explanation, of course. But there are several factors that make this particular Mantle card so valuable.
It measures but 2-5/8” x 3-3/4”. Yet it’s art nonetheless, no different than a Picasso or a Basquiat to enthusiasts for whom this has become the most valuable post-war card, and the most beautiful. It’s the first of its kind—the modern sports card. And, still, the best of its kind.
An Iconic Figure
It begins with Mickey Mantle himself, an emblematic figure of a bygone and beloved era of baseball in New York and the storied Yankees franchise. Then comes the passage of time: The legend of Mantle grew exponentially through seven World Championships, three American League MVP Awards, the 1956 Triple Crown. More than any player since Babe Ruth, Mantle became the gold standard, and did it all wearing Yankees’ pinstripes. The Mick gained Ruthian status.
There’s also a massive boost from playing in the nation’s cultural and financial capital. Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson once said, “Man, if I had played in New York, what would my cards have been worth?”
Since Mantle, a handful of Yankees have approached that mythic Mick status—most recently, of course, Aaron Judge, who came to our backyard in Texas to break Ruth’s American League single-season home-run record. Yet even that 62nd home-run ball, for which its owner has been offered millions, won’t approach the $12.6 million paid for the ’52 Mantle card. Some records, perhaps, aren’t meant to be broken, even by titans in pinstripes.
A Scarce Item
A critical factor for the value of Mantle card is that it’s extremely rare. In 1952, the Topps’ high-number series (cards No. 311-407) was printed in very small quantities.
And here’s the story of why the treasured card is even harder to find: The print run that began with this Mantle card came in too late to make it to market before the season ended. The unsold batch of cards languished in the Topps warehouse before it was eventually disposed of. For unknown reasons, the method of disposal was burial at sea via a garbage barge in the Atlantic. So most of that 1952 Topps set never made it into circulation.
Believe it or not, it’s estimated there are 1,800 of that Topps Mantle card in existence. Most are in poor condition, frayed by time, poor care and perhaps even from bicycle spokes.
In the end, the value is based on the artifact being in mint or near-mint condition. Today, only a few established, reputable grading companies are in the card-collecting category, including Sportscard Guaranty Corporation, which graded the Mantle card a Mint+ 9.5 (out of 10).
A Mr. Mint Miracle
One of the pioneers of the collectibles industry was a man named Al Rosen, best known as “Mr. Mint”—a moniker he bestowed upon himself. It should come as no surprise that Mr. Mint is the central figure in the record-setting Mantle tale, which dates back to the mid-1980s.
It began with a telephone call to Rosen from a man in suburban Boston claiming to possess a large collection of 1952 Topps high numbers. They’re in mint condition, he said. The guy maintained that his father was a delivery driver for the botched distribution of Topps’ 1952 issue and a case of unused product had been sitting in his basement for 30 years. Rosen set off for the man’s home to see for himself. Over the years, Mr. Mint often told the tale:
“He put this big tray of cards on the table … and he says, ‘They’re in numerical order, don’t worry.’ So, I went 268, 285, I got to 306. So I took 306 off the top, 308, 309, and there it was: 311. I lay it face down now. I took 311. I took a stack—still more 311’s. Took a stack, still more. Took another stack and finally got to the end. Seventy-five ’52 Mantles. Mint.”
Rosen’s “pick of the litter” from his historic find was sold almost instantly, changing hands for a mere $1,000. Rosen bought it back six years later, in 1991, for $40,000, and quickly flipped it again to Anthony Giordano (at the time an anonymous buyer), whose purchase was trumpeted on July 2, 1991, by the New York Post : “Mantle Rookie Card Sold For Record 50G.“
It’s been in Giordano’s possession since then, and it has remained in near mint condition for 70 years, which is miraculous. Rosen wrote to Giordano upon the sale: Tony, Thanks for your purchase of the ‘52 Mantle. It’s the best in the world. Your Pal, Alan Rosen, Mr. Mint.
The best in the world, indeed. Now, 31 years later, the card and Giordano have reappeared, again making sports collectibles history by reclaiming the record for the highest price ever paid for a baseball card, easily eclipsing the previous $7.25 million for a century-old Honus Wagner card. It also surpassed the $9.3 million paid for a Diego Maradona jersey worn in the ‘86 World Cup to become the world’s most valuable piece of sports memorabilia.
Heritage Auction’s Fall Sports Catalog Auction is scheduled for Nov. 17-19. We also hold Sunday Sports Auctions every week at 9 p.m. ET. Who knows, you might find a collectible that fits your wallet-size, even if it’s not in the $12.6 million ballpark.
Ivy has been a key member of the Heritage team since 2000. He has orchestrated the auction of The Lou Gehrig Collection, The Walter Johnson Collection, The Jim Thorpe Collection, The James Naismith Collection, The Sam Snead Collection and The Stan Musial Collection.