HMS Friday: The Scuttling of Mickey Mantle’s Baseball Cards
by Mark Lukach
Would you pay $275,000 for a single baseball card?
What about $50,000 for an empty cardboard box?
It’s October, the greatest time of year for baseball fans like myself, and so I couldn’t help but to look for an ocean story that might be related to baseball.
It seemed a stretch, but as it turns out, the Holy Grail of the baseball card collecting world, the Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card, one of which sold for $275,000 in 2011, owes all of its value to the ocean. Because almost all of the Mantle cards that Topps printed in 1952 were dumped into the Atlantic.
First, a quick history on baseball cards.
Baseball cards are almost as old as the game itself. Baseball and photography were born in the same era, and grew up together. The first baseball cards date back to the 1860s, and featured player photos on the front, and advertising info on the back – for sporting goods stores, cigarettes, candy, you name it.
Tobacco and sugar purveyors pretty much locked down the baseball card industry by 1900, and became the sole distributors of baseball cards. The T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, printed by the American Tobacco Company from 1909-1911, is the most valuable baseball card in history, with a mint condition Wagner card selling for $2.8 million in 2008. Holy Toledo.
The $2.8 Million Man.
In 1952, with the glorious postwar return to baseball in full swing, Topps Gum Company got into the business of cards. Their first printing of the summer was a huge success. The second printing, which coincided with the onset of football season, was a typical Marxian bust of overproduction. Too much supply, too little demand. Topps had cases and cases of baseball cards on their hands, and nowhere to sell them, no matter how chewy their sticks of gum were.
In that second printing was the card of New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, widely considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Mantle’s stats are astounding: 18 seasons with the Yankees, 12 World Series appearances, 7 World Series victories, 16-time all star, 3-time AL MVP, Triple Crown batting champion in 1956. The dude is beyond legend.
The 1952 Topps card is not Mantle’s rookie card. The rookie card was printed by a competing gum company, Bowman in 1951. With an estimated 300-500 cases of cards on their hands at the end of the 1952 season, the company did what humans have unfortunately been doing with their trash for centuries: they it into the ocean. Renting a barge, they loaded up all the boxes of excess cards, and once a few miles off the coast of New Jersey, all was cast overboard to sink to the bottom of the sea. The one surviving cardboard box, which is completely empty, but still considered rare because it held these cards, sold at auction for just under $50,000. That’s $50,000. For a fricking cardboard box.
Any remaining cards from the 1952 Topps printing, especially those in good condition, are extremely rare. The Professional Sports Authenticator is an organization that evaluates the condition of cards on a scale of 1-10, and they have deemed only 3 of of the remaining Mantle cards from that year to be a perfect 10 out of 10, “Gem Mint 10” condition. 3 cards. No wonder one of them sold at an auction for $275,000.
This is all completely crazy. A chewing gum company printed up pictures of a baseball player, couldn’t sell them, dumped almost all of them into the ocean, and now they are worth more than a quarter of a million dollars. Not a single part of that sentence is reasonable.
But then again, that’s the ocean. And that’s also baseball. Irrationality, desperation, hopelessness and optimism. The ocean gives rise to all these things. So does baseball.
Enjoy the postseason, everybody.
Mickey Mantle’s 500th Home Run. As it it aired on WPIX. May 14, 1967.