The most recognizable and coveted baseball card ever produced is the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card. A rare version graded Mint-9 by Professional Sports Authenticated (PSA) on a scale of 1-10 recently sold for a whopping $2.88 million. That’s the second-highest price ever paid for a baseball card, falling short of the $3.12 million a collector paid for the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card two years ago.
Why all the fuss? We’re not talking about just an ordinary ballplayer featured on a run-of-the-mill baseball card. We’re talking about Mickey Mantle, who became a national sports icon at the same time the ‘52 Topps set was becoming the most prominent sports card set ever produced.
When the acclaimed ‘52 card was issued, Mantle was already sporting his first of seven World Series rings and by season’s end he would have his second. Mantle finished the 1952 season batting .311-23-87 and a league-leading .924 OPS while patrolling center field at Yankee Stadium.
The first ever Topps Mantle baseball card was released in September. It was the first card of the elusive ‘52 Topps Series Four. By that time, collectors were more interested in football cards. Store owners had trouble selling the first three series, so many never bothered to order the fourth, leaving much of the product in the Topps warehouse.
In 1960, Topps vice president Sy Berger was looking for a way to rid himself of the extra ‘52 Topps cards that were cluttering up the company’s warehouse. He had little success selling them to a carnival at the rate of 10 cards for a penny, so he arranged for a disposal company to drop them in the ocean. Somewhere off the New Jersey coast, thousands of ‘52 Topps cards — including Mantle cards — were released to the bottom of the sea. Topps never revealed the number of Series 4 cards that were destroyed, but a limited number exists today.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when card collecting was starting to become a business for many people, the ‘52 Mantle became the hobby’s most sought-after card. And why not? Mantle was one of the most prolific sluggers of the modern era. He was hitting long-distance home runs and appearing coast to coast on television and in magazines. Mantle quickly became the most recognizable sports figure since Babe Ruth.
As the legend of Mickey Mantle grew, so did the demand and value for his baseball cards. The young, naive ballplayer from Commerce Oklahoma grew up to become one of the most accomplished players in baseball history, earning American League MVP honors three times, winning the Triple Crown in 1956 and dueling teammate Roger Maris for Babe Ruth’s single-season home run crown during the summer of 1961.
There was a curious flurry of activity surrounding the ‘52 Mantle card in 1986 stemming from a find that traces back to Massachusetts. Nationally known baseball card dealer Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen was invited to a man’s home in Lowell to examine an old baseball card collection. Rosen was shocked to find a silver tray containing hundreds of ‘52 Topps cards, including a stack of three dozen Mantle cards. During the ‘50s, the homeowner’s father had worked at a toy company that used the cards as prizes. The leftovers were saved for the family in its original case, preserving the near-mint condition. Rosen reportedly paid $900,000 for the entire trove before selling the highly graded cards individually.
The rise of the Mantle card has been amazing. In 1988, a similarly priced card could be had for $3,300. By 2007, PSA Mint-9 version sold for $240,000. The previous record for the card was for a PSA Mint-8.5, which sold for $1.13 million in 2016.
For those of us with a more limited baseball card allowance, Topps 1996 Series I features reprints of the 19 Topps and Bowman Mantle cards produced from 1951-1969. Later that year, Topps retired #7 (Mantle’s uniform number), never using it again for its annual Topps baseball sets.