Although Mickey Charles Mantle was named after baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, no one in rural Oklahoma, where Mantle was born in 1931, could have predicted that he would become one of the greatest power hitters of all time, let alone one of the most extensively collected players.
Mantle began his 18-year career with the New York Yankees in 1951. He struggled somewhat in his inaugural season, but Mantle’s rookie card, a 1951 Bowman, is still extremely popular among collectors. The card shows the switch-hitting Mantle cocking his Hillerich and Bradsby Louisville Slugger bat behind his head while hitting from the right side, eyes facing front. The card is scarcely found in high-grade condition, mainly because of centering problems that plagued the entire 1951 Bowman set.
When Mantle broke in with the Yankees, he had the tall task of replacing a New York legend in center field: Joe DiMaggio. Mantle's first season was also DiMaggio’s last, so the two icons patrolled the outfield together for a short period of time. Photographs, especially autographed ones, of DiMaggio and Mantle during that 1951 World Series championship season are highly sought by collectors...
Even though Bowman released a Mantle rookie card in 1951, Topps’ 1952 Mantle card is treated as his de facto rookie card by many collectors. The card is arguably one of the most recognizable baseball cards ever made; it shows Mantle looking back over his right shoulder where his bat is rested. The Mantle card is the key component of what some collectors have called the most popular set ever made.
While Mantle’s 1952 Topps card is immensely sought after, his 1952 Bowman card is comparatively unappreciated. The card is visually appealing as it shows Mantle’s boyish face staring to his right with his Yankees’ hat tilted high on his head, but because of the desirability of the 1952 Topps card, the gap in market value between the two is huge. For beginning collectors, Mantle's '52 Bowman could be an inexpensive, introductory score.
The 1952 season itself was a breakout one for Mantle, as he took over for DiMaggio full time and made his first All-Star team.
One of Mantle’s rarest collectibles came out of his third Major League season in 1953. That was the year Stahl-Meyer Franks, a New York meat company, decided to include baseball cards in packages of their hot dogs. This regional set had only nine players—three each from the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers—and while other stars were included, Mantle is undoubtedly the greatest player to appear on a Stahl-Meyer card as the company only released sets from 1953 to 1955.
The Stahl-Meyer Mantle card is hard to locate, but it is even tougher to find in high-grade condition because of some of the unique attributes of these cards. The cards were 3 ¼” by 4 ½” and featured a white border with corners that were cut diagonally. In addition, the fronts of the cards were coated with wax. Because of its scarcity, this card remains an elusive prize for avid Mantle collectors.
That same year, 1953, one of Mantle’s most popular and visually appealing cards was released by Topps. The card featured a close-up of “The Mick’s” sun-bronzed face, with a baseball field in the background. However, because of the close-up nature of the picture, the card's print defects were hard to disguise. Additionally the red bottom border where Mantle’s name appeared was easily chipped.
In 1954, Mantle was included in the Bowman set but was given a pass by Topps, which makes Mantle’s 1954 Dan Dee regional card highly collectible. Dan Dee, a pretzel and potato chip company, began inserting baseball cards in bags of potato chips in 1949 and continued to do so through 1959. As it turned out, 1954 was a banner year for Dan Dee, thanks in part to that Mantle card, which featured a close-up of his face set against a purple background. Because these cards were inserted into bags of potato chips, though, they are almost impossible to find without severe oil damage.
Mantle continued to progress as a baseball player through the mid-1950’s, but it was in 1956 that Mantle asserted himself as one of the greatest hitters of his generation. In 1956, Mantle hit .353 with 52 homeruns and 130 runs batted in en route to winning the American League Triple Crown and his first of three American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards.
Not surprisingly, his Topps card from that year, which actually comes in two varieties—one with a white back and one with a gray back—is highly sought by collectors. It is probably Mantle’s most striking card, mostly because of the winning smile on his face. The white-backed version is tougher to find, although the gray-backed card is considered more graphically appealing.
A year later, in 1957, Mantle won his second MVP award and also achieved a first in baseball-card collecting. Along with Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, Mantle was part of a Topps “Yankees’ Power Hitters” card. This was the first Topps card to include two superstars, a practice that became common because of its popularity among collectors.
In 1958, Topps again featured Mantle with another player, this time on its “World Series Batting Foes” card with Milwaukee Braves outfielder Hank Aaron. This card showed the two sluggers, who combined for 1,291 career homeruns, standing face to face, Mantle with his bat at the ready from the left side, Aaron poised from the right.
Bazooka Bubblegum released its inaugural card set in 1959, including a card for Mickey Mantle. Bazooka, which is owned by the Topps Company, would go on to become one of the most popular baseball card brands, even though its first set featured just 23 unnumbered cards that appeared on the bottoms of bubble-gum boxes. The cards had blank backs and are very condition sensitive as they had to be cut out—the dotted line that served as a guide left a lot of room for error. Most cards in this premiere Bazooka set are fairly easy to come by today, but the colorful Mantle card, which is considered the cornerstone, is extremely difficult to find.
Mantle’s career continued to blossom in the early 1960s, and his most memorable year may have been 1961, when he and teammate Roger Maris both chased Babe Ruth’s single-season homerun record of 60. Although Mantle would end the year with just 54 homeruns and Maris would break Ruth’s record, pictures of the two players together, such as the August 18 cover of "Life" magazine, are highly collectible. If the item was autographed by both players, it's even more of a prize.
Mantle earned his third and final MVP in 1962, but after that high point, his performance was hampered by injuries. He retired after the 1968 season having won seven World Series titles, played in 16 All-Star games, and hit 536 homeruns. In 1974 Mantle was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first year he was eligible.
Although he did not play in 1969, Mantle appears on a Topps card from that year in one of that company's most confusing sets. Mantle’s card is #500 in the 511 card set, and while the first 399 cards appear with the players’ names in yellow, cards 400-511 mysteriously appear with white lettering. Another unique aspect of this card is that Mantle’s complete career statistics were printed on the back.
While Mickey Mantle cards are some of the most popular collectibles in baseball, other Mantle artifacts are also well regarded. Mantle had a beautiful curvy signature, with a very distinct and recognizable “M” beginning both “Mickey” and “Mantle,” so anything autographed by “The Mick,” especially balls and bats, are highly collectible.
In addition, game-worn Mantle #7 jerseys are also highly desired, both the "home" pinstripes and "away" grays. Naturally, jerseys from Mantle’s earliest years with the Yankees are toughest to find.
One especially intriguing, and fun, Mantle collectible is a board game called “Mickey Mantle Big League Baseball,” produced by Gardner toys and released from 1957 to 1959. All versions of the game, which featured a die and a spinning wheel, are difficult to come by, and any original version still in its plastic wrap is especially valuable.
Other Mantle collectibles include, but are not limited to, pencil sets, statues, bobble-head dolls, and even commemorative coins.
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