Few baseball players had the raw talent of William Howard “Willie” Mays, Jr. Known to fans as the “Say Hey Kid,” Mays broke into the Major Leagues in 1951 after four years in the Negro Leagues. As a member of the New York Giants, he quickly showed that he could do just about anything on a baseball field. He had Babe Ruth-like power, Ty Cobb-like speed, and probably the best defensive skills of any outfielder of his day.
The bulk of Mays’ most desired vintage collectibles come from his early years in the Majors, prior to the Giants’ move to San Francisco in 1957. Not surprisingly, Mays’ lone rookie card, a 1951 Bowman, is his most sought-after card. Despite the card's inherent beauty—it shows a stoic Mays standing at the ready, bat in hand—this horizontal card is rarely found in high-grade due to very bad centering.
The 1951 season started slow for Mays, but he turned things around and managed to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. In contrast, 1952 was not a good year for Mays on the field. He struggled early in the season before being drafted by the U.S. Army. Mays would miss most of the 1952 season and all of 1953 serving in the Army. Mays was not sent to fight in the Korean War, however. He was instead assigned to play baseball for the Army in Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Despite his poor performance and absence from the diamond, 1952 was a banner year for Mays baseball cards. Three companies printed Mays cards that year—today they remain some of his most popular. The most collectible of the three is the 1952 Topps. It was the first Mays Topps card and is part of the famed 1952 Topps set, which some collectors consider to be the preeminent baseball card set ever printed. The Mays Topps card is not an especially difficult find, yet it remains desired. It features a memorable enigmatic portrait on its front—it shows a young Mays in uniform, looking disgusted at the camera.
Mays’ 1952 Bowman has become more popular in recent years, although it still does not command the attention of his ’52 Topps. The card shows Mays at bat, with his signature scrawled across the middle. Interestingly, the signature on this card does not look anything like the signatures that appear on baseballs he autographed later in his career.
The third 1952 Mays card was part of Red Man Tobacco’s inaugural set. These Red Man cards are strange. For one thing, they are large compared to other baseball cards (3 ½” by 4”), and they came sealed in plastic with a perforated tab at the bottom. The tab served as a coupon for a baseball hat. A lot of people, it seems, were interested in that hat, so Mays cards with the tab still attached are considered more valuable than those with the tab removed.
Mays’ second most collected card, after his rookie card, came from the 1953 season that he missed. It was a 1953 Topps, and it's absolutely stunning. The front of the card shows ...
In 1954, Mays returned to the Major Leagues and had quite possibly his most memorable season. Mays hit a career-high .345, won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award (MVP), and won his only World Series title. It was in Game One of that World Series that the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz blasted a shot to deep center field at the Polo Grounds, only to watch in disbelief as Mays ran it down and caught the ball basket-style over his shoulders. That catch is widely considered the greatest defensive play ever and is known to baseball fans as “The Catch.”
Off the field, Toy Development Co. released a board game in 1954 entitled “Say Hey! It’s Willie Mays’ Own Baseball Game.” The game, which featured three spinners—one each for the batter, pitcher, and fielder—is highly collectible. Four years later, in 1958, a similar game called “Willie Mays ‘Say Hey’ Baseball Game” was put out by Centennial Games. It, too, is prized by Mays collectors.
From 1954 on, Mays was one of the best players in baseball, year in and year out. After the 1957 season, the Giants’ days in New York were over as they packed up and shipped west to San Francisco. Although he never won a title in San Francisco and it took fans a bit of time to warm to Mays—largely because of the town’s love for local boy Joe DiMaggio—today Mays is largely considered the most popular player ever to put on a San Francisco Giants uniform.
Mays’ played in San Francisco until midway through the 1972 season, when he was traded back to New York, where he was still adored, to finish his career with the New York Mets. Mays played parts of two seasons with the Mets before retiring in 1973, having appeared in 20 All-Star games, won 12 Gold Gloves, and hit 660 home runs.
Other Mays memorabilia includes anything autographed with his distinct signature, which looks like it is full of “T’s.” Autographed baseballs are especially popular. Other desired items include statues, figurines, and game-used jerseys. His jerseys from his time with the New York Giants are naturally more collectible than those from San Francisco.
Mays has remained in the spotlight in recent years because his godson, Barry Bonds, took up his star in San Francisco. Although they are difficult to come by, artifacts that have the signatures of godfather and godson are popular with collectors, especially collectors of Giants paraphernalia.