A seven-time World Series champion, Mantle was a human highlight reel. Known for his ability to hit for both average and power and for his reputation for making almost unworldly plays in the outfield, Mantle was the ultimate “man’s man” in his time.
While Mantle’s career stats were terrific, it was his clutch-play that thrust him into icon status. This was especially true during the World Series, for Mantle holds all-time World Series records for homers (18), RBI (40), walks (43), extra-base hits (26) total bases (123) and runs scored (42).
Even more impressive, he did it while fighting a career-long war with chronic pain in his legs.
But for all the great things fans and baseball card collectors know about him, there is one story many people—especially younger folks—do not know about Mantle.
Strange as it might seem, a literal boatload of his first-ever Topps baseball card was dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
Sounds like a Jimmy Hoffa-like conspiracy, right?
But it is true.
To start, let’s go back to 1952. At a kitchen table inside a small Manhattan apartment, 28-year-old WWII vet Sy Berger and his friend Woody Gelman created the first modern baseball card set—1952 Topps. True to current tradition, Berger and Gelman released this set in two series: a low-number (#’d 1-310) and high-number (#’d 311-407) product.
Released in the spring of 1952, series one sold very well. So well in fact that their expectations for the release of the second series soared.
But to the misfortune of these two baseball-card pioneers, series two sales tanked.
Per Larry Canale, author of Mickey Mantle—Memories and Memorabilia, “Topps issued its high series so late in the summer of 1952 that sales were a dismal disappointment.”
This was mostly due to kids turning their already short attention spans from baseball to football season.
Canale went on to write that Berger and Gelman worked like mad to unload their overproduced stock of these 1952 cards by engaging with carnivals and toy companies in the late 1950s. But like ballpark seat tickets for a really bad team, Berger and Gelman could not give the cards away. Cardboard pictures of baseball players were for kids and seven- or eight-year-old baseball cards were dead merchandise.
By 1960, Berger and Gelman found their warehouse still filled with case after case of the ’52 Topps second series. Having marched on from their failed business venture, and needing more storage space for their booming enterprise, Berger and Gelman waved to the bullpen for a garbage barge.
Once this barge arrived, Berger and Gelmen loaded these burdensome cases—some 300 to 500 according to Berger's statement in a 2001 copy of Tuff Stuff magazine's Topps 50th anniversary issue. And within a few minutes, this barge waved farewell to the shoreline, carrying with it thousands of Mantles, Jackie Robinsons and Eddie Mathewses.
With hindsight screaming, “What the heck are you doing?” cases of ‘52 Topps baseball cards met their fate at the depths of the ocean.
Included in this hoard was Mantle’s No. 311, double printed, but still so popular today it sells for a few thousand dollars even in lower grades.
While Mantle’s true rookie card was the 1951 Bowman No. 253, this card was Mantle’s first Topps card. It is also the most valuable Mickey Mantle baseball card.
America’s youth cared more about how baseball cards sounded in bicycle spokes than maintaining their condition.
To most collectors today, Mantle’s 1952 Topps card is second in Holy Grail status to the T206 Honus Wagner.
Per Sports Collectors Daily, Mantle’s card can fetch well into six figures at the highest levels. Memory Lane auctioned a PSA 9 (Mint) ’52 Mantle for $282,587 in 2007. A year later, a PSA 8 Mantle sold for $112,800. And in the spring of this year, Robert Edward Auctions sold a PSA 8.5 (Near Mint-Mint Plus) example for $272,550.
The last 8.5 Mantle had sold at auction for $154,700 just three years earlier, meaning a nice portfolio hike for anyone holding one. Three PSA 10s (Gem Mint) exist from a find many years ago. Some believe any one of them would fetch at least $1 million.
How scarce is the high number series? Consider that the only existing empty 1952 Topps case can be yours for a little under $50,000. That's what happens when you drown most of them.