In his time, my dad did a lot of wheeling and dealing. He wheeled and dealt all sorts of things; baseball cards and baseball memorabilia, art prints in the Audubon tradition of nature art, birds or raccoons against white backdrops, often with an authenticating pencil scribbling in the corner by the artists; antiques of various sorts were also things he liked picking up and swapping; he liked old fountain pens, which he especially liked making gifts of. He was relatively good at all his wheeling and dealing, at these motions that stir up value, and as a kid, I did a lot of accompanying. To have grown up with a father who embraced baseball cards was absolutely as wonderful as it sounds. I won't lie to you. The child of the candy store owner will typically tell you first off about the bugs and the mice and the steep basement steps to make the point it wasn’t all candy. I will tell you the opposite; traveling to sports memorabilia shows on Saturday or Sunday afternoons with my old man was easily the most magical experience of my early years. It was Araby for me.
In my version of the events, at about 7 or 8, I was partnered up with him, and my role was as a kind of external hard-drive, an R2-D2 like companion. There is no more ravenous sponge than a small child’s brain. It’s unpolluted, fresh off the line, and it will absorb any pile of information it gets interested in. Like a paper towel in a TV commercial for that brand of paper towel, something capable of swallowing into itself a puddle many times its size, the child brain will take in the names of hundreds of dinosaurs, an entire history of a tribe of Native Americans, or in my case the prices of thousands of baseball cards every month in big floppy newsprint compendium. And when you have your head so full of something like that, naturally you want to talk about it.
The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is the great card of the second wave of American baseball cards, and truthfully, as stable an investment as NYC real estate, because by now those that exist – even those with soft edges, creases, bad-centering, etc. - are firmly under glass, counted, and unchanging. Traditionally it is a player’s rookie card that has the highest monetary value, but in the Mick’s case, it’s actually this 1952 Topps card. As a child, I figured that the reason must be was that this was his first Topps card. Topps was the main brand of baseball cards from the early 50s through the mid-80s, so I naturally assumed that his first Topps Card must have been, in itself, a big deal.
There are two primary reasons for its value; the first has to do with the way that cards were printed.. If you turn over the back of any baseball card, you’ll find a number in the usually the top right or top left. This number, anywhere from 1 to 700 in a modern set, designates where the card falls in the ordering. If one is attempting to collate a complete set by hand, it is obviously much simpler to get all the numbers than get all the players.
Customarily, the stars in a set, the Dimaggios and Ted Williamses, were given the lower numbers; these cards were the first to be printed, and they were printed at much higher volumes. Going into 1952, Mickey Mantle, despite his prodigious gifts, was still a pup, and rookies and lesser players (“commons” in the lingo) were relegated to the back of the line. As that Mantle card was printed in the high numbers, automatically there was scarcity, and thus the seeds for value.
There is another factor. I’m sure one could find a more detailed account of this somewhere on the web. Anyone into baseball cards knows the story. The TOPPS chewing gum and candy company printed far too many cards their first year out of the gate. By the time the high numbered cards were rolling off the presses, demand for the summer had run its course. Topps was left with a surplus of cards, which was eating space in their warehouse. Topps had anticipated, as the year developed, that Mantle and Jackie Robinson cards would be a means to get the high-numbers out on store shelves, and it double-printed them. Still, vendors weren’t eager to take on more cards, particularly so late in the baseball season. So the cards sat in the warehouse. What Topps then did amounted to crop destruction. In 1960, they put the remainder of their 1952 baseball cards in a charter boat, took them out into the Atlantic, and gave them an ocean burial. Au revoir.
The value of these dumped cards, tallied up at the prices of the extant cards, is absolutely dizzying. A number, for the sheer goose-eggs of it, that you’d like to write in chalk on a chalkboard. It’s seriously something like a billion dollars. The number is skewed, of course, as the addition of all those cards into the present market would drive the individual prices down to earth. Imagining all those beautiful 1952 Mickey Mantles sinking into the ocean, water logging, disintegrating, was a frequent daydream of my youth. If I could have only gotten to them, pulled them out, excavated them, what a different world it would be….I can recall a palpable shame that arose from a grade school writing assignment in which we were posed with the question, “What would you do if you could go back in time?” The girl that was victorious had imagined traveling back in time, and with a pillow, suffocating an infant Hitler. The fantasies of other several other children were similarly altruistic.
I had written that were I permitted to travel back into time, I would head straight for the year 1952. I would then traverse the antiquated 5-and-Dimes and candy shops of the bygone childhood of my parents, (both of whom were born in ’43) and purchase boxes and boxes of 1952 Topps wax-packs, cornering the market on Mickey Mantles. While it didn’t enter the discussion, I imagined myself walking into a baseball card show back in the late 1980s, and laying down these Mantles, one after another like aces on the display case glass, as shocked gasps grew a crowd of people around me. Who was this 10 year old boy? What was he doing with these Mantles?
When the other papers were read aloud, an enormous horror went through me at the fact that I’d just written such a, what?, such an absolutely self-serving fantasy. I was genuinely embarrassed by it. That was the natural response. This little girl is off suffocating a baby Hitler, this boy is back blowing glass with his great grandfather in Ireland; I on the other hand was much more interested in gathering all the Mickey Mantle cards I could, essentially leaking them back into a market that values them so highly primarily due to their absence....