The Saddest Greatest Baseball Card I Own

I’ve collected baseball cards since I was a kid. When I use the word “collect,” I really mean that I don’t throw away the ones I have. I’m not the sort of person who can justify a heavy investment in luxury items like baseball cards, lottery tickets, bottled beer, or plus-rated gasoline.

yazFor someone who grew up at the rise of the junk wax era, my collection is and was pretty decent. When one of my father’s co-workers gave me a crumbling December 1987 Beckett Magazine, I sorted through my card and found that I owned the rookie card of a guy named Tony Gwynn. I took it to church to show my friends, and lost it. Later, I traded a ton of cards for a 1963 Carl Yastrzemski, which I always found difficult to look at because of the patch of sunlight on the tip of his nose, and which made him look like an elf. The card was worth $75 at the time. I took it to a card show, and had it stolen. Later on, in 1992, I pulled some fancy insert rookie card of Shaquille O’Neal, and it, too, was stolen. That one is hard to feel upset about now, given that it’s probably worth 20 cents. Still, I was a pretty stupid kid.

mantle1The Holy Grail of baseball cards back then wasn’t the T-206 Honus Wagner or even a Babe Ruth; those cards were from the pre-war era, weren’t catalogued by Beckett and therefore didn’t exist. Instead, the ultimate prize was the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.

There’s a glow of fifties nostalgia imbued into that photograph, with the light dancing on the young man’s cheeks, the cloudless sky, and his eyes lifted skyward like a senior photograph. Nowadays, of course, one can glimpse at the face of any baseball card in existence with a browser and a few short keystrokes, but in those days it was often a rumor, or at best a cloudy reproduction on newsprint. While we kids haggled over our Cansecos and Ruben Sierras, the adults had cards of the legends of yesterday. We could only hope to gain access to that past age one day.

The hobby died, and the torch never passed. A Barry Bonds rookie card is still not worth the cost of shipping, and those rare old cards disappeared, or sat under glass display cases, the old prices yellowing but constant. I found a few cards here and there, a Hank Aaron or a Joe Nuxhall, but nothing much. But I do own one Mickey Mantle.

mantle2

This entity tests the boundaries of what it is to be called a baseball card. Undersized, printed on flimsy card stock hardly thicker than paper, featuring a grainy black-and-white photograph, it looks more like a hand-made photocopy than a card. It dates from 1969, Mantle’s final year, and portrays the slugger, balky knee raised, about to roll one over to second.

But it is a real card, barely. It was made by a company named Globe Imports, who sold them for some unimaginably scant sum in gas stations in the rural south. Mantle’s card was removed early on in production, making it somewhat of a rarity, in the sense that Carson’s NotGraphs painting is also a rarity. Even so, on the barest of technical grounds, I own a Mickey Mantle baseball card. The eight year-old version of myself with his Mark Grace cards would have been impressed.




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Patrick Dubuque writes for NotGraphs and The Hardball Times, and he served as former Bill Spaceman Lee Visiting Professor for Baseball Exploration at Pitchers & Poets. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.


21 Responses to “The Saddest Greatest Baseball Card I Own”

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  1. asaw780 says:

    That feeling when I’d been hoarding a Barry Bonds rookie card since I was a little kid that is now completely worthless.

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  2. Hugh Briss says:

    My $60 1986 Donruss Jode Canseco and 1985 Eric Davis rookies shed a collective tear.

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  3. Dave in gb says:

    I remember when my ’88 Fleer Brady Anderson rookie card was worth $30, and people where buying them in bricks back in ’96. Also, there was the highly coveted Todd Van Popple ’91 Upper Deck rookie card that was worth over $40. If I had a time machine, I’d come back with alot of money

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    • olethros says:

      If I had a time machine, I’d come back with a shitload of Apple and Microsoft stock from the mid 80s. And a bigger shitload of unopened packs of 1950s-60s baseball cards.

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  4. RTG says:

    I wonder how many people were saved from the stock or real estate bubbles thanks to experiencing the baseball card bubble in their youth.

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  5. tylerzx2002 says:

    One of the 1969 Topps stamp books I got from my dad has the only vintage Mantle in my collection. Pretty cool little artifact.

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  6. d_i says:

    I remember being upset that my prized Kirby Puckett’s rookie card was sliding in value with each Beckett issue I came across. I still buy a pack every couple years for the heck of it. Signed rookie cards still go for a ton on ebay though – once in a while I contemplate investing in one for a prospect who is out of favor that I believe will have a good career ie Anthony Rendon this offseason and Devin Mesoraco.

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    • mark says:

      FYI – Rendon is not out of favor.

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      • d_i says:

        that’s why I said this offseason – he was then after missing a year with injury. I think he’s among the top few prospects in the game and BA had him 30

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  7. JEH says:

    Thanks. I enjoyed the article.

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  8. Rye Rye says:

    Oh goodness: I would ride my bike 2-3 miles to this local party store several times a week as a 11-12 year old. I would buy a few packs each time of 88-89 fleer basketball cards. Stockton, Pippen, Rodman, rookies etc. I stopped buying those (darnit) when the baseball cards came out, and started stocking up on those 89 Donruss cards. Gosh, if I would have kept buying the basketball instead I’d be better off? I’m not sure where that year stands because it has been about 3 years since I looked. Now, I just recall looking for this Billy Ripken card that was rare because it had “f*ckface” inscribed on his bat in the card. It was probably the best card in that whole set if you could get it.

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    • Rye Rye says:

      LOL: remember scrambling through the hundreds of those cards looking for Billy Ripken to see “f*ckface” in the card.

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    • Rye Rye says:

      Then I was trading with an acquaintance! He traded me a Hank Aaron card (not rookie but it was close) for a Mario Lemieux rookie card. I was getting a few more old cards too. I was hesitant about it though, but the Aaron card was in way better shape than the Lemieux card which was severely off-center.

      Came to be that this friend/acquaintance traded with someone else to get the card and that person stole the Aaron card from someone else. The police came to my house and confiscated it (asking nicely of course). I asked them if I would be getting the card I traded him back (Lemieux), and they said they’d try to find it. They never did. That same kid who I traded with is now deceased at the early age of 35.

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  9. Steven says:

    i tried hitting the “averts eyes and smiles politely” button, but i seems to be missing

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  10. canadian cards collector says:

    Got some Rogers hornsby ones still in plastic from my grandpa.

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