Mickey Mantle is one of the top cards that all vintage collectors want in their collection. Owning a Mantle rookie may not be in the price range of every vintage card collector, but other Mantle cards are affordable. Other baseball greats like Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Wagner, Mathewson are also top vintage collector targets. But what about Willie Mays?
There is a fair question to ask here, even if some of the Yankees fans are not going to like it. Should Willie Mays cards be worth more than Mickey Mantle cards?
The 1950s and much of the 1960s were dominated by the three greats of Mantle, Mays and Hank Aaron. While Aaron holds the home run record of the vintage-era players, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays had baseball careers that were very identical and full of overlaps until Mantle retired after a dismal 1968 season. Even at that same point, Mays’ career wasn’t quite what fans were used to in the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s.
Due to some stats including play in the Negro Leagues, the stats from Baseball Reference do not always align with the stats from SABR or the Baseball Almanac. Baseball Reference stats were used for this case.
Collectors Dashboard evaluates high-end collectibles as an alternative asset class. This means that the same capital is being used that could have otherwise been invested in stocks, bonds, real estate, crypto and other more traditional asset classes. That is definitely true for the high-grade examples of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays cards. And by now it is more than evident that investors are also waiting in the wings to compete against collectors for these alternative assets in auctions and sales.
Admittedly, this review is effectively a mere overview rather than detailed statistical analysis for card price multipliers, price fluctuations over time and for career stats. We have also skipped over player salaries and total compensation due to conflicting figures from source to source.
All population reports from PSA and SGC and price look-back data in price guides were as of November 1, 2021.
While Mickey Mantle played in the minors before coming to the New York Yankees, Mays cut his teeth in the Negro American League before playing for the New York Giants. Both players debuted in the majors in 1951 on teams which were cross-town rivals.
Mantle suffered an injury in 1951 and played only 96 games. Mays played 121 games and won rookie of the year. There may be a great lesson about how costly and dangerous it can be to only chase Rookie of the Year cards. That said, that has no place in this conversation.
Willie Mays hit 660 career homers versus 536 homers from Mantle. It can be argued that after 1968 Mays hit 81 more homers, but that was still better at 569 homers versus Mantle’s 536 homers as of the end of that season.
Another issue to consider in favor Mays is that he was only able to play in 34 games in 1952 and he missed the entire 1953 season because of military service. Had his averages after the Korean War held up in those (nearly) two missing seasons stuck he could have been in the 700+ home run club.
Mantle and Mays both had stellar batting averages (BA), on-base percentages (OBP) and slugging percentages (SLG) over their careers. There is quite a big difference in hits and in runs batted in (RBI). These are as follows:
- MAYS – BA .301; OBP .384; SLG .557; Hits 3,293; RBI 1,909
- MANTLE – BA .298; OBP .421; SLG .557; Hits 2,415; RBI 1,509
One record that Mickey Mantle still holds to date is that he had 18 home runs in his career from World Series Games. That is even higher than the 15 homers that Babe Ruth had in World Series games.
Both ball players were on the All-Star team every year outside of the rookie years. Mantle won the league’s MVP award 3 times, while Mays won his league’s MVP award twice. Mays has a phenomenal claim of 12 Golden Glove awards. Mantle won that defensive award just once, and “The Catch” is perhaps the most memorable defensive play in baseball history.
ROOKIE CARD VALUES & POPULATION
The true rookie cards for each player came from the 1951 Bowman set. Both cards are considered to be in the high-number series of 253 to 324 in the ’51 Bowman set.
Mantle (#253) has a total of 2,401 total graded rookie cards from the ’51 Bowman set; and his highest graded populations without qualifiers are 53 (PSA 8); 9 (PSA 9) and 1 (PSA 10). The total graded population by SGC for Mantle is 710 graded cards, and there are 5 examples at SGC 9 and 2 examples at SGC 8.5.
Mays (#305) has a total of 2,019 total graded rookie cards from the ’51 Bowman set; and his highest graded populations without qualifiers are 76 (PSA 8); 8 (PSA 9) and zero (PSA 10). The total graded population by SGC is 574 graded cards, and there is only 1 card at SGC 9 and 10 examples at SGC 8.5.
Despite the Mantle card having a larger population, the generic pricing data over time shows consistently higher prices for the Mantle rookie cards versus the Mays rookie cards. At PSA 3 (very good condition, the last seen generic price from PSA was $8,500 for Mantle and $5,000 for Mays. The actual last 5 sales at PSA 3 averaged $15,110 for Mantle and $8,275 for Mays.
BEYOND ROOKIE CARDS
One issue which may impact the value of Willie Mays cards is that there are four more years of Mays cards than there are Mantle cards. Mantle’s final card is the 1969 Topps and Mays’s final card is the 1973 Topps. And while the rookie population from the ’51 Bowman set is greater for Mantle than Mays, Willie Mays was in all of the Topps-issued sets from 1952 onward. Mantle had exclusive arrangements with Bowman for the 1954 and 1955 Topps sets.
The 1952 Topps set is a very unfair comparison for populations and for prices. The Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card is basically the face of the vintage baseball card collecting, and it is also in the high numbered series that was issued very late in that year. The Mays card 2,551 graded examples of the ’52 Topps versus just 1,800 graded examples for Mantle.
Looking at the 1953 Topps set also favors Mantle over Mays in prices at all grades, and that is despite a “short print” (SP) designation for the Mays cards in this year’s issue. The price multiplier for Mantle has been 1.5 to nearly 2.0 over Mays in multiple equivalent grades. That is also considering that the entire population of Mantle’s ’53 Topps (#82) was last seen at 4,657 graded examples versus just 2,155 graded examples for the ’53 Topps Mays (#244).
When you zoom forward to the 1960 Topps set, the prices at PSA 5 (the lowest in the PSA magazine we sourced) show that there is basically a 4-5 multiplier for the base price of the Mantle cards (#350) versus the price of the Mays cards (#200). Jumping to the 1965 Topps base cards, the Mantle card (#350) has a multiplier of about 4-times the Mays card (#250).
Collecting vintage baseball cards comes with many aberrations and anomalies which might not make sense on first blush. Mays has better stats by and large, but the Yankees stayed in New York while the Giants team moved to San Francisco. Mantle also spent his whole career with the Yankees. The Giants only won the World Series one time (1954) in Mays’ career, but the Yankees (if you count 1951) won the World Series 7 times. The Giants made it to the World Series but lost (again, counting 1951) 2 other times versus 5 other appearances for the Yankees.
Evaluating any player is truly up to each collector. Investors also have their own views to consider as well. Some collectors will like Willie Mays better than Mickey Mantle, but you might not want to say that to any fans in and around New York City.
And as for any valuations of investments, there are no guarantees nor assurances that any prices in the future will remain where they are today. There are also no assurances that those prices will rise.