1952 Topps Mickey Mantle Is The Card Collecting Hobby’s New ‘Mona Lisa’

Several years ago, I interviewed Earl G. “Ken” Kendrick, Jr., Managing General Partner
of the Major League Baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks. I wasn’t talking to him about the state of his ballclub, but rather that of his baseball card collection, one of the foremost (and priciest) in the world. Whereas normal collectors like me try to track down single cards of our favorite players (I recently landed a Topps rookie card of Boston Red Sox star, Mookie Betts, for $40), Kendrick is looking to put together a unique collection of the rarest and highest-graded cards in hobby history, as mapped out in Joe Orlando’s book, Collecting Sports Legends: The Ultimate Hobby Guide. (Orlando is currently the President of Professional Sports Authenticator, or PSA, which grades millions of cards per year, and is seen as the hobby’s gold standard as far as card grading is concerned.)

Whereas I have thousands of cards in my collection, Kendrick’s only searching for 20, and he has quite a few of them at the moment. Probably the toughest card to find is his lone copy of the 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner tobacco card, graded by Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) an 8 out of 10, Near Mint-Mint, for which Kendrick paid a staggering $2.8 million in 2007. As the legend goes, Wagner, who was not a fan of the tobacco company/advertiser shilling its wares to the children of the day—baseball cards were inserted into cigarette packs to get kids collecting and annoying their parents to buy more packs (i.e. get hooked)—he had the company pull his card early on in production. To that end, just a handful of the Wagner exist in the hobby today, and they command astronomical prices at auction.

Up until recently, the Wagner’s been the most sought-after card among top-tier collectors in the hobby, and Kendrick’s PSA 8 has been nothing short of a hobby icon (it was once “torn up” and put back together by famed Las Vegas magician, David Copperfield, on live TV; and co-owned by National Hockey League great Wayne Gretzky). As of April, that’s no longer the case.

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle
The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, graded Mint by PSA, which sold for $2.88 million back in April by Heritage Auction. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

As luck would have it, Kendrick also owns one of the three known PSA Gem-Mint 10 examples of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card—the new holy grail for card collectors. (A second is owned by Denver-based lawyer and high-end memorabilia collector, Marshall Fogel; while it’s unclear who owns the third.) Although it isn’t quite as scarce as the Wagner, it’s still a rarity due to its poor, late-season sales in the early ’50s (the story goes that Topps heaped all of the unsold cases of the product onto a garbage barge and dumped the lion’s share into the waters off Brooklyn; the sheer thought of that made me wince just now). Lately, the ’52 Mantle has seen a tremendous bump in value at auction. (It used to sell in the thousands in the ’80s and ’90s.) At Heritage Auctions last April, a PSA Mint 9 Mantle sold for a record $2.88 million, eclipsing the price-tag of Kendrick’s PSA 8 Wagner. That’s also one full step down in grade from the Mantle Kendrick owns, which Rob Rosen, Vice President of Heritage Sports Auctions, says has a conservative auction estimate of $8 million (it could be even higher). “It’s the Mona Lisa of cards,” says Rosen of the Mantle. (A PSA 8 version of the card is being featured in an upcoming Heritage auction set for November 15-16. The card has already reached a bid of $260,000.)

Months after my interview, Kendrick invited me to Chase Field, the D-Backs’ home ballpark in Phoenix, to handle his collection—and for about 20 minutes, I enjoyed the absolute hell out of it. (Former Major League Baseball knuckleballer and D-Backs broadcaster, Tom “Candy Man” Candiotti, was on hand, too.) As I flipped through the graded cards, telling anyone within earshot about the history of each, I couldn’t help but gawk at the PSA 8 Wagner again and again. The card was PSA’s first-ever graded card, and includes a hair in the hard-plastic casing from one of its graders. The card has also been listed in a federal lawsuit against one of its former owners, who admitted to trimming the card’s sides to make it appear more mint than it is. While trimming usually decreases the value of a card exponentially, the Wagner has only increased in value over time. (Go figure.) Maybe it was the legend of that Wagner card or the Red Sox fan in me, but I guess I should’ve spent a little more time fawning over that Mantle.

A shorter version of this feature ran in saratoga living‘s Luxury Issue. 

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