The First Eight-Figure Baseball Card

- by Michael Stillman

The first eight-figure baseball card (Heritage Auctions image).

We have written many times about new record prices for baseball and other sports cards, but only because so many records have been set in recent years. This sort of paper collectible, small in stature but large in price, has been growing in value at an astounding pace in recent years. Those of us who collected and flipped cards in our youth, including those of the then active Yankee outfielder Mickey Mantle, could not have imagined what has happened to the value of the cards our mothers threw away. For some of us, we still can't.


A new record was set for the auction price of a baseball card, or, as best we can tell, any type of sports card or sports collectible. It was the first to reach eight figures. On August 27, a sale at Heritage Auctions closed, and the final bid on a 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps baseball card was hammered down for $12.6 million. That is not a misprint - $12.6 million.


For comparison, a new record for a baseball card had been set earlier this month when a 1909 Honus Wagner card sold for $7.25 million. The card for the early 19th century Pittsburgh star has for decades been the most valuable baseball card, though in recent years, Mantle has been jockeying for that position. Now in the late innings, it has turned into a rout. This price exceeds the old record by 74%. It is as if someone not only beat Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, but beat it by hitting in 97 consecutive games. Or, it is as if someone beat Bobby Bonds' home run record of 73 by hitting 127 (how many steroids would that take?), or Hank Aaron's career home run total of 755 by hitting 1,310. It is inconceivable, isn't it?


Mantle earned his chops in the collecting world in 2021 when his 1952 card sold for $5.2 million. It should be noted while that was a very good card, this one is a little better. The $5.2 million card was graded at 9.0 while this one is a 9.5. Heritage pointed out that it is the “finest known example.”


Mickey Mantle was unquestionably one of the great baseball players. He was a star of the powerful Yankee teams of the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the most exciting events in baseball history was Mantle and teammate Roger Maris' competition in 1961 to beat Babe Ruth's home run record. Mantle lost that race, but his overall career far outstripped that of his 1960s teammate. Still, it is somewhat surprising that Mantle's baseball card is so far and away the most valuable. As great and popular as he was, Mantle is not the iconic figure of a Babe Ruth. There are others, such as the aforementioned DiMaggio and Aaron, or Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb, that stand on the same pedestal. ESPN ranked Mantle as “only” the seventh greatest Major League baseball player of all time.


According to the Celebrity Net Worth website, Mantle's first contract was for $7,500. It grew over the years, but at its peak, Mantle earned $100,000 in a season. In total, they say he made $1,128,000 over the course of his 18-year career. They estimate the current value of what he earned in his entire career is $9 million. And now, $12.6 million paid for a 2 5/8” x 3 3/4” rectangle of stiff paper bearing his likeness. The Yankees got one helluva deal.


I have searched the auction records for examples of books and similar paper collectibles to see what can stand up with this baseball card for price. It is a lonely landscape. The most regular visitor to the 7-8 figure price range is John James Audubon's magnificently illustrated first edition of Birds of America. It is also a double elephant folio in size, 26 1/4” x 39 1/2”. The best price in the auction records I could find was $11.5 million. How about a Shakespeare First Folio, the most important and valuable book by the greatest literary figure of the western world? Nope. The best I see is just under $10 million. A copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in America, still exceeds the Mantle card, having sold for $14.165 million in 2013. The Rothschild Prayer Book also managed $13.605 million in 2014. The 54-page Einstein-Basso manuscript, an early account of the theory of relativity, sold for about $13.75 million. Then there is da Vinci's Codex Leicester, purchased by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30.8 million. Finally, there was the first printing of the final text of the U. S. Constitution sold to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin for a cool $43.173 million last year. Mickey Mantle joins a very exclusive club.


Is this a good investment? So far, every step before this has been one. Still, in the long term, I wonder. The beauty of Audubon's Birds of America has enabled its value to continue to grow almost two centuries later. That will not fade with time. Shakespeare has stood the test of time. He is still the greatest four centuries later and I imagine he will be when time adds another one. Will Mantle still have the same level of fame and admiration 100 years from now? He was a star for his time, but for all time? I don't know.