The Say Hey Kid is no kid anymore. Monday is Willie’s 82nd birthday which may put kids of the 1950s and 60s into a state of shock. Wasn’t it yesterday that he tracked down that fly ball to the alley? Last week when he creamed that pitch for a grand slam? No, sadly, it’s been 40 years since he last suited up and he was no kid then. What better time, though, to appreciate one of the greatest players in baseball history? Some of his earliest baseball cards are pretty pricey but here are some underrated Willie Mays cards that might prove worthy of your investment—or at least your undivided attention.
1952 Red Man Tobacco Willie Mays
Just months after his debut, Red Man put big, square, beautiful portraits of big leaguers on the backs of his tobacco pouches. This is a very early Mays card that is not only terrific looking (check out the smile), it’s fairly rare in higher grade, yet cheaper—way cheaper—than its 1952 Topps and Bowman rivals. They don’t come up for bid that often, but you can usually find a near mint, graded 1952 Red Man Willie Mays cards with the tab on the bottom for around $400-450 if you’re ready to compete in an auction. There are only 32 graded 7’s in PSA’s Registry (and only one graded 9 or better).
If you want to go cheaper and lower grade, you can, but the ‘7’ might be poised for some growth, especially since prices have actually come down on this card over the last year or two. Fewer people must be putting Registry sets together but whatever the case, that’s very good news for collectors. You can see what's available on eBay here.
Mays also appears in the 1954 and ’55 Red Man sets and those, too, are within reach of most.
If you’re not fussy about the tab, the Red Man cards are even less expensive.
Maybe you think that TV set design is ugly. Maybe the set is too big for you. Get over it. The 1955 Bowman set is a classic sleeper. Did you know there are less than half as many graded '55 Bowman Mays compared to '55 Topps and only about half of the number of graded Bowman Mays compared to Mickey Mantle yet the average price for a PSA 7 in '55 is the opposite?
- Mantle $588
- Mays $328
That’s a pretty good indicator of value, even if you have always preferred Mickey over Willie. The ’55 Bowmans are tough to find in higher grades because of those wood-grain borders. It’s hard to picture a day when a near mint, graded Mays card from this set wouldn’t be in demand. You can see graded examples here.
Say hey. Say what? How can the first-ever regular issue Mays card…his rookie card…be underrated? See above. Here’s the average selling prices on PSA 7 1951 Bowman Mays and Mantle rookie cards over the last several years:
- Mantle $13,228 (and rising)
- Mays $3,850 (static prices)
This info comes in spite of the fact that there are actually more Mantle cards that have been graded ‘7’ than Mays (96 to 102). There are more Mays in 8 and it’s pretty much a given that Mantle is more popular but that much more popular? Something tells us as time goes on, this gap has got to narrow. Either way, the Mays rookie is a solid buy at that level—or any other. Most of what you'll find on eBay are mid-to-lower grade examples which are selling for $1500 and less.
1947-61 Exhibit Willie Mays
We’ve expressed some love for the old Exhibit cards here more than once from a purely collectible standpoint. No, they can’t really be pinned down to a specific time since they were issued over several years and maybe they’re not in color-- but when you combine everything collectors love—a vintage look, a value price, a star player—what’s not to like?
Exhibit cards often show wear because of their size, but even those graded at higher levels can be found ridiculously cheap prices. Many dealers or collectors who sell online don't even bother to grade them which means you can occasionally find a non-graded example and send it in.
There’s a portrait version and a batting version but oddly, the portrait version usually sells for less even though there are fewer of them that have been graded. The batting version shows him wearing his New York Giants uniform (so we know it’s from the early to mid-50s) while the portrait version photo of him grinning puts a nice, happy look on the typically dull, sepia appearance of the old Exhibits.
You don’t see high grade examples of Mays Exhibits up for bid very often but when you see a 6, 7 or 8, don’t dally (you won’t need more than $125—way less for the 6 or 7). There are lots of them on eBay but watch out for reprints (good sellers should indicate that in their title). The stat backs from 1962 are a pretty good buy.
1964 Topps Giants Willie Mays SP
’64 Giants aren’t particularly hard to find. They are, however, some of the most attractive vintage cards ever made and the Mays is a single print in this postcard-sized set. There are 223 8’s in the Pop Report (53 9’s). With a little patience and knowledge, you can probably score one for less than $100—or less than half that for a 7. This card has dropped quite a bit in price as collectors finish off their graded sets and new cards are submitted.
This one isn’t really for investors—but as more hobby newcomers discover the set and the challenge in finding a high grade Mays—these should tick upward. At the very least, you’ve got a great looking, lower population Mays card from a very attainable old set for a very reasonable price. At last check there were just nine active listings for graded examples on eBay from which to choose.