You’ll sometimes hear the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle referred to as his rookie card. I guess if you’re strictly a Topps collector it is. Topps didn’t yet have a full MLB license until then so the famous #311 card from the scarce series is the first time Mantle appeared on a Topps card. However, true fans of vintage baseball cards know that the 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle is really his true rookie card.
Despite being a double print in the 1952 Topps issue, Mantles still sell for thousands of dollars, even in lower grades. The smaller 1951 Bowman is valuable, too, and it represents the actual start of The Mick’s legendary career…the first time kids enamored with the youngster from Oklahoma saw his image emerge from a pack of bubble gum cards. The ‘true’ rookie card not nearly as pricey as the ’52 Topps, though.
Let’s take a look at the PSA Population Report to see how many of each are out there.
- As of this writing, PSA has graded a total of about 1,600 1951 Bowman Mantle rookie cards compared to over 1,200 1952 Topps.
- There are 9 PSA 9 1951 Bowman Mantles compared to 6 1952 Topps
- There are 49 1951 Bowmans graded PSA 8 compared to 32 1952 Topps
- There are 104 1951 Bowman cards graded PSA 7 compared to 70 1952 Topps
- There are 172 1951 Bowman cards graded PSA 6 compared to 105 1952 Topps
It’s clear the ’52 Topps is harder to find…but not that much harder. That myth has been debunked by the grading company population reports. About 25 years ago, many assumed the numbers weren’t that close.
Despite the fact that there are only 34 more 1951 Bowman Mantles in PSA 7 holders than 1952 Topps, the average selling price of a PSA 7 1952 Topps Mantle is now pushing past $40,000. The average selling price of a PSA 7 1951 Bowman Mantle is barely over one-third of that: $15,511.
Those numbers would seem to indicate that the 1951 Bowman Mantle —the true rookie card—is underpriced. The ’52 Topps set carries the prestige of being Topps’ first major issue, a very challenging set to put together and on the whole, Mantle’s #311 is a far more attractive card. It’s immensely popular with vintage card collectors who have the financial resources to chase it. Once the market for 1952 Topps Mantle cards begins to reach a level where it is out of reach of most collectors, though, the focus could shift to its logical counterpart.
All things considered, it would seem the 1951 Bowman Mantle (see them on eBay here) would provide a better value—just in a smaller size.