It’s easy to put together a list of the best Willie Mays cards. You start with his 1951 Bowman rookie card and 1952 Topps high number and slide up the calendar for a few more. It’s not rocket science.
While those iconic cards representing the first 12 months of his career are important, there are others that are worth owning– and they’re not nearly as pricey.
In no particular order, here’s a list of 5 great vintage, cheap Mays cards, most of which are within reach for the average collector.
1. 1952 Red Man Tobacco
As a whole, the Red Man sets probably should be worth more than they are and grading has increased the value of some of the best, but most are still reasonable. One of Mays’ first cards, the text on the front mentions his Rookie of the Year award, his pending Army status that took him away from baseball for a while and another sensational catch he made against the Dodgers in 1951.
The cards with tabs attached can cost more, but you can usually buy a pretty solid one without the tab on eBay around $200.
2. 1958 Topps “Rival Fence Busters”
This card features Mays and Duke Snider, two of the brightest stars in New York baseball. It was taken the season before but by the time kids opened packs containing this card in 1958, both Mays’ Giants and Snider’s Dodgers had moved to the west coast. It’s rare when a seminal moment in history aligns on one baseball card.
Nice examples can usually be had for under $40.
3. 1958 Hires Root Beer
You can imagine kids begging mom to buy bottles of Hires to get the baseball card. The soda maker produced a nice-looking set featuring big league stars in the summer of ’58 and Willie was included, of course. It’s a food issue that obviously isn’t in huge supply and has always seemed a little underrated to me.
While those that retain the bottom tab can be hard on the wallet, it really doesn’t add much to the card. The Mays Hires one of the coolest regional issues of one of the greatest players ever and if you’re patient, you can sometimes find a lower to mid-grade one for under $500. OK, maybe it’s not cheap, but it’s a toughie, a bit underrated and fun to own.
4. 1962 Topps Managers Dream
Willie appears on several multi-player cards throughout the 1950s and 60s but the title of this one is perfect considering the guy he’s standing next to is Mickey Mantle. Who wouldn’t want to pencil these two into the lineup every day?
It’s sort of a reunion of 1950s New York baseball stars…and who’s that Milwaukee Brave standing behind Willie’s left shoulder? Yup. The Hammer. That’s 1,951 home runs on one piece of cardboard. If you were to pick one card to represent a particular era of baseball, this might be it.
There are all kinds of these on eBay and $100-150 will buy a very respectable example.
5. 1959 Topps Baseball Thrills
Topps wasn’t really into ‘highlight’ cards during its first several years as a card maker but in ’59, their ‘Baseball Thrills’ issue featured several great moments including that famous catch in the ’54 World Series. The sequential photos were a new thing. This card brought Mays’ ongoing greatness into focus for kids who were too young to remember.
Despite the rudimentary imaging available at the time, it’s still a really well executed card commemorating one of the most memorable moments in baseball and decent copies are very inexpensive.
Of course, Mays is featured on a lot of cards issued in the last 25 years, too, and he’s signed plenty for Topps. A lot of them are nicely done like the 2003 Finest Refractors that also shows ‘the catch’ or the simplicity of the 2001 Topps Golden Anniversary autograph that marks an important time in the card company’s history. However, it’s that original cardboard that will take you back to a time when fans coast-to-coast wondered what Mays would do next.