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. Sixty years ago Monday, though, he became a guy you’d want in whatever set you were producing—or buying. The short video clip of Mays chasing down a deep fly ball off the bat of Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series lives on as one of the greatest catches ever made.
While those iconic cards representing the first 12 months of his career are important, there are others that are, too, and they’re not nearly as pricey.
- 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 buy a nice one without the tab for less than $100—sometimes a lot less.
- 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 $40-75.
- 1958 Hires Root Beer: You can imagine kids begging mom to buy Hires to get the baseball card. These aren’t terribly hard to locate and while they’re expensive with the bottom tab, it doesn’t add much to the card. Grab your tables Hires card when you spot one and know you have one of the coolest regional issues of one of the greatest players ever and you didn’t spend more than $150. OK, maybe it’s not cheap, but it’s still a bargain.
- 1962 Topps Managers’ Dream: Willie appears on several multi-player cards throughout the 1950s and 60s but the title of the card is perfect considering the guy he’s standing next to is Mickey Mantle. It’s sort of a reunion of 1950s New York baseball stars…and who’s that Milwaukee Brave in the background? Yup. The Hammer. $100-150 will buy a very respectable example but there’s no harm in a lower grade one either.
- 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.
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 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.