Nearly 50 years after his retirement from major league baseball, Willie Mays still has drawing power.
Original artwork of the Say-Hey Kid, which was used for the Hall of Famer’s 1953 Topps card, is up for bid by Lelands Auctions in the company’s 2022 Summer Classic Auction. Proceeds are going to charity.
The iconic art shows a young Mays in his New York Giants road uniform clutching a baseball in the outfield in one of those posed shots that made Topps cards so endearing to collectors in the 1950s and ’60s.
The auction will close on Sept. 17. The painting opened at $50,000 on Aug. 28 and soared past $177,700 after only 48 hours. As of Tuesday evening, bidding had reached $186,673, not including the 20% buyer’s premium that will be added to the eventual winning bid.
Mays, 91, is baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer and recently underwent hip replacement surgery.
The artwork offered by Lelands is small, measuring just 3.5 inches by 5 inches, with Mays’ name written twice on a blank reverse, along with the “N.Y.” team affiliation. His full name is written in script in ink, while “Mays, N.Y.” appears to be written in red, possibly in crayon. There is adhesive residue on the back but none on the front of the artwork.
According to art and artifacts scholar David Cycleback, Topps created cards from the paintings by taking photos of them and making a plastic negative. The photographic image from the negative would then be transferred to a printing plate (one for each color) and those plates were used to print the color image of the player. The artist’s name isn’t known. Gerry Dvorak painted about 50 of the players used in the 1953 set but indicated in a 1984 interview that he hadn’t done Mays or Mantle. Several artists participated in the project and were reportedly paid $25 per painting (about $277 today).
The auction lot includes a copy of the 1953 Topps card (No. 244) of Mays, a short print in the set. The card was the second of Mays put out by the Brooklyn, New York-based company. Mays’ first overall card in the big leagues was his rookie card from the 1951 Bowman set, a horizontal shot showing him in a batting pose on card No. 305. Bowman followed up in 1952 with card No. 218, a vertical design that featured artwork of Mays batting.
The artwork was originally bought during the fabled Topps Archives auction in August 1989 for $88,000 by the Marriott Company.
Marriott bought the Mays card and paid an additional $110,000 for the original artwork used for the 1953 Topps Mickey Mantle card.
Topps had put more than 35 years’ worth of its proofs, photographs and cards on the block, basically emptying its archives vault.
“Collection fever is at an all-time high,” Topps spokesperson Norman Liss told The Associated Press at the time. “There was tremendous stuff in our files which had never been seen.”
“What we really wanted was Mantle and Mays together,” Marriott spokesperson Roger Connor told the AP in 1989. “Our must-buys were Mantle and Mays.”
That fever, as today’s collectors will tell you, is even more pronounced in 2022. Prices for the Mays are going to be much higher this time around, having already doubled the 1989 price tag.
After securing the artwork, Marriott used it for promotional purposes and created a limited-edition print, which was marketed and sold for charitable purposes. In 1991 Marriott donated the Mays artwork to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, where it has remained for the past 31 years.
The artwork was consigned to Lelands by the nonprofit organization, which proceeds earmarked for helping children receive medical care. The sale coincides with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which is recognized every September.
While the artwork will be coveted by advanced collectors, the 1953 Topps card that was the end result is coming along with it. PSA, has examined 2,274 1953 Topps Mays cards, with only one PSA 10 card and one PSA 9 on the company’s Population Report. The card that’s being included with the painting is a lower grade example.
SGC’s population report shows 679 cards of Mays from the 1953 Topps set have been graded, with two cards attaining a grade of 9. Two other cards have been certified as SGC 8.5s, with eight cards attaining an SGC 8.
How beloved is Mays? While he only played two seasons with the New York Mets (1972-73), on Aug. 27 the franchise retired his No. 24 uniform.
During his career, Mays was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player and won a batting title. He hit 660 home runs, stroked 3,283 hits and drove in 1,903 runs. Mays earned 12 Gold Gloves and 24 All-Star Game berths.
Those numbers are shining tributes to Mays’ career. The artwork, up for sale for the first time in over 30 years, promises to shine more light on Mays’ legacy.
While the auction included one-of-a-kind proofs, uncut sheets and items, Josh Evans, who founded Lelands and was in attendance during the original two-day auction in the summer of ’89, was on target with a prediction.
”The opportunity to a collector is incredible,” he said. “Art is the best thing, better than the cards themselves.”