Two of baseball’s greatest post-War icons began their careers during the same season, but Willie Mays outlasted Mickey Mantle by five full seasons. It makes us all wonder what a 1970, ’71, ’72 or ’73 Topps Mantle would have looked like.
It also gives us a few more years to chronicle when we examine the population of graded Mays cards. Willie’s cardboard career lasted from 1951-1973 and we crunched the numbers at each primary card from Topps and Bowman. The idea was to offer some insight into which particular cards will likely be the hardest–and easiest–to find in high grade.
As we’ve done recently with Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and others, we took some time to calculate the percentage of graded Mays cards that rated an unqualified 8 (NM/MT), 8.5 (NM/MT+), 9 (MINT) or 10 (GEM MINT) in a given year.
Again, to keep it simple, we focused on PSA graded cards but we suspect the populations of other grading companies would be similar. The final chart is below, but here are some observations in looking at the data as a whole:
*The population of NM/MT and better 1953 Topps cards is the lowest (50) of any primary card from his playing days. There is one ten and only two 9s in the PSA Pop Report. Just 2.8% of all PSA graded ’53 Topps Mays have rated 8, 8.5, 9 or 10. That’s the lowest percentage of any vintage Mays card.
*Only 70 1952 Topps Mays have rated 8-10 (3.285%). That’s a small number—one that would be even smaller if not for the group that was part of Mr. Mint’s famous uncirculated ’52 Topps find that took place in the 1980s.
*The fewest number of PSA-graded Mays cards from any year is his 1951 Bowman rookie card, with only 1,693 total examples recorded. The ’53 Topps is second with 1,789. Those are the only two years in which fewer than 2,000 Mays cards have been graded by PSA. A surprisingly small number of 1954 Bowman cards have been graded (just 2,124). That’s a significantly lower number than 1954 Topps (3,075).
*The number of graded Mays cards skyrockets in 1956—a fact we also discovered when examining the population of graded Mantle cards. There are anywhere from two to nearly seven times as many high grade 1956 Topps Mays cards as there are in any year leading up to that time.
*Which pre-1960s Mays card that doesn’t have a colored border is scarce in high grade? That would be his notoriously off-center 1958 Topps issue. While there are 311 1957 Topps and 430 1959 Topps in PSA 8-10, there are only 126 ‘58s–just over 4 percent of the entire ’58 Mays population.
*The most plentiful high-grade Mays population? Not his last card issued in 1973. It’s the 1972 Topps, with a whopping 1,401 cards in 8-10. That’s nearly twice as many as any other year, likely due to his appearance in the typically fast-selling first series (he’s #49).
*As for the 1960s, the largest number of high grade Mays cards can be found in the 1967 Topps set with 754 rating 8-10.
*Willie was card #1 in the 1966 Topps set and the old adage that the first card in any set is tough to find in high grade holds true here. Just 247 (8.78%) of those graded by PSA have been awarded a grade between 8 and 10. That’s by far the smallest percentage of any year from 1963 on up. By comparison, there are 557 1965 Topps in 8-10 (19.8% of the total population of graded Mays cards from that year).
*Not surprisingly, cards with the dark-colored borders are among the most difficult Mays cards to find in high grade. Just 70 1955 Bowman Mays have rated 8-10; only 95 ’62 Topps and just 303 from the otherwise plentiful 1971 Topps set, making it one of Mays’ pricier late career cards.
Percentage of PSA 8, 8.5, 9 or 10 Willie Mays cards by year