Any debate about the greatest baseball players of all time will eventually lead to a kid who grew up in the segregated south, dreaming of a big league career but knowing as a youngster it might never happen.
Eventually he got his chance. Willie Mays could do it all and look great doing it. He played in three decades, was an All Star 20 times, Gold Glove winner 12 times and named Most Valuable Player twice. So which are the best Willie Mays cards to own and what makes a Mays card great?
His name belongs right along Cobb, Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle or any other all-time great you can name. But unlike his fellow legends, there are LOTS of his baseball cards from which to choose. Because his career spanned three decades, there are as many vintage Mays cards available for collectors on a budget as there are high-end rookies for those willing to break the bank on the player many think is the greatest who ever lived.
Below is a list of Willie’s best – from the high-end treasures only a few can have to the reasonable but no less beautiful we all can afford.
1951 Bowman No. 305: Willie’s rookie is a beautiful card from a beautiful set, but it’s one of those cards only available to collectors with fairly deep pockets. Among post war cards, Mays’ ’51 Bowman is second in price only to Mickey Mantle’s first Topps and Bowman issues – albeit a distant second. There’s really no limit to what you might pay in order to acquire a really nice example. There has yet to be a PSA 10 example of the card and there are just nine 9s out there – one of which fetched a whopping $73,000 in a 2008 Memory Lane auction. If you want one, and aren’t too particular about condition, you can find an OK one for a little under $1,000.
1952 Topps No. 261: The cardboard parallels of Mays and Mantle are striking. Both appear as rookies in the 1951 Bowman set and again in the scarce series of 1952. Willie’s ’52 Topps card makes him look a little angry but it’s among the keys to the most important Topps set of all-time and honestly, it’s probably undervalued. There are only about 200 more 1952 Topps Mays on PSA’s Population Report than Mantle but the price for a lower-end, graded Mays is about one-tenth what a Mantle will cost you.
1953 Topps No. 244: This artwork of Mays shows him in a fielding position which makes it unique. His second Topps card is far more affordable than his first. Although prices have been steadily climbing, you can still own a ‘5’ (EX) example for a little under $1,000 if you shop around.
1954 Topps No. 90: Although he may not have one signature great season, he certainly has a signature moment. That came during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series when Mays turned in a defensive play that has simply become known as “The Catch.” His card that year is arguably just as beautiful as was his wizardry against Vic Wertz.
For aesthetic quality, this is definitely one of the best Willie Mays cards to own. An eye-catching yellow background picturing a young, smiling fly-catcher about to win his first MVP award makes the 1954 Topps Mays one of the nicest cards in a gorgeous set. They’re not cheap, but there are a lot of them out there and you can find a respectable one in the $125-$200 range.
1957 Topps No. 10: Because Willie Mays doesn’t have a signature season that stands out in a career full of them, it’s hard to single out one card as his signature issue. Mays’ ’57 card is great not because of the year he had – although he was great that year – but rather because the card is a perfect convergence of a number of factors. It was his and the Giants’ final year in New York. It’s a classic pose in a sought after set. It’s a low number and it’s about as early a Mays card as you’re going to find for under $100.
Very nice copies can be found in the $80-$100 range, such as this sharp PSA 5 which recently sold for $83.
1965 Topps No. 250: Willie’s best season may be up for debate, but there’s no question his 1965 campaign has to be a part of the conversation. Mays won the MVP again in ’65, bopping a career-best 52 homers along with 112 RBI and a .317 batting average. Willie had good years after ’65, but the numbers did start to trend down so it would be fair to say that 1965 was Mays at his peak. I’ve always had a soft spot for the ’65 set and for the Mays card specifically. It’s not particularly expensive – nice examples are readily available for $60-75 – but for whatever reason this has always been a card I’ve thought of when I think of Willie Mays.
1971 Topps No. 600: The 1971 Topps baseball set looks like no other Topps issue before or since. Those midnight black borders make the set a complicated one to put together in superior shape. Scarce mid- and high-number cards add to the degree of difficulty which is why Mays – who is in the sets’ fifth series – is a bit of a challenge especially in great shape. No PSA 10s have been encapsulated, but 12 9s have been and they carry a SMR price of $3,200. Those gems are mostly in private collections but a PSA 8 recently fetched over $1,100. Cards that aren’t in elite condition run the gamut and can be had literally anywhere from $20-$60.
Want to find out which Mays cards might be underrated? Click here.