Willie Mays, one of only three members to reach the 500 home run and 3,000 hit clubs, is considered by many to be the greatest all-around baseball player who ever put on a major league uniform. He had awesome power, terrific speed, a fabulous glove, and he did it all with a love for the game that was obvious to all. He ended his career with 660 homers, 3,283 hits, a .302 average, 12 Gold Glove awards, and two Most Valuable Player awards. That is just a sampling of Willie's outstanding achievements. One of his most amazing statistics might be that he led the league in steals and homers four times each! Now that is power and speed. When he retired, only Babe Ruth had more career home runs. For all of his talent and numbers, Mays endured a tough road to the Hall. From early career struggles to unreachable expectations and racism, Mays overcame it all to become regarded as one of history's best.
When Mays was only 14 years old, he began playing baseball on his father's steel mill team. He was a natural. When Mays would make a catch or step into the batter's box he would imitate his boyhood idol Joe DiMaggio. Mays simply loved to play baseball. Eventually, that love helped him become one of the last players from the old Negro Leagues to be selected by Major League baseball. Mays got off to a slow start: he went 1 for 26 to begin the 1951 season for the New York Giants. Mays was so depressed that he asked his manager, Leo Durocher, to send him back to the minors because he didn't think he was good enough to play at the major league level. Durocher told Mays that there was no way that Mays was going back to minors as long as he was manager. Mays would finish the 1951 season strong and, as his career progressed, he would develop a very close relationship with Durocher. Mays felt a surge of confidence as a result of Durocher's encouragement, and it was Willie's incredible confidence that would define his career.
Despite Willie's accomplishments, he remains underrated. He could run like Mantle, field like Clemente or DiMaggio and crush baseballs like Aaron. Most of his teammates and opponents will tell you, without hesitation, that Mays was the best. Then why is he so underrated? Maybe it was that Mays was often shy and many times misunderstood. Maybe it was that Mays was black at a time when racial tensions were high. Maybe it was that Willie's flamboyant style offended those who were from the "old school." Regardless, if you had to choose one player to build a team around ,or one player that you would pay to see, you could never go wrong with Willie Mays. He did on the field what James Brown did on the dance floor; he made it look so easy. He was baseball's ultimate entertainer.
Unlike players from the pre-war era, Willie Mays is featured on many cards. From the 1950s onward, Mays is featured in some of the most desired sets in the hobby. In fact, Mays is featured in many obscure, regional and post-career sets as well, which gives collectors affordable alternatives to his more popular cards. Because of time and space limitations, SMR will focus on Willie's more desirable issues.
A great aspect to collecting Willie's cards is that his cards are more affordable than are some of his contemporaries. This is despite the fact that Mays is considered the best of his era. Mays cards are generally more affordable than those of Mantle, Williams or Clemente. This is good news for potential Mays buyers - you won't have to pay for his greatness. Now let us take a look at Willie's most appealing cards.
1951 Bowman #305
|1952 Bowman #218|
|1952 Topps #261|
|1953 Topps #244|
|1954 Bowman #89|
|1954 Topps #90|
|1955 Bowman #184|
|1955 Topps #194|
|1956 Topps #130|
|1957 Topps #10|
|1958 Topps #s 5 and 486|
|1959 Topps #s 50, 464 and 563|
|1960 Topps #s 200 and 564|
|1961 Topps #s 150, 482 and 579|
|1962 Topps #s 300 and 395|
|1963 Topps #300|
|1964 Topps #150|
|1964 Topps Stand-Up|
|1965 Topps #250|
|1966 Topps #1|
|1967 Topps #200|
|1968 Topps #50|
|1969 Topps #190|
|1969 Topps Supers #65|
|1970 Topps #600|
|1971 Topps #600|
|1972 Topps #49|
|1973 Topps #305|
As you can see, there are quite a few Mays cards to choose from even though this is an abbreviated list. These cards range dramatically in difficulty and price, so let us begin. The 1951 Bowman issue is Willie's official rookie card. This horizontal card is extremely difficult to find in high-grade. Centering seems to be the biggest problem. The great aspect of this card is that, besides being Willie's rookie card, the set also contains another great center fielder's rookie card. That player is, of course, Mickey Mantle. The popularity of the overall set always helps the value of a particular card and, with the 1951 Bowman set, you have two of the best rookie cards ever. Willie's rookie card has a lot going for it.
The next few years produced more great Mays cards. The 1952 Topps Mays, considering the importance of the set, is somewhat undervalued. It is Willie's first Topps issue, and the 1952 Topps set rivals the 1933 Goudey Set as possibly the most desirable set in the hobby. The Topps set is a much larger issue than the Bowman set and the cards possess tremendous eye appeal. The reason for the affordability of this Mays issue may be a high-grade find of 1952 Topps cards that surfaced in the mid-1980s. The perception is that high-grade examples are not that hard to find;however, many of those "found" cards were not well-centered. The 1952 Bowman is also very difficult to find in high-grade, and it appears in the high number series. The Bowman Mays is priced at about half of its Topps counterpart but is far tougher.
In 1953, Mays did not appear in the Bowman set, but his Topps issue is one of his best cards. The card is, once again, in the high number run and the tough black bottom border is very susceptible to chipping. Recently, the only PSA Gem Mint 10 known sold for $95,000 at auction. The price paid for that card alone should tell collectors how desirable this Mays card is. In 1954, Topps and Bowman produced Mays cards but the Topps issue is far more popular. The Topps version has vibrant yellow color and a nice close-up shot of Mays. The Topps set also included a Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks rookie card, which Bowman failed to do. The same thing happened with the 1955 Bowman and Topps sets. Again, the Topps version is far more desirable because of the aesthetic beauty and because Bowman forgot to include a few key rookies. Mr. Koufax, Killebrew and Clemente were left out. By the way, Bowman also failed to include a guy by the name of Ted Williams. The Bowman set is extremely tough in high-grade because of the solid brown borders and because they included a Mantle card that is left out of the Topps set.
Bowman ceased producing cards in 1956, making Topps the only regular issue card for many years to come with the exception of a few Fleer sets in the early 1960s. Willie's Topps issues from 1956-1959 are all very popular. The 1958 Topps Mays is, without question, tougher to find in top grades because of the poor paper stock. The 1960s produced several terrific Mays cards, but certain issues are clearly more difficult than others. The 1960 Topps Mays is surprisingly tough to find sharp and is subject to common print defects. The 1962 Topps Mays might be the toughest of the group. Finding this card in a PSA NM-MT 8 grade or better is very challenging. This card is plagued with problems. The card has easily chipped brown borders, is subject to centering problems, print defects and picture quality issues.
One of Willie's most eye-appealing cards is his 1963 Topps issue. The yellow-colored bottom border presents chipping problems and, once again, printing defects are common. The only other Mays card that rivals the 1962 version in difficulty is the 1966 Topps Mays. As the #1 card in the set, this Mays presents serious problems. Often, the first card in any set is often damaged from rubber bands and other storage mishaps. Even if you found a 1966 Mays that came straight from a pack, the centering on this card is all over the place. All in all, this is one of Willie's best cards. Willie appears on several other eye-appealing cards from the 60s, which is fitting for a guy that is so photogenic. Some other fan favorites include his beautiful 1965 Topps card that possesses tremendous color and his obscure but attractive 1969 Topps Supers example. With Mays, it is just so hard to choose.
Finally, in the 70s, Willie's career came to an end. His 1970 and 1971 Topps issues remain tough to locate in top grades. The black borders on those 71s are killers! His 1972 Topps card is a great card because of its great eye appeal and his 1973 Topps card helped cap a wonderful career, one that may never be equaled.
Mays appears on the some of the most desirable and tough cards from the 1950s-1970s. Assembling a complete Mays run would be a great accomplishment, considering some of his more difficult issues. One of the great aspects of collecting Mays cards is that he is extremely undervalued when you consider his accomplishments, so the average collector can afford some of his cards. Some say Willie may be the greatest all-around player who ever set foot on a baseball field. You will get no argument from me.