Me, Hank, and the Mick: My first experience digging through a vintage sports card collection

It’s always fun when something unexpected and good pops up, right? Getting two flat tires in a week courtesy of screws laying in the road (which happened to me earlier this month), that’s unexpected and bad. Not fun. Getting a chance to look through someone’s vintage card collection for the first time (which happened to me this week), that’s unexpected and good. Fun for a sports card collector!

One of my former co-workers and an all-around good guy, Brian, messaged me on Facebook a few days ago to say that he’d been digging through some old stuff and found a couple boxes of cards from his collecting days. He’s read my blog (Hi, Brian!) and wanted to know if I’d be interested in looking through the cards for things for my own collection.

In the life of a sports card collector, this is a bit of a watershed moment. People who run card shops get solicited to look through people’s old collections all the time, but to be an individual who gets this offer, you either need to be related to the person, or known enough in your social circles as a collector to be thought of when such an opportunity arises. I’d never had this opportunity before, and I wanted to take it seriously, but I also knew right away: Yes, I’d like to look.

The thing about this is, it’s not as easy as it sounds. At first blush, you might say, “OK, I’ll look through the cards, pick out some I like, and make an offer to buy them, no sweat!” But most people’s collections are assortments of different sets and players from across the person’s time as a collector, which may have been just a few years, or perhaps a few decades. Unless you’re really well-versed in cards throughout history, you won’t know just off the top of your head which cards are rookies or even what year the cards you’re looking at were issued (card makers back in the day weren’t great at putting years on the back of the cards). And even if you ARE an expert, looking through even a small collection will take some time and some Googling to figure out what all is in front of you. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, so other than grabbing an amount of cash I felt comfortable spending, some penny sleeves and a storage box just in case, I wasn’t sure what I could do to prepare myself.

This, though, was a nice first experience with a vintage collection. Brian brought two shoeboxes full of cards to our meeting, and we talked about our lives over the last few years as I started to sort through them. On the scale of a few years of collecting to a few decades, Brian’s collection is closer to the latter, with cards spanning from the 1960s through to 2008 or so. Much like my own collection when I dug it out last year, there were a lot of loose cards from the 1980s and 1990s. Brian is a huge fan of Boston sports teams, and was disciplined in his collection of Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and even some classic Bruins such as Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.

Even as small as the collection was, it was kind of overwhelming! I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through stacks of boxes and binders in a larger personal collection. He had some really cool cards of Hall of Famers from the 1970s (one of my biggest blind spots in sports knowledge), including one of the final baseball cards of home run king Hank Aaron’s career, a 1975 Topps depicting him in his Milwaukee Brewers uniform. I was making stacks of cards as I tried to be mindful of what I wanted to potentially make an offer for, and what was cool but ultimately not something I’d be that interested in buying. It occurs to me now I could have/should have taken a photo of the stacks of cards I’d made on the table just to give a better idea of the variety of stuff he had. I got a chance to dig through the second box he brought, which was mostly commons, at my own pace at home, and I created some makeshift card dividers to organize the stacks a little better, so I took a photo of those.

A roughly 30-year span of sports card sets are represented here.

One stack near the bottom of the first box grabbed my attention right away: He had between 15 and 20 oversized baseball cards, all from the same at-the-moment-unknown-to-us Topps set. The cards were large, about postcard sized, and featured BEAUTIFUL portraits of some of the best players of all time: Willie Mays, Luis Aparicio, Sandy Koufax, Carl Yastrzemski, Roberto (called “Bob” on the card) Clemente, Hank Aaron, and perhaps the ultimate representation of capital B Baseball Card Collecting: Mickey Mantle.

What were they, though? The backs of the cards were styled like the front page of a newspaper: No stats, but a few paragraphs describing some of the sporting exploits of the athlete featured on the front. The copyright information simply said “Copyright T.C.G.” for the Topps Chewing Gum company. Brian noticed that one of the cards mentioned some things that had happened in 1963, and that helped in my searching. It also helped that the cards were oversized, as Topps manufactured large baseball cards only sporadically throughout its history.

After a few web searches came up empty, suddenly a familiar face showed up in an image search: That Mickey Mantle portrait sitting on the table with the small baseball logo in the lower corner. It was the 1964 Topps Giants set, which I knew nothing about at that moment. I’ve since learned a lot more about it.

The 1964 Topps Giants were evidently a first-of-their-kind set for Topps: 60 cards, all 3 1/8 by 5 1/4 inches (typical cards are 2 1/2 by 3 1/2), and even though it was the portrait photography that caught my eye, this set was apparently better known for its use of action/posed full-body pictures for about half the checklist in an era when portraits and close-up poses dominated. Although odd-sized cards are generally not big hits among collectors, most of the articles and message board postings I found about the set indicated it’s one of the more notable sets of the 1960s, and though it’s not especially rare, it has a special place in the hearts of many vintage collectors.

Now that we knew the set, I could look up prices. As I mentioned, Brian’s stack featured some heavy hitters (and pitchers) of the era, including many Hall of Famers. Because I’ve never really had an opportunity to buy an authentic Mantle card in person (another watershed moment for a collector), I decided to look it up first. I found several people offering ungraded versions in decent condition for between $60 and $100. Pretty cheap for a Mantle, but pretty damn good for a shoebox find! And when the card is graded — even in lower grades — the price pretty quickly climbs into multiple hundreds of dollars.

As I started telling Brian he would probably want to get in touch with a card shop in the area to appraise this stack of cards (sadly, there aren’t as many card shops these days as there were when I was growing up), I decided to look up another card that had my eye: The Hank Aaron. The results were similar. I found cards listed between $40 and $80 or so ungraded, and a few graded versions in the PSA 2 to 4 range going for $200 to $400 and up. And the thing is, most of these cards in Brian’s stack were in pretty decent condition. There was one that had gotten wavy and beat up, but the rest would probably grade between 3 and 6, with perhaps even a 7 or two, based on my admittedly amateur knowledge of grading criteria and the quick look I got at them. The centering was good on the majority of them, with minor edge wear and minimal discoloration.

I told Brian I’d be interested in the Mantle for sure, and he offered that, for the money I’d brought, I could pick two of the Giants. I thought for a moment and asked: The Aaron too? He agreed, and I slid my first Mantle and my first Aaron into the box I’d brought (which I’m thankful was large enough to accommodate their strange size).

Hammerin’ Hank

When I was in eighth-grade, I had an art project that involved photo-mosaic reproduction. We were assigned to choose a photo, divide it into a grid, and then recreate the photo in a larger format in pencil using the grid as our drawing guide. I chose a photo of Hank Aaron’s smiling face on the night he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. That smile I drew from a photo taken in April 1974 in Atlanta is almost identical to the one he wears here in this card-front photo, taken almost exactly 10 years earlier.

Hank Aaron’s baseball career was great to the point it’s almost hard to believe. He hit for average and historic power, and was a plus defensively in the outfield (three consecutive Gold Gloves in the late 1950s) until his last couple of seasons. He was a 25-time All-Star! His name and his face are both practically synonyms for “baseball.” This card is iconic, even with a small touch of discoloration on the back near the top.

The Mick

Most of the things I said about Aaron could also be applied to Mickey Mantle, the lifelong New York Yankee known both for his individual baseball achievements and his incredible team success, winning the World Series seven times by the time he retired in 1969. These days, his name is mostly associated with the incredible sums of money his earliest and rarest baseball cards are fetching at auction.

As I was telling my wife about my meeting with Brian and the cards I’d bought, I was saying that, for a collector, purchasing a Mantle — even a relatively inexpensive one like this 1964 issue — is something of a …

“Rite of passage,” she said. And I couldn’t have put it better myself. Even before the recent sports card boom that pushed valuations of high-grade copies of his early 1950s cards into the millions of dollars, getting a Mantle was a sign you were a serious collector. You’re not generally hunting down a Mantle unless you’re pretty involved in the hobby. To be fair, I didn’t hunt this one: it practically found me! In a way, though, that makes it even more special. There’s a little element of fate, here.

So I guess, if the blog entries over the last several months haven’t made it clear, I’m officially pretty involved in the hobby. And I’m glad to have had the chance to dip deeper into the world of vintage collectable cards. Thanks again to Brian for the opportunity!

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