(This is Day 10 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Some base sets just leave me so cold that it’s tough to justify picking any particular card as the best of the year. See 1968 for an example.
But the 1969 Topps set has plenty to offer, including a clean design and clear, crisp photography.
And it also has Mickey Mantle‘s last card.
Here are seven reasons — I mean “7” reasons — why Mantle is Number 1 in ’69.
It’s a Mickey Mantle Card
First off, some disclosure — I’m not a huge Mickey Mantle fan.
It’s not that Mantle wasn’t a great player, because he certainly was. Probably a top-20 all-time player no matter how you look at him.
But Mickey Mantle is — deep breath — overrated by a fair bit. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Still, there is no denying that few players can match the mystique of Mantle, and just the glimpse of one of his cards thrills even the detractors among us. Heck, we owe a large hunk of the 1980s boom and today’s thriving vintage market to Mantle and his 1952 Topps (faux) rookie card.
So pretty much any Mantle card issued during his career instantly becomes a candidate for “best card of” whatever niche you’re considering.
It’s Mickey Mantle’s Last Card
There was a time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, after the rookie-card craze had created stupid situations like teenagers investing in 100-card lots of 1986 Topps Traded Kurt Stillwells, that a cadre of thinking collectors tried to inject some reason into the situation.
First, they came up with the idea that second-year cards were undervalued. The reasoning went that, while rookie cards often forced a young superstar to share cardboard real estate with one or more lesser lights, second-year cards almost always featured a solo shot. And the price disparity was crazy for cards issued just a year apart — sometimes up to a factor of 10,000 (possible slight hyperbole).
Then came the notion that final cards should be the most desirable of all a player’s cards since it represented the entirety of his storybook career. Never mind the fact that even future Hall of Famers were generally fat and gray on their last cards.
Or that last cards were usually issued during a player’s last season, meaning the statistical records fell short by a year.
Still, there’s something special about knowing that you have the final edition of something, that there are no more chapters to read.
And in the case of Mickey Mantle’s last card, his 1969 Topps issue, it really was something special.
That’s because …
It Showcases the Complete Mickey Mantle Baseball Story
Turn over Mantle’s #500, and the top of the card tells you all you need to know:
The All-Star announced his retirement on March 1, 1969!
They couldn’t believe that Mantle had left them in the cardboard lurch without a bona fide New York Yankees legend to showcase each spring and summer, and neither could the rest of the baseball world.
How could the great Mickey Mantle be done at just 37 years of age?
Well, it was because of women and booze and knees, of course, but still …
It was probably small consolation at the time that Mantle’s spring retirement meant his 1969 Topps card showed all his statistics, but it’s a boon to us now.
There were no more cards, and there were no more seasons — Topps managed to wrap up the Mantle package in one neat, 2-1/2″ X 3-1/2″ swath of cardboard that has told Mickey’s complete story for nearly 50 years.
It Wasn’t a Recycled Photo
If you’re a fan of late-1960s Topps baseball cards, you might have noticed that some of the base cards in the 1969 set look familiar.
Somehow, Mantle avoided this fate and scored three different photos across the three sets. And, for our money, the 1969 base card is the best of the bunch, giving us the cleanest look at that famous Mantle mug.
A small percentage of 1969 Topps cards in the #400-511 range somehow escaped the factory with white letters where there should have been yellow letters.
The culprit seems to have been a printing flaw of some sort, but the effect is much more significant. All of the white-letter variations are scarce and always in high demand, but one stands above them all.
Yes, that’s right — Mickey Mantle’s last Topps card exists with the white-letter variation.
According to the PSA Population Report, there have been a total of just over 5300 yellow-letter Mantles submitted for grading but just 880 white-letter specimens as of this writing. Only one of each variation has scored a single GEM-MT 10.
As you can imagine, the white-letter card can bring some hefty sums — $4000 and up for PSA 8s and $1000 or so for PSA 6s.
In brief, the Mickey Mantle white-letter error is what happens when C. Nettles mates with the T206 Honus Wagner.
Mickey Mantle Belongs to the 1960s (and 1950s)
Mickey Mantle was always the clean-cut All-American Boy next door that dads admired and moms secretly … um …. well … also admired.
Never mind that he caroused with the best of them and had all sorts of other foibles that would have corrupted his image. Mantle was, in many ways, the embodiment of what we all thought the 1950s and 1960s were about — the resurrected American Dream, full of so much promise and hope.
He was the perfect Yankee legend to take over The Stadium when Joe DiMaggio bowed out, or at least looked and acted the part.
Sure, he’s older on his 1969 card than he was in those vaunted early 1950s issues, but he’s still the same in many ways — powerful, focused, dignified — again, at least by all appearances.
It would have been great for his fans and his numbers had he been able to play another five years, but Mantle as an icon just doesn’t seem like a fit for the 1970s. I mean, can you imagine Mickey with sideburns and a mustache, all atop a loud leisure suit?
Oh, the humanity!
Maybe Mickey Mantle Isn’t So Overrated After All
Look at the top of Mantle’s card back again, right there before the line about his retirement:
Mickey is third on the All-Time Home Run list!
Apparently, Topps was surprised by this fact. So was I.
At some point, I probably knew Mickey finished his career in third place, but I had long since misplaced that memory.
Not quite — Willie Mays checked in at a cool 587 dingers, a full 77 ahead of Hammerin’ Hank.
But yeah, Mickey was good.
Among his 2400+ hits were those 536 home runs, 344 doubles, and 72 triples. He also walked 1733 times, good enough for a career OPS of .977, making him about 72% better than his peers with the bat.
Add in a peak that few other players have ever approached, and you have a guy who is among the best of all-time.
Hype or not.
And it’s all there on the back of his 1969 Topps card (you know, except for the Sabermetrics bits).