Last impressions can be hard to shake, even if you’re a living legend.
That’s why, even today, many longtime collectors and fans wince when they see the 1973 Topps Willie Mays card.
That pasteboard turned out to be the Say Hey Kid’s last base card, and the only base card to picture him as a member of the New York Mets. And there’s where the cringing comes in.
It was bad enough that the San Francisco Giants traded the aging Mays to the Mets early in the 1972 season … and it was bad enough that Mays looked like he had little left in the tank as he entered his 40s.
That was all bad enough.
The “worse” came as a curse disguised as a blessing when the 1973 Mets rode a so-so record (83-79) to an unlikely division title and then took down the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series.
That set up a World Series showdown with the defending champions, the Oakland A’s.
Amazingly (see what I did there?), the Mets took the A’s to the limit before bowing out, 5-2, in Game 7.
A pretty successful season that fell just short of the ultimate goal.
For Mays, though, it had been a tough summer, one that included a .211 batting average and a decision, in September, to retire.
He stayed with New York through their October run, though, and even saw playing time in three games of the World Series. And it was there, with the 42-year-old Mays in centerfield that the indelible final impression was cast.
An error in Game 1 as the starter gave way to a series of misplayed balls as a defensive replacement in Game 2, and then a single pinch-hitting appearance in Game 3 to end his career.
It wasn’t the ending anyone would have picked for Mays, but it was the one memorialized in the 1974 Topps set.
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Though Topps forwent making a full-blown Mays career-capper, showing all of his stats, they did feature the all-time great on their card dedicated to Game 2 of the World Series.
And, as it turned out, the card was a fitting tribute to a legend, showing Mays not struggling to catch a ball but instead striding across the plate, leaning into a pitch that he seems to have held off on.
In the game itself, Mays picked up a two-out single in his final at-bat, putting the Mets up 7-6 in the top of the 12th inning. They would eventually take the game by a score of 10-7.
Often overlooked in the pantheon of great Mays cards, that 1974 Topps World Series tribute gives us a final, dignified look at one of the game’s greats.
These days, that final Mays single sells for about $35 in PSA 8 condition and can reach $500 or more in perfect gem mint (10) condition.
No matter what the condition, though, the 1974 Topps Willie Mays card is a must-have if you want the full story about the end of the line for the Say Hey Kid.
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