When Mickey Mantle retired in 1969, he left a hole in the game that wouldn’t be easily filled.
To wit, for the first time since the 1910s (or maybe even before), the New York Yankees prepared to enter a decade without a marquee superstar.
Sure, young Bobby Murcer was supposed to be the next “Next Mickey Mantle,” and Roy White had already developed into an unsung star, and Mel Stottlemyre was an All-Star on the mound.
But there was no one who could even sniff the rarefied *legend* status of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, White Ford, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Mantle, and all the other Yanks greats who had dominated on the field and in the headlines for so many decades.
And so 1970 came without much hope in the Bronx.
And, in the hobby, 1970 came with a different kind of hole — no new Mickey Mantle baseball cards!
It was a rough time if you were a Yankees fan, a collector, or — heaven forbid — both.
By 1980, though, the diamond world had changed yet again. In a way, everything old was new again.
When shipbuilder George Steinbrenner bought the Yanks in 1973, a proud franchise that had fallen into the ho-hums of disrepair got a sudden shot of energy — and cash!
Over the next few years, Steinbrenner would spend, spend, spend, helping to usher in the age of free agency and putting together a team that won World Series titles in 1977 and 1978 and was competitive all through the latter half of the decade.
Along the way, Bombers faithful also witnessed the rise of homegrown superstars like Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry, who teamed with imports like Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph and others to once again lift the Yanks to the pinnacle of the sport.
And, after a one-year gap in 1970, when the hardball world was still reeling from his departure, Mantle began to make a cardboard comeback, beginning with a modest postcard entry in 1971.
By the end of the decade, the Commerce Comet had appeared on a dozen or more cards, ranging from Topps retrospectives to TCMA specials to handheld representations of his Hall of Fame plaque.
Even in retirement, it seemed, Mantle was a constant in a world of change — free agents came and went, Billy Martin came and went, a World Series title led to “what’s next?” questions
In 1979, Yankees captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash.
But Mickey Mantle baseball cards? They were always there, once we picked up our collective jaw from the warning-track dirt in 1970.
Ten years later, as yet another new decade dawned and as the Yanks were working their way back to the postseason, Mantle himself landed on a half-dozen or so cards.
One of those cards even tied Mantle almost directly to Munson (aside from their obvious ties as fellow Yankee greats).
That summer, Munson appeared in caricature form in the Laughlin Famous Feats set, a card honoring Tugboat for his seven consecutive hits in the 1976 and 1977 World Series.
And just down the pasteboard street, around the corner from the pink hunk of gum and under the shade of a wax pack flap, Mantle showed up on another Laughlin property, namely as a member of the 300/400/500 set:
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As you might have surmised from the name, this issue celebrated men (28 of them) who had reached one of baseball’s hallowed milestones: 300 career wins, a .400+ batting average in a single season, or 500 home runs.
There were 30 cards in all, including a title deal on #1 and two Ted Williams cards — the Splendid Splinter was the only player with both 500 dingers and a .400 mark to his name.
But if you were a Yanks’ fan enjoying the then-current run of success while casting a wistful eye back toward the even more glorious past, it was Ruth (714 homers) on card #2 and The Mick (536 homers) on card #18 who mattered most.
Today, that fun, diamond-shaped swath of Mantle is about a $50 card in top graded condition. Raw, it might cost you ten bucks or so to make your own.
But for us old fogeys, this card is something more.
It’s a reminder that, even as the world whirls around us, there are always touchpoints we can come back to, can depend on to always be there.
For millions of fans and collectors, and for 70 years running, Mickey Mantle baseball cards have fit that bill.