If you were looking for the quintessential Willie Mays baseball card, the choices would be pretty clear-cut.
First, you have his iconic 1952 Topps issue, not technically a rookie card but still the pasteboard most collectors mean when they refer to the “Willie Mays rookie card.” Alongside the Mickey Mantle card from the same set, Mays” #261 helped build the Old Gum Company into a juggernaut that would unseat Bowman less than four years later.
Of course, there is also Mays’ real rookie card, #305 in the 1951 Bowman set. You know the one — Mays cocked in his batting stance with a sour look on his face with a tarp and a barn in the background. Apparently, Bowman expected Mays to spend the 1951 season in the New York Giants’ literal farm system.
Maybe the most iconic of all Mays’ cardboard is his 1953 Topps issue, #244, which is one of hundreds of gorgeous cards in that set based on paintings by Gerry Dvorak. If there is a Hall of Fame of dream cards, this one would surely sail in on the first ballot.
Finally, there is the 1965 Topps Mays card (#250), which depicts an older, thicker Mays with two bats resting on his shoulder. By that point, he was the elder statesman of the San Francisco Giants and on the verge of a 52-homer, MVP season that would be among his finest ever, at age 34.
But even though he began his career well over 60 years ago and hung up his spikes more than four decades ago, the cardboard chronicle of Mays’ Major League journey was not limited to standard-issue Topps and Bowman sets.
While there may not have been as many card choices in the 1950s and 1960s as there would be 30 years later, or the the whiz-bang gadgetry of even more modern sets — autographs, holograms, one-of-ones, etc. — there were still plenty of Willie Mays baseball cards to be found, if you knew where to look.
In 1968, when Mays had moved into second place on the all-time home run list behind only Babe Ruth, one place you could look for “Say Hey” cards was your local Amoco station.
That year, American Oil developed a series of “Winner’s Circle” cards that urged customers to collect both portrait and action shots of an individual player in order to win the prize shown on the action shot. The set was issued in perforated two-card panels that paired standouts from baseball, football, racing, the Olympics, and other sports.
The Mays card shown here was most often found as the right-hand side of a panel, paired with racer Parnelli Jones, pole vaulter Bob Richards, golfer Gay Brewer, running back Gale Sayers, and at least a couple of Chevy cars (Camaro, Corvette).
The PSA population report shows that the Mays card does exist in a left-hand version, but that one appears to be several times more scarce than the lefty version.
Although you don’t hear much about this issue, you can usually find single Mays cards, separated from their partners, for under $50 in decent condition on eBay.
There are plenty of oddball Willie Mays baseball cards to satisfy even the most pasteboard-thirsty collector, but the 1968 Amoco release is a great example of the national impact that Mays had on the game when he was still active and the heir apparent to The Babe. Six years before hank Aaron smashed the homer record, it was Mays’ for the taking.