The first time I met Mickey Mantle I was standing on the dais at the first-ever, Upper Deck Authenticated (UDA) kickoff press conference luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA. The date was Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1992. As the editor of Trading Cards magazine, I was tasked with covering Upper Deck’s grand unveiling of its newly launched autographed memorabilia division. At the end of the press conference, members of the media were invited up on stage to receive a signed baseball from Mickey, who was one of four new UDA celebrity spokesmen on hand, a lineup that included Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Reggie Jackson.
As my moment approached, I was handed a UDA-branded baseball by UDA PR rep Marje Bennetts and walked toward Mickey. I handed him the baseball, which he gladly signed in blue ballpoint ink. What’s interesting, almost perplexing about this handoff, is that the balls they gave to attending media that day were souvenir balls and not Rawlings Official MLB baseballs. As I discovered several months later, even after keeping the ball out of direct sunlight, is that the flawless signature inked by The Mick that day was starting to bleed into its pseudo leather surface. Call it growing pains by Upper Deck, I guess.
The following day, UDA invited members of the hobby press to gather at the Universal CityWalk in nearby Universal City to witness the grand opening of its first-ever retail store. Mantle was once again in place, picking up new baseballs out of multiple 12-count Rawlings boxes, signing them all with precision, and placing each one back in its individual holster with utmost care. I was one of the earliest to arrive, so I grabbed a spot right next to Mickey and chatted him up. We discussed his career, the highest annual salary he ever commanded as a ballplayer (“$100,000″ which he first earned in 1963 and remained his salary through ’68) and the incredible resurgence in his own popularity. When we were done talking, he handed me one of the newly signed baseballs and that one – with its beautifully crafted “Half Moon M’s” – remains front and center in my personal collection.
MICKEY’S DEMISE, LASTING IMPACT
Mantle died less than three years later at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. In fact, it was exactly 24 years ago today when he succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver at age 63. His tenure with UDA was short-lived, hampered in part by a lawsuit filed by the company for “performance issues” when Mickey checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic halfway through his contract. Mantle’s estate would ultimately win the case filed by UDA and his loved ones were well taken care of as a result of Mickey signing a second, multi-million-dollar contract with the trading card giant prior to his passing. But it would be Mantle’s lasting impact on the hobby that remains one of his greatest legacies.
The first-ballot, switch-hitting Hall of Famer was an incredible performer for the New York Yankees. He was brought up in 1951 and eventually replaced the aging, soon-to-be retired 36-year-old Joe DiMaggio in center field. Mantle himself retired following the ’68 season, but not before collecting 2,401 hits, including 536 home runs, and driving in 1,509 runs. He was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player three different times: 1956, ’57 and ’62. But what’s most amazing is that the Yankees won seven World Series titles during Mantle’s career, one in which the Bronx Bombers made 12 separate trips to the Fall Classic. In a word, Mantle and the Yankees “owned” Major League Baseball from 1951 to 1964. Did you know that Mickey still holds the MLB record for most home runs ever hit in World Series play? He smashed 18 round-trippers during his multiple appearances in the Fall Classic. Babe Ruth remains in second with 12.
From 1949 – during his time in the minors with the Independence (KS) Yankees of the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League – until his death 46 years later, Mantle signed baseballs, bats and other assorted pieces of sports memorabilia. His 1952 Topps #311 card has become a treasured piece of cardboard that sold at auction in April 2018 with a grade of PSA Mint 9 for $2.88 million. Only the fabled 1909-11 Honus Wagner T206 card has ever sold for more: $3.12 million (Oct. 2016). Mantle’s single-signed baseballs, depending upon condition, average $500 apiece but have often sold for much more. In fact, in Dec. 2017, a single-signed “Stat” baseball by The Mick (inscribed “HOF 1974, MVP ’56, ’57, ’62, TC 1956, 536 HRs”), that originated from the Mantle Family’s auction of 2003 and was graded PSA/DNA Mint 9, sold for $15,600! Another Mantle single-signed baseball, graded PSA/DNA Gem Mint 10, fetched as much as $5,040 in Nov. 2017.
Mantle’s historic feats on the field of play and his love of life off it made him an American icon. He was a living legend during his career and a much-admired, sought-after commodity long after his playing days ended. He brought energy to a room and drew large crowds whenever he appeared to sign autographs. His popularity continued to grow to the point where his sought-after autograph soon became one of the most forged in the collectibles industry. Today, 24 years following his passing, Mantle’s coveted memorabilia continues its ascent in hobby circles as new, higher prices are realized every year at auction houses across the country. And his authentic, beautifully crafted signature remains at the top of every baseball collector’s wish list, right where it should be.