Once trash, now treasure: The story behind the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card

It’s one of the best stories in sports collection history. And it’s what led the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle to become the “holy grail” of baseball cards.

Back in 1952, Mickey Mantle was a young star who played for the New York Yankees, the team that won the World Series that year (and the three years before). The home run Mantle hit in the 8th inning of Game 6 was the first of his record 18 career World Series home runs.

Mantle and the other Yankees were represented by Jerry Coleman, a man the 29-year-old Sy Berger sought to befriend. In 1951, Berger had started working as a summer intern at Topps Company, which just a year before that had decided to try to increase chewing gum sales by packaging the gum together with trading cards.

Box of 1952 Topps baseball cards

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“I was just a young kid when I joined the Topps family, and they knew I was a sports nut, and they just let me go. No strings, no binders, just go do it,” Berger, who eventually became vice president of licensing, told Sports Collectors Digest in 2010. “They let me express myself, design wise, what we put in the cards. As far as the relationship outside the cards, how to negotiate with the ballplayers, nobody ever told me how to do it, they just said, ‘Go do it.’”

So Berger hung out in major-league dugouts and became friends with hundreds of ballplayers, signing them to exclusive Topps contracts. “Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were young guys then, and I sort of gravitated to them. It was a good experience. They had their names in the box scores every day, and now you are walking around among them. Later on, I became a fixture.”

Berger’s work paid off. “The 1952 Topps cards were selling like we were giving away gold. I went to J.E. Shorin (one of Topps’ founding brothers) and said, ‘What do you think about a second series?’ He asked if I could get it out quickly.” They did get the next, much smaller series out fast (especially since the backs included statistics) - but the cards stopped selling.

“The 1952 high series went all over the country, everybody was happy to buy it, but when it didn’t sell that was when we found out what returns meant. It was clogging this warehouse in Brooklyn,” Berger recalled. This was at a time when baseball cards weren’t treated like collectibles, they were purely consumer product. So, at the end of the year they got rid of the cards to make room for the next year’s.

Seven or eight years later, Berger tried his hand at sales, hoping to pawn them off wholesale at carnivals at the bargain-basement price of 10 for a penny. But he still had 300 to 500 cases, including cards featuring Mantle, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson, that were simply unsellable.

“I couldn’t give them away. So we said let’s get rid of them. I found a friend of mine who had a garbage scow and we loaded the three trucks-worth on the barge.” A tugboat pulled them off the New Jersey shore and they dumped the cards into the Atlantic Ocean, never to be seen again.

Of course, if they hadn’t, the few that remain wouldn’t be considered the “holy grail.”

You can see one of the rarest ‘52 Topps Mantle cards in the world at the History Colorado Center July 16 - 18!