My top 5 ballot, Baseball Card Hall of Fame (the “Inner Circle,” as we say) would have to include:
1. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle
Besides the exceedingly rare T-206 Wagner, Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps rookie card may be the most sought-after prize in collecting. As a baseball card, it is an iconic piece of memorabilia – a rookie card of one of baseball’s greatest. When considered as a work of art, however, and considered within the context of the subject’s life, the card becomes something greater. It is portrait of a young man on the cusp of superstardom, still unsure if his talent and guile will help him outrace the demons on his trail. The perspective of the viewer, at an angle from below – like a 10 year-old may have seen him in person – gives Mantle an imposing size. He is strong, he is vulnerable, he is young, he is ageless.
2. 1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Jr.
Card #1 in the set that was to baseball cards what “Nevermind” was to pop music. 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. was a game changer. When the set was released, Upper Deck was heralded for its sophistication and modern design, but it was just The Kid and his face that became the iconic symbol of the baseball card and sports memorabilia investment bubble of the 1990’s.
3. 1909 T206 Honus Wagner
When I was about 8 years old, I somehow ended up with a set of replicas of some of the great baseball cards of the past. Instead of replicating the true backs of these cards, there was a short writeup of each on the back. The T-206 was called “the most valuable baseball card in the world,” and said to be worth over $200,000. It was – and still is – a marvelous sum for a tiny piece of cardboard.
More recently, the card has sold for up to $2.8 million.
4. 1933 Goudey Gum Babe Ruth
In 1933, the Goudey Gum Company may have been the first chewing gum manufacturer to offer baseball cards in its packaging as a way to entice children to try its wares. In the process, the Goudey Gum Co. produced one of the finest and most sought-after sets of all time. There is something about the posture and figure of George Herman (Babe) Ruth on the front of this card that captures the Sultan of Swat magnificently.
5. 1914 Cracker Jack Ty Cobb
Like the 1952 Mickey Mantle card, this card of Ty Cobb succeeds as a baseball card, but also as a portrait of the man and what he represents. He wields the bat like a club. His face expresses a terror and empty look that, to me, evokes some of the mania of Travis Bickle.
“You talkin’ to me?” Cobb seems to be saying.