The Honus Wagner T206 card for my money (and just about anybody’s, really) is the most important baseball card of all time. I wrote about it in my recent article about the T206 set and with a selling price topping $3 million in 2016, is the most expensive baseball card in the world on record.
That record, it seems, is being threatened.
Heritage is offering up a Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps PSA 9 in an upcoming auction. As Forbes writes here, it could surpass the Wagner record as the most expensive card of all time. That is, and should, be huge news and would be a noteworthy feat, assuming it happens.
If/When the Mantle breaks the record, some collectors will assume that it’s the relinquishing of the crown of sorts for ol’ Honus. But in reality, while that specific Mantle card may be more expensive than a Honus Wagner card being sold on the record, it really doesn’t mean that much in terms of comparing the overall importance of the two cards.
The biggest reason the Mantle can surpass the Wagner is a simple matter of grading. The current record-holding Wagner was graded a PSA 5 with a miscut designation. As a rule of thumb, designations generally push a card down two full grades, making that card more like a PSA 3. By comparison, the Mantle card is a PSA 9 – nearly perfect. Putting up a nearly perfect card against one that’s essentially graded a VG is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
But even beyond the grading of these two specific cards, let’s take a closer look at the rarity. As I’ve preached in the past, rarity (particularly when dealing with pre-war cards), isn’t always the best indicator of value. But when you’ve got two high-profile cards in demand as we do here, it’s usually a big factor.
The Mantle card isn’t exactly plentiful but is hardly scarce. PSA has graded more than 1,500 of them and SGC’s given us nearly 500. Forget the Wagner – the shortprinted Mantle isn’t even as rare as things like the Ty Cobb T206 green background card by PSA’s counts as they’ve graded about twice as many Mantles. And comparing the Mantle to the rarity of the Wagner is even more mind-boggling. Between both PSA and SGC, there haven’t even been 50 graded.
The Mantle 1952 Topps card is really driven by two things. First, it’s the card and player of choice of the childhood of a lot of older collectors. The Wagner card is more than 100 years old and doesn’t have that same base any more. Second, like the Wagner, it’s the most important card in one of the hobby’s most important sets. The 1952 Topps set is one of the Big 3 in the hobby (along with T206 and 1933 Goudey issue) so the Mantle card is one of the highest-profile cards around.
The reality, however, is that pound for pound, it really is nowhere near the prestige level of the Wagner. It’s just not even close, to be honest.
None of this is to disparage the Mantle card, obviously. No matter what we all collect, we can respect cards from different eras. It’s an important card and the more of those the hobby has, the better. But even if this Mantle card surpasses the Wagner, it should be kept in the proper perspective.