A fresh-faced, 19-year-old rookie from Oklahoma grabs a baseball bat. He’s ready for his photo to be taken.
With the lumber resting on his shoulder while looking off to his right with a New York Yankees cap on, a photographer from the International News Service (INS) takes a few shots.
“It’s totally random,” said Henry Yee, lead photo authenticator for PSA. “There’s nothing special about it when the image was taken…This was just another spring training.”
Yee believes a photographer was assigned to the Yankees preseason camp that year.
What that photographer captured on March 5, 1951 in Phoenix has turned into one of the most iconic images in baseball card history. The black-and-white, 7-by-9-inch photo was used for the epic 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card, and obviously colorized by the card company.
“When you’re a photographer, you want to shoot Joe DiMaggio, you want to catch Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto,” Yee said. “Mantle? OK. Come over here, kid. Let’s get a picture. That was it, basically.”
Since the photographer did not receive photo credit for the image, it is unknown if it was taken by an INS staff member or a freelancer.
Ironically, Mickey Mantle’s name appears on the back of the photo so it’s clear to the news organizations picking up the photo who the player was.
“He wasn’t photographed much compared to after ’56 when he won the Triple Crown,” Yee said. “Early, original photos of Mantle are very rare.”
So, why did Topps end up using that specific image for its first Mantle card?
“That information’s lost in the sands of time,” Yee said. “Topps would obtain their images from various outlets themselves, whether it be from the teams, the news services. They were probably what we call a subscriber.
“Whatever they would get, they would use.”
Emily Kless of Topps confirmed with SCD that “those stories don’t live anywhere documented,” referring to why Topps wound up using this particular image or who the photographer happened to be or any background about the iconic photo.
It isn’t the most eye-popping image – pretty bland with Mantle just holding a bat -- but it’s certainly beautiful in the eyes of card collectors.
“Clearly, there’s a certain amount of cards in the hobby that sort of have that iconic status, you could argue that’s one of them, of course,” Hunt Auctions President David Hunt said. “The Wagner, the Eddie Plank, there’s the Nap Lajoie Goudey card. But I think what’s a little bit different about that Mantle card, and maybe even more so than the Wagner card, is it’s really that sort of iconic and visual appeal (that is known) outside of the hobby. It’s sort of when obviously baseball cards became a mainstay through the Topps company when they sort of hit that post-war boom era.”
Now that the image is 69 years old, it’s become extremely hard to find. Type I photos, which is a first-generation photo that’s developed from the original negative, are rare in general. Yee believes that at the time the Mantle image was taken, only 20-25 copies existed.
What makes it more rare is the fact that INS released the image regionally on the East Coast and not nationally. So, only the news outlets in the Tri-State Area – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – got their hands on that photo.
“Most of the copies were destroyed because there was no sense in keeping a lot of that stuff, because there was always new stuff coming in,” Yee said. “These were made to be used and then thrown away or filed away for years later or what have you.”
Today, there are only three known copies of that image to exist in the world. Yee has had the pleasure of personally authenticating all three photos. They all are encased in PSA/DNA holders as Type I examples.
Yee always finds it special to be able to authenticate rare images. It never gets old for him.
“It’s always exciting,” Yee said. “When you see something spectacular, even after 30 years of doing this, it always takes your breath away.”
“Having done this as long as I have, it’s pretty cool,” Hunt said. “You sort of have to take a minute and say, ‘Hmm, I don’t recall having one of those.’ That’s a good thing. That’s usually a very good thing if I feel that way.”
Hunt has been seeing Type I original sports photos trending upward recently, especially relating to iconic cards.
“It makes sense,” Hunt said. “It really is a natural fit or I guess an evolution of collectors who have now gotten to an advanced stage where their collections are more mature and they want to branch out and continue to grow and enhance what they have. What better way to do it than with an original image of the type of card that they have?”
A Type 1 photo of Ty Cobb circa 1910 sold for $250,000 privately in June 2019. That same photo sold for $77,098 just four years earlier.
In November 2019, Hunt Auctions handled one of the three known Mantle images – this one with Newark Sunday News stamped on the back. A private collector bought the photo privately for a record-breaking $375,000.
“I thought it was going to actually fetch a lot more, though,” Yee said. “I think it’s a great investment, if you ask me.”
With only three known images to exist, and add to that the healthy collectors market, there’s a good possibility these photos are going to keep rising in price.
“The recipe is there for that, yes,” Hunt said. “And being totally candid with you, the original owner asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Look, with a piece like this if you go back 10, 15 years ago, this would have been a thousand dollars. Maybe a couple thousand dollars.’ That’s the name of the game, is guessing, where is the ceiling? Could it be worth more?”
Said Yee: “When one does come up for market, it creates a bidding frenzy, because people don’t know when the next one’s going to come around.”