When Brady Hill entered his teenage years, he was big into buying baseball cards.
Hill watched Darryl Strawberry make a splash as a rookie in 1983, and he jumped on collecting the New York Mets phenom. But Hill’s dad had a little advice for his son: Sell the Strawberry rookies and buy Mickey Mantle.
“I was convinced probably early on that Darryl Strawberry was the finest baseball player that ever hit the planet when I was 13,” Hill said. “‘No one’s going to be any better than this guy.’ It turns out dad was right. Sell the Strawberrys and (Don) Mattinglys and go buy Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.”
Dad was a bright guy. He changed his son’s perspective about the hobby. Now, 35 years later, Hill is a big-time Mantle and vintage baseball cards collector.
The Louisiana native possessed a couple Mantle cards in the mid-1980s and met the New York Yankees legend at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Arlington, Texas, in 1985.
Hill shared a booth with some dealers at the National for a number of years as a teenager. He recalls selling his cards and competing with all the adults who were also set up.
“A lot of people called me ‘The Kid’ back then because not many kids had baseball cards on their table,” Hill said.
When Hill went off to LSU in 1989, he sold most of his card collection to pay for schooling. Basically, the only card he kept that had any value was a 1954 Topps Hank Aaron rookie.
After some time away from the hobby, Hill jumped back in – with both feet, he says – about nine years ago. Hill can’t remember exactly why he got back into collecting, but he recalls a certain moment that helped sway his mind.
“We moved and I was in New York and I had to go to my safety deposit box,” Hill said. “I saw my Aaron in there and I was like, ‘I wonder what this is worth?’ And I kind of looked it up on eBay and I was like, ‘Wow. I think I should get this card graded,’ because it was raw. My eye eight or nine years ago was a little different than it is today, but I was like, ‘Man, this is nice.’ It came back a 7.”
Hill got the card back from grading and decided to trade it for a 1969 Topps Mickey Mantle – the version that has Mantle’s last name in white. The Mantle was worth more than the Aaron at the time.
“I still have the kid in me that wants to trade and buy and sell,” said Hill, who is the chief executive of Greensource, which is an apparel company. “I love that part of it. But there’s some things that I don’t want to sell anymore, too – at least for a while because I still enjoy them.”
When Hill got back into collecting, he never lost the desire to obtain cards that he loved from his childhood. One set that drew him in was 1984 Donruss. Hill completed the master set with all PSA 10s. It’s been the No. 1 ranked master set in the PSA Registry for the last seven years.
“I don’t even know what it’s worth,” Hill said. “It’s not worth near what I have in it, I know that.”
Hill has a population 1/1 with a PSA 10 Diamond Kings Matt Young “Steele” error.
Hill also grew up loving the 1984 Fleer Update set. He finished that set off and is tied for the best set in the world with all PSA 10s.
Sticking with vintage, Hill has compiled some impressive pre-war sets. His favorite has to be 1914 Cracker Jack. There are only 23 sets registered through PSA and Hill is at No. 3. His cards average a 5.2 grade in the 100-card set. Two of Hill’s favorite cards from the set are the Christy Mathewson and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, both graded 5. Hill’s Ty Cobb card is a beautiful 8. Hill has two 1/1s in the set, a 6 of Chick Gandil and a 5.5 of Heine Zimmerman.
Hill’s T206 set is also a gem. He built the set with centering in mind, not grading. He said 80 percent of the set is centered extremely well.
“The search was 5s and 6s of commons that are dead centered and Hall of Famers I would buy up to 7s and 8s if they were dead centered,” Hill said.
Hill has a Ty Cobb green portrait in a PSA 8 and red portrait from The Lucky 7 Find in a PSA 2.5. His Eddie Plank in a PSA 4 is strikingly well centered.
“That’s pretty indicative of my set,” said Hill, who has searched for sets on eBay and checks auction houses daily to see if anything piques his interest to acquire cards and memorabilia.
The only two cards Hill is missing from the famous set are the Honus Wagner and Joe Doyle – the extremely expensive and rare example with his hands above his head. Hill’s Sherry Magee, misspelled Magie, is his lowest graded card in the set at a 3. So, Hill struggles with the fact that if he acquired a Wagner or Doyle, it would be a lesser grade.
“I’m not going to get a Wagner 5, 6 or 7 because there’s not one without a qualifier,” Hill said. “I don’t have any qualifiers in my set. It would cost so much, that’s why I struggle with those two cards in particular. The Doyle is so expensive, I kind of go back and forth, do people really care?
“It’s hard to spend that kind of money on Joe Doyle.”
Hill – who has a couple Caramel sets as well: E93 and E94 – figures he has about 1,700 different front-back combinations of the T206 cards.
At the 2017 National Sports Collectors Convention, Hill had on display an entire case of T206 Cobb cards. It was an impressive sight.
‘The Mick’ is still the man
Hill has always carried with him his dad’s advice to buy Mantle cards.
He first picked up a 1952 Topps Mantle about seven or eight years ago in a PSA 8 and sold it. PSA has graded 35 examples of 8s, and Hill figures he’s probably handled eight of those over the last eight years. He likes to buy, sell and trade that card.
“I love that card,” Hill said. “A lot of people are like, ‘The Honus Wagner (card) is the face of the hobby.’ But I think it’s still the ’52 Mantle.”
Hill currently has two Mantles, graded 8 and 5.5.
“If there’s such thing as dead-dead centered, the 5.5 is dead-dead centered,” Hill said. “That’s still where my eye goes when I look at any card – 70 percent of it for me is probably centering. If a card’s not really close to centered, then there has to have something else to it that draws me in.”
Hill has owned a 9 – there are only six graded at that number by PSA – and 8.5 in the past. Would Hill like to obtain another 8.5 or 9 in the near future?
“If there’s an opportunity, you have to weigh that out,” Hill said. “My 8 is really nicely centered. A lot of 8.5s that I’ve seen aren’t centered as well as my 8. I don’t want to go up in grade and have something that I don’t appreciate as much.”
Hill has the No. 7-ranked – yes, Mantle’s number – Mantle basic set from his cards from 1951-1968.
Another pair of Yankees greats Hill likes to collect are Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Hill owns a 1933 Goudey Ruth in a PSA 8, a Gehrig rookie in the 1925 Exhibits with a 2 grade, and a ’34 Goudey of Gehrig’s in a 2.5. But the collector’s most iconic Ruth is the 1916 (M101-4) Sporting News. Hill has two of the only a handful of known grade 7s.
“Babe Ruth rookie,” Hill said. “Don’t really need to say anything else.”
Hill doesn’t pick up just Ruth and Gehrig cards, but any memorabilia that strikes him. He owns a contract from Ruth in 1933 and one from Gehrig in ’34. He has single signed baseballs from each legend as well as a combination signed ball. Hill also has an impressive print from the 1932 World Series that is signed by Ruth and Gehrig.
“Super cool photo,” Hill said. “That’s probably my favorite thing I own.”
Hill may not have a T206 Wagner, but he has a fabulous 1910 E98. It’s a gem mint PSA 10 from the Black Swamp Find.
“To me, that Wagner’s a real special card just because it’s a 100-year-old Honus Wagner in a 10,” Hill said.
Investing in his future
Hill loves the hunt involved in collecting cards – buying, selling, trading. It’s all exhilarating.
But another big reason Hill is shelling out large chucks of cash for cards, is as an investment piece. He feels more confident that his cards will perform well than entirely putting all his money in stocks that could plummet overnight.
“I’m not sure anyone who’s spending the kind of money on baseball cards really just thinks of it as pure enjoyment,” Hill said. “For my wife and I, it’s an alternative investment. It’s not a traditional stock. There’s definitely a place for that, and we definitely have that bucket covered, too. It’s an alternative way to keep yourself diversified.”
Having been in the collecting world for some time, Hill knows when it’s the right time to pick up cards or the right time to dump them. It’s a systematic approach.
“For me, I like when supply and demand collide – or rarity and demand collide,” Hill said. “I don’t like to have things necessarily like an odd-ball Cobb there’s only two known of because maybe they don’t trade. And how to do you value something that never trades?”
According to an article in The New York Times in March 2018, over the past decade, the ’52 Topps Mantle has appreciated 590 percent, while the ’54 Topps Aaron has rose 829 percent and ’33 Goudey Ruth is up 305 percent.
Hill isn’t surprised by the surges in card prices in the last few years.
“They’re really non-expensive in the world,” Hill said. “Think about the art market or the comic book market or the coin market. A lot of this stuff is way more scarce, worth less and way cooler. Would you rather own a, I don’t even know coins, but an obscure coin for half a million dollars or a Babe Ruth rookie or a ’52 Mantle? For me, it’s a no-brainer. But there’s another guy out there who’d rather have the coin.”
Hill keeps the majority of his cards in multiple safety deposit boxes. When The New York Times wrote its piece earlier this year, Hill was asked if he could have a few of his best cards on hand for a photo shoot. He told The Times he would have to stop off at a few different banks.
“I don’t pull that stuff out all the time and when I pulled it out, I was like, ‘This is awesome,’” Hill said. “I take pictures of my stuff online because I keep records of things so I can enjoy them that way. But it’s not the same as holding it in your hand.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.