In a couple of months, we are going to be watching the auction of items from the Sy Berger Collection that include original paintings from 1953 Topps, and included in that grouping will likely be work from the legendary artist Gerry Dvorak.
It is a point of considerable irony that Dvorak is remembered more in our hobby – he was also an animator for cartoons like Popeye and Casper the Friendly Ghost – for a painting that he didn’t do than he is for the estimated four dozen that he actually did for the classic 1953 Topps set.
When the Mickey Mantle original artwork from the 1953 set sold for $121,000 in the 1989 Guernsey’s Topps Archives Auction in New York City, it provided the hobby and the mainstream media with a good glimpse of what was to come over the next 20 years.
In that ensuing two decades, the notion that Dvorak had painted that iconic gem has become widespread, but it just ain’t so. When the auction was held there was no mention at all of who the artists where who painted the half-dozen originals in the auction (Mantle, Mays, Campanella, Feller, Ford and Jackie Robinson), and not a peep since. I can promise you that if the guy who painted the Mantle were still alive, he likely would have stepped forward at the time and got some mileage out of his 15 minutes of fame.
In doing some of the editing for the Mickey Mantle Collectibles Series currently under way in SCD, the question came up again, so I went back and did some research. In a wonderful article in the August 1984 issue of Baseball Cards Magazine, Dvorak told interviewer Paul Green that he thought he had done about 50, and identified nearly a dozen from the set that he remembered.
That list included Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews and Red Schoendienst, but he also specifically conceded that he hadn’t done the Mantle (or Mays) cards. He did explain that Topps officials had told him he could have as many cards as he wanted of the various paintings he did, or even of others that he hadn’t done, and he lamented that the Mantle and Mays cards were “the ones selling for big money.”
And remember, this was a full five years before the Guernsey’s auction, and he was talking about the value of the Topps cards, not the original artwork.
The most famous painting in the history of the hobby, and there’s nobody to lay claim to it. I've got a feeling this one is going to remain a mystery for a very long time.