By Ron Keurajian
I have always considered the two biggest names in the world of baseball memorabilia to be Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. Everyone else is a distant third. Choice memorabilia of these two legends can easily crack six figures and should a high grade T206 Cobb back ever enter the market it would easily sell for $2 million and perhaps as high as $5 million.
Over the years I have closely watched demand for Mickey Mantle memorabilia, in particular, autographed items. He is the biggest name of post-World War II baseball. He leaves Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio in the dust. Demand for Mantle items, both signed and unsigned, is huge. Prices for his autograph have exploded in the past couple of years. Certain items have doubled in value in a 12-month period. I now place Mantle, in terms of demand, alongside Messrs.’ Cobb and Ruth.
Known as the Commerce Comet, Mantle made his major league debut April 17, 1951. He hit 536 homers to go along with 1,509 RBI. He won the MVP award three times and in 1955 secured the Triple Crown. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 while on the ballot for the first time. Mantle remains one of the true legends of the game.
Mantle’s signature is one that has greatly evolved through the years. Early signatures look nothing like modern specimens and this causes confusion. Early signatures, accomplished in the first few years of his career, are signed in a practical and legible hand. This form of signature is pensive in nature with a slight hesitation noted. The capital letters “M” are more traditional and do not exhibit the sweeping base found in later signatures.
Early signatures exhibit average display value and letter construction. This form of signature is rather easy to replicate and well-executed forgeries do exist.
By the mid-1950s the signature becomes flowing and hesitation is lacking, though it does not exhibit the flamboyant hand of more modern signatures. The capital letters “M” somewhat resemble Stan Musial’s hand. By the mid-1960s the hand transforms into the signature that most collectors are used to seeing. The signature is large and bold with nice sweeping strokes. Mantle’s hand remained this way for the remainder of his life.
Mantle lived a rather reckless lifestyle and hit the bottle with regularity. He lived hard and died young. In August 1995 Mantle died of complications brought on by liver disease. For collecting purposes Mantle’s hand remained strong his entire life. Mantle did sign a few signatures shortly before he died and these specimens exhibit a shakiness of hand. The population of these signatures is only a few. Given the limitless population of signatures in the market, “death-bed” signatures should be avoided in total; they simply cause too much controversy to bother with.
In the late 1980s and 1990s the big three Hall of Famers, in terms of demand, were Mantle, Williams, and DiMaggio; with Sandy Koufax and Musial tagging close behind. Mantle was generally an unresponsive signer unless compensated. Mail requests for his signature were ignored. In person he was an erratic signer. Most requests were denied. I have heard many collectors tell me that he was a rather rude individual and could, at times, be outright nasty.
Having said that, Mantle attended countless shows and autograph signings. Private signings were also common. He signed multitudes of items for years as such the supply of his autograph seems to be a bottomless pit. The most common mediums are photos, baseballs, commemorative baseball cards, and postcards, such as the Perez-Steele editions and Hall of Fame issued plaque postcards. Perez cards from the three major sets exist in good quantities and make for a fine display.
Less common are signed Topps gum cards from his playing days. Signed 1953 Topps cards are rare and signed rookie cards from 1952 are very rare. Signed photos and baseballs with teammate Roger Maris are scarce and most offered for sale are forged. Signed bats are uncommon and most offered for sale are forged; having said that a good number of genuine specimens do exist.
Signed documents, such as contracts and bank checks, are rare and command a premium. Autographed letters signed are very rare and seldom surface. One nice specimen, with baseball content, sold for $5,700 in a Spring 2017 auction hosted by Robert Edward Auctions. Typed letters signed, on the other hand, exist in ample supply.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Mantle had a fan club. If you joined you would receive a signed form letter, on personal letterhead, hand signed by Mantle in full. As an extra bonus it also came with a fan club membership card. This is about the only source of Mantle letters in the market.
Mantle was a rather crass person and he had a bad habit of signing autographs, mostly baseballs, with profane inscriptions. While scarce, a handful of these do exist and they command a premium.
Where to begin?
Mantle is one of the most forged signatures in all of autographdom. It is hard to peg a percentage; but it is safe to say that the majority to vast majority of Mantle signatures offered for sale are forged. Forged baseballs are the most common and I have literally seen thousands of bogus baseballs. Signed baseballs with the inscription “No 7” are a favorite with forgers. Authentication companies have wrongly certified these as genuine by the boat load.
There are many signed 8x10 photos featuring Mantle and Maris holding bats; a countless number of forged specimens exist. Many times this photo will contain a genuine Mantle and a forged Maris signature so careful examination is needed. There is a sizable amount of dual forged baseballs of these two legends. These were created by the same forger. They are Lee MacPhail American League baseballs. A forgery of Mantle is placed on the sweet spot and the Maris forgery is placed on the side panel. It is signed perpendicular to (and just above) the MacPhail logo. The Maris forgery is signed in a lighter ballpoint pen. Many of these baseballs are on the market.
Mantle’s signature is valued at $100 to $125. Signed photos and Perez Steele cards are valued between $250 and $300. Signed Topps cards from the 1960s sell for $600 to $900. Signed mid-to-late 1950s Topps cards (excluding All-Star cards) sell for $1,000 to $2,000. Signed baseballs sell for $300 to $400, with exceptional examples starting at $1,000. Dual signed photos with Roger Maris sell for $1,250 to $1,500.
Signed baseballs by both have been known to sell for $5,000 to $7,500. Typed letters signed sell for $400 to $500. Autographed letters signed will sell for $2,500 to $3,000. A letter with exceptional baseball content I could see selling for over $10,000. Signed commemorative baseball bats make for a fine display and sell for $1,500 to $2,500.
Should you choose to invest in Mantle signed items spend the extra money and buy the premium items and the material with superior display value. In the long run this should result in the best rate of return.
Mantle is, far and away, the biggest name of post-war baseball. Demand is tremendous and his signature is highly coveted and will remain that way for decades to come.
Attorney and portfolio manager Ron Keurajian is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest, and is the author of the award winning Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs – A Reference Guide (McFarland & Co., 2012) and Collecting Historical Autographs (McFarland, 2016).