Mickey Mantle: In death, still king of the collectors’ world

In the 24 years since baseball Hall of Famer and New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle died, an amazing thing has happened to the collectability of his signed baseballs: demand has kept up with the supply.

According to sports memorabilia experts, Mantle signed around 600,000 baseballs from 1990 until his death in 1995. Along with his fervent popularity at autograph shows in the 1980s, there may be one million signed Mantle balls in existence.

“Mickey was the king of the hobby when he died,” says Larry Canale, columnist, and editor-at-large for Sports Collector’s Digest. “And not much has changed.”

Outside of Babe Ruth, no baseball player dead or alive commands the sports memorabilia market with so much sentiment. A big part of that reason is that Mantle interacted with so many fans through his autograph appearances.

“He was signing 800 pieces at every [autograph show] he went,” says Randall Swearingen of Beaumont, Texas, who worked with the Mantle family in an attempt to open a Mantle museum.

“He used to joke how he was making so much more money signing than playing ball,” Canale added. In the final years of his life, Mantle was commanding around $70,000 for a three-hour appearance.

“The Mick” played 18 years, slugging 536 home runs and winning the 1956 Triple Crown of leading the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in, before retiring after the 1968 season. He earned a total of $1.128 million during his playing career. In 1993 alone, he had a $2.75 million deal with the baseball card company Upper Deck for exclusive sales of his autographed memorabilia.

You would think an overabundant supply of Mantle-signed balls would ultimately cripple his secondary market for sellers and buyers. Nope.

So, when official Rawlings-produced baseballs began developing a browning defect on the leather, the Mantle market stayed strong. Today, the price of a bold Mantle signature on a clean white ball can jump into four figures. A Mantle-signed ball with browning can command anywhere from $175 to $350. Professional Sports Authenticators value his ball at $500.

Mantle has effectively punched the top and bottom of his seller/buyer market.

“If you want a signed Mickey Mantle ball but don’t want to pay $1,500, you can get one with the brown toning for $250,” says Simeon Lipman, sports memorabilia appraiser for the PBS television show Antiques Roadshow. “But in 30-40 years, that ball might look like a piece of charcoal. We don’t know.”

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