My mom recently found a pack of old baseball cards in the bedroom desk of my father, who passed away nearly two years ago. The cards were of players from the former New York Giants, his favorite boyhood team, including his favorite player, the great Willie Mays. She gave them to me and wondered if they were worth much. I didn’t imagine so, but after returning home and Googling the Mays card, I was stunned.
A 1953 Topps Willie Mays card could be valued from $2,000 to $150,000 depending on its condition. I was certain my dad’s card could bring toward the low end of the range, and I fantasized the high end. It seemed pristine, at least to my untrained eye. Of course it was in fine condition: It had never been man-handled or, more accurately, boy-handled. My father was already 22 years old by 1953. That he had kept the card in his desk drawer for so many years after moving with my mom several times over his life astonished me.
From what I could tell, only a few hundred of that particular card exist. A baseball memorabilia expert online praised its artwork, a gauzy portrait, as if Rembrandt had been commissioned to paint the center fielder preparing to make his signature “basket catch.” Topps’ ‘53 Mays is especially hard to find in good condition, the reviewer wrote, because of a thick black bottom border that was easily scuffed. My imagination lost its cap as it dashed home: The border on my dad’s card was perfect.
It was all so poetic: A love of baseball that my grandfather discovered in the Polo Grounds of Upper Manhattan a century ago and had passed down the line had led to a rare, valuable baseball card passed down the line. I spent a couple hundred dollars to get the card insured, packed securely, express mailed and then professionally graded by one of the few companies that performs such work.
The card turned out to be a reprint from 1991.
It was slightly narrower than the original, with a few other small distinguishing details undetected by my untrained eye. My dad likely bought it in the 1990s, already a grandfather then but still nostalgic for the team he had adored before it was uprooted in 1957 to California from New York. The card’s current value: maybe $10. Before I’d anxiously mailed the card to be graded, I had taken a selfie holding it up in my surgically-gloved hand, slightly paranoid, in case I needed photographic proof of ownership. The self-portrait looks silly now, but that was before I knew only the dream was priceless.
I think my father, rich in other ways, would have loved the whole story.
— Andrew Ratner, Abingdon
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