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'A hobbyist's unicorn': Arbutus man wins Mickey Mantle card worth an estimated $50,000

Chris Rothe, owner of Write Notepads and Co., shows off his baseball card collection and talks about some of the most valuable ones in it. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun video)

It’s a piece of old cardboard, just 2½ by 3½ inches in size. But to Chris Rothe, of Arbutus, the 1955 Mickey Mantle baseball card is a relic of the game’s glorious past. It’s also worth a bundle. And it now belongs to him.

Rothe, 36, won the near-mint Mantle card in a randomized drawing from a previously unopened pack of vintage Bowman cards at the National Sports Collectors convention in Cleveland on Aug. 3. He couldn’t attend the show, so the card of the New York Yankees slugger, worth an estimated $50,000, was hand-delivered last week in a secure box to Rothe at the bookbinding business his family owns near Camden Yards.

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With the painstaking touch of an archaeologist, he examined the find for the first time. The card, one of 20 in a cellophane pack that had been squirreled away for some 63 years, was encased in hard plastic for the trip.

“Good God, it looks like it was printed yesterday,” Rothe told an observing reporter. “My palms are sweating; I’m almost too nervous to hold it. This card transcends a piece of cardboard. It’s a hobbyist’s unicorn, a once-in-a-generation discovery.”

Rothe paid $500 for rights to the 19th card in the pack, whoever the visage might be. His return? One hundred fold. No other card in the lot came close.

The condition of a card generally sets its value, said Leighton Sheldon, owner of Vintage Breaks, the New Jersey company that organized the historic drawing. From the 1955 Bowman series, there are 3,058 known Mantle cards that have been rated (from 1 to 10) by magnifying glass-wielding experts at sports card grading firms. Of those cards, only eight — including Rothe’s — bear a near-perfect rating of 9.

“We know of only three Mantle cards that are 10s,” Sheldon said. “They’re each worth more than $200,000.”

The record: a 1909 card of Honus Wagner, Hall of Fame shortstop of the Pittsburgh Pirates, sold for $3.12 million in 2016.

One of the most celebrated players ever, Mantle played 18 seasons with the Yankees (1951 through 1968), hit 536 home runs and was three times named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. He died in 1995 at age 63. Had he taken as good care of himself as they do of his cards, collectors say, the hard-living slugger might still be around.

Sheldon acquired the Bowman pack last year for $5,500 from a West Coast card dealer, who’d bought it from a collector. How it survived intact for more than six decades is anyone’s guess.

“I’m sure there are more of them out there — in shoe boxes and safe deposit boxes, in barns and behind walls,” Sheldon said. “These cards were afterthoughts, and worth nothing when they came out.

“No one one will ever know the story of this pack. But it survived the crazy 1960s, the Vietnam War and all those years — and the improbability of it containing this [Mantle] card is the stuff dreams are made of.”

Rothe knows his card isn’t perfect: it’s off-center by, perhaps, one-16th of an inch; that’s how sophisticated the business of collecting has become. Yet the card is a career catch for a man who never saw Mantle play but who has long revered the Hall of Famer. His own collection is peppered with cards of “The Mick,” in various stages of wear and tear.

“Mantle was my father’s favorite,” said Rothe, who grew up in Bel Air and attended The John Carroll School. “I have two of his autographs and photos of him on my walls. Never met him, but in grade school, I wrote Mantle a letter and got back a facsimile post card.”

What’s to become of his treasure?

“I certainly want people to see it,” said Rothe, who might loan it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "It won’t be locked in a box and stored away.”

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Seeing the card, he said, evokes memories of childhoods spent “saving your allowance and going to 7-Eleven and buying a pack. You played games with the cards, or traded them, or used them as noisemakers to put on the spokes of your bicycle. Or maybe you bought them to get that piece of bubble gum.”

His 1955 card awaits a different fate. Sealed away from air and ultraviolet light, you’d need pliers to crack the plastic sleeve and let “The Mick” breathe.

“I’ll never touch the cardboard, because all I’d do is degrade it,” Rothe said. “I would be petrified to hold it.”

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