The Willie Mays Rookie Card and Other Vintage Cards


Willie Mays Rookie Cards

The topic of Willie Mays’ rookie cards is an interesting one. Willie Mays has cards in two major-release sets that are both commonly considered rookies even though they were issued a year apart. The later card, the 1952 Topps Willie Mays #261, is the most valuable and sought-after card, but the 1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305 card also has an iconic status in the hobby. In this article, I’ll discuss both, along with a bunch of other oddball Willie Mays cards that were released in 1952.

1952 Topps Willie Mays - The Best Willie Mays Rookie
1952 Topps Willie Mays – The Best Willie Mays Rookie

1952 Topps Willie Mays card #261

The 1952 Topps Willie Mays rookie (card #261) is one of the most valuable cards ever produced, but might still be undervalued. Mays had a 23-year career during which he accomplished marvelous statistical feats. He is one of only a few players who hit 500 home runs, accumulated 3,000 hits, and maintained a career batting average greater than .300. He started his career by winning the Rookie of the Year Award, then proceeded to make 22 All-Star teams and win 2 National League MVP awards. But Mays wasn’t just an offensive threat — he was a great all-around player who excelled in all aspects of the game. He won the Gold Glove award 12 times because of his defensive prowess. Mays was also exceptionally fast and is credited, along with his contemporary Minnie Miñoso, for making baseball teams recognize the added value of speedy players.

Any rookie card of a player with Mays’ accomplishments would be valuable, but some additional factors make this card one of the most sought-after by collectors.

Other Factors:

  • Baseball’s Greatest Set: The 1952 Topps set is considered the greatest and most important set in baseball card history and it set the stage for what Topps sets would be for the next 5 decades. The 1952 Topps baseball design set many standards that are still seen today including the 2.5″ x 3.5″ size, the inclusion of stats on the back, and the addition of team logos on the front. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, compare the look of these cards to the 1951 Topps Red Backs set and you’ll see what I mean. The Mays rookie is worth more just because it’s part of this set.
  • Mantle’s Best Contemporary: Some players in the card collecting hobby are disproportionately valuable. The most prominent example of that is Mickey Mantle. There’s no doubting his greatness, but the value of his cards exceeds what you’d expect based on his accomplishments. Willie Mays is often mentioned with Mantle and is the best contemporary comparison. Most historians rate Mays as the better player. Being so closely associated with Mantle has a positive influence on the value of Mays’ cards even though they lag behind the value of Mantle cards. At some point I expect Mays card to even surge more in value and close the gap with Mickey Mantle cards.

  • The Catch: History can be made in a moment and Willie Mays did just that on September 9, 1954. His over-the-shoulder catch in game one of the World Series remains one of the most shown highlights even today. Making a play that is this iconic enhances his value with collectors because it ensures even young collectors will know who Willie Mays is.

The Controversy

There is no question that the 1951 Bowman set is a major-release set that establishes the Willie Mays card (#305) from that set as a rookie. So why do we also consider the 1952 Topps card a rookie? Shouldn’t we just consider it his first Topps card? If we count this card as a rookie, does that make the 1981 Donruss Ricky Henderson a rookie card?

These are great questions and it’s true that viewing this card as a rookie creates many consistency problems. However, a large number of collectors have simply made an exception for the 1952 Topps set which impacts the designation of its Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle cards. There are several reasons for this including the value these cards have accumulated and the view that this was the first “modern” set. For a lot of people, it just doesn’t feel right to not count them as rookies and for a lot of others, it doesn’t feel right to count them.

As frequently demonstrated by this blog, I take a pretty liberal view of what I consider a rookie card, but I understand the competing views on this one, so feel free to disagree.

1952 Topps Packs in the original box
1952 Topps packs in the original box

1952 Topps Baseball Set Details

Many collectors consider the 1952 Topps baseball set to be the best post-war set ever manufactured, and it paved the way for many more Topps sets to follow. It had 407 cards from six different series. This was the largest number of cards in a set at the time, and they were sold in packs of five for a nickel each. Topps produced fewer of the 6th series cards, making them more difficult to come by. The design of this set featured colorized black and white images, full team logos, statistics and data on the reverse, and a facsimile signature drawn from each player’s Topps contract.

The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle (#311), one of the most renowned and collectible trading cards ever manufactured, was included in this set. Aside from Mantle and Mays rookies, the set includes rookie cards for Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews (#407) and Hoyt Wilhelm (#392).

  • Year: 1952
  • Manufacturer: Topps
  • Number of Cards: 407
  • Card size: 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ (standard size)

1952 Willie Mays card #261 Details

  • Card no: #261 of 407
  • Name on front: Willie Mays
  • Name on Back: Willie Howard Mays, Jr.
  • Position: Outfield
  • Team: New York Giants
  • Home: Fairfield, Alabama
  • Born: May 6, 1931 – Westfield, Alabama
  • Eyes: Brown
  • Hair: Black
  • Height: 5′ 10 1/2″
  • Weight: 170 lb
  • Bats: Right
  • Throws: Right

Many collectors do not consider the 1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 card to be his rookie and view the 1951 Bowman Willie Mays as his true and only rookie card. The answer isn’t so simple. This is a good debate for collectors who want to establish strict and consistent rules for designation rookie cards. The argument goes like this:

Front of the card

Design: The front of the 1952 Willie Mays rookie card (#261) benefits from the classic design of this set. It has a vertical layout with a white border. The photograph of Willie Mays is taken in front of a dark background and is separated from the white border by a thin black line. The photo, like all photos in this set, is a colorized black and white photo. It shows a young Mays from the waist up in his New York Giants uniform glancing straight at the camera. The Giants logo appears on the lower left side of the card. The player’s name, “Willie Mays,” is in a white box (along with a facsimile of his signature) that is outlined by yellow stars.

1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 - Front
1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 – Front
Verdict: Rookie Card

Shop for a 1952 Topps Willie Mays Rookie card #261 on eBay (affiliate link), because this is one of the most iconic cards in the entire trading card collecting hobby.


Back of the card

Gray cardstock is used for the back of the 1952 Willie Mays rookie card (#261). On a baseball graphic, the card number is in the upper left corner. Mays’ full name, position, team, home, birthdate, birthplace, size, and batting/throwing orientation are all listed on the top of the card on an orange background. A blurb in the middle of the card describes his journey to becoming an MLB player and winning the Rookie of the Year award. The bottom of the card has Willie Mays’ 1951 and lifetime stats.

1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 - Back
1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 – Back

Voted the National League Rookie of the Year in 1951, Willie was only 20 years old when he came up. He broke into pro ball with Trenton in ’50 and batted .353. With Minneapolis at the start of the ’51 season, Willie hit .477 in 35 games and the Giants called him up. His first Big League hit was a Home Run. A naturally great fielder, Willie went into the Army in May, 1952.

1952 Topps Willie Mays Rookie card #261

Willie Mays Rookie Card Value

The Willie Mays rookie card is one of the most valuable cards in the entire trading card hobby. The chart below was pulled from the popular card grading site PSA on 12/01/2021. It shows prices for the Willie Mays rookie card in various conditions.

1952 Topps Willie Mays Rookie Price Guide
1952 Topps Willie Mays Rookie Price Guide (Source: PSAcards.com 12/01/21)

Keep in mind that prices fluctuate. While PSA is a great way to find out the value of a card, we recommend going to eBay to see what cards are currently selling for on the world’s most popular auction site. Click here to view current auctions for the 1952 Topps Willie Mays Rookie card #261.


Other Relevant Willie Mays Cards

The 1952 Topps Willie Mays #261 is the most valuable Willie Mays card, but there are a lot of other Willie Mays rookies in existence. The Bowman card is nearly as iconic and may have a better claim to being his “true” rookie. There also are several oddball Mays cards from 1952 to consider.

1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305

The 1951 Topps Willie Mays is the most valuable Mays rookie, but many collectors consider the 1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305 card his true rookie, and rightfully so. This is a card from a major-release set that predates the Topps rookie by a year. Although it’s not as valuable as the ’52 Topps #261 card, it is still extremely valuable and one of the most sought-after cards in the entire hobby.

1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305 - Front
1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305 – Front
1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305 - Back
1951 Bowman Willie Mays #305 – Back
Verdict: Rookie Card

Shop for a 1951 Bowman Willie Mays on eBay (affiliate link), because it’s the first Willie Mays card!


1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays

The 1952 Berk Ross “Hit Parade of Champions” Willie Mays card is part of a 72-card set that features a very basic design. This set was heavily focused on New York teams and contained a lot of Giants, Dodgers, and Yankees players. Outside of those three teams, the set had only one card for most other teams. In the 1951 Berk Ross set the cards came in pairs connected by perforations, but Burk Ross issued individual cards in the 1952 set.

1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays - Front
1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays – Front
1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays - Back
1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays – Back
Verdict: Oddball Rookie

Shop for a 1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays on eBay (affiliate link)



1952 Red Man Willie Mays #NL15

The 1952 Red Man Willie Mays card was included in Red Man tobacco packets. There was a 1/2″ tab on the bottom of each card that could be redeemed to get a free Red Man baseball cap. If the tab is still attached, they are more difficult to find and more valuable. The full set included 52 cards measuring 3 1/2″ x 4″ (with the 1/2″ tab still attached). The face of the card featured artwork and a brief biography of Mays. The back of this card contains information about the Red Man baseball cap offer, but no information about the athlete.

1952 Red Man Willie Mays #NL15 - Front
1952 Red Man Willie Mays #NL15 – Front
1952 Red Man Willie Mays #NL15 - Back
1952 Red Man Willie Mays #NL15 – Back
Verdict: Oddball Rookie Card

Shop for a 1952 Red Man Willie Mays on eBay (affiliate link)


1952 Star-Cal Large (Type 1) Decal Willie Mays #78-E

Meyercord Co., based in Chicago, created the 1952 Star-Cal Decals. These decals had to be applied by dipping them in warm water, peeling off the backing, and sticking them to a surface. Because they measure 4 1/8′′ x 6 1/8′′, they are larger than regular cards. This Mays rookie is considerably rarer than his iconic rookie card from the 1952 Topps set.

1952 Star-Cal Large Decal Willie Mays #78-E - Front
1952 Star-Cal Large Decal Willie Mays #78-E – Front
1952 Star-Cal Large Decal Willie Mays #78-E - Back
1952 Star-Cal Large Decal Willie Mays #78-E – Back
Verdict: Oddball Rookie Card

Shop for a 1952 Star-Cal Large Decal Willie Mays #78-E on eBay (affiliate link)


1952 Coke Tips Test Willie Mays (no number)

This rare Willie Mays rookie is from a regional issue to test the concept of inserting cards with playing tips into soda cartons. The only two players in this test were Willie Mays and Phil Rizzuto (3 variations). The Rizzuto cards all had playing tips on the back, but the Mays card contained a biography instead. They are irregularly shaped, measuring 3 1/2″ wide (at the widest point) and 7 1/2″ tall.

There was a much more widely released version of Coca-Cola Playing Tips cards in 1952, but that set did not include Willie Mays or Phil Rizzuto.

1952 Coke Tips Test Willie Mays - Front
1952 Coke Tips Test Willie Mays – Front
1952 Coke Tips Test Willie Mays - Back
1952 Coke Tips Test Willie Mays – Back
Verdict: Oddball Rookie Card

Shop for the 1952 Coke Tips Test Willie Mays on eBay (very rare) (affiliate link)


1952 Star-Cal Small (Type 2) #90-A Willie Mays / Monte Irvin

As with the Star-Cal decal mentioned above, the smaller Type 2 decals were also made by Chicago’s Meyercord Co. The Type 2 decal sheets are small, measuring 4 1/8 x 3 1/16″ and contain two players per sheet instead of just one. This oddball Willie Mays rookie does have the added bonus of including fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irvin who was a star player for both the Negro League’s Newark Eagles and MLB’s New York Giants. Monte Irvin’s rookie cards, in case you were wondering, are the 1951 Bowman (#198) and 1951 Topps Red Backs (#50).

1952 Star-Cal Small #90-A Willie Mays - Monte Irvin - Front
1952 Star-Cal Small #90-A Willie Mays – Monte Irvin – Front
1952 Star-Cal Small #90-A Willie Mays - Monte Irvin - Back
1952 Star-Cal Small #90-A Willie Mays – Monte Irvin – Back
Verdict: Oddball Rookie Card

Shop for the Star-Cal Small Willie Mays / Monte Irvin on eBay (affiliate link)


1952 Bowman Willie Mays #218

The 1952 Bowman Willie Mays #218 card is Mays’ second Bowman card. Because the first one is considered a rookie, this card should not be considered a rookie even though it was issued the same year as the 1952 Topps Willie Mays rookie card. This is still an awesome early Willie Mays card that is valuable and revered by collectors.

1952 Bowman Willie Mays #218 - Front
1952 Bowman Willie Mays #218 – Front
1952 Bowman Willie Mays #218 - Back
1952 Bowman Willie Mays #218 – Back
Verdict: Not a Rookie

Shop for the 1952 Bowman Willie Mays on eBay (affiliate link)


Willie Mays’ Legacy

Willie Mays is one of the greatest players in Major League Baseball history. He is one of only a few players to accumulate 3,000 hits, 500 home runs while maintaining a lifetime batting average higher than .300. Willie Mays started his incredible career by winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1951 and stamped his career with his election into the Hall of Fame in 1979. During his 23-year career he was a fixture in the All-Star game, frequently led the league in offensive categories, and dazzled fans with his defensive skills. He may be most famous for the over-the-shoulder catch (see the gif above) he made in the 8th inning of a tied game 1 in the 1954 World Series. This play simply referred to as “the catch,” is the most famous defensive play in MLB history.

Here’s a list of some of Willie Mays’s accomplishments:

  • Rookie of the Year (1951)
  • 22 time All-Star
  • 2 time All-Star Game MVP (,)
  • 1 time NL Batting Champion (1954)
  • 2 time NL On-Base Percentage leader (1965, 1971)
  • 2 time NL Runs Scored leader (1958, 1961)
  • 3 time NL Triples Leader (1954, 1955, 1957)
  • 1 time NL Hits leader (1960)
  • 1 time NL Walks leader (1971)
  • 4 time NL Stolen Bases leader (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959)
  • 3 time NL Total Bases leader (1955, 1962, 1965)
  • 4 time NL Home Runs leader (1955, 1962, 1964, 1965)
  • 12 time Gold Glove winner
  • 2 time National League MVP (1954, 1965)
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979

Get Your Willie Mays Rookie

Do you want to own a 1952 Topps Willie Mays Rookie (#261)? If so, we recommend starting your search on eBay – the world’s #1 card trading place. Even if you’re not planning to buy one just yet, it’s fun to look at all the great cards currently for sale.

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All About Willie Mays Rookies Infographic

Willie Mays Rookie Cards Infographic
Willie Mays Rookie Cards Infographic

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Learn all about the Willie Mays Rookie Cards