Chilly temperatures lurked in the morning shadows but a brilliant December sun beamed intimations of spring training as the armored vehicle pulled up to the downtown Denver delivery entrance of the History Colorado Center Wednesday morning.
It carried a baseball card.
An armed guard emerged lugging a case containing roughly 9 square inches of cardboard — a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card — in such mint condition that its estimated value on the memorabilia market runs as high as $10 million. The guard stepped into a freight elevator that took him to the museum’s fourth floor, where a preparator then placed the image of the New York Yankee great in a clear protective case that, in a previous exhibit, guarded the Jefferson Bible.
There, at the entrance to the museum’s “Play Ball!” exhibit, the card sat ready to receive visitors for its second — and final — brief run as part of a hugely popular display that has been open since April. It appeared during a three-day stretch in July and then took up residence through Sunday.
The Play Ball! exhibit ends Jan. 6.
Minutes after the card was secured in its UV-ray protected enclosure, Chuck Zander became the first customer to lay eyes on the image of Mantle, bat on shoulder, gazing away from the camera. He had brought his daughter from Longmont to do some research at the museum’s library, and then — unaware that the Mantle card would reappear — smiled at his good fortune.
“This is a bonus,” Zander said, as a Denver cop stood nearby logging the first shift of 24-hour security. “I have some friends from New York who came out and saw the exhibit this summer and they told me, ‘You can’t believe what you missed.’”
The exhibit holds a wealth of baseball memorabilia, nearly all of it owned by Marshall Fogel, a retired Denver prosecutor and private practice attorney who became one of the nation’s foremost collectors. He keeps the Mantle card in a vault at a local bank.
“I do have visiting rights,” Fogel joked. “Sometimes I check on it just to make sure I own it.”
On Wednesday, as he shepherded the card to its place in the exhibit, he explained the intrinsic value of owning such a high-priced piece of memorabilia.
“The pleasure I get is having it displayed so the community in Colorado and the region can come and see it,” Fogel said. “It’s just an experience I want the community to enjoy, and I love doing it.”
He also loves visiting the exhibit and watching the reactions of fans.
“To watch people line up just to see the card, to see their faces, it means so much to them,” he said. “But it’s really what’s behind the card — the legend of Mickey Mantle. Who wouldn’t want to play center field for the New York Yankees and be the Triple Crown-winner in 1956? I’d raise my hand.”
Even for someone like Zander, who grew up in North Dakota, Mantle continues to have allure — though for him it came through association with Fargo native Roger Maris, who shared the Yankee outfield with Mantle. Zander also shares a story familiar to many kids of his era who collected Topps cards, not for their their value as memorabilia but just for love of the game.
Now, they regard the ’52 Mantle alongside wistful memories of their youth.
“Like every kid my age growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we had shoe boxes full of baseball cards,” Zander said. “We’d go off to college, go off to live our lives, and Mom and Dad have those boxes in the basement, full of cards. Then you go home one year for Christmas and Mom and Dad say, ‘Well, we cleaned out the basement.’”
Brooklyn-based Topps printed thousands of baseball cards in 1952, with many, many Mantles among them. It even dumped many of them into New York’s East River, the story goes, because demand fell off precipitously after the World Series.
So what makes this card special?
It basically comes down to condition. A third-party authenticator called PSA rates cards on a variety of criteria on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best. Color, framing, wear are among the standards. Although three ’52 Mantle cards have been rated “gem mint PSA 10,” Fogel’s remains the only one rated a “perfect 10,” placing it a grade above the others and figuring into its multi-million dollar valuation. (Condition also accounts for some rating the Mantle card higher than the 1909 card featuring Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner, which sold for $3 million in 2016.)
Topps would stack 36-card sheets and use a guillotine-type device to slice them into separate units, Fogel said. Even this mechanical method resulted in uneven borders on some cards that diminished their value as collectibles — nevermind the wear and tear they’d undergo once in the hands of casual collectors.
“For this card, gem mint perfect, to survive all of those things — and being Mickey Mantle, in lore he’s a legend — that’s what makes the card the Holy Grail of all sports cards,” Fogel said.
Fogel, who grew up in the Park Hill neighborhood frequenting a store called Candyland to buy his cards, avoided the fate that befell so many others by hiding his cards in the basement where his parents couldn’t find them. He was more kid than collector, creating his own games to play using the cards and wearing them into something far less than mint condition. The ’52 Topps set wasn’t fully released in Colorado because of distribution problems, so Fogel never had much of a chance to find Mantle buried like a gold nugget in a store-bought pack.
He ended up selling his collection — “not for much,” he said — except for one card: Yankee catcher Bill Dickey, his idol.
Fogel started collecting seriously in 1989, and by the time the Mantle card came on the market he was making the transition from hobby to investment. Magazines devoted to trading cards appraised their value until casual collectors — even kids — started factoring monetary value into the equation. And around 2005, Fogel recalled, the internet became a vehicle for collectors and more started to lean toward investment.
In 1996, only two people had owned the mint Mantle card before it became available at auction. That’s when Fogel, long a fan of Mantle and the Yankees, decided to take the plunge into high-stakes collecting.
“I just took a chance that someday, if I purchased the card at auction, it would be something worth owning,” he said.
For one thing, he figured, Mantle is an iconic figure in the game. And the 1952 Topps card broke new ground, production-wise. Rookie cards carry particular value in most cases, but in the case of Mantle, cards produced during his rookie year more closely resembled painted illustrations. The 1952 season marked the introduction of actual color photographs.
The 1996 auction — pre-internet era — required Fogel to phone in his bids. With the competition down to two, he nervously upped his bid to $121,000 — and resolved that he would go no higher. The other bidder dropped out.
“For what I paid for it, I was considered a fool for spending that kind of money,” Fogel said. “Now they consider me wisely eccentric.”
Jason Hanson, History Colorado’s chief creative officer and lead curator of the Play Ball! exhibit, remembers getting together with local baseball figures to work on an oral history of the Colorado Rockies when someone suggested getting in touch with a friend named Marshall Fogel who had a great collection.
Hanson, a pitcher who played through the college ranks and, just as important, a fan, figured he’d take a look mostly as a courtesy.
“We went out to see the collection,” Hanson recalled, “and it took me about 30 seconds in Marshall’s basement, where he had it all displayed, before I realized that we needed to find a way to do an exhibit.”
Fogel preferred to do it sooner rather than later, so the museum rearranged its schedule to make it happen.
“No regrets,” Hanson said. “It was absolutely the right call.”
Although the museum doesn’t track viewers of individual exhibits, Hanson notes with confidence that “Play Ball!” has been one of the most popular since the museum reopened at its East 12th Avenue and Broadway location. Not only that, but it has attracted more than the typical museum-goers.
“Our audience analysis is showing that a lot of people who haven’t been typical museum patrons are coming in to see this,” he said. “We’re hearing they’re liking what they’re seeing in this exhibit and also like what they see in the rest of the building. We’re hoping they realize we’re going to keep doing great exhibits like this, and they ought to keep coming back.”
Some visitors from Noblesville, Indiana, strolled into the exhibit shortly after the museum opened. Jeff Kozicki, along with his son, Josh, and father-in-law Doug Church stood before the Mantle card anticipating all the baseball lore that awaited around the next corner.
“We’re exploring downtown Denver and had to come see the history museum,” Kozicki said, adding that while he doesn’t specialize in baseball cards, he does collect sports memorabilia — his prized piece being a baseball signed by Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers pitching great Carl Erskine, a native of Anderson, Indiana.
Seeing the rare and valuable Mantle card, Kozicki reflected on a pervasive and ongoing strain of Americana that can pop up anywhere on travels across the country..
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “These sort of collections are such an American tradition. You go places and never know what you’ll run into for sale — or with this kind of exhibit.”
Which raises a question: Would Fogel, who jokes about being buried with the Mantle card in Fairmont Cemetery, ever sell?
“Life only lets you lease things, you don’t really keep them forever,” he said. “I’d love to find a home for it — maybe perhaps even this museum. But I haven’t given it any more thought than that.”
This story has been updated.
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