Willie "The Say Hey Kid" Mays is one of the greatest players to transition from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. Of course, the Willie Mays rookie cards are a very important part of collecting history.
It's a sad fact of the game, and our culture, that segregation stifled the early careers of such greats as Mays and Hank Aaron. There's no telling what their career numbers might have been without these racial barriers. What is known is that Mays is still regarded as one of the greatest players that ever lived. Blessed with natural five-tool athletic talent, Mays could single-handedly dictate the outcome of a game, either with his bat, speed or outfield defense.
The statistical byline for Mays reads like the stuff of legends. He holds the record (with Stan Musial) for All-Star appearances at 24 and was twice named the game's Most Valuable Player. Mays was a 12-time Gold Glove Award winner, named the 1951 Rookie of the Year, the National League's MVP twice, and a World Series Champion in 1954.
See also: Top 10 Willie Mays cards of all-time.
Mays retired after the 1973 season with a lifetime batting average of .302 to go along with 660 home runs. Mays went on to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot with a voting record of 95 percent, which is one of the highest in the history of the current BBWA election process.
Once again, as it did with the Mickey Mantle, Bowman was the first gum manufacturer to issue a trading card of "The Say Hey Kid" in their classic 1951 set. As it is the sole 1951 card for Mays, and his very first, many recognize this card as the true (and only) Willie Mays rookie card. Despite arriving a year later, the 1952 Topps card is also treated with rookie card reverence on the secondary market.
Willie Mays Rookie Cards and Other Key Early Cards
1951 Bowman Willie Mays RC #305
The 1951 Bowman set almost didn't include this important collectible. As described in a Heritage Auction catalog, "The High's (high-number series issue late in the baseball season) enabled the production of Willie Mays' "true" rookie card. The importance of Willie Mays' 1951 Bowman card is difficult to overstate. How could any responsibly prepared group of gum cards from the time ignore one of the finest talents that would ever be made manifest on the diamond, and remain viable?" Fortunately, it's a hypothetical question that never needs to be answered. Utilizing a horizontal orientation and the classic painted imagery of the 1951 Bowman Baseball design, Mays is depicted in a batting pose with a look on his face that is truly indicative of the fierce competitor that he was known to be.
1952 Topps Willie Mays #261
It's amazing to think that both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays had their first Topps cards in this set, further adding to the timeless allure of this treasured classic. Featuring a photo-painted upper body portrait of a rather confused-looking Mays, the 1952 cards are getting increasingly difficult to find in decent condition because of their notorious centering issues.
1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays #7
Another intriguing early card for Mays came the same year as his '52 Topps release. The 1952 Berk Ross Willie Mays card is much more basic in design, but is still a hobby favorite. It can also be much more affordable compared to the other two cards covered on the list.