If Chuck Norris Had a Rookie Card…

Buy Baseball Cards Smarter

The history of baseball card collecting is littered with sad stories of collectors who focused on “the next big thing.” For every Frank Thomas or Greg Maddux, though, there are dozens of can’t-miss prospects who never made it big. If you pick the wrong player to collect, you’re essentially throwing your money away. You’ll never get anything back for that Todd Van Poppel rookie card.

Yet scouting a rookie you believe in — and collecting his earliest cards — carries not only a financial return if you guess right, but an emotional win as well. When so many collectors buy baseball cards, there are bound to be winners and losers. Everyone looks like a winner when a 19-year-old like Jose Urias broke into the majors in 2016. The gamble is whether he becomes the next Clayton Kershaw or the next Brien Taylor. (Who? Exactly.)

What to Look for

Since rookie cards, like all baseball cards, tend to be overproduced these days, you need to look for specialty cards of your chosen young player. Autographed cards, metal cards and other inserts can pay off big, especially if you acquire the card before the player makes it big. That’s the gamble, of course.

You can spread your risk by investing in multiple players when you buy baseball cards. You may not get everything from one specific player, but you’ll be more likely to get something back if you pick more than one. Remember, if all you bought were Chuck Norris cards, you’d be sitting on a whole lot of quarters, not Franklins.

If you don’t recognize his name, Chuck Norris was a movie and television star, famous — or infamous — for low-budget action movies. Born in 1940, he had a lengthy and fruitful career. If there were a Hall of Fame for B-movie stars, Chuck would fly in on the first ballot. He does have a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, but then, so does Lassie.

He never played professional baseball, but pretending he did can teach you how to buy baseball cards. Chuck Norris broke into the big leagues in 1972 with a part in the Bruce Lee film, Return of the Dragon. The movie featured a fight scene between the two (spoiler: Lee won). Already hyped as an accomplished martial artist, Norris was seen as an up-and-coming box-office draw.

If you bought Norris’ rookie card like you buy baseball cards, you’d have seen him in an action pose on the front of the card. The card back would have shared his measurements and mostly minor league accomplishments to date. Since his rookie card would have come out in 1972 or 1973, it may have been a rare find and initially considered quite valuable.

Then Reality Set in

Despite the hype, Norris failed to live up to early expectations. His career sputtered for a few years until his first starring role in Breaker! Breaker! five years later. Hardly a blockbuster, the movie made little impact, and it appeared that the early hype would crystalize into a career like that of Gregg Jefferies, who turned early promise into a mediocre career. (In fact, that’s an apt analogy on many levels.)

In Norris’ case, he continued to “star” in an assortment of bad action movies. Critics called him “wooden,” comparing his acting unfavorably to a baseball bat. In 1993, after a journeyman career, he was sent down to the minor leagues of television for good. Although he enjoyed a cup of coffee in the big leagues now and then, like many others before and since, he never fulfilled the hype.

Baseball Greats: Mantle vs. Mays

The debate has been raging since these two Hall of Fame players were young men playing in opposite leagues in New York City. Mantle played for the formidable Yankees, and Mays for the talented Giants. With Mantle, the Yankees won seven championships, while with Mays, the Giants won only one. You can’t judge a player by the team he played for, though. Many greats never won a single championship.

Interestingly, the two teams — and the two players — played against each other in only 13 games: the 1951 and 1962 World Series. While the Yankees prevailed in both series, Mays (11-for-49) actually outperformed Mantle (4-for-30). Still, you can’t read much into such a small sample.

The Statistics

Mays had a longer career, partially due to Mantle’s injuries. What Mantle would have done on two healthy legs is, again, subject to debate. Because of those extra years:

  • Mays hit more homeruns (660 to 536)
  • Mays stole more bases (338 to 153)
  • Mays even hit for a higher batting average (.302 to .298)

That may make you think Mays was the superior player, but it’s not that simple. If you break it down by average performance, instead of totals, the results are pretty darn close:

  • Mantle averaged 36 homers, 102 RBIs and 10 stolen bases
  • Mays averaged 36 homers, 103 RBIs and 18 stolen bases

Face it: these are two great players, no matter what era they played in. If you buy vintage baseball cards, you probably want to collect them both. They were superstars before the word was even coined.

The Mystique

Mantle definitely benefited by playing on those great Yankees teams. Mays, meanwhile, moved with the Giants to San Francisco in 1958, well out of the center of attention. He would not win a championship out there, although he came close in 1962. The two locations and the two teams, so vastly different, helped create a mystique around Mantle that Mays never really enjoyed.

So, when you buy vintage baseball cards, you have to weigh the career statistics, the World Championships and the mystique to determine who you think was the better player. In the end, that’s all it will be: your opinion, especially if you never saw either of them play the game.

The Cards

Mickey Mantle Rookie Card 1951 Bowman #253There is one way to discover who is the better baseball player. It’s not exactly an objective source, but as this discussion is on a baseball card collecting website, it is valid. The answer is to look at the two players’ respective baseball cards. Buy vintage baseball cards like their rookie cards, and you’ve got two valuable pieces of property.

The Willie Mays rookie card is the 1951 Bowman #305. It’s listed at $2,500, depending on the card quality. By the same token, the rookie card for Mickey Mantle, the 1951 Bowman #253, is listed at $8,000. That’s a significant difference for two players whose statistics seemed so close. But people buy vintage baseball cards for many reasons, not just the stats.

Willie Mays rookie card 1951 Bowman #305Whether you like Mickey or prefer Willie, neither is a bad choice for your baseball card collection. Meanwhile, the debate about who was better may never be resolved.