Willie Mays' 11 most memorable cards

Great cards for a great player

May 6th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget

Willie Mays put up some unbelievable numbers: 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, 20 All-Star Games and 2 MVP Awards are just some of the accomplishments that arguably the greatest player in baseball history put together.

On Thursday, the Say Hey Kid gets to add another one: He turns 90 years old. So, what better way to celebrate his legacy than by looking at his 11 most memorable cards? We'll be judging them not just on which are most famous or most "valuable" -- whatever that means -- but also the best looking ones, the ones that best tell the story of Mays' career and the only card that shows him with a "Say Hey" license plate.

Happy birthday, Willie!

11. 1958 Topps #436

There is a lot going on in this card. For one, we've got some serious rivals with some serious thump coming together as Mays and Duke Snider combined for 1,067 career home runs. For another, we've got Mays checking out Snider's pumped up 'ceps -- which surely has to be a baseball card rarity. And for another, '58 marked the start of the Giants and Dodgers relocating their rivalry across coasts. This photo could have been either the last taken of them in New York, or the first of them together in California.

10. 1984 Galasso #17

Cards via Trading Card Database

Hey, I said you'd get to see his license plate, didn't I?

If you've never found a Galasso in the wild, I don't blame you. These were handmade sets created and sold by Renata Galasso.

9. 1956 Topps #130

Long before MLB.TV and even longer before highlights could be turned into NFTs -- I'm still not entirely sure what those are -- your best bet to see Mays was from your seat at the ballpark or on a small black and white TV. So, just imagine the glee you'd feel when you got a card like this one. Not only is it Mays -- the great Willie Mays! -- but it comes with a gorgeously painted action shot, too.

8. 1955 Bowman #184

Cards via Trading Card Database

And speaking of TVs, there was this brilliant set from Bowman in '55. Forget trying to get out from the TV, now let's make the cards look like you're watching TV. This thing is seriously meta.

7. 1952 Topps #261

It's Mays' first Topps card in the first modern Topps set! (The year before was Topps' first, but the cards were more like game pieces.)

The art, Mays' name in a theater marquee -- it's just a classic.

6. 1951 Bowman #305

The '51 Bowman is Mays' true rookie card and therefore is one of his most highly sought after. It's why if you have one in mint condition, you might be able to fetch close to $1 million for it.

While the art is beautifully rendered, I have to wonder -- why did Mays have to pose in front of a carnival tent that was blowing in the wind?

5. 1966 Topps #215

This might not be the most glamorous card -- Mays is looking down as if captured in a particularly emotional scene from a CW television show -- but if you wanted one card to tell the story of 20th century baseball, you couldn't do much better than this one. Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays on one card? It's perfect.

4. 1973 Topps #305

Mays heading back to New York to play in the blue and orange sounded like a great idea on paper, but looking back, it really feels more like it happened in a bizarre alternate reality. It doesn't help that Mays looks younger now than he does in this photograph.

No one would say this is Mays' best card, but it's certainly one of his most memorable.

3. 1964 Topps #306

Mays wasn't all by himself on these Giants teams -- he played with some of the greatest players of all-time including Orlando Cepeda. Not many teams get the honor of fielding multiple Rookies of the Year and MVP Award winners on the same team.

But there's something else that's important about this card: It features two players who had to deal with untold amounts of racism, hatred, and ignorance in their lives.

Mays started his professional career in the Negro Leagues, getting passed over by multiple teams because of the color of his skin. Cepeda's father, Perucho Cepeda, was a baseball legend in Puerto Rico, who chose never to play in the United States because of the racism he was sure to endure. And then, once Orlando reached the Giants, he dealt with racist treatment from his very own manager.

This one card was certainly not the end of those struggles, but a hopeful sign of changing attitudes across the country.

2. 1962 Topps #18

There may never be a time when two center fielders dictated the game and were neck-and-neck for the title of "best in the sport" honors than when Mickey Mantle and Mays were playing together. It's only fitting that they wound up on a card together.

1. 1959 Topps #464

Yes, the catch took place five years earlier, but I like to think it took the artist that much time to find just the right way to depict it on a card. The play is Mays' signature, it's an all-timer of a World Series moment and this piece of cardboard is the only way to hold that moment in your hands.

Undefeated reimagined the card for Topps Project 2020 and used the actual photograph, but there's something about the original with its "BASEBALL THRILLS" balloon that just makes it sing.