(Excerpted and updated from a story that first appeared in the June 11, 1995, edition of Newsday)
In the fall of 1952, Mickey Mantle rookie cards were washing up on the Jersey Shore.
After issuing several small-scale baseball card sets in 1951, Topps decided to go big-time in 1952 and declared war on Bowman, the reigning trading-card king.
Although Topps’ first series debuted toward the beginning of the season, it took the Brooklyn company until July 14, 1952, to get the Yankees’ rising-star centerfielder under contract. Mantle was paid $50 for his signature; most of the other players in the set got $5.
It was well into the season, but still in time for the final series.
But by the time that seventh series hit the candy stores, the pennant races were virtually over and youngsters were exchanging their pennies for the new Bowman football cards.
Topps found itself stuck with cases upon cases of unwanted cardboard pictures of baseball players and decided to dispose of them.
The late Sy Berger, a Topps executive acknowledged as the father of modern-day baseball cards, drew the garbage detail.
“Unable to make arrangements at the incinerator, I had the cards loaded onto two big trucks, which took them — and me — to a floating barge and out to sea,” Berger told Newsday in 1995, recalling the incident.
“While I watched, and gobbled seasick pills, the cards were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey.”
Berger said no one at Topps had a guess as to how many Mantle cards went to their watery grave. But they went in good company. Other stars — all considered Topps rookie cards — in the ill-fated series included Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Mathews.
If this story leaves you feeling the way Berger did when Mantle, Campy and Pee Wee walked the plank, be strong. If not for Topps’ beach party, those cards would be far more plentiful today — and considerably less valuable. Mantlemania and the ensuing card craze might never have happened.