Chris Rothe hit the jackpot this weekend with the stuff of penny candy.
Sixty-three years after Mickey Mantle’s picture went inside packs of Bowman bubble gum, a pristine copy of the Yankee slugger’s 1955 card turned up Friday in a pack that was opened onstage at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland.
Rothe is the lucky guy who scored the card.
The picture was done in Bowman’s distinctive horizontal format, with a brown frame to evoke early TV screens. Professional Sports Authenticator, a company that authenticates and grades collectibles, gave the Mantle card a score of 9 out of 10.
“It’s the nicest ’55 Bowman Mickey Mantle I’ve ever seen,” said Leighton Sheldon, whose young company, Vintage Breaks, organized the sale.
Rothe, who lives in a Baltimore suburb, has spent his life working with other printed goods in his family’s bookbinding business. He plunked down $500 for the chance to own one of the unseen cards inside.
Now he’s fielding offers of $50,000 or more for the card, which was slot No. 19 in the pack. Others in the cellophane-enclosed pack opened Friday included Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks and Brooklyn Dodger standout Jim Gilliam.
“It is so funny that of course of all players — past, present — it happens to be Mickey Mantle,” said Rothe, 36, who loves Mantle because his father loved Mantle. “I’m from Baltimore, lived here my entire life, so of course for better or worse, the Orioles are near and dear to my heart. But growing up as a kid — Mickey Mantle was my favorite. It’s something about the Mick. He was the greatest.”
The Mantle card turned up during the practice of “breaking.” That’s when individual collectors buy shares in unopened cases of trading cards or even single packs, hoping to score big with the card purchased at random and unseen.
This year, the frenzied hunt for star cards has centered on Los Angeles Angels rookie phenom Shohei Ohtani, whose pitching and hitting prowess have earned him comparisons to Babe Ruth. Last year, collectors were breaking into packages with hopes of finding a card with Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, who set a record for belting home runs as a rookie.
Rothe, who owns a few other Mantles among his collection of 100 vintage cards, said his score took him back to the days when he’d come home from school to watch Mantle and other sluggers compete in the 1960 show “Home Run Derby.”
“It’s riveting to think, ‘Hey, this has been sealed’ — I don’t care if it’s been sealed 15 years, 25 years or in this case — it’s unbelievable. It’s a turn-back-the-clocks moment,” Rothe said. He also loved the fact that his card was the last one to be revealed.
“For it to be the final card that’s unexposed in the pack – it’s one of those bottom-of-the-ninth, two-outs, full-count, grand-slam moments,” he said. He hopes to sell the Mantle card and perhaps buy one from the rookie year of Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente.
Meanwhile, Sheldon said Friday’s event has him feeling lucky now that his company has had its second big score. Last year, Vintage Breaks cut into a 1986 case of Fleer basketball card packs after selling shares to collectors at $2,000 a pop. And there, in pack No. 19, was a Michael Jordan rookie card. It’s been valued at $5,000 or more.
“It seems I’ll be playing No. 19 for a while,” Sheldon said.