By Greg Bates
It had been a hectic week at work for Chris Rothe with plenty of projects piling up.
When Rothe finally got a chance to sit down and relax on Friday, Aug. 3, he had one thing on his mind: watch a baseball card break on YouTube.
VintageBreaks.com sold out a 20-card, $500 per spot for a cello pack of 1955 Bowman. Back when the product first came out, cello packs sold for a dime. Rothe bought two slots to double his chances of hopefully hitting a big card. He randomly obtained slot Nos. 17 and 19.
It was about 5:30 p.m. that Friday evening when Rothe sat in his air-conditioned pressroom with his social media manager. Two hours earlier, VintageBreaks.com opened the rare pack at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland.
“I don’t view it as them opening up a wax pack or a cello pack, it’s unearthing a time capsule,” Rothe told Sports Collectors Digest. “There were so many of these that existed 63 years ago, but (for) this to be the only known specimen in existence, it’s like, ‘Wow. I really want to be a part of that.’”
Rothe, who owns Write Notepads & Company in Baltimore, pulled up the recap video on his computer. He saw Ernie Banks’ second-year card get pulled in spot No. 7, so he stopped the recap and decided to watch the entire break. Rothe made a good choice.
“They had mentioned and I had noticed that there was elation toward the tail end of the pack,” Rothe said. “I thought, ‘Well, what’s better than one Ernie Banks, why not make it two.’ So, that’s fully what I believed was under there.”
So, when Rothe watched the entire video, he got to No. 17 and picked up a Steve Gromek. When spot No. 19 came up, the excitement started. Mike Eisner, who works for VintageBreaks.com, secretively peeled back card 18 to reveal 19.
Eisner said, “I can’t. I’ve got to go.”
He turned around to Leighton Sheldon, co-owner of VintageBreaks.com who was emceeing the event, and with a smile on his face gave him a big high-five.
With an excited look on his face and not knowing what the card was, Sheldon said, “What do we got?”
“Mike’s reaction to Leighton standing behind him, it made me feel like maybe this is something a little more than another Ernie Banks. Perhaps it’s a Hank Aaron,” said Rothe as he anxiously watched the video. “It still didn’t dawn on me at that point that it could be a Mantle. Until they said, anyone out there who has a phone take it out. You want to videotape this because we’re about to make history. To see Leighton’s eyes nearly fall out of his head, the reaction of everyone on stage.”
It was true – unbelievably true – it was a Mickey Mantle. A near gem mint Mantle, in fact.
“It was utter pandemonium. Pure joy,” Sheldon said. “For the folks that were involved in it, they didn’t know what was going on. I really hadn’t experienced anything like that at the National.”
When the card was pulled, Sheldon told the audience in person and online that the Mantle could be good enough to be an 8, 8.5 or “If you want to be nice, PSA, you’ve got a chance at a 9. That’s $50,000 for a PSA 9.” As Sheldon nearly fell on the floor at the National announcing the card, 375 miles away in his office, Rothe was in shock.
“We have a light dove gray floor in my pressroom and (our social media manager) said all the color went out of my face and I went as pale as the floor. Just unbelievable,” Rothe said. “I picked my phone up and called my father, and I’m like, ‘I’m sending you the link to this. You’ve got to see what I just acquired from a random pack.’
“My dad, he’s obviously the one who, gosh, ever since he was a child he had been a fan of Mickey Mantle. That’s where I grew my appreciation for Mickey Mantle and it just kept going and going from there.”
It was the single greatest pull in VintageBreaks.com history. The company has pulled some fantastic cards in the last few years, including three Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer, a Julius Erving 1972 Topps rookie, a Thurman Munson 1970 Topps rookie and a number of Mario Lemieux rookie cards.
Pulling the Mantle was not something Sheldon anticipated, he told Sports Collectors Digest.
“I’m calling it a baseball card fairy tale, that’s really what it was,” said Sheldon, who figures the pack produced roughly $65,000 worth of cards. “If you were writing a story, you really wouldn’t be able to write it any better.”
“I think one could argue that the 1955 Bowman cello pack reveal was one of the coolest events at the National this summer,” Joe Orlando, CEO for Collector Universe, told Sports Collectors Digest. “When the Mickey Mantle card was unveiled, you could hear the roar throughout the convention center. This is what collectors dream about. The authenticity of the moment and of the emotional response is what made it so great. You can clearly see that on the footage captured from the live event.”
What makes it more remarkable is the Mantle was the final card unveiled. Since it was a cello pack, the back card, Johnny Podres, was already known.
“Of course, going into it there was no expectation of even a minor star being pulled,” Rothe said. “To even have Ernie Banks, which I think was the seventh card pulled from the pack, is unbelievable. I certainly figured – it’s a very large set, I think there’s 320 cards in that set – that 20 cards here that are being unveiled that that was going to be the best. Then, you couldn’t have written a better story in an office in Hollywood that the final card to be unveiled would happen to be Mickey Mantle. It’s unreal.”
With PSA graders on sight for the National, Sheldon was able to submit the Mantle to get graded the next day. Once it was finished, Orlando personally delivered the card back to Sheldon. It graded a 9. Unreal, again.
“In addition to qualifying from a technical standpoint, the card has great eye appeal,” Orlando said. “Anyone who has experience in opening vintage packs will tell you it is a very risky proposition. Cards don’t always emerge from the pack in fantastic condition due to a host of obstacles. In this case, the grades from the pack ranged from PSA EX 5 to PSA Mint 9, which shows how risky it can be. Some cards have centering issues, while others have stock issues from the factory. Fortunately, the biggest name in the 20-card pack reached such lofty status.
“PSA was able to pedigree every card on the label ‘2018 National Break,’ which helps preserve the link to the unforgettable event for future owners of the cards. PSA really enjoyed being a part of such a special moment at our industry’s annual showcase.”
Rothe didn’t know he’d received a PSA Mint 9 until he got a call from ESPN senior writer Darren Rovell, who was working on a story about the amazing break.
“He called me and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’” Rothe said. “I asked him, ‘Should I be?’ He said, ‘The card came back a 9.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It was unreal. I was actually at a trade show outside in a cul-de-sac of a hotel and I sat on a bench for probably 30 minutes. Total feeling of euphoria.”
The card isn’t the first Mantle in Rothe’s collection. The 36-year-old has been collecting since he was young. He would buy the occasional modern-day wax pack, but Rothe didn’t focus on Ken Griffey, Jr. and Barry Bonds cards. Rothe loved vintage. He wanted to acquire tobacco cards and 1950s and ’60s Topps and Bowman products.
Rothe has about 300-400 main cards in his collection, including the likes of Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, a 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan BGS 9 and 40-50 T206 cards.
Rothe figures he has about 25 Mantles in his collection. He doesn’t have the big ones, though, the 1951 and ’52 Topps. However, he does have a ’55 Bowman in an SGC 4.
Rothe got a chance to see his newest Mantle for the first time when he had a photo shoot for a Baltimore Sun story on Aug. 14. He was like a kid in a candy store getting a chance to hold the card.
However, Rothe didn’t hang onto it for too long. He has loaned it to Sheldon to display at shows that are attended by VintageBreaks.com.
“I want people to be able to see this and to really understand how improbable this card coming out of a pack that had been in collection for 63 years it remained unexposed,” Roth said. “I want people to be able to ask questions and see it and hold it.”
After such a successful break of the 1955 Bowman pack, Sheldon has some things in the works for next year’s National. He wants to top the Mantle pull. But can you top what happened?
“We certainly can,” Sheldon said. “We are in the process of trying. We’re not going to reveal anything yet, but we have some good stuff in store.”
Perhaps a pack of 1952 Topps in search of an elusive PSA 10 Mickey Mantle?
If that happens, Rothe might have another break to enter. And maybe Rothe’s luck will continue.
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.