With this season marking the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron surpassing Babe Ruth in career homers, it is important to realize Aaron’s impact on Topps cards. From his rookie card of 60 years ago to the conclusion of his cardboard career as a player in 1976, Aaron did appear on a decent number of Topps cards as well as many secondary Topps sets.
To commemorate what would be a special moment for Aaron, Topps created a special card #1 for Aaron in the 1974 set with the inscription “New All-Time Home Run King”. I was still occasionally purchasing packs in 1974 and I did not pull that card until the day after Aaron broke the homer run mark. I swore to myself that Topps had pulled out all those #1 cards until Aaron definitely broke Ruth’s record. Yes, today we know that is not correct, but still at least that was a good conspiracy theory.
The next several cards in the ’74 set served as sort of an Aaron baseball card retrospective. Since his first Topps card had been in 1954, the set was easily parceled into five distinct cards, each covering four of Aaron’s basic Topps cards. The years covered were 1954-57, 1958-61, 1962-65, 1966-69 and 1970-73. Each card had one quarter of the front devoted to a specific Aaron card while the back covered career highlights.
Today, some of those Aaron Special cards are a little hard to find in high grade, because of the usual centering issues and also because they were near the front of the set and susceptible to damage. Mint, graded examples are often $80-10 each. Near mint-mind graded cards will cost $25-35. Your best bet for bargains are the ungraded near mint cards, which can be had for under $10 each, even less in average condition.
Interestingly because of the bilingual nature of the O-Pee-Chee packs, the Aaron specials were released two per card instead of the American four per card. Also, I wonder if Topps had telegraphed their intention with card #1 in the 1973 Topps set with the three players pictured being Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays who were then the only three players with more than 650 career homers.
This was not the first time a player’s Topps career was featured but it was the first time the card career was honored on other Topps cards. The May 26, 1972 issue of Life Magazine issue would honor Willie’s return to New York with a photo in the middle surrounded by almost all his Topps cards. I remember as a young man thinking how almost mystical all of that was to see all those great early cards of Mays in the magazine when I saw that magazine at a doctor’s office back in the day.
Life Magazine would not even survive until 1973 because of the growth of television and the color TV pictures that had become almost universal. Magazines such as Life which depended on that type of photography were not nearly as important as they had been even a decade earlier. Yes, there was a time where seeing a program “In Living Color” was a big thing and if you saw the NBC Peacock in color, you knew that was an important program.
However, the best part of those Aaron cards is they are all very affordable. You can find clean copies at shows and on eBay for less than what a normal lunch will cost and to me those cards are great bargains. Cards such as the Aaron special opened up a whole new collecting focus for many younger collectors in 1974. Topps would replicate this career patch 12 years later and Pete Rose was honored the same way and thus between Aaron and Rose, there are very inexpensive cards to trace more than 30 years of collecting and bring us great memories at the same time.
Click to see Aaron Special cards for sale/auction on here.