As a follow-up to my previous article on collectibles related to Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, I want to delve into one of the most sought-after cards in the baseball collecting world: Hank Aaron’s 1954 Topps Rookie Card. Aaron’s career is well-documented and celebrated; I won’t be rehashing those details here. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the 1954 Topps baseball set, the design of Aaron’s rookie card, and the current prices and population of the card, with an emphasis on the its centering issues. Additionally, I’ll suggest a few early-career Hank Aaron card alternatives for collectors who can’t afford a high-grade Aaron rookie card.
Many collectors consider the 1954 Topps baseball set one of the most iconic post-war sets. The 250-card set is known for having a lot of big-time rookie cards (Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Tommy Lasorda, and Al Kaline), two great Ted Williams cards, and debuting the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Braves while also featuring the last appearance of the Philadelphia Athletics. The slightly larger card dimensions of 2-5/8″ by 3-3/4″ make the cards stand out but also susceptible to wear, compared to more modern cards.
Hank Aaron’s rookie card in the set, #128, is visually striking, with its orange background, double image (1954 Topps was the first set to use two player pictures on the front), and facsimile autograph on the front.
The back’s horizontal layout packs a ton of information, including Aaron’s minor league statistics, biography, vitals, and a cartoon about the watches and sports jackets he won “for his feats at bat!”
From a card condition perspective, it’s important to realize that quality control for card printing wasn’t as good in the 50s as it is today. A lot of cards came out of the pack with centering issues, print spots, and other defects. Plus, as I said, the cards being slightly larger than the later standard 2-1/2″ by 3-1/2″ made them more susceptible to wear over the years. So high-grade 1954 Topps cards are going to be hard to come by. And that’s definitely true of Hank Aaron’s 1954 Topps card too. It’s often found with poor centering, and the print defects really stand out on the orange background.
PSA has graded over 6k copies, and SGC has graded almost 2k. And the average grade is a little under a Vg-Ex 4 from both services, with SGC perhaps being a little lower than PSA. And remember that years ago, you could request a card without qualifiers, so a card that would have been a PSA 6 (OC) can show up in the pop report as a PSA 4. So the fact that there are only 390 qualifiers in PSA’s pop report for Aaron’s rookie is a little misleading. The pop report is just a guide.
The card is tough to find in ideal condition; even high-grade variations can leave a lot to be desired from a centering perspective; here are a PSA 8 and PSA 7 copy that, to me, lack true to grade eye-appeal:
So how many Hank Aaron rookie cards are well-centered? It’s hard to say, but those with nice centering command premium prices. Some collectors surmise that less than 30% are well-centered (many raw examples exist too).
This copy of a 1954 Topps Uncut sheet, sold by Huggins and Scott in July 2010 for $11k, shows how sensitive a machine must be to cut the cards well; the double-borders between cards and the flipped nature probably induced spacing and centering problems for the cutters.
Hank Aaron’s rookie is a significant card with huge demand. It’s one of the few that symbolize the post-war hobby; the set, the card’s color and recognizability, and Aaron’s accolades make the card generationally significant. So, it’s no surprise that even low-grade copies command high prices, and I’m not sure we will ever see one sell for under $1500 again. In April 2023, a PSA 1.5 sold on eBay for $2140. That same month a PSA 1 sold for $1625.
As you move up the grading scale, the prices get more out of reach for a lot of collectors. Greg Morris Cards sold a PSA 5 on eBay in April 2023 for $6288. Goldin sold a PSA 7 for $15.6k in October 2022 and a PSA 8 for $43k in February 2023.
At the really high end, the cards are even more astronomically expensive.
In August 2022, PWCC sold a PSA 9 for $720k; the sale was covered in an article on Sports Collectors Daily.
Robert Edward Auctions sold this PSA 9 copy in Spring 2017 for $216k.
PSA has slabbed two Gem Mint 10 copies of Hank Aaron’s 1954 Topps Rookie Card, and SCP sold the one from the Dmitri Young Collection for $357k in 2012. The card appears to have been re-slabbed:
If paying $2k for a beat-up 1954 Topps Hank Aaron rookie card isn’t your cup of tea, you have a few possible oddball alternatives to obtain an early career Hank Aaron card.
First is the 1954 Johnston Cookie Milwaukee Braves Henry Aaron card. The card still isn’t cheap because the supply is low, but you might be able to pick up a copy for under $1k. Unfortunately, they’ve increased in price in the past few years.
Another option is a 1954-56 Spic and Span Milwaukee Braves Postcards Hank Aaron card. These cards don’t come to market too often; PSA has only graded 100 examples. But, this PSA 4 sold for $1050 in December 2022, and a PSA 1 sold for $300 on eBay in late 2021.
A few early-year oddball Hank Aaron cards to consider are the 1955 Golden Stamps and 1955 Johnston Cookies cards.
Aaron’s second year cards, 1955 Bowman and 1955 Topps (which uses the same image as the 1954 Topps card), are also excellent and far more affordable than his Topps rookie card. I’m also partial to the 1955 Topps Double Header #105-106 Hank Aaron / Ray Herbert card.
It’s hard not to notice the centering issues that have impacted Hank Aaron’s 1954 Topps rookie card’s value and rarity. But what do you think? Do you believe these issues are overblown, or do they add to the card’s mystique and desirability? Ultimately though, there’s no denying that Aaron’s rookie card holds a well-deserved spot in the hobby’s pantheon of post-war greats. Happy collecting, and be sure to check out The Post War Cards Newsletter for more about the hobby.