Card of the Day: 1974 Topps Hank Aaron All-Time Home Run King

From the time most of us “young” (younger than 35) collectors were kids, Hank Aaron was the home run king. He was the baseball player depicted in school text books, named as the guy who took down the record set by the game’s biggest legend, Babe Ruth.

One look at this card to the left pretty much says it all: All-Time Home Run King. But what I find interesting about this particular card though is that when it was produced, Hank Aaron was not the king. If anything, he had just arrived in the royal castle and the king, Babe Ruth, was sharing his throne.

You see this is a 1974 Topps card, No. 1. It was produced before the 1974 season and when this card hit the market, Mr. Henry Louis Aaron had 713 homers, the same number as Ruth. And while I may be arguing semantics, splitting hairs, or whatever cliche you chose to use, how would you feel if Topps today produced a card that forecast (correctly or incorrectly) the future? Oh wait, they have.

But I digress. I come from a journalist’s school of thought: Nothing will happen, things are only scheduled to happen. If you’ve read any newspaper “advance” story you’ll have noticed that the author never says “will,” they always use other words. Why? Because you never know what could happen. Take the 1994 World Series for example.

As it pertains to this card, it likely was produced with the notion that once kids start buying these things Aaron would have already hit his 714th home run and the company would be in the clear. No one would give it a thought other than: “Hey, that’s neat.” But can you image what the guys at Topps were thinking when Aaron failed to homer during the opening series of the ’74 season in Cincinatti? Aaron collected a pair of hits in the season opener, sat out the second game, and then went hitless in the third. But Aaron cured their issue in the fourth game of the season on April 8, 1974, when he slugged another milestone shot, the one that made this card accurate.

Topps “called its shot” so to say, and what they had on their hands was a pretty neat collectible. This card still remains one of Aaron’s most popular, even though it books for $50 and can be had routinely in the $10 range on eBay.

On a side note, it’s pretty remarkable at the restraint Topps exercised with this achievement. Ruth’s record was thought to be sacred and unbreakable, and yet the way the company decided to honor the Heir Apparent was to design this card as his base card (the one with his career stats on the back) and the four commemorative “specials” depicting mini versions of his prior Topps issues.

Had this happened today, we would have seen separate cards for each home run Aaron hit, then gold , silver and bronze versions of the milestone shots, and a bunch of other worthless subsets and inserts. Sound familiar? In fact, I’m surprised Topps has not produced a retro set featuring just that.

God, I miss simplicity.

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