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Mudville: May 23, 2024 9:47 pm PDT

Wait, Hank Aaron Was a Switch Hitter?

The 1957 Topps set – often overlooked due to its simple design – is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was the first Topps set to feature full color player photographs; a fascinating mix of portrait and action-style shots. Each image is surrounded by a simple white border, with the player’s name, team and position printed in a basic font on the bottom of the card.

It was the first time that Topps printed players’ multiple-year statistics on the back of its cards, having only provided previous season’s statistics and career totals in the past. Baseball card collectors now had access to the most comprehensive player statistics available, 12 years before the first Baseball Encyclopedia was published in 1969. The size of the cards was also reduced from 2 5/8” by 3 5/8” to the familiar 2 ½” by 3 ½” size we know today.

Within the 407 card set, distributed over five series, you can see Mickey Mantle thrust into the spotlight at Yankee Stadium, as he follows through on a left-handed swing. There’s a close-up of a young Don Drysdale, his huge grin almost making you forget that he was a borderline homicidal maniac on the mound. There’s a magnificent shot of Richie Ashburn, squaring off a bunt in the bright sunshine, and another of Ted Kluszewski, showing off his powerful biceps in his sleeveless Cincinnati Redlegs uniform.

But a standout within the set is card #20 – Hank Aaron.

By 1957 – his fourth season in the majors – Hank had already made a noticeable impact. As the bio on the back of his card reads, “Hammerin’ Hank was the Top Batter in the National League in 1956…. A real speedster, he led the N.L in Most Hits, Most Doubles and placed third in Slugging.”

Huh. This Aaron guy might not be too bad.

1957 would prove to be another successful year for Aaron; he batted .322 and led the N.L in home runs and RBIs. He hit a two-run walk-off home run against the St Louis Cardinals, clinching the pennant for the Milwaukee Braves and played a crucial role in helping his team win the World Series against the New York Yankees, hitting .393 with three home runs and seven RBIs. He was awarded his first and only MVP at the end of the season.

However, it is not just these statistics that make this card a standout, it’s the image of Hank on the front of the card as well. It depicts a young Hank adopting his batting stance, his wooden baseball bat primed and ready. His white and red Milwaukee Braves uniform is a sharp contrast to the green grass of the outfield and the blue/grey County Stadium stands behind him.

Hank is looking directly at the camera, a look of pure concentration on his face, as if he is staring down a pitcher, ready to knock a hanging breaking ball all the way to Sheboygan.

It’s a glorious image.

Only look closer. Hank is a right-handed hitter. A fact that is confirmed on the back of his card. And yet the image shows him adopting the stance of a left-handed hitter. How could this be? Was Hank Aaron a switch hitter but too embarrassed to hit lefty in front of a crowd? Was hitting lefty so effortless for him that he decided to take it easy on the league’s pitching staffs by hitting only from the right side of the dish?

The answer can be found if you study his uniform carefully. The number 44 is shown in reverse, meaning that the image was printed in reverse. Yes, when Topps originally printed this card in 1957, it did so using an inverted negative, and the result was the image shown on the front of the card. The error wasn’t picked up before the card was released, presumably because it wasn’t a glaringly obvious error (after all, the ‘M’ on his baseball cap would appear the same in reverse… M’s have a tendency to do that), and Topps never issued a correction for it. Which leaves us with a rather unique piece of cardboard out of the 59 cards that were produced during Hank Aaron’s playing days, as well as a standout card from the 1957 Topps set.

Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Aaron could hit balls to the moon as a lefty, but I guess this card is as close as we’ll ever get to finding out.

Wife, mother. Living life like a 3-1 count. I flew 10,000 miles to meet Aaron Judge. And I’d do it again.

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