1955 Baseball Rookie Face-Off: Koufax vs. Clemente

There is nothing like a good baseball rivalry. And for vintage sports collectors, those rivalries can be decades old. The beautiful 1955 Topps baseball set has some key rookie cards that vintage collectors chase for their collection of key cards or as cards to help build sets. It all boils down to the #123 card of Sandy Koufax and the #164 card of Roberto Clemente. Harmon Killebrew does deserve on honorable mention but collectors industry wide will all agree that the 1955 set is all about the Clemente and Koufax rookie cards.

The real question is which card is more desirable for collectors to own. Pitching fans and Dodger fans will swear that it’s Koufax who is best. Batting and Pirates fans will say Clemente is the better card of the two. Both cards are visually stunning with Koufax’s bright yellow background and with Clemente’s deep green background. We also have to remember that the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn at the time these cards came out. The Pirates and the Dodgers were rivals and only one of the teams could end up in the World Series each year to fight the American League.

There seems to be no shortage of Koufax rookie cards because he was considered more or less a common player as rookie cards were not as deeply chased as they are now. Clemente’s card is more rare because the card was among the high-number cards issued later. Koufax is actually the most graded card out of all 1955 Topps cards because it was widely printed and because every collector knows that any grade in this card drives up the value.

One serious difference between these two great vintage rookie cards is that Clemente’s card contains statistics and Koufax’s rookie just shows the stats line as “NOT IN ORGANIZED BASEBALL” and talks about his great strikeout record pitching at the University of Cincinnati. Clemente’s stats for 87 games and 148 at-bats show a .257 batting average, 38 hits and a .988 fielding average. The Clemente card also boasts of being first choice at the 1954 Winter Draft after having been originally signed by the Dodgers to a bonus contract and how he batted .365 the prior year in the Puerto Rican League.

Both cards suffer from instances being seen in high-grade examples. The Clemente’s high-number card rarely comes with great centering. Clemente’s card also is known for having coloring issues with the green background. Koufax rookie cards also have a night and day difference of how bright and clear the yellow backgrounds appear. And Koufax’s card also frequently comes with centering issues, but not as frequently as the Clemente cards.

One last benefit for a premium card is that none of the most valuable rookie players from the 1955 Topps set had rivalry with Bowman rookie cards. And then Topps acquired Bowman, so the 1955 set was Bowman’s last set for baseball cards. Both of these cards make it in for The Top 1950’s Baseball Rookies!

Clemente image from the stellar PSA 9 sale at PWCC!

PSA 9 Roberto Clemente Rookie

As for the scarcity, Roberto Clemente’s rookie card has 4,795 graded examples before getting into the “+” and “Q” designations in grading. There are another 750 with “+” grades and another 828 with “Q” grades, for a total of 6,373 PSA graded examples. The 1955 Koufax card has 7,942 base grades without qualifiers. It has another 1,237 with “+” graded and another 528 examples with “Q” designations. That’s 9,257 PSA graded Koufax rookies in total.

All in all, the Koufax total PSA count of 9,257 is 45.2% more graded examples than there are Clemente rookies — roughly one-and-half times! The only other cards that are just above or close to the Clemente grading populations (without +/Q) in base conditions are Ted Williams (4,356), Hank Aaron (2nd year card at 5,026), Jackie Robinson (4,751) and Harmon Killebrew’s rookie card (5,085).

PSA’s population reports are concentrated in middle grades. The 1955 Topps Koufax “zones” of the most common grades by grade without reference to +/Q designations show the following:

  • PSA 3 at 958 examples
  • PSA 4 at 1,622 examples
  • PSA 5 at 1,619 examples
  • PSA 6 at 1,386 examples

Clemente’s three highest grade concentrations are as follows:

  • PSA 3 at 717
  • PSA 4 at 1,080
  • PSA 5 at 914

Where the base grades (no +/Q) get really skewed is in the highest graded examples. These are the grade comparisons to consider, as well as that Koufax’s total PSA graded examples are almost 50% more frequent than Clemente’s. PSA populations are as follows (showing Clem. and Kouf.)

  • PSA 8 Clem. 123 vs. Kouf. 242
  • PSA 8.5 Clem. 3 vs. Kouf. 17
  • PSA 9 Clem. 11 vs. Kouf. 24
  • PSA 10 Clem. 1 vs. Kouf. 3

Looking at data outside of PSA also leaves room for further interpretation over scarcity. This includes data from Beckett’s BVG grading and also SGC’s grading.

Koufax image from Heritage Auctions.

1955 Topps Sandy Koufax

SGC’s population report shows that 2,587 graded examples for Koufax exist in its system. The highest concentration of graded in “the zone” are as follows:

  • SGC 5 at 334
  • SGC 4.5 at 132
  • SGC 4 at 344

SGC’s population report shows that 1,846 graded examples for Clemente exist in its system. The highest concentration of graded in “the zone” are as follows:

  • SGC 3 at 299
  • SGC 4 at 246
  • SGC 5 at 206

There are only 2 examples of the Clemente rookie graded as SGC 9. SGC’s population report shows 8 examples graded SGC 9 and one graded 9.5.

Beckett Vintage Grading also has cards that have been graded for the Sandy Koufax and Clemente rookie cards. The BVG population report is a total of 1,339 graded cards and the Clemente population is a total of 835 cards. Koufax’s highest concentrations by grade are ranging from BVG 3.0 to BVG 5.5, while Clement’s top concentrations are in BVG 2.0 to BVG 4.5. Koufax also outnumbers each grade handily versus the Clemente card.

Pricing for highest sales can be tricky because each system uses different price recognition, some sales are overlooked, and private transactions between people or at shows are not tallied. As PSA graded cards are the most popular in quantity and as they come up for auction the most, this is how the price comparisons have been in 2022 for a rounded average price of the most recent sales by each whole number grade using PSA data and VintageCardPrices data:

  • PSA 4 Koufax $1,100 vs. Clemente $2,800
  • PSA 5 Koufax $1,700 vs. Clemente $3,500
  • PSA 6 Koufax $2,850 vs. Clemente $7,000
  • PSA 7 Koufax $6,700 vs. Clemente $18,000

Keep in mind that these are ballpark dollar figures, but you get the general idea here. The Koufax is far more available than the Clemente card. And despite the larger numbers, Clemente’s lower populations at higher grades cause a hockey stick effect on the pricing.

Now you know why a Clemente rookie just sold at the $1 million mark. The last two PSA 9 sales for Koufax were in 2021, one in November for $384,000 and one in May for $369,000.