The National Basketball Association was a rough-and-tumble affair back in 1957, with franchises occasionally in mid-size American cities that belied the reality of a major professional sports league. That was changing dramatically in the 1957-58 campaign as the Fort Wayne Pistons moved to Detroit and the Rochester Royals moved to Cincinnati.
If the map of the league was changing, so was its face. There was not a brother to be found in the top-10 NBA scoring leaders in 1957-58, but there was a second-year sensation named Bill Russell who was rebounding at an unheard-of rate as his team, the Boston Celtics, was launching perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of professional sports.
Into this arena, Brooklyn-based card maker Topps jumped, deciding it was time to make basketball cards. The company may have been a tad premature in its assessment; there would be no more Topps NBA cards for another decade after that, but that initial foray would prove to be a godsend for generations of collectors.
There was something of an informal once-a-decade tradition in the basketball card world at the time, Topps’ former rival Bowman having put out a set in 1948. The fact that another 10 years would elapse meant that the 1948 Bowman issue would have something in common with the 1957-58 Topps offering: rookie cards, and lots of them.
The most famous (and expensive) rookie card in the set wasn’t – as noted earlier – a rookie. Russell’s 1957-58 Topps card qualifies as a rookie card even if Bill wasn’t, just as a number of others in this issue. It’s that rookie flavor that so immediately draws commentary about the pioneering issue, but it could just as well be the admirable – if often uneven – use of action photography that highlights the set’s uniqueness.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the rookie thing when more than half of the 80-card set is made up of rookies. The roster includes the Celtics’ trinity of Russell, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman; the St. Louis Hawks, winners of their sole NBA Championship that spring – aided by a sprained ankle belonging to Russell that removed him from the lineup – had rookie cards of its own imposing trio of Bob Pettitt, Clyde Lovellette and Cliff Hagan.
The configuration of the issue on a press sheet meant that many of the players were double printed or even more; indeed, of the six monsters from the NBA Finals that year, Pettitt, Lovelette, Cousy and Sharman were all double printed at a minimum. Given that the single-printed Bill Russell card lists in guides at around $2,000 in NR-MT condition, it’s probably a good thing for modern collectors that so many of the big stars of the day were selected by Topps’ for multiple versions.
The 1957-58 Topps Basketball set is eerily reminiscent of its baseball counterpart from 1957, from the texture and clarity of the photographs right down to the card stock and gray backs. And just like in 1957 Topps Baseball, centering can be an awful bear in chasing down the basketball versions, with huge premiums accorded those highest graded specimens.
As might be expected, the cards are far from plentiful as well, certainly even more difficult in the highest grades. Complete sets can cost several thousand dollars in unslabbed presentations; the nature of an 80-card set means that for well-heeled collectors (think set registries) it’s certainly not out of the question to get the entire set graded. At that point the sky’s the limit on what it will take to get the job done, largely dependent on how high the grades go. Since a PSA 7 Bill Russell is likely to cost between $3,000 and $5,000 or more and the other stars can hover around $1,000 apiece in the PSA 7 and better slabs, the outlay can be substantial.
Part of the collector fascination with the set is linked to the effective combination of groundbreaking (maybe hardwood breaking?) in-action shots and the more traditional (and often campy) inaction shots. The latter is, of course, a reference to the posed action shots that Topps designers made so famous/infamous in the baseball and football issues of the same period.
In this inaugural hoops effort, that meant collaring some of the players for photo shoots in front of brick walls or in gymnasium corridors, with the posed dribbling images often including stark shadows from the relatively crude early equipment connected with color photography.
And when the backgrounds had to go, as they often did in those days, one of the solutions here was for parakeet yellow, a ghastly burnt umber or even a pea soup green. In some cases, this was breakthtaking.
But the overriding impression from the issue if admired in plastic sheets is the odd, almost mysterious brownish cast, not identical but certainly evocative of the curious color cast from 1957 Topps Baseball. In this case, though it’s a kind of gloomy brown, seemingly a combination of the hardwood floors, basketballs and flesh tones from all the white guys.
And there were plenty of those. This was the closing moments of the dominance of white players at the professional level (and later in the NCAA), an era marked by rugged-looking blue-collar Irishmen and Italians, often with funny sounding names, though not nearly as confounding as the Balkan tongue twisters that would come along several decades later.
At the very least, it kind of makes you wonder what would happen to all the big, tall white dudes who would come along in later generations.
By the time Topps got around to trying basketball cards again a decade later at the tail end of the turbulent 1960s, it was a 7-foot black man named Lew Alcindor who all but pushed them back into the genre. And when they rolled out their first regular-issue basketball set in 10 years for the 1969-70 season, they even tried stretching the cards out to an elongated 43/4 inches, all the better to accommodate Lew and Wilt.
Still, the one that paved the way was shorter, smaller and so much whiter. Black may be beautiful, but at the very least, white is charming, campy and collectible.