Collecting It All: An Overview of Basketball Card Production

By George Vrechek

In prior installments of this five-part series, we looked through the vintage card catalogs at what could be collected next after you have tackled the popular and available card sets issued before 1981. The prior articles dealt with baseball and football card sets. In this installment, we look at basketball. In the final installment, we will look at hockey and other sports.

NBA early history
Dr. James Naismith nailed the first peach basket to the balcony in 1891 and started bouncing the ball. Eighteen players were on the court for the first game, which ended with an exciting score of 1-0. No tobacco manufacturers were apparently around to feature these pioneer cagers on their tobacco cards. Players were later called “cagers” because they played on courts surrounded by a checkerboard wall of ropes that kept the basketballs from going out of bounds.

Basketball cards 1948-1981

Basketball cards 1948-1981

It didn’t take long to start a professional basketball league, but it lasted only from 1898-1904. The sport then seemed to slide back into slower development with semi-pro, barnstorming and industrial teams much like the early days of professional football. The American Basketball League and the “Original (New York) Celtics” came and went between 1925 and 1931. Leading scorers might scorch the net to average 7 or 8 points per game.

Finally in 1935 GE, Firestone and Goodyear got behind the industrial Midwest Basketball Conference, which was renamed the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1937. The Basketball Association of America started in 1946 to help fill arenas in the East and Midwest. In 1949, it merged with the NBL, and they renamed the combined league the National Basketball Association.

People remember early dominant, big man George Mikan, and his cards remain very pricey. Other top players of the day, like Vern Mikkelsen, Max Zaslofsky, Jumpin’ Joe Fulks, Bob Davies, Slater Martin and Jim Pollard, have not remained household names.
I remember watching black-and-white TV broadcasts of players with skinny legs in very small shorts from Rochester, Syracuse, Ft. Wayne and Cincinnati throwing up one or two-handed set shots. Players seemed to waltz around each other to avoid contact.

There were few players of color. No wonder there weren’t many basketball trading cards to capitalize on the excitement. You might well say that pre-1981 years were not the vintage years for professional basketball. By the later 1980s, Magic, Bird, Jordan and the well-known superstars made the game much more exciting, filled arenas and eventually sparked interest in basketball cards.

Early issues included 1954 Bullets Gunther Beer, 1955 Ashland or Aetna Oil, J.D. McCarthy postcards, 1959 Hawks Busch Bavarian and 1960 Rawlings.

Early issues included 1954 Bullets Gunther Beer, 1955 Ashland or Aetna Oil, J.D. McCarthy postcards, 1959 Hawks Busch Bavarian and 1960 Rawlings.

Early postwar cards
Nonetheless, let’s stick to the question of what vintage (pre-1981) basketball cards are available. Topps put out a set in 1957-58, which would have been at the height of my own collecting career as a kid. I don’t recall ever seeing the cards in a store or in anyone’s collection. Maybe Topps didn’t bother with locations that didn’t have NBA teams?

Bowman’s 1948 set was equally unknown to young collectors then. Fleer became the third company to take just a one-year shot at a national set when they issued their cards in 1961. This lack of vintage cardboard has made collecting basketball cards a lot simpler than collecting baseball or football.

Topps run 1969-80
If you collected every regular Topps set starting in 1969 when Topps resumed issuing basketball cards, you would have 2,169 cards through 1980. You would have the bulk of vintage basketball cards at relatively affordable prices. You would not have had to chase high series cards or a plethora of “single” prints. You would have to shell out some bucks for rookie cards of Jabbar, Erving, Maravich and others, but their cards are available. You could add in the Topps inserts and small sets from those same years consisting of rulers, stickers, posters and checklists and add about 176 more cards. Let’s look at what else is out there after completing the 1969-80 Topps.

Fleer’s Globetrotters and Kahn’s were the only significant issues outside Topps.

Fleer’s Globetrotters and Kahn’s were the only significant issues outside Topps.

The premier sets by Bowman, Topps and Fleer
The three premier sets (1948 Bowman, 1957 Topps and 1961 Fleer) are pricey and challenging. You could pay $20,000 or more for the three sets in Near Mint and only add 218 more cards to your collection. You would also have cards of a lot of guys named Max, Walter, George and Herman. With all of these sets in your shoebox, you’d have 2,563 vintage basketball cards.

Topps also produced a black-and-white test issue in 1968 of 22 stars of the day. The backs can be assembled to create a photo of Wilt Chamberlain. This set might cost an avid collector as much as the other three premier sets combined.

Kevin Savage (of Kevin Savage Cards) has been a dealer for more than 30 years and reports: “I think the collecting of vintage basketball is very popular, especially 1957-58 Topps and 1961-62 Fleer. Both of these sets are highly collected and have centering challenges throughout. Any time we get these cards, they sell very well, especially the big stars – Bill Russell, Cousy, West, Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, etc. Well-centered cards are also highly coveted by set collectors. Both sets are loaded with rookies and Hall of Famers.”

Royal Dessert included basketball players in their 1950 cards, which had to be cut from boxes. Bread for Health and Berk Ross also had cagers.

Royal Dessert included basketball players in their 1950 cards, which had to be cut from boxes. Bread for Health and Berk Ross also had cagers.

Globetrotters, HOF, Kahn’s and discs – 404 more cards
What else will we find in basketball price guide catalogs? The next largest basketball issue I found was the 84-card 1972 Harlem Globetrotters set produced by Fleer. The 84 cards were the result of multiple cards of each player. For instance, Meadowlark Lemon appears on 16 cards.

All the Globetrotter sets from 1971-74 make up 126 cards. In 1968, the Basketball Hall of Fame produced a 53-card set of bookmarks available in their bookstore. This turns out to be the largest oddball set of NBA players you can probably find.

Kahn’s issued 109 cards of Cincinnati players, plus Jerry West’s rookie card for some reason, between 1957 and 1965. In 1975 and 1976, there were 76 discs of players issued by Crane’s, Buckman and Carvel. There were six Linnett sets in the 1970s, with 40 cards issued total.

Issues between 1891 and 1951
There were so few other issues between 1891 and 1951 that we can list practically all of them. Most of the older issues are found with quite astronomical prices, but at least there aren’t many of them.

• The Net54 gang discussed the oldest basketball card candidates a few years back. The T51 and the larger T6 1910 Murad Cigarette issues of college pennants and seals featured generic basketball players for Williams, Northwestern, Luther and Xavier.
• Prior to 1910, some colleges produced postcards (or “real postcards”) which pictured basketball players.
• A “Baines Netball” card from around 1902 apparently depicted basketball, as did a Hamilton King Girl issue. There were probably other postcards in this era as well that teamed up balls with girls, children or pets.
• B33 Tobacco felts included 20 basketball subjects in 1910.
• 1935 Sport Kings included four basketball players: Nat Holman, Ed Wachter, Joe Lapchick and Eddie Burke.
• The 1948 Topps Magic Photo issue included 11 basketball players.
• Kellogg’s Pep Cereal included George Mikan on an expensive stamp in 1948. (It’s a good thing we aren’t counting stamps.)
• 1948-49 Exhibit cards – six basketball players (including Mikan) were issued along with other athletes.
• 1950 Royal Dessert – eight cards cut from boxes.
• 1950 Scott’s Chips Lakers – 13 real expensive players including Mikan, the only issue just of basketball players.
• 1950 Bread for Energy – four very expensive bread labels.
• 1951 Wheaties box – George Mikan.
• 1951 Bread for Health – 32 expensive bread labels.
• 1951 Berk Ross – four basketball players in the set.

Miscellaneous issues included 1961 Union Oil, 1961 Hawks Essex Meats,  1972 Comspec, 1972 Icee-Bear, 1973 NBA Photos and 1974-75 Nabisco.

Miscellaneous issues included 1961 Union Oil, 1961 Hawks Essex Meats, 1972 Comspec, 1972 Icee-Bear, 1973 NBA Photos and 1974-75 Nabisco.

Miscellaneous issues of interest 1952-1980
Most of the miscellaneous basketball cards between 1952 and 1980 were small issues of players on the local teams. The following sets have been listed in catalogs and price guides and are on the expensive but not impossible side of the ledger.

• 1952 Wheaties cards – Mikan in action and a portrait as well as five other players
• 1954 Bullets Gunther Beer – 11 cards
• 1955 Ashland/Aetna Oil – 96 college players
• 1955 and 1958 Celtics team photo pack
• 1950s-1970s J.D. McCarthy – 15 postcards
• 1958 Syracuse Nationals – 11 cards
• 1959 Hawks Busch Bavarian – five cards
• 1960 Rawlings – seven players on their staff
• 1961 Union Oil – Hawaii Chiefs – 10 cards
• 1961 St. Louis Hawks Essex Meats – 13 cards
• 1961 Bell Brand Lakers – 10 expensive cards
• 1968-1973 Suns Carnation – 49 cards in five sets
• 1970 Suns A1 Premium Beer – 13 cards
• 1972 Comspec – 18 cards, including Maravich
• 1972 Icee Bear – 20 cards
• 1973 NBA photo cards – 10 cards
• 1974-5 Nabisco Sugar Daddies – 19 cards.

When you add in about 24 additional small, local basketball issues from this period, you have around 700 cards in this miscellaneous group. There are also many team issues in the 1970s which I have not included.

Also in the late 1970s there began a flood of police sets which I have conveniently ignored. There are likely other team issues which have not surfaced yet in any type of catalog. These sets were not widely distributed; as few as 10,000 cards may have been printed. Think of how many survived the first year and how few are likely in the hobby 40-60 years later. It might take you some time to find these.

The 1910 Murad Cigarette issues of colleges included basketball players. The Hamilton King girls could handle the ball back then as well.

The 1910 Murad Cigarette issues of colleges included basketball players. The Hamilton King girls could handle the ball back then as well.

A Savage perspective
Dealer Kevin Savage was asked for his thoughts on basketball card collecting and commented that, in addition to the 1957-58 Topps and 1961-62 Fleer sets, the Topps sets from 1969 through 1980 are also popular.

“They are easily collected – as they have fewer cards than their counterparts from football and baseball – so they are ‘doable’ for collectors on a budget, who may not have the resources to build a 500 or 700-card set. Finishing a set of 132 cards is an easier task. Another great thing about collecting basketball sets is the higher percentage of rookies and stars in each set compared to commons, when stacked up against their baseball and football brethren. Overall, I think there are many fewer basketball collectors than football or baseball collectors, but when you compare the number of basketball collectors to the small number of vintage sets available, it makes vintage basketball a very good seller.”

The majority of vintage basketball cards are from Topps. There are a few other national and regional issues, but the rest of the universe is generally small, local issues starting in the 1950s.

The majority of vintage basketball cards are from Topps. There are a few other national and regional issues, but the rest of the universe is generally small, local issues starting in the 1950s.

Collecting vintage basketball
The vintage basketball cards I have described total about 3,700 cards. With the explosion of basketball cards after 1980, there are now more than 700,000 vintage and modern “items” in the Beckett online database.

If you had all the vintage Topps and Globetrotter regular cards and inserts, you’d have about two-thirds of the 3,700 vintage basketball cards. However the remaining 33 percent of the universe can be pretty expensive and hard to find. I contacted seven collectors who had been working on basketball sets. Their collections averaged 2,400 cards or 65 percent of all the vintage basketball cards.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at vrechek@ameritech.net.

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