Set Registry

Basketball's Big Three, Collecting Vintage Basketball Classics

By Joe Orlando and Greg Bussineau

In the world of football cards, there are a host of vintage trading cards sets that one could argue to be amongst the top 2 or 3 classics within the sport. You have 1935 National Chicle, 1952 Bowman Large, 1955 Topps All-Americans, 1957 Topps, 1965 Topps Tall Boys and so on and so on. In baseball, while we do have the Big Three (T206, 1933 Goudeys and 1952 Topps), there are literally dozens upon dozens of sets that collectors consider classic by hobby standards.

When it comes to basketball card sets, the term classic applies to a much more limited group of sets simply because there were so few mainstream sets produced that collectors are left with little choice. Luckily, there are some true, no doubt basketball classics for collectors to focus on. While the 1969-70 Topps Tall Boy and 1986 Fleer sets could certainly be argued as classics and part of a top 5 list, the three classic basketball sets that all hobbyists can agree on are the 1948 Bowman, 1957 Topps and 1961 Fleer sets. They may be produced by three different manufacturers and have three different designs but they are all great sets.


In this article, with the help of hobby veteran and trading card expert Greg Bussineau, SMR breaks down the Big Three of basketball. Each set is filled with great star selection, rookies and a host of challenges that makes each one a desirable basketball issue.

Let's begin!

There were only three major vintage basketball sets produced. First was the Bowman basketball set of 1948. This was the third major set issued by Bowman in 1948, but unlike the baseball and football issues, the basketball cards were produced with color.

The next major basketball issue didn't come until 1957, when Topps produced its premier roundball set. This was a great year for Topps since they produced truly classic sets for all four major sports, the only year they did this until 1969.


The final vintage basketball set was issued by the Fleer Company in 1961. Fleer was quite busy in 1961, as that was the year that they also issued their inaugural football and baseball sets. Fleer did not issue another basketball set until 1986.

Together these three sets make up the entire vintage basketball market. There were other small regional issues produced in the 1950s and 1960s, but for purposes of future appreciation potential, I think you should concentrate your efforts on these three sets.

The future of basketball sportscards has great potential. Back in the late 1940s and 1950s, basketball was a much smaller sport than it is today. Baseball was the great American pastime and to a lesser extent there was football, but basketball was really a very minor sport at the professional level. Just think about it: there wasn't even a dedicated basketball set produced until 1948, and the next one didn't come out until 1957!

When these early issues were produced, they were printed in much smaller quantities than their baseball counterparts and the quality control was almost nonexistent, hence the reason for all the off-center cards. The majority of these early basketball cards have a minuscule PSA population in NM-MT 8 or better. More importantly, many of the all-time-great players have only one card issued featuring them. How much do you think a Mickey Mantle or a Willie Mays card would be worth if it were the only one that had ever been produced?

1948 Bowman

The 1948 Bowman set contained 72 cards that were issued in two different 36-card series. The last series is rarer than the first series, but all 1948 Bowman basketball cards in high-grade are rare.


Each card measures 2 1/16" x 2 1/2", the standard size for all Bowman sportscard issues of 1948, 1949 and 1950. Just like the football and baseball issues of the same year, these cards featured a clean obverse portrait of the player and a reverse that included the card number, the player's name and write-up, and a mail-in promotion offer. However, unlike the baseball and football issues of 1948, these cards featured color tinting of the obverse portraits.

Of the 72 cards issued in this set, 60 featured basketball players and 12 featured diagrammed basketball plays. This was the only set Bowman ever produced which contained "play" cards. Also, occasionally you'll find the high-number player cards missing the red and blue color. Apparently there were problems at the printer which accounted for these "error" cards. Although the gray background cards are more difficult to find than the colored varieties, they are not as attractive or as popular.

In summary, the 1948 Bowman set was the first issue devoted exclusively to basketball cards. It also turned out to be Bowman's only basketball issue. These cards are very rare and quite attractive. It is a classic set and very popular with collectors.

The Most Important 1948 Bowman Cards

The following is a listing of the most important cards in the 1948 Bowman basketball set. The cards are listed in numerical order.


· #1 Ernie Calverley. This is the first card in the first major basketball issue. It's a tough condition-rarity. Centering is usually a problem with this card.

· #32 Red Holzman. This is the only major card issued of Hall-of-Fame great Red Holzman. Holzman was an excellent defensive player and a good play-maker. Holzman also enjoyed a long coaching career in the NBA.

· #34 Joe Fulks. This is the only major card of "Jumping Joe" Fulks. Fulks was basketball's first modern jump shooter and is a member of the Hall of Fame.

· #66 Jim Pollard. This is the only major card of Jim Pollard, nicknamed "Kangaroo Kid" for his great leaping ability. Pollard was a tremendous all-around player, one of basketball's true all-time greats and a member of the Hall of Fame.

· #69 George Mikan. This is the most famous, most important and most valuable basketball card ever issued. It is a very rare high-number and obviously the key to the 1948 Bowman set. Mikan was the first truly dominant big man in professional basketball. He paved the way for Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and all of the other legendary centers who followed after him. Mikan was a great scorer and is a very important member of the Hall of Fame. The 1948 Bowman George Mikan is, without a doubt, the T-206 Honus Wagner of basketball cards!

· #72 Carl Braun. This is the last card in the 1948 Bowman set and is an ultra condition-rarity. This is one of, if not the rarest regular-issue basketball cards in NM/MT or better condition.

1957 Topps

The 1957 Topps set contained 80 cards that were issued together in one series. All 1957 Topps basketball cards are scarce, many are rare, and some are ultra-rare. As a general rule, in NM-MT condition, 1957 Topps basketball cards are the rarest of the three major vintage sets. These cards are incredibly difficult to find well-centered and without a lot of white print "snow."


Each card measures 2 1/2" x 3 1/2", the standard size for all post-1956 sportscard issues. The obverse features a player picture, usually an action shot, along with a pennant at the bottom featuring the player's name and team. The reverse features the card number, the player's name and write-up, the player's most recent year and career statistics, and a generic drawing of the player depicting his height. Of the 80 different cards in the set, many were double-printed, presumably in order to constitute a standard 132-card sheet.


This was Topps' first basketball issue. The cards are very attractive and are very rare in high-grade. The fact that this is one of the four Topps sportscard sets produced in 1957 (the only year Topps issued sets for all four sports until 1969), will further increase demand for these cards among "theme" collectors.

The Most Important 1957 Topps Cards

The following is a listing of the most important cards in the 1957 Topps basketball set. The cards are listed in numerical order.


· #1 Nat Clifton. The first card in the 1957 Topps basketball set and an incredible condition-rarity. Well-centered examples of this card are almost nonexistent.

· #5 Bill Sharman. This is the only major card of Hall-of-Famer Bill Sharman. Sharman was an excellent shooter and one of the greatest free-throw artists in NBA history.

· #13 Dolph Schayes. This is the first card of Dolph Schayes. Schayes, a Hall-of-Famer, was a tough and fierce competitor who scored close to 20,000 points in his 16 seasons as a player.


· #17 Bob Cousy. This is the first card of Bob Cousy and one of the keys to the 1957 Topps set. Cousy was a brilliant ballplayer with incredible dribbling and passing skills. When this Hall-of-Fame great retired in 1963, he held the all-time NBA record for most assists.

· #19 Tom Heinsohn. This is the rookie card of the Boston Celtics Hall-of-Fame great Tom Heinsohn. Heinsohn was a very aggressive player and a great rebounder. This is one of the very toughest 1957 Topps basketball cards to find in high-grade.

· #24 Bob Pettit. This is the rookie card of Hall-of-Fame great Bob Pettit. Pettit was a prolific scorer, in fact, when he retired from the NBA in 1965 he held the all-lime scoring record with 20,880 career points.


· #37 Cliff Hagan. Quick yet strong, Hagan was a forward with the St. Louis Hawks. This Hall-of-Famer card is exceptionally difficult to find without a lot of print "snow."

· #77 Bill Russell. This is the rookie card of one of the greatest players in NBA history. Hall-of-Fame great Russell was an absolutely dominant rebounder and defender. This is the key card in the great 1957 Topps set and is the second most important card in the entire vintage basketball market.

1961 Fleer

The 1961 Fleer set contained 66 cards that were issued together in one series. The last 22 cards are "In-Action" varieties of players featured elsewhere in the set. Interestingly, the first 44 cards are numbered in conjunction with the alphabetical order of the players featured. The last 22 cards repeat this alphabetical numbering system.


Each card measures 21/2" x 3 1/2". The obverse features a portrait of the ballplayer on the bottom 2/3 of the card along with his name, position, team, and team logo on the top 1/3 of the card. The reverse features the card number, the player's name and write-up, and the player's most recent year and career statistics.

These cards are incredibly difficult to find well-centered. Because of an unopened box find several years ago, it is relatively easy to find specimens with sharp corners, nice color and full gloss, but centering is almost always a problem.


The 1961 set was Fleer's only basketball issue until 1986. These cards are super attractive, popular with collectors, and feature the first appearances of some of the greatest players in NBA history.

The Most Important 1961 Fleer Cards

The following is a listing of the most important cards in the 1961 Fleer basketball set. The cards are listed in numerical order.

· #3 Elgin Baylor. This is Hall-of-Fame great Elgin Baylor's rookie card. Baylor was an incredibly strong, yet graceful, player. He was an excellent rebounder and passer, as well as a prolific scorer (over 23,000 points in 14 NBA seasons).


· #8 Wilt Chamberlain. This is the rookie card of the greatest offensive player in the history of the NBA. "Wilt the Stilt" still holds a slew of scoring records and he was the first player to accumulate more than 30,000 career points. Chamberlain is a legendary member of the Hall of Fame.

· #10 Bob Cousy. This is Hall-of-Fame great Cousy's second and final basketball card.

· #36 Oscar Robertson. This is the "Big O's" rookie card. Robertson was truly a phenomenal player, perhaps the greatest guard in the history of the NBA. In the 1961-62 season, he averaged a "triple double" when he scored 2,432 points, had 899 assists and 985 rebounds.

· #38 Bill Russell. This is the second and final card of the Celtics great Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell.


· #43 Jerry West ($920). This is the rookie card of the Lakers Hall-of-Fame great Jerry West. "Mr. Clutch" had it all: speed, quickness, a great shot, and the ability to make big plays.

· #47 Wilt Chamberlain In-Action. This is the "In-Action" variety of legendary all-time great Wilt Chamberlain.

· #66 Jerry West In-Action. This is the last card in the 1961 Fleer set. It is the "In-Action" card of Laker great Jerry West.

As you can see, these three great sets are attractive for a host of reasons. Of course, there are many low pop- ulation commons within the set that have surged in value over the past 2-3 years and it will be interesting to see which low pop commons maintain their status as true rarities as the years go by.

Happy collecting!