While baseball sets were produced regularly in the early 20th Century, basketball cards were generally restricted to appearances in multi-sport releases.
That said, if you were to write a book about basketball cards, chapter one should be reserved for the 1948 Bowman Basketball Set. The first issue dedicated exclusively to basketball, this pioneer offering is becoming more popular amongst hobbyists.
"There are more and more people collecting the 1948 Bowman set," said Michael Rakosi, whose No. 1 PSA Set Registry set boasts an incredible 8.921 Weighted GPA and was inducted into the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame in 2003.
Art Sainsbury, whose No. 2 Current Finest Registry Set was named the Registry's Best Vintage Basketball Set for 2008, agrees.
"There has been some new interest on the Registry. More people are starting up sets," he said.
Released in two series, the singles in this 72-card offering were distributed in five-card packs with gum. Today, these packs are extremely rare. One sold for $18,344.10 in a Memory Lane Auction in May 2008. Second series singles are more difficult to track down than the first. Fewer basketball cards were reportedly printed in 1948 than other Bowman sports products from that same year.
"These cards are very difficult. They were smaller runs. There was less interest in basketball," explained Rakosi.
Measuring 2-1/16" by 2-1/2", these cards showcase players from the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Similar in design to Bowman's baseball and football products from the same year, only with color fronts, these cards boast a large picture with a red or blue background on their fronts. The backs feature the card number, the player's name, biographical information and a mail-in promotion offer.
Some second series singles can also be found with gray backgrounds. These gray backgrounds reportedly occurred when the printer ran out of blue or red ink. Despite their rarity, these gray background cards are not highly sought-after by collectors.
One oddity of the set is that it boasts 12 cards showcasing basketball plays. Rakosi believes this is the only basketball set to include "play" cards. While not appealing to general collectors, these singles are often difficult to find in high-grade and are coveted by 1948 Bowman specialists.
"Other than for the set collectors themselves, you don't find a lot of people trying to buy the 'play' cards," explained Sainsbury. "Let's face it, if somebody comes into your house and says they've got a PSA Mint 9 'play' card, you're going to be like, 'Yeah, so what?'"
One of this set's major attractions is that it includes the only card of some of basketball's earliest stars. Also, to illustrate how much basketball has evolved as a professional sport and profitable business, Rakosi points out that there were two players in this set that got paid so little that they were also full-time head coaches at major universities. Bob Davies (#10) played for the Rochester Royals, while also acting as the head coach at Seton Hall, and Howard Dallmar (#14) was toiling for the Philadelphia Warriors while doubling as bench boss for the University of Pennsylvania.
"That's like Bobby Knight playing for the Indiana Pacers and also coaching Texas Tech," said Rakosi.
The rookie cards of numerous Hall of Famers also appear in this set, including Andy Phillip (#9), Buddy Jeannette (#38), Arnie Risen (#58) and Jim Pollard (#66).
But the most coveted Hall of Famer rookie is, of course, George Mikan (#69). This pasteboard has been dubbed the "Honus Wagner" of basketball cards.
"Mikan is a key card, even for non-collectors of basketball material," insisted Sainsbury.
Rakosi agrees, "The Mikan card is a very important card in the whole hobby."
The fact that it's in the high-number series adds to its scarcity and appeal. There is one PSA GEM MT 10 Mikan. Sainsbury has seen pictures of this card, but he's not sure who owns it. There are also four PSA Mint 9 Mikans. A PSA 9 was sold in a SCP Auctions sale for $52,107 in July 2008.
The sole pasteboard of coaching legend Red Holzman (#32) is also part of this set. Of the 210 Holzmans evaluated, there has yet to be a PSA 10, but there are six PSA 9s. A PSA 9 sold for $1,775 on eBay in August 2008.
Basketball's first modern jump shot shooter, Joe Fulks (#34) is also featured. No PSA 10 Fulks have been uncovered, but there are two PSA 9s and 29 PSA NM-MT 8s. A PSA 8 sold for $784.90 in a Memory Lane Auction in May 2008.
As with most vintage sets, the first and last card in this offering are difficult to find in pristine condition. On top of the wear and tear that comes with being on top of a pile, the set's first card, Ernie Calverley, is also notoriously off-center. Of the 125 graded, the highest grade recorded has been PSA 9. A PSA 9 reportedly sold for $8,507 in 2005.
The last card, Carl Braun, is even more difficult to track down in top form. Rakosi points out that Braun is the only hoops star who appears in the first three major basketball card sets (1948 Bowman, 1957-58 Topps, 1961-62 Fleer).
"He was a big time player and an all-star for the Knicks," said Rakosi.
Just 75 have been graded and there have been just two PSA 9s and 13 PSA 8s. A PSA 8 sold for $1,525 on eBay in April 2007.
Rakosi points out that the second card, Ralph Hamilton, is also elusive in top grade. The renowned hoops collector says being close to the top of collector piles made it vulnerable to additional wear.
"There's never been a PSA 9 Hamilton," noted Rakosi.
A PSA 8 sold for $465 on eBay in March 2007.
The most elusive card for Sainsbury to uncover in high grade has been Stan Miasek (#40). It's the only PSA NM 7 in his Registry set.
"I haven't even found a PSA 8 in almost eight years," he said. "It's kind of like the mole on the face of my set."
According to the PSA Population Report, there are two PSA 9 Miaseks and three PSA 8s. A PSA 7 sold for $117.50 on eBay in February 2007.
A tough high number and the second last card in the set, the #71 Play Card is also very difficult to find in pristine condition. The sole PSA 10 copy reportedly sold for $5,156 in 2005.
These low population commons, combined with the increased demand for cards of basketball's earliest stars, make this set a challenge to complete. But for those who do finish it, it could pay off financially for them in the future.
"I think it will just increase in value, if nothing more than because of the fact that basketball's become more international and at home, it has become one of the biggest sports. And with the age of the 1948 cards, you just can't find them," said Sainsbury. "Overall, I think that this particular set is going to end up being the tobacco issue of its sport."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Art Sainsbury and Michael Rakosi provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted are those as of press time.
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