PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1961 Fleer Basketball Card Set
A Snapshot of an Evolving NBA
by Richard Garfein
In looking back at the history of basketball cards, one is immediately struck by how unpopular they must have been, and unprofitable for manufacturers - who would periodically venture into the market and then quickly depart.
- Bowman issued a basketball set in 1948 and that was it - even as they continued on with baseball and football.
- Topps gave it a try in 1957 on the heels of Bill Russell's entry into the league and the Celtics' first championship, but they quit after one year.
- The 1961 Fleer set came along four years later for what would be a one-year run.
- Topps returned in 1969 with Kareem Abdul Jabbar's (Lew Alcindor's) entry into the league and the rise of the Knicks. This time, they lasted through the 1981-82 season but gave it up again - even as league attendance was on the rise.
- Finally, with the arrival of 1986 Fleer and the iconic Michael Jordan rookie card, basketball cards would be here to stay.
So, as irony would have it, due to this lack of popularity, the 1961 Fleer set takes on special significance - both from a historical perspective and as a collectible. It is the only major basketball set that we have during a 12-year period of growth, evolution, and modernization of the NBA.
Composition of the Set
First, some basics about the set. The 1961 Fleer set consists of just 66 cards with only 44 players represented. Twenty-two of the 44 players have a second "In Action" (IA) card featuring a live game photo. Generally, the star players got the honor of an IA card, but it wasn't a perfect science. Somehow, all-time greats like Hal Greer, Sam Jones, and Len Wilkens didn't get an IA card.
The 44 core cards are listed alphabetically (1-44), albeit with Al Attles as the #1 card and Paul Arizin as the #2. The 22 IA cards are also listed alphabetically (cards 45-66). Jerry West's IA card (#66) is the last one in the set.
The 44 players are an elite group - 24 Hall of Famers and 12 among the "50 Greatest Players in NBA History" (as selected in 1996) - Arizin, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Greer, Jones, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes, West, and Wilkens.
Nineteen of the core 44 cards are rookie cards. As with the 1986 Fleer set, the 1961 Fleer issue is loaded with rookie cards because there weren't any card sets in the 4-5 years preceding. Most of the 19 rookies in the 1961 set debuted in the league prior to the 1961-62 season: Baylor arrived in 1958, Chamberlain in 1959, Robertson and West in 1960, etc.
The highest-priced and most sought-after cards in the set are the Chamberlain (#8), Robertson (#36), West (#43), and Baylor (#3) cards. Within the last two years, a Chamberlain PSA MINT 9 sold for $45,000, a Robertson PSA 9 for $28,200, a Baylor PSA 9 for $31,100, and a West PSA 9 for $31,100. There are only three Chamberlain PSA GEM-MT 10s, three West PSA 10s, one Robertson PSA 10, and no Baylors. It is anyone's guess as to what these would sell for if they ever hit the market.
Unopened material is extremely scarce. A pack contains six cards and a stick of gum. In June of 2017, a full unopened wax box (24 packs) of 1961 Fleer sold for $108,039 in a Mile High Card Company auction.
In terms of design, the card is divided into three sections:
- The top portion has the team name and logo.
- The middle has the player's name and position: Center, Forward, or Backcourt.
- The bottom section has a black-and-white player photo superimposed against a color background.
And what an interesting assortment of team logos these turned out to have. Note how only the Pistons' logo has essentially stood the test of time over the last 50 years. The Chicago Packers' logo clearly served as the model for the future Chicago Bulls' logo. The Lakers' yellow giraffe on a pink basketball was retired long ago!
There were only nine teams in the 1961-62 NBA season. Here are the number of cards per team in the set (excluding the IA cards):
Notice that the cards weren't evenly distributed across teams. The World Champion Celtics got seven cards, Wilt's Philadelphia Warriors got six cards, the struggling Knicks only three cards, and the expansion Chicago Packers only two (including the highly-coveted Walt Bellamy (#4) rookie card).
The set is fraught with a myriad of condition issues - centering, dinged corners, rough edges, print defects, cards cut on a diagonal, and cards that are easily stained. You name it.
- Of the 30,139 cards graded to date by PSA, there are only 1,307 PSA 9s (or 4.3% of the population) and only 85 PSA 10s (or 2.8 of every 1,000 cards graded).
- 16.9% of all cards graded have qualifiers.
- Over 60% of the population are PSA NM 7s and below.
The most condition-sensitive cards in the set are cards #1 through #6: Attles (#1), Arizin (#2), Baylor (#3), Bellamy (#4), Arlen Bockhorn (#5), and Bob Boozer (#6). Of 2,100 cards graded, there are only 51 PSA 9s (or 2.4% of the population) and one PSA 10 (Arizin).
Set Registry Participation
There are now 112 active 1961 Fleer sets on the PSA Set Registry, making this one of the most popular basketball sets on the Registry:
- Twelve of the 112 sets have set ratings of 8.00 or higher.
- Thirty-two of the 112 sets are 100% complete, with weighted GPAs ranging from 9.45 to 4.67.
- The highest weighted cards in the set are Chamberlain (10.00), West (9.00), Robertson (8.00), Russell (7.00), and Attles (7.00) - the #1 card.
The 1961 Fleer cards also figure prominently in the popular Basketball Hall of Fame Rookies set, accounting for 12 of the 108 cards.
The Historical Significance of the Set
What really sets the 1961 set apart is the snapshot and insight it provides on a rapidly changing NBA. Let's say 1961 Fleer never existed and all we had were the 1957 and 1969 Topps sets - a 12-year gap. What a complete makeover the league underwent during those 12 years.
The 1957 NBA was a Caucasian-dominated league. The only true African-American superstars at the time were Russell and Maurice Stokes (who, in his tragically shortened career, was 1956 NBA Rookie of the Year and 1957 rebounding leader). But they were exceptions to the rule. The message to a lot of African-American players in the league was to keep a low profile if they wished to preserve their jobs - guard the other team's black player, concentrate on rebounding, feed the ball to the team's white star, etc.
The 1957 NBA was a regional league (Northeast/Midwest). The Lakers were still in Minneapolis (which is where they originated), the Royals had just moved from Rochester to Cincinnati, and the Pistons from Ft. Wayne to Detroit. Teams often played to empty arenas, even with truly cheap tickets and doubleheaders (where you got to see four NBA teams for a single admission). Note the banks of empty seats in the Cliff Hagan IA card (#53).
The league changed so dramatically between 1957 and 1969 that the 1969-70 season, in many respects, probably bears more resemblance to today's NBA than to the 1957-58 NBA. The 1969 NBA had expanded to 14 cities with teams now in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego.
The NBA had become a black-dominated league with all players now empowered to compete (and not play secondary roles). The NBA was the first major sport to name an African-American head coach (Bill Russell in 1966-67). The prevailing 1969-70 version of racial bias was that the last 3-4 seats on the bench generally went to white guys to round out the roster.
So, in terms of cards, we get only one brief snapshot between the 1957-58 and 1969-70 seasons. Fleer 1961 serves as a bridge between the two Topps sets. Twenty-one players from the 1957-58 season made it into the 1961 set; 13 players from 1961-62 were also in the 1969 set; but no one was present in both 1957 and 1969 sets.
Fleer 1961 provides an intriguing look at an evolving league. The set is well represented by the stars of the 1950s (Arizin, Cousy, Tom Gola, Schayes, and others), providing recaps of their careers and achievements. The set also shows how the new NBA had gained traction. After initially playing secondary roles, Greer, KC Jones, and Sam Jones had risen to the elite level.
Greer's card states that he "made tremendous strides last season," KC Jones "developed into a top-notch team player," and Sam Jones, who famously waited his turn behind Cousy and Bill Sharman, "came into his own with a bang last season and is now rated with the top backcourt performers offensively." Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson, and Baylor were redefining the game. Attles, KC Jones, and Wilkens - young stars of the 1961 set - would go on to have illustrious NBA coaching careers, all winning NBA titles.
The player summaries on the back of each card deliver positive commentary about every player in the set. Perhaps the writer(s) propped up the achievements/contributions of some of the white players just a tad in a league that was increasingly dominated by African-Americans, but this appears to have been done in a positive vein, at no one else's expense. Some examples:
- Schayes (#39) is described as "the greatest and most durable player the NBA has produced." Durable? Yes. And at the start of the 1961-62 season, he was the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 17,666 points. But come on, with Chamberlain, Russell, Robertson, Baylor, etc. now on the scene, Schayes as the "greatest player" just wasn't tenable.
- Bockhorn's (#5) card states that he "teamed with Oscar Robertson to form what may have been the best backcourt pair in the league." Probably a true statement. But how much of this was attributable to Bockhorn? At the time, just about anyone in the league could have teamed up with the "Big O" to form the best backcourt!
- And well, Gola's IA card (#51) is entitled "Tom Gola takes to the Air." Well, you be the judge, but it doesn't exactly look like he's playing above the rim!
The verbiage and stats on the backs of the cards show how far the NBA has traveled since 1961. The terms "cage" and "cager" appear on some of the cards. Clyde Lovellette's IA card (#58) states that "he teamed with Pettit and Hagan to form one of the strongest trios in cage history." George Lee (#27) is referred to as "the former Michigan cager."
Why cage? In the early 20th century, basketball courts were enclosed, literally, in a cage: a 12-foot high wire mesh fence set along the endlines and sidelines. This was done primarily to protect the first-row spectators, but cages all but died out by the 1930s. Even so, as late as 1961, basketball players were still called cagers.
The back of each card contains four stats:
- Field Goals (total number in 1960-61 and career)
- Free Throws (total number in 1960-61 and career)
- Points (total number in 1960-61 and career)
- Average (average points per game in 1960-61 and career)
Interesting that the only stats we can relate to today are points per game and total number of points over a career. However, through the end of the 1968-69 season, the NBA scoring leader was based on total points, not average.
For more information on the 1961 Fleer basketball card set, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/basketball-cards/1961-fleer/35.