Up until this point, there had been one basketball gum card set per generation. In the manner of its Bowman and Topps predecessors of the 1940s and 1950s, respectively, the Frank H. Fleer Company enjoyed a golden opportunity and a clear field to produce superstar and rookie collectibles.
Fleer entered a dormant market in the early 1960s; the last prior hardcourt-themed series was released by Topps four years earlier in 1957. The Philadelphia-based company's approach was a conservative one, featuring standard-sized, 2 1/2" by 3 1/2" cards whose obverse provided straightforward identification of each player and his team along with his image. Cardbacks presented personal info, short biographies and statistical summaries. Each card number was set apart at the right margin inside a stylish, blue band on the reverse.
An immediate impression of the 1961 Fleer Basketball is that the series is much brighter in character than the other companies' foregoing efforts. In spite of the 1961's use of black and white photography in its player portrayals, liberal doses of color in caption blocks and team logos - which together consumed nearly one-third of each cardfront's surface - ensured a general air of vibrancy in the assembled gallery.
Of greatest interest to modern collectors, though, is this captivating, single-year issue's content.
Composition - The complete set consists of 66 cards and is in itself a reflection of Fleer's caution in committing to the basketball's uncertain potential in terms of the gum card market. The 66-card format lent itself perfectly to print production considerations allowing two full sets to be laid out on a 132-card factory press sheet.
In performing a task made easier by the proposed 1961 set's limited scope, Fleer could claim a high rate of success in selecting the game's truly significant players for inclusion. The set has its share of Arlen Bockhorns and Dave Gambees, but it boasts a decided preponderance of the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
Fleer certainly recognized the emergence of certain key ballplayers, and their presence in the sport was probably a huge motivator in the set's conception. Among others, Wilt, West and the Big O saw their rookies collectibles come forth on the 1961 Fleer set. Further, those giants of the game (and 19 others of equivalent or only slightly lower stature) appeared on two depictions apiece. Each man's lower-numbered entry was his primary card (and is, today, revered foremost as his true rookie piece), while the second served as an In Action portrayal that emphasized his prowess. The former type cast the subject athlete in a close-up pose, and the latter, as its name implies, revealed an on-court scene.
So the 1961 set was deliberately composed in a manner that would showcase the league's very best. And why not? In addition to the trio already mentioned, the set held two cards each of Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Len Wilkins, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Lovelette, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes and Jack Twyman ...with a number of these stars featured on debut-year collectibles. Sam Jones, Walt Bellamy, K.C. Jones, Tom Gola and Hal Green are a few more icons who were pictured. The set's roster was unbelievably formidable, especially within the context of a relatively "short," 66-card production.
Not to be overlooked was the Celtics' Bill Russell, another extraordinary gentleman of the game who also appeared on two cards (#s 38 and 62). Although not a rookie in the 1961 release, Russell's undeniable mystique contributed an element of importance to the production that can't be ovetstated. A towering presence at the time of the set's release - and long after - the sight of Russell's card in this release must have inspired immense gratification in the hearts of 1961 Fleer's first consumers.
Key Features and Rarities - One big advantage to an even card count that breaks down nicely on a press sheet is, in a word, collation. The cards rolled down the production line in precisely equal quantities, and the odds of any given card winding up in a pack, or box, were evenly distributed. Thus, there were no rarities, "Short Prints," "High Numbers," or variations to confound enthusiasts. All of the series' era-defining rookies, such as Chamberlain, West and Robertson, and standout veterans (Russell, Cousy), existed in the very same proportions during the period of the set's active distribution. Only the modern hobby's tendency to create "demand scarcity" makes it seem at times that the cards of Chamberlain, Russell, West, et al are somehow especially elusive.
It's only fair to note too, that Fleer's basketball cards are a bit scarcer in general than most other nationally distributed card productions of the same period. Basketball cards were still seen in 1961 as "experimental" in nature. Today's collectors who have assembled a nicely centered set of 1961 Fleer cards are to be applauded for the completion of a challenging task. Fleer's quality control inspectors - to make this point delicately - tended to be lax in their adherence to the prescribed parameters of cutting alignment for the cards.
Bottom Line - After a couple of other companies' earlier basketball gum card ventures, both of which certainly contributed mightily to the formation of a hobby specialty, Fleer's 1961 issue came closer to the mark of what consumers expected from a product that related to the young sport. Fleer's basketball cards deliver plenty of satisfaction on the basis of their star-studded lineup, their winning design, and their no-nonsense composition and collation. With no apparent, built-in liabilities in sight upon analyzing the issue, one can only conclude that, at the time, the trading card market, or the basketball cards' manufacturer, were just not ready for a long-term commitment to the concept. Nevertheless, 1961 Fleer, as the single basketball release that served an entire generation of the sport's card-collecting fans, became a prized and "all-time"-level, one-year wonder.