It’s easy to rattle off reasons why the 1957-58 Topps basketball set is expensive: Limited distribution thanks to modest national interest in the NBA, Bill Russell’s rookie, notoriously off-center cards…the list goes on. Heck, one out of every four cards in the set pictures a Hall of Famer. That alone lets you know you’re in for a battle.
Chasing a complete set—or buying one—is an expensive proposition, even in lower grade form. There’s more than one way to enjoy Topps’ first basketball set, though.
Using the perspective of a pro hoops collector– and fan– we’ve got a list of five cards you can acquire that offer solid value for the money. Several of these guys are either still alive or were around until recently so autographed copies are also obtainable.
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton
We didn’t say they’d all be cheap, but consider that this is the first card in Topps’ first basketball set. Considering Clifton was a New York Knicks star at the time, it’s not surprising that New York-based Topps made him card #1. As such, it’s tough to find in high-grade with just 28 grading 7 or better on PSA’s Population Report.
Clifton was a Chicago native who served his country in World War II, was good enough at baseball to play for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues and was the second African-American to debut in the NBA—just four days after Earl Lloyd.
Clifton was a terrific rebounder and steady scorer who arrived in the league at age 27 after playing for the New York Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters.
While those high-end examples are rarely offered and pricey, the historic nature of the card makes it worth owning even at the lower end. A few are usually available online.
Drafted in 1950, Lloyd had several years under his belt when Topps produced its first basketball card set. While it’s too strong to call him the “Jackie Robinson of the NBA” since the league integrated with three players making their debut within a matter of days, Lloyd was the first to appear in a regular season contest. The players endured racism in those early days, sometimes being refused service several years after Robinson had broken major pro sports’ color barrier.
Lloyd played for the Washington Capitols, Syracuse Nationals and Detroit Pistons from 1950-60 and later became the first black assistant coach in league history with Detroit.
Despite his status as the NBA’s first African-American player and his long, productive career, Lloyd’s rookie card is often found for less than $75 on eBay.
Another card that’s card to find in higher grades (just 17 are graded 8 or better by PSA), this is a Hall of Fame rookie card that’s undervalued. A college star at Kentucky, Ramsey became one of the most valuable and popular Boston Celtics players of all-time, usually coming off the bench for Red Auerbach. Ramsey won seven championships with Boston and his number 23 is retired.
The year this card came, out, the youthful-looking Ramsey had his best season in terms of numbers as he averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Somewhat remarkably, decent copies of his rookie card can be found for less than $100.
Hagan was a teammate of Ramsey’s at Kentucky and was also drafted by the Celtics but he spent two years in the military. When he returned, he and Ed Macauley were traded to the St. Louis Hawks for the draft rights to Bill Russell. The year this card was issued, the Hawks beat Boston in the NBA Finals.
Hagan scored over 13,000 points in his NBA career, then joined the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals as player-coach in 1967, scoring 40 points in his first game. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978.
This is his rookie card and even though it’s a tough single print, they are often sold on eBay for less than $200 in respectable grade.
“The Horse” earned his nickname. A small town kid from Roxana, IL, he was the Dennis Rodman of his day. Tough and durable, he averaged nearly 12 rebounds per game for his career. His 33 rebounds in one game and 610 consecutive games played both remain Knicks team records to this day.
Playing from 1948-58, Gallatin collected 8,843 points and 6,684 rebounds and made seven consecutive All-Star teams. He was a highly successful golf coach at SIU-Edwardsville after his retirement.
While his NBA career was ending as the 1957-58 Topps set was on store shelves, it’s considered his rookie card and despite the fact that only 39 cards exist on PSA’s Pop Report that are graded 7 or better, you can own a fairly nice example for under $60.