As we celebrate the NBA’s 75th anniversary season many of pro basketball’s pioneers and early stars are getting some well-deserved recognition. As these players, many that are not very familiar to today’s fans, are remembered, it dawned on me just how young the sport of pro basketball is. It also struck me how under-appreciated and undervalued many of the cards and memorabilia of the hardwood’s “founding fathers” are.
When Major League Baseball had its 100th anniversary season in 1969, the NBA was barely finding its stride. Two franchises, the Minneapolis Lakers and Boston Celtics, had dominated the league’s early decades of the 1950’s and 60’s. George Mikan and Bob Cousy were nationally recognized names, as were Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and perhaps a few others. But pro basketball was far from the sports headlines, lagging behind baseball, football and boxing.
Yes, young people, there was basketball “B.J.” (Before Jordan), and even prior to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson famously elevated the game from the back pages to the front page. 1979-80 was a pivotal NBA season when Bird and Magic entered the league. It was seemingly pre-ordained, their perfect destinations of Boston and Los Angeles, east coast-west coast, country boy-city kid. It could not have been better scripted. From the 1980’s on, the NBA’s popularity has continued to grow, sparked by Bird, Magic, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and then the arrival of Jordan in 1984.
The Founding Fathers of Today’s Global Game
In the early decades of the NBA if someone had told you that one day the league’s best players would be from Serbia, Slovenia, Greece and Cameroon you would have thought it was an outlandish script from an episode of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone”!… queue “Twilight Zone” theme song here. And now here we are with Jokic, Doncic, Giannis and Embiid.
But who laid the groundwork for the modern era stars? Paved the way for how the game is played today? In this piece I will focus on the pre-1980 players that put pro basketball on the map. Of course, several players on my list played well into the 1980’s, but made their pro debut no later than 1979, so Bird and Magic just made the cut.
To give fans perspective on what hoop legend’s cards and memorabilia to look for, I’ve provided a “collector’s guide”, presenting pre-1980 basketball players with their pre-1980 baseball equivalents in the hobby. Factors in my parallel player comparison include stature in their sport, popularity, personality, aura, style of play and the era that they played.
I am a historian of both sports, and have studied every mannerism and nuance of the players, so this was a fun matchmaking exercise! So here are the baseball legends with their basketball counterpart.
Baseball to Basketball Player Collector’s Guide
BABE RUTH = GEORGE MIKAN
Early titans who were hugely important in boosting awareness and popularity of their sport.
LOU GEHRIG = BOB COUSY
Stellar, respected performers for iconic, winning franchises.
MICKEY MANTLE = WILT CHAMBERLAIN
Seemingly performed at super-human levels.
JACKIE ROBINSON = BILL RUSSELL
Color barrier pioneers, strong cultural and civil rights impact.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE = ELGIN BAYLOR
Unique flair and athleticism unlike any others of their era.
HANK AARON = OSCAR ROBERSTON
Still waters run deep, understated excellence while setting new bars.
JOE DIMAGGIO = JOHN HAVLICEK: American sports royalty, won with elegance and class.
TED WILLIAMS = JERRY WEST: Restless perfectionists.
WILLIE MAYS = JULIUS ERVING: Brought a new level of excitement to their sports.
SANDY KOUFAX = KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: Aloof and private, both have New York City and Los Angeles connections.
YOGI BERRA = BILL WALTON: Both have said the darndest things, but were eccentric winners.
PETE ROSE = RICK BARRY: Feisty and competitive (with wonderful autograph styles).
NOLAN RYAN = LARRY BIRD: Stayed true to their roots while strong, steady performers in the hobby.
REGGIE JACKSON = MAGIC JOHNSON: Superstars and celebrities, relished in the big moment, spotlight.
CONNIE MACK = RED AUERBACH: Coaches and executives whose careers spanned several eras.
DON DRYSDALE = DAVE DEBUSSCHERE: Tall and steady stars, and DeBusschere could pitch a little, too.
JIMMIE FOXX = BOB PETTIT: As good as almost anyone, but overshadowed by other greats in their era.
PEE WEE REESE = BILL SHARMAN: Glue guys for great teams (did you know Sharman once suited up for the Dodgers).
TY COBB = PETE MARAVICH: Complex characters with style who wowed fans and put up big numbers.
HANK GREENBERG = DOLPH SCHAYES: Foundations of their franchises.
COOL PAPA BELL:= ROGER BROWN Didn’t get to show their amazing talents at the highest levels.
DUKE SNIDER = CLIFF HAGAN: Solid sports heroes of the 1950s.
FRANK ROBINSON = MOSES MALONE: Longevity and consistency that we somehow took for granted.
JOHNNY BENCH = WALT FRAZIER: Transcendent talents and styles.
BOB GIBSON = NATE THURMOND: Powerful presence and menacing game faces.
SATCHEL PAIGE = CONNIE HAWKINS: Had to pay their dues before making it to “The Show”, but after their primes.
STAN MUSIAL = DAVE COWENS: Steady lefties who were fan favorites.
JUAN MARICHAL = EARL MONROE: Skill and style. Who else has played like these two before or since?
TOM SEAVER = JERRY LUCAS: Performed with class in a demanding NYC environment and both won titles.
CURT FLOOD = SPENCER HAYWOOD: Their impact in the courtroom exceeded their excellent playing feats.
JOE MORGAN = NATE ARCHIBALD: Small in stature but lefties with big time games.
WILLIE STARGELL = WILLIS REED: Provided inspirational leadership that led to championships.
ERNIE BANKS = GEORGE GERVIN: Personality and production.
LARRY DOBY = K.C. JONES: Understated Hall of Famers, color barrier pioneers.
ROD CAREW = DAVE BING: Prolific accomplishments artfully done, ambassadors.
STEVE CARLTON = BILLY CUNNINGHAM: Lanky southpaws who did their best work in Philadelphia.
GIL HODGES = PAUL ARIZIN: Steady, quiet stars of the 1950’s.
WARREN SPAHN = ED MACAULEY: Early fan favorites and consistent stars.
CARL YASTRZEMSKI = BILL BRADLEY: Perfect fits for their franchises, sports royalty.
HARMON KILLEBREW = DAN ISSEL: Big men with prolific, sustained production.
LOU BROCK = LENNY WILKENS: Smooth, enduring lefthanders tied to St. Louis.
EDDIE MURRAY = ELVIN HAYES: Durable stars who put up big numbers and shared Baltimore area titles.
NELLIE FOX = GAIL GOODRICH: Spark plug lefties who sustained excellence.
BILLY WILLIAMS = SAM JONES: Understated greatness, for several seasons each was as good as anyone.
DICK ALLEN = DAVID THOMPSON: In brief flashes they were among the greats.
JIMMY PIERSALL = HOT ROD HUNDLEY: Colorful personalities, but didn’t quite live up to their talent.
MONTE IRVIN = EARL LLOYD: Important color barrier figures in their sport who don’t get the recognition they should.
WILLIE MCCOVEY = BOB LANIER: Powerful Hall of Fame lefties.
LUIS APARICIO = HAL GREER: Steady stars for their teams at key positions.
FERGIE JENKINS = WES UNSELD: Quietly were solid rocks for their teams.
ROY CAMPANELLA = SWEETWATER CLIFTON: Color barrier stars and top talents for their New York franchises.
MIKE SCHMIDT = TOMMY HEINSOHN: Intense competitors who had an edge to their personnas.
JIM BUNNING = TOM GOLA: Steady performers who later held public offices.
PHIL RIZZUTO = DICK MCGUIRE: Energetic contributors and New York favorites.
BERT BLYLEVEN = BRIAN WINTERS: Dependable sorts who shined in the 1970s and 80s (Winters is my all-time favorite player, so I had to weave him into the story).
GEORGE FOSTER = BOB MCADOO: Both were MVP’s in the 1970’s.
BOBBY RICHARDSON = SLATER MARTIN: Won multiple titles as key but sometimes overlooked contributors.