Inserts were nothing new at the Topps Company when they struck a deal to get back into the basketball bubble gum card market in 1969. In fact, you could reasonably argue that the late 1960s and early 70s were the zenith of vintage inserts. You could scarcely open a pack without finding a sticker, a coin or a poster.
Oh, did Topps love posters. Sometimes they turned the back of the into games (I’m looking at you,1971 Football). Most of the time, Topps figured kids would thumb tack them to the wall.
In the case of the company’s first basketball set in a dozen years, Topps set out to make both its card set and what became the hobby’s first basketball insert set align with the prevailing and not incorrect notion that the majority of pro basketball players were best known because they were…tall.
The cards were rectangular in size for the first two years of Topps’ return to the NBA and the 1969-70 Topps Basketball Rulers set took it to the extreme. The 23 player set (there were supposed to be more, but more on that in a second) featured player caricatures on paper with a ruler drawing to showcase that specific player’s height. The artwork itself made most of the players–even the shorter ones–to look sort of thin and gangly.
The rulers measure 2/12 x 9 7/8″ and were folded three times to fit into the 10-cent packs of cards. Each pack held one “Super Star Pinup” as Topps called them on its packaging.
The player’s name and city are in an oval, with some positioned at the top and others at the bottom. The card number is printed in small text next to the copyright information on the lower right. The backs are blank.
The checklist is, well, pretty incredible. Twenty of the 23 players are now in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Why 23 instead of the usual Topps’ checklist of 24? One player who was supposed to be number 5 in the set was pulled from production and it was apparently too late in the process to add someone else.
The only non-Hall of Famers are Bob Boozer, Gail Goodrich and Bob Rule (now how could Topps not have included that guy in the set?). There’s a Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who was in his first year with the Milwaukee Bucks. Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Willis Reed…the list goes on. The list of Hall of Famers could have included Bill Russell, too, but the Celtics big man retired in the summer before the cards were to hit the market.
While the artist’s name has been lost to time, the art for the rulers hasn’t. They got stuck in the company’s archives and were part of the famous 1989 Guernsey’s auction. That sale included artwork for two rulers that were never produced: Russell and Rudy LaRusso, a five-time All-Star who had also stepped away from the game before the 1969 season to become an investment banker.
In keeping with his underrated stature in the game, LaRusso’s last name is listed as “Carruso” in the Guernsey’s catalog.
Interest in the 1969-70 Topps Rulers has increased quite a bit in recent years. So have prices. Because they’re simply printed on thin paper and many were, in fact, tacked or taped to walls and elsewhere, the set is extremely condition sensitive. There are only four PSA 9s of the West ruler and no 10s. Of the nearly 2,800 graded by PSA, there are just 49 10s and 165 9s. The majority have rated a 6 or less. Three of the 49 10s are of Abdul-Jabbar and two feature Chamberlain. The value of the former in PSA 10 grade is now at $15,000 while Chamberlain is listed at $8,000. A PSA 2 Abdul-Jabbar sold for a record $600 earlier this month.
Still, it’s a reasonable task to acquire a set of 23 for those who just want one and aren’t that fussy about a technical grade. Many can be had in ungraded form for well under $100.
As the first basketball insert of all-time with a funky design and a star studded checklist, the 1969-70 Topps Basketball Rulers are worth collecting by any measure.