A Search for the First Basketball Card
Collectors are often obsessed with the first of anything. The first rookie card of an individual player, the first card in a particular sport, etc. But much of the time, there aren’t clear cut answers out there.
Such is the case when trying to determine the first true basketball card ever printed.
Of the four major sports, basketball has the least amount of exposure in the pre-war card era. While there are some pre-war basketball cards out there, the first mainstream set featuring professional players didn’t come on the scene until 1948 with the 1948 Bowman set. Those, of course, were not the first professional cards – only the first recognized set of actual players.
The 1933 Sport Kings set featured some professional players. Same for the Canadian 1924 V122 Willard’s set, which has the Edmonton Grads – a fascinating team of ex-high school female players that continued playing and touring after school. But if you’re willing to consider other cards, you can go back even further.
For the sake of this argument, I’ve left out discussion of cards referring to the sport of Netball. That sport, derived from basketball, was created in England in the 1890s and played primarily by women for many years. While very similar to basketball, it is also different in that the baskets do not have backboards. And even though the basketball game invented by Dr. James Naismith did not initially include backboards with the baskets, backboards were quickly added a little more than a year later.
When it comes to determining the earliest basketball card, four options are heavily discussed. I’ll take them in chronological order here.
1890s Enameline Trade Card / Paper Doll
Manufactured by J.L. Prescott and Company in New York, the Enameline (a stove polish brand) trade cards/paper dolls featured boys and girls playing a variety of sports. In addition to baseball and football, a basketball card is in the set.
The Enameline basketball issue features a boy with a basketball in an Illinois Wesleyan sweater. And here’s the thing – Illinois Wesleyan actually did have a women’s basketball team back in the 1890s, as detailed in this archive of school records as well as in the book, “The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control.” However, in those records as well as the school’s all-time win-loss history as provided by the college, the men’s team did not come along until 1909-10 so this card does not depict a player on an actual team. Rather, it is likely just meant to show a student holding a basketball for recreational purposes. And yes, that’s a boy (as indicated on the back) and not a girl.
A small hurdle exists in that we are not 100% sure this is a basketball card since the sport isn’t mentioned and there is no picture of a basket. The item in the boy’s hand looks very much like a basketball, however, and it generally has been accepted that basketball is the sport being depicted. And given the earlier connection with Illinois Wesleyan having one of the earliest women’s basketball teams, it is even more likely that this is a basketball item since there was a presence of the sport at the school.
The much more significant ‘problem’ this item faces, of course, is that some argue that it is not a card at all. The backs even state as such, calling them a set of ‘nine dolls.’ These are often referred to as paper dolls and are, at best, a form of die-cut cards. Of course, many die-cut issues are considered cards by today’s standards so that in and of itself isn’t a problem. However, the Enameline dolls are more complex than that. A foldout stand was attached to the backs of the dolls and, while many of those have since been removed, the original intent is that this was very clearly meant to be a display piece that stood on a table or other flat surface – not a trading card.
Is it an actual basketball card? That’s for you to decide. For me, it falls outside of the actual boundaries of what a trading card is because of that stand but others would surely disagree.
1890s McLaughlin XXXX Trade Card / Paper Doll
The 1890s McLaughlin XXXX Trade Card / Paper doll is similar to the Enameline card mentioned above. This one, however, also has questions about it being an actual basketball card.
Unlike the Enameline issue, this features a child not in any sort of identifying outfit. The child is also holding a ball that looks very much like a basketball. That, however, has not been 100% confirmed.
In addition, the doll is attached at the shoulders and designed to stand up. Like the Enameline issue, it is very clear that this collectible was meant to be more of a display piece and not an actual trading card.
While intriguing, I ultimately place this in the same general category of collectible and outside of the parameters of what constitutes a card. It is called a paper doll (McLaughlin made several of these (sports and non-sports figures) and advertised them as such in their catalogs). The question about depicting basketball is also there and at the end of the day, it is difficult for some collectors to classify this as a card – let alone a true basketball card.
1903 Tetlow College Series
Another early basketball issue depicts women’s basketball. In 1903, Tetlow produced a college series of women playing various sports and basketball was included. These were art images created by Joseph Tetlow, which is where the series gets its name.
Unlike the Enameline or McLaughlin dolls, there is zero doubt that this is supposed to be a basketball card with a basket shown in the background. The picture depicts two women playing basketball for Princeton and they are also wearing full uniforms. Because of this, you might not think that these are recreational players but instead, players that are part of an actual team. The problem with that theory is that Princeton did not admit undergraduate females until much later so this is not an actual team. Some artistic liberties were taken here to make these appear as members of a team.
Larger than a postcard and measuring at 4 1/2″ x 6″ tall, some collectors may not consider these cards at all, either. The rectangular shape would no doubt elicit fewer arguments on that front than the Enameline paper doll. Nevertheless, purists who want their cards a bit smaller might declare these simply too large to be actual cards. And as stated, these are not members of an actual team. The Tetlow series really isn’t much different than trade cards depicting unidentifiable children playing baseball in a backyard, for that matter, since they aren’t actual players on a real team. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be basketball cards, of course. But given that information, it is a little harder to take them as seriously since they do not depict an actual team and are a bit oversized by nature.
It isn’t the trade card nature that disqualifies this card for some, either. After all, the 1860s Peck & Snyder trade card is usually viewed as the first baseball card. That card, however, is also considerably smaller at 3 1/2″ x 4 1/2″, measuring less than a traditional postcard. Advertising the company’s sporting goods store, it was very much an advertising card and for most, qualifies as a baseball card. The Tetlow card, on the other hand, is more of an artistic photograph with a blank back and no such advertisement or brand associating it with anything. All in all, given that as well as its larger size, this looks much more like a picture and much less like a basketball card.
1909-10 T51 Murad Williams College
The final specimen for your consideration is the item that often draws the most support in declaring a first basketball card – the Williams College T51 Murad card.
The T51 Murad College Series set was first printed in either 1909 to 1910. The 150-card set was comprised of six series, each containing a total of 25 cards featuring generic athletes in numerous sports.
While there are four basketball cards in various series’, the only one in the first series is that of Williams College. Because it is the only one in the first series, it is often heralded as the first basketball card. Some clarify this by stating that it must come from the 1st edition. A later second edition is marked on some cards and means that they were not among the first ones printed.
Of the three candidates discussed in this article, the card is the only one that depicts an actual basketball team. Not only did Williams have a team when these cards were printed but they began playing basketball in 1900, about a full decade earlier. One other interesting fact about this card? In comparison to the other three mentioned here, it is the only one that seems to show actual game action. The T51 Murad card features Williams College in purple jerseys and, presumably, some other school in orange.
It is worth noting that the similar, but oversized, T6 Murad set also includes the same Williams card in a larger format. However, these were premiums that were given away and printed after the T51 release. For that reason, they cannot be considered the first card.
At 2″ x 2 5/8″ in size, this is also very clearly the most like a traditional basketball card. Of the four, it is the one that exhibits the most characteristics of an actual card depicting real players. There is little question that this is classified as a basketball card. The argument against it, of course, is that it is not the earliest of the four.
For my money, the T51 Murad Williams card has the strongest claim as the first actual basketball card. Many items deemed as cards are merely collectibles. And while noteworthy, that doesn’t make necessarily make them trading cards. I would personally put the first three items discussed here (especially the Enameline and McLaughlin XXXX dolls) into the collectible and not the trading card category.
Essentially, though – that is simply one man’s opinion. Barring the introduction of a more standard card printed earlier, no singular theory is likely to ever be completely accepted among collectors.