Obscure Card of the Month: 1903 Joseph Tetlow Princeton Basketball

The Obscure Card of the Month is one of the earliest basketball cards ever produced

While the sport of basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, it took a while for many cards depicting the sport to be released. The first basketball cards of professional players wouldn’t be released until more than 40 years later in the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set and even basketball cards featuring generic subjects were not really commonplace until around 1910.

But a card issued in 1903 beat those issues to the punch and is in the minds of some, the earliest card depicting the sport.

The 1903 Joseph Tetlow Photo Cards featured generic female subjects participating in different sports. Sports in the set included golf, rowing, and fencing but basketball is the one that has easily drawn the most interest. The card shown here features women playing the sport representing Princeton.

The front of the card pictures two women, a player with the ball and one defending in opposing colors. A basket hangs in the background and a “P” is printed on a pennant in Princeton colors. While Princeton is not explicitly named, that is the school represented as the other cards in the set feature other Ivy League schools Penn, Harvard, and Yale, along with their appropriate school colors. Even without formal names, it is evident which schools they represent.

Cards have thin white borders with the Joseph Tetlow name and the 1903 date printed at the bottom. Backs of the cards are blank, though, given the nature of trade cards issued in the 19th century, I would not be surprised if a small number of backs included advertisements or other types of generic stamps from businesses. How the cards were distributed is not really known.

So is this the really the first basketball card? Well, it depends on who you ask. The T51 Murad College Sports card of Williams College’s basketball team was issued around 1910 and is most often credited as being the first card. There are two reasons for that, really.

First, Williams actually had a real men’s basketball team while women’s basketball was not played as an official sport at Princeton until the 1970s. Second, that Murad card is more of a traditional trading card size. The Tetlow Photo Cards, by comparison, are larger, roughly 4 1/2″ x 6″. A less important point is that the Murad College Sports cards are much more common and well known.

For a long time, I was under the impression that the Tetlow cards were more like photographs. They are to a degree, but they are printed on a thicker card stock and are really more like an oversized card. Still, whichever side of the fence you’re on, this is one of the earliest basketball collectibles if nothing else.

As stated, these cards are much rarer than the Williams cards. But while they were previously more valuable, the Williams card has soared in popularity. Today, the cards are much closer in price than they previously were. Low-grade Tetlow basketball cards in decent shape typically start around $150-$250.

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