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Basketball card

Old School & Underappreciated: Baylor and Bellamy

When I see a basketball card or basketball stat I like on Twitter, I try to show my appreciation for whoever posted it. On Tuesday, I got into a little discussion with two collectors (looking at you CJ_tradingcards and Curly Cards) about some old school players that are consistently overlooked by the younger collectors, but are well worth looking at if you are a fan and historian of the game.

Like most sports, the game of basketball has changed a great deal since its inception, and small changes are constant from decade to decade. While stats aren’t always a perfect apples to apples comparison across generations, its typically the only metrics we have to work with, and I’m going to highlight some stats and rookie cards for two Hall of Fame legends.

So without further ado, the two guys I’m going to be looking at today are Elgin Baylor and Walt Bellamy. Two guys who made instant impacts during their rookie season and have truly ridiculous career stats to boot.

Elgin Baylor

As a long time Celtics fan, I’ll be the first to admit that I often overlook Baylor, who played his entire career with the Laker. The earlier Lakers players always fall off my radar because that storied franchise just has so many incredible players to point at and they’ve been so good for so long. It honestly drives me crazy.

But Baylor deserves some SERIOUS respect because his numbers were absolutely insane. First, before getting to stats, I want to cover some of the basics. Baylor was the first pick in the 1958 draft for the Minneapolis Lakers, the team that would transplant to Los Angeles in 1960.

Baylor played small forward and was listed at 6-foot-5, which is something to keep in mind for his mind-blowing rebounding stats. Baylor also made an instant impact to the Lakers in his rookie year, and was named NBA Rookie of the Year. He was able to completely turn around the franchise and bring them from last the year before all the way to the NBA Finals in 1958, where they would ultimately be swept by my Boston Celtics, the first NBA finals sweep in history (Nice Celtics!).

Baylor has tons of accolades, but nothing tells his story quite like his stats do. During his rookie season, Baylor put up 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. He even dropped 55 on the Cincinnati Royals in a 116-96 victory. The only other rookie to score more points in a single game was Wilt Chamberlain during his 1960 rookie year… he scored 58, twice!

Baylor’s career stats are some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Over the course of his 14 seasons, he would average 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. His most dominant game came on November 15, 1960 where he racked up 71 points and 30 rebounds in a 123-108 win over the Knicks.

So just looking at those numbers, you’d think his cards would be crazy expensive, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. The younger collectors seem to be far too focused on the hot rookies of today, many of whom will not pan out for collectors, and are forgetting the guys that shaped the game, like Baylor.

The Baylor rookie card doesn’t crop up until the 1961 Fleer set, and it is card #3 in the set. Because the set is nearly 60-years old, it is difficult to find top graded cards, and in fact the highest graded cards listed on PSA’s website are PSA 9s. Also, because the set is from way back in the day, there are many more “OC”, or off-center, cards on the market compared to more recent card sets. As printing technology has improved, clearly so too have PSA grades for centering.

1961 Fleer Elgin Baylor Rookie (#3)

In terms of the look and design of the card, its classic and I think people either appreciate the vintage look or they don’t. The card design for the ’61 Fleer set is very simple, it is basically two sections: the team name and team logo at the top and a photo of the player at the bottom. For the Baylor card, the team logo throws me for a loop because it is a cartoon giraffe, which I’ve never seen before. After a very quick search, I think this is the only card set that features a LA Laker giraffe, so a bit of an interesting card set for that reason alone.

The bottom half of the Baylor card has a black and white photo of Baylor in the 1961 Lakers #22 jersey set against a maroon background. Baylor looks like he is in a textbook defensive stance, but I can’t be positive.

The top tier grades of this card are out of my reach, and I assume most other collectors as well. The last two sales of a true PSA 9 went for just shy of $21K back in 2018 and just shy of $30K back in 2017. I have no idea why the card dropped in value from 2017-2018, but part of that may be a result of younger collectors not giving enough credit to the old school legends.

If we go down a few grades and look at the PSA 7s, we see numbers that are much more easily attainable among collectors. The median price of the last five sales in 2020 is $690, and unlike so many other cards I’ve covered, there hasn’t been any noticeable spike since the Covid card craze began, so the way I see it, these cards frankly look like they are being ignored and may be seriously undervalued as a result.

If you like the vintage look and especially if you are a Lakers fan, the PSA 7 Baylor rookie might end up being a fantastic card to add to your collection, especially once prices catch up to the rest of the market. I know this is one card that is absolutely going on my “To Buy” list, despite Baylor being a Laker.

Walt Bellamy

Like Baylor, Walt Bellamy was also the first overall draft pick, selected by the Chichago Packers during the 1961 NBA draft. Bellamy also had an instant impact with Chichago during his rookie season, and posted what may be the most impressive rookie stats I’ve ever seen. During the 1961-62 season at the age of 22, the 6-foot-11 center put up an average of 32 points and 19 rebounds per game. And with numbers like that, the voting for NBA Rookie of the Year must have been a no-brainer, and as you’d expect it was awarded to Bellamy.

Bellamy’s rookie season would ultimately prove to be his best, but his career numbers are still impressive. Over his 14-season career, Bellamy was good for 20 points, 14 rebounds, and two assists per game. The NBA didn’t track blocks consistently until the early 1970s, but after reading an ESPN article (found here) about how good of a defender he was in college, I’m sure his block numbers would have been pretty impressive had statisticians kept track.

Another similarity between Baylor and Bellamy is that their rookie cards both come from the same 1961 Fleer set. In fact, the set was numbered alphabetically based on player last names, so Bellamy follows Baylor with the fourth card in the set. The Bellamy card shows a black and white photo from the shoulders up and it is set against a mustard-yellow background.

1961 Walk Bellamy Rookie (#4)

Because this is the same 1961 Fleer set, the same issue for finding top graded cards comes into play and on the PSA website, there are no PSA 10 grades, and only ten PSA 9s are listed by PSA. The last sale of a PSA 9 Bellamy card was just a few days ago, closing on September 4th for $5,766. Prior to that, the second most recent PSA 9 sale took place in April, 2019 and went for $5,263, so there has been nearly no price appreciation for this Hall of Fame center.

If we look at the PSA 7s, we see a very steep drop in price and a price range that many of us could afford. The most recent PSA 7 sale came on July 6, 2020 and sold for $250. The range for the four PSA 7 sales in 2020 was $172 – $250, with an average sale price of about $225. So if you are a vintage collector or interested in adding a vintage card to your collection and want to get your hands on a quality HOF player with a solid grade of PSA 7, the Walt Bellamy rookie might be a great place to start.

Although the Bellamy rookie hasn’t increased in value like so many other cards I’ve covered with this blog, he also only has 400 or so graded cards, and only 61 are graded higher than the PSA 7, so this card could certainly pop in value in the not too distant future.

Perhaps Bellamy won’t pan out for investors, but I would be shocked if Baylor’s rookie didn’t start to pop in value in the not too distant future. He not only played for a storied franchise and put up crazy numbers, but also gets credit for ESPN for being one of the top 25 players of all time (see this article). The vintage 1961 Fleer set also only contains 66 total cards, so if you get the bug to get into vintage hoops cards, owning this complete set could be achievable. And what an incredible piece of basketball history that would be!

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