In Memoriam, Bill Russell’s Rookie Cards are a Must-Own for Vintage Sports Collectors!

The great basketball legend Bill Russell has sadly passed away at 88 years old. Russell was one of the most influential figures in the history of basketball. The towering man, born in 1934, spent his NBA career as center for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969. His high-paced presence even forced many players on opposing teams to change their game when playing against Russell. His 6′ 10″ frame, persistent shot-blocking and rebounding skills simply overwhelmed many players. And as a testament to his greatness, Bill Russell won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award 5 times and was a 12-time All-Star. And before joining the NBA he was on the U.S. Olympic team.

These feats only encompass a fraction of Russell’s greatness. The reality is that, now perhaps more than ever, every single vintage basketball card collector should want to own a Bill Russell basketball card. In fact, every trophy-card collector should want to own a Bill Russell card of any kind.

Collecting Bill Russell cards is not actually all that easy in the collecting world. The first inherent problem facing trophy card collectors is that there just aren’t that many Bill Russell cards on the market that can actually be purchased. A second issue is that even the Bill Russell cards in lower conditions cost a serious premium to many vintage sports cards.

Collectors Dashboard evaluates high-end collectibles as an alternative asset class. This means that the high-end collectibles are attracting the same capital that could have just as easily (or perhaps even more easily) been invested into stocks or bonds. Bill Russell’s cards from his playing years can easily cost thousands of dollars — or tens of thousands if they are in great shape.

Bill Russell is owed the story about why every vintage card collector, and probably anyone who is into basketball history, should want to own a Bill Russell rookie card (or at least a Bill Russell vintage card from when he was playing). Image below by Heritage Auctions.

The number one 1950s rookie basketball card that is sought out by vintage collectors and investors alike is the 1957 Topps #77 Bill Russell. This is considered Russell’s official rookie card, and the set has frequently been referred to with 1958 in past references and sources. A prior small format card with a black and white photo from the 1955 All American Sports Club hand cut issue predated this rookie. There is then the 1961 Fleer basketball set which features a Russell portrait card and it also features an In-Action card (image below by Heritage Auctions). And then, that’s really all the cards from his playing years.

Vintage basketball card collectors have to fret that there are only a handful of basketball card sets printed by any major card company prior to 1970. This creates a severe scarcity for collectors. When there is solid demand and a limited supply, simple economic mathematics means that prices are going to be high.

Card #77 of the 1957 Topps set is scarce, but does still have a large enough of a population that card sales occur regularly. The 1957 card also has strong eye appeal. And if tens of thousands of dollars sounds high, this Bill Russell 1957 Topps rookie card can easily command prices above $100,000 in the highest grades. These prices below were after the card-buying mania that occurred in the first quarter of 2021:

  • A PSA 7.5 grade sold for $93,000.00 on April 25, 2022 via Robert Edward Auctions.
  • A PSA 7.5 sold for $150,000 via Robert Edward Auctions on December 6, 2021
  • A PSA 8 grade sold for $229,284.80 via Memory Lane on December 5, 2021.
  • A PSA 8.5 example of Bill Russell’s rookie sold for $630,000 via Heritage Auctions on August 24, 2021 (image below by Heritage Auctions).

Two recent sales of PSA graded examples sold for $7,900 on Jul7 14, 2022 via eBay (Brigandi) and one sold for $7,511.63 on June 3, 2022 via Sirius Sports Auctions.

Two other PSA 8 examples (with different PSA certification numbers) were sold by Goldin Auctions earlier in 2021:

  • 4/6/2021 sold for $399,750.00 in a PSA 8 via Goldin Auctions;
  • 3/7/2021 sold for $346,860.00 in a PSA 8 via Goldin Auctions.

And then there is the time machine aspect of looking at current prices versus past prices. Two other PSA 8 examples sold via Heritage Auctions at prices that high-end vintage collectors are not likely to see again unless the entire sports collectibles market falls apart:

  • 2/23/2019 sold for $24,000.00
  • 2/23/2019 sold for $38,400.00

The PSA population report in 2022 versus 2021 will prove that this card has scarcity. Many modern basketball players saw their graded populations rise exponentially during and after the pandemic, but that just isn’t true with the Bill Russell rookie. Collectors have known for years that if they have a rookie Bill Russell card they need to get it graded by PSA, SGC or BVG even in the lower conditions.

PSA’s population report in April of 2021 counted just 719 base-grade examples, and in February 2022 the entire base-grade examples was just 771 cards. As of the end of July of 2022, the PSA population was only 795 base graded examples of the Bill Russell rookie card without qualifiers and “+” grades. There are currently an additional 87 graded PSA cards with the “+” designations (.5 that is) and 184 graded with “Q” for qualifiers like OC/MK etc.

The largest grade population remains at PSA 4 with 188 base examples. This was just 177 PSA 4 grades for the “zone” last April and in February 2022 it is just 191 graded examples of the PSA 4 without an +/Q designation. In April of 2021 there were 119 PSA 5 examples and 153 PSA 6 examples, those were just up to 127 (PSA 5) and 157 (PSA 6). If you added 67 “+” grades and the 165 qualifier grades in April 2021 that was still a population of just 951 Bill Russell rookie cards in the entire PSA population report. The entire PSA graded population of Bill Russell rookie cards was just 1,028 graded examples in February of 2022 and that entire population was just 1,066 examples.

So, despite all of the grading mania that took place in 2021, the entire 1,028 cards has barely risen by 10% since the zenith in grading. Try comparing that to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant rookie cards, or rookie cards of Luke, Giannis or Zion.

The SGC population report is listed as being in the 1957-58 Topps set. As of April 2021 it was also low at just 201 graded examples of the old and new grades combined. They only had 1 example at the SGC 96/9 level and 8 samples at the SGC 88/8 grade. The “in-the-zone” index here with the largest population is 46 graded samples at the SGC 60/5 level. Zoom forward to Feb. 2022 and the modernized graded population was only 215 cards for a total population growth of just 6.9% from the prior year. The largest SGC population at that time was 47 examples at the SGC 5 grade, which most collectors would generally evaluate at the same level as a PSA 4.

The 1957 Topps basketball set is known for being abusive to collectors who love a high degree of eye appeal and cards in pristine condition. Topps was experimenting with the smaller cards after the 1956 Topps baseball set and after merging with Bowman when this set was created. Topps was using printed photos and both the 1957 baseball cards and basketball cards were known for weak imaging. That is doubly true for the basketball set.

Another issue in the 1957 Topps basketball set is that Topps almost went out of its way to prove that it just could care less about Card centering and the overall printing quality. That puts the Russell rookie card at a premium to most of the baseball Hall of Fame rookie cards that also suffer from centering and printing quality.

These were some of the other previous PSA 4 sales that were seen:

  • 01/17/2022 for $8,600.00 (eBay)
  • 11/20/2021 for $8,400.00 (Heritage Auctions)
  • 10/23/2021 for $7,988.00 (eBay)
  • 10/13/2021 for $7,783.20 (Memory Lane)
  • 07/26/2021 for $9,000.00 (Robert Edward Auctions)

To further prove the point about quality and scarcity, PSA still counted as of February 2022 only 47 PSA 8 examples without the 31 qualifier count and only 3 PSA 9s of any caliber. There are no perfect PSA 10 graded examples that exist in the PSA population report. That is correct, no perfect grades have ever been found. Those higher “investor grades” have the exact same populations as a year ago. The reality is that there just are not many Bill Russell raw cards out there that have escaped being encapsulated by a grading company. Every collector now knows that these need to be graded, and you just never see a raw example at a sports card and collectibles convention.

Bill Russell’s stats as a player should easily compliment his rookie card stats. Russell played his entire professional career with the Boston Celtics and the team won 11 championships in 13 years. This simply blew away what George Mikan (Mr. Basketball) accomplished with the Minneapolis Lakers in the prior years. Russell was a very physical player known for incredible defense, blocking and rebounding. His career average was 22.5 rebounds per game and he was the league leader in rebounds 4 times. And again, he was the MVP 5 times and was an all-star in 12 seasons.

Many sports collectors who hunt trophy cards without digging through history first may have also overlooked that Bill Russell was an Olympic gold medal winner in 1956. Russell also had 2 NCAA championships with the University of San Francisco.

Joe Orlando’s 2002 book ‘The Top 200 Sportscards in the Hobby’ noted that Bill Russell’s legacy could not be measured by his statistics alone. The praise for this rookie card (and player) also boldly points out that there would also be far fewer examples of the entire 1957 Topps basketball cards in general had it not been for a dealer discovery (find) of vending boxes. And even with that “find” many of those cards discovered still were not in great condition despite being sealed away for years.

1957 Topps Bill Russell cards do still come up for auction routinely. eBay generally always has one or two in auction format, and you will frequently find them listed as “Buy It Now” with excessive prices. Auction houses like Goldin, PWCC, Heritage, Memory Lane, Robert Edward and SCP frequently have a Bill Russell rookie as well.

And zooming forward a few years to the 1961 Fleer set just doesn’t give vintage sports collectors a massive population either. The Fleer cards are also known for having severe off-centering issues. The only good news here is that the 1961 Fleer set offers the portrait and the In-Action shots. PSA’s total graded cards of all players in Feb. 2022 was 23,643 cards and the 1961 total PSA graded card count of all players was still just 36,818 graded examples. The #38 portrait card had just 960 cards at base-PSA grades of all kinds (and No PSA 10 and just 29 PSA 9 and 164 PSA 8) as of February 2022. Russell’s #38 card has 54 “+” graded examples from PSA and 226 “Q” graded examples at that time, giving the 1961 Fleer card population a total of 1,240 in all PSA graded and qualifiers (versus just 1,028 total PSA graded examples for the 1957 Topps).

The 1961 Fleer #62 Bill Russell In-Action card had 718 base PSA graded examples as of February 2022, again with no PSA 10 to be found. Add in 25 “+” and 166 “Q” and the total “In Action” PSA graded population is just 909 examples. A PSA 9 of the 1961 Fleer In-Action card sold for $13,800.00 on May 6, 2021 via Heritage Auctions (image below by Heritage Auctions).

The reality is that you rarely see ungraded Bill Russell cards at the sports collectibles conventions, and many buyers would have some serious trust issues buying an ungraded Bill Russell card online. All in all, there are still fewer than 5,000 total graded examples of vintage Bill Russell cards for vintage sports card collectors to fight over.

It is also an easy assumption that a large number of vintage Bill Russell cards will not come out of collections for years. This leaves only the dealers who are looking to make their instant margins and collectors who want to lock in large gains as the opportunities to buy a vintage Bill Russell card for collectors.

There are many reprint cards of Bill Russell with an autograph on them, as well as other memorabilia items. There are also some more modern autograph cards that were created for collectors who want to own a piece of Bill Russell’s cardboard treasure history without having to wait only for the 1957 or 1961 cards coming for sale.

Every vintage sports card collector and sports card investor now hopefully now knows why the Bill Russell rookie card from the 1957 Topps set (and the 1961 Fleer set) is a must-own trophy card.