I’ve noticed a surge in interest around the 1969 Topps basketball rulers lately. There are more collectors, increased sales, and a growing enthusiasm for the first basketball card inserts. In this article, I’ll provide a quick overview of the 1969 Topps basketball rulers, highlight a few notable sales, delve into the story behind the original line art for the set auctioned at the famous Guernsey’s Topps Auction, and what it reveals about the set’s composition, particularly the intriguing missing ruler #5. I’ll wrap up by showcasing some incredible photos from the collection where many of those original pen and ink drawings ended up.
1969 Topps Basketball Rulers 101
These 2-1/2″ x 9-7/8′ Topps basketball brightly colored cartoon drawings were printed on a paper-like perishable product, folded, and inserted in 1969 Topps basketball packs (one each). However, that year, Topps advertised them as Super-Star Pin-Ups on the wrapper and box.
But when you look at the insert, it’s pretty clear why the hobby re-named them ‘rulers.’
Every blank-backed color ruler displays a caricature of the subject to the right of a standard ruler, accompanied by an arrow indicating their height, extending from the player’s depicted height to the ruler. The player’s name and team are in an oval near the top or bottom of the card.
The insert number (of 24) and copyright information are printed along the bottom right-hand side in small black text.
Despite the numbering of 24, the set only has 23 cards. #5 was never released, but we will talk about that when we cover the original line art later. One of the reasons the set is so popular, beyond the bright colors and unique design, is that it’s got huge star power. Twenty of the 23 players are Basketball Hall of Famers. Plus, the cards are relatively scarce; Topps never printed basketball cards as massively as they did baseball – PSA has only grade 3219 1969 Topps Rulers with the most for Lew Alcindor with just over 300.
Given the folds and paper stock used, ultra-high grade copies are scarce; there are only 49 PSA 10s and 173 PSA 9s, leading to some really big sales prices.
Before the hobby boom and the set’s resurgence, Robert Edward Auctions sold a complete set in March 2019, advertised as #2 on the PSA Set Registry (8.91 GPA) for $7200. It included nine Gem Mint 10 examples, ten Mint 9s, and four Nm-Mt 8s.
More recently, in September 2023, Memory Lane Inc. sold the #11 set on the registry (6.04 GPA) for $8065. It had just three PSA 8s to go with seven 6s, ten 5s, one 4, and two 3s.
These individual sales exhibit the set’s recent growth in popularity and price:
- A PSA 9 Billy Cunningham sold for $2500 in September 2023.
- A PSA 9 Gus Johnson sold for $2000 in September 2023.
- A PSA 5 Jerry West sold for $1525 in April 2023.
- A PSA 8 John Havlicek sold for $528 in March 2023.
- A PSA 8 Lew Alcindor sold for $4150 in February 2023.
- A PSA 10 Lew Alcindor sold for $9600 in January 2022.
- A PSA 10 Gail Goodrich sold for $1560 in January 2022.
Even raw lower-grade lots of cards, without the super-stars, sell for $20-$50/card.
1969 Topps Basketball Rulers Original Line Art
I mentioned earlier that despite the cards being marked ‘of 24,’ only 23 different rulers are on the market. The hobby learned why in 1989 when Guernsey’s auctioned off a lot of the original line art in their famous Topps Auction – they mislabeled them as pen and ink drawings used for the height scales on the backs of 1958 basketball cards (you can see a few examples in my article, Bob Petty and his Quadruple Printed 1957 Topps Basketball Card.
The auction included 23 pen and ink drawings, but you might notice a few peculiarities. First, the original card artwork for #12 Nate Thurmond and #13 Hal Greer weren’t included. However, those surfaced in late 2020 when REA auctioned off the pair for $3360.
The other interesting thing is the inclusion of Celtic’s legend Bill Russell and 5x All-Star Rudy Larusso (spelled Carruso on the auction page). The Topps Archives believes because the NBA and Topps knew the 1969-70 Topps season would be Russell’s last, and the decision to make a 1969-70 basketball set was made at some point after Russell’s retirement, but before Larusso’s on October 1st, Topps likely intended for Larusso to be the 5th card in the set. He added that it’s also possible Alcindor was swapped in for Russell, and Larusso’s retirement caught them off-guard. The “Carruso” sold for $100 in 1989, and the Russell went for $2250. The Topps Archives shared that Bill Schonsheck bought the Russell and many other pieces in 1989, which brings me to where much of this art is now.
1969 Topps Basketball Rulers Original Line Art Today
PSA wrote an article about the 1969 Topps Rulers in March 2011 and included a few quotes from Christopher Sanchirico, a business partner of Bill Schonsheck. They reported that Sanchirico owns the Larusso artwork and that, over the past 20 years, had acquired the artwork for 15 of the 25 players that Topps had drawings for. When you check out Sanchirico’s collection online, you can see many original pieces of artwork framed with released rulers!
Wrap-Up and Further Reading
The 1969 Topps Basketball Rulers are an incredible vintage basketball insert set appreciated today for its star power, scarcity, and fantastic design. The cards also display incredibly well; I ran across this framed example and got major hobby envy!
For some related reading:
- If you’re into vintage basketball inserts, check out my review of the 1971-72 Topps Basketball Stickers, a high-grade collector’s nightmare.
- I also highlighted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1969 Topps rookie card in an article back in January 2022.
- And since this article was driven by Guernsey’s Auction and 1969 Topps basketball cards, you can see a few photos of the 1969 Topps Basketball File Binder that was also auctioned off in 1989 in Part 2 of my Topps File Sets series.
Happy collecting, and don’t forget to check out The Post War Cards Newsletter.