With March Madness approaching, let’s take a look at old Topps cards of players who excelled on the hardwood as well as the diamond. My focus is on cards that used cartoons to convey the players’ basketball prowess.
The first card I collected with a basketball cartoon was the ‘69 Ron Reed. He was a quality player at Notre Dame which resulted in the Detroit Pistons drafting him in the third round of the 1965 draft. He would go on to play for Detroit from ‘65-‘67. Ron had a long baseball career in which he became only one of eight pitchers with 100 wins and 100 saves.
Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Gibson was an outstanding college basketball player at Creighton in his home town of Omaha. He delayed his storied baseball career for a year to play with the Harlem Globetrotters.
6’7” Frank Howard played at Ohio State where he was an All-American in both baseball and basketball. Frank was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors but decided to sign exclusively with the Dodgers in ‘59.
Dave Debusschere was a duel sport star at the University of Detroit who signed with White Sox and the Detroit Pistons in ‘62. He had brief stints with Chicago in ’62 and ’63, finally giving up baseball after 1965 season. Dave had a Hall-of-Fame basketball career which included two championships with the Knicks in the 1970s. Incidentally, Debusschere was player-coach of the ‘64-‘65 Pistons at the age of 24.
The first Duke basketball player to have his number retired was ‘60 NL MVP Dick Groat. An All-American in ’51 and ’52, Groat was named UPI National Player of the Year in ’52. He was the third overall pick by the Fort Wayne Pistons where he played for one year. Dick was not only a key cog for the ’60 World Champion Pirates but helped St. Louis win the title in ’64.
Steve Hamilton was a two-sport athlete at Morehead State in Kentucky. He was drafted in ’58 by the Minneapolis Lakers where he played for two years including seeing action in the ’59 championship series loss to the Celtics. Steve had a 12 year MLB career as a relief pitcher primarily with the Yankees. By pitching in the ’63 and ’64 World Series, Steve joined Gene Conley as the only players to participate in a World Series and NBA final series.
The aforementioned Conley is the only player to win both an NBA and MLB championship. After his time at Washington State University ,where he played in the College World Series, Gene signed with the Boston Braves in ‘50. He concentrated on baseball for two years before signing with the Celtics in ‘52. He only played for the Celtics for two years before deciding to go back to baseball exclusively. Five years later, Gene changed his mind and rejoined the Celtics. He won championships with them in ‘59’ ’60, and ’61. His one appearance with Milwaukee in the 1957 World Series made him a duel champion.
Johnny and Eddie O’Brien were basketball stars for Seattle University in the 1950s despite being only 5’9”. Johnny was an All-American guard in ‘53 leading the Chieftains to the NCAA tournament. The twin brothers were drafted by Milwaukee Hawks but decided baseball was a more promising career path, signing with the Pirates in ’53. Both siblings played off and on from ’53 to ’59. Interestingly, both were position players and pitchers in the big leagues. Eddie and Johnny were the first twins to play for the same team (Pirates) in the same game.
Another basketball All-American was Duquesne’s Dick Ricketts who accomplished the feat in ’55. The 6’7” Ricketts was selected number one in the NBA draft by the Hawks in ’55 as well. Dick went on to play for the Rochester and Cincinnati Royals for three years. His major league baseball career consisted of 12 games with the Cardinals in ’59. Many of you may remember his brother Dave who caught for the Cardinals and Pirates.
Chuck Harmon was a star baseball and basketball player at Toledo in the late 1940s. He had a tryout with the Celtics in ’50 but didn’t make the team. Chuck signed with the Reds and became the first African-American player to appear for Cincinnati in April 1954.
Danny Ainge was a standout basketball player at Brigham Young while playing baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. He is well remembered for almost single handedly pulling off a last second win against Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA Tournament. Ainge was awarded the John Wooden award as the nation’s most outstanding player that year. Ainge lasted three seasons with the Jays before deciding to devote his efforts to basketball exclusively. He signed with the Celtics in ’81 and went on to have a solid NBA career.
There are several examples of cards that mention a player’s basketball career in print. The ‘54 Jackie Robinson, ’56 Frank Baumholtz, ’71 Cotton Nash, ’74 Dave Winfield and several Tony Gwynn cards all allude to collegiate or pro basketball careers. If you are familiar with other examples, please post in the comments.