One of the more difficult to find items in this hobby today has to be that of trying to collect pennants from the defunct teams of professional basketball, especially those of long defunct or short lived leagues such as the American Basketball League (1925-55), the first true professional basketball league or the second reincarnation of a league by the same name that lasted less than two full seasons. (1961-63) In fact, finding any pre 1950 professional basketball pennant is next to impossible and examples from the short lived leagues, regardless of era, is equally difficult. And when great pennants do turn up for sale, they bring prices that most baseball pennants from the era (1940-50’s), infinitely more common in most cases, of two to three times their counterparts numbers. Take for example a 1957 St. Louis Hawks dated pennant that was offered on eBay last year. It brought a final price of around $1500. Quite a price for any 1950’s pennant let alone a basketball pennant.
Much like my primer on collecting football pennants, the same criteria holds true for early basketball pennants as well. That is, buy condition when possible but buy anything that comes along for most of the teams I am going to talk about as if and when one does come down the pike, it will most likely never be seen again. Now if that sounds rather pessimistic , it is only to drive home the fact that most of these pennant have never even been heard of let alone seen and if and when one does hit the market, bar the door because serious basketball collectors know what I’m talking about. If you are in doubt, when was the last time you saw an Atlanta Crackers, Birmingham Skyhawks, Chattanooga Majors, Chicago Gears, Grand Rapids Rangers, Houston Mavericks, KC Blues, Louisville Colonels (not ABA), New Orleans Hurricanes, Oklahoma City Drillers, Omaha Tomahawks, Saint Joseph Outlaw’s, Saint Paul Saints, Springfield Squires, Tulsa Ranchers or Waterloo Pro-Hawks pennant?
How many of you have even heard of any of these teams let alone see some memorabilia relating to them? Aside from the Gears, I had never even heard of the rest of these as they related to basketball. Oh sure, I know of the Atlanta Crackers but not for basketball, and the KC Blues or the Saint Paul Saints, same thing. Of course, if you do find a pennant of one of these teams, it would have to have a basketball theme to differentiate between the two. What do the above listed teams all have in common? They were part of the Professional Basketball League of America that formed in 1947 and didn’t even complete a single season and never even held a championship match. You will probably find programs from time to time of the teams mentioned as they were often overprinted and spectators needed a program or scorecard but they didn’t need a pennant and obviously, very few patrons ever bought one or very few teams ever even bothered to produce one.
This in itself seems rather odd as during the period from 1920 through the 1950’s, the age of the automobile opened up a whole new world to contemporary Americans with new highways and auto camping, people began to see the USA as never before and with it, the Alligator farms, petting zoo’s, resorts, water shows, circuses, rodeo’s, local attractions, you name it and every one of these places produced a pennant to take home. One has only to look on eBay at all of the travel pennants from the era which on any given day could number into the hundreds as it seems the pennant was the souvenir of choice if you wanted to take home a memory. So why didn’t that same mentality apply to basketball fans of the era? One can only speculate that most fans who went to these games were local, they had no idea how short a run some of these teams/leagues would last and unlike some faraway dude ranch that they might never again see, they fully expected to take in another game and it was local and they really didn’t have to have a physical memento to take home and above all, they were fans, not collectors so it probably seemed like a waste of money.
Besides the absolute rarity of most early basketball pennants, certain styles of pennants that seem commonplace to football and baseball collectors are also next to impossible to obtain. This writer has never seen a photo or picture pennant of any basketball team pre 1970. I am sure as I write this, someone will look up on their wall and find a new appreciation for that 1969 Bucks picture pennant but think about it, when was the last time you saw such an animal for sale or auction? This style of pennant was all the rage in baseball and football during the 1960’s but where are all the basketball picture pennants?
Sure, I know that the attendance at one of the games from such a short lived league as the National Professional Basketball League, a league that lasted only one season (1950-51) and consisted of only eight teams, couldn’t even begin to approach the number of fans that any major league baseball team or professional NFL team could boast, but every other venue printed and distributed pennants, why not at least a few of the early basketball teams? Was the attendance so low that even a small run of pennants was just too expensive given the attendance numbers hence; they would have to have been priced beyond the working’s comfort level? Maybe, but I have seen pennants issued from such obscure venues such as a peat bog and hog farm. If they could do it, wouldn’t a new fledging league attempt a few just for name recognition? You would think so, right? Then it should be no problem finding a pennant from the Sheboygan Redskins, Louisville Alumnites, Anderson Packers, Grand Rapids Hornets, Waterloo Hawks, Denver Refiners/Evansville Agogans, Saint Paul Lights or Kansas City Hi-Spots. I know the league only lasted one season (1950-51) but surely, at least one of these teams in an effort to promote their name must have made some pennants and this was the era of post war affluence, not 1925 either but a full twenty five years more recent.
The ABL lasted for almost 30 years so you would think that between 1925-55, hundreds of variations of pennants would have been produced, even if some of the teams only lasted a year or two such as the Bronx Americans (1933-34) , the Boston Whirlwinds (1925-26), the Boston Trojans (1934-35), the Carbondale Aces (1950-51) or the New York Hakoahs (1928-29). Others such as the Philadelphia SPHAs (1933-34-48/49) did play a few seasons and were based in a major city within a major market so there has to be some pennants somewhere, but where.
The NBL was formed in 1937 and lasted until 1949 and produced five current teams that came from that league. Three teams joined the NBA in 1948. They were the Los Angeles Lakers (they were the Detroit Gems), the Sacramento Kings (they were the Rochester Royals) and the Detroit Pistons (Ft. Wayne Pistons). In 1949, the Atlanta Hawks (then the Tri-Cities Blackhawk’s) and the Philadelphia 76’ers (then the Syracuse Nationals), joined the NBA. But of these five, the only pennants I have seen are those of Rochester. Other teams in the NBL included the Anderson Packers, Denver Nuggets, Indianapolis Kautskys, Sheboygan Redskins and Waterloo Hawks. Only the Nuggets name still remains. Then there was the Akron Firestone Non-Skids, Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, Buffalo Bisons, Chicago Bruins, Chicago Studebaker Flyers, Chicago Gears, along with teams like the Comellos, Brassmen, Allman Transfers, and Eagles. Gems, etc. To recent memory, not a single pennant from any of the above listed teams has ever hit the market.
Of all the defunct leagues, only the ABA seems to have seen any real pennant production. Formed in 1967 and lasting until 1977 (rather recent in the scheme of things), pennants have turned up representing some of the teams such as the Pipers, Colonels, Pacers, Cougars and Nets but many teams simply do not turn up such as the Muskies, Floridians, Tams, Squires, Sails, etc. And even the older American Basketball League which hosted eight teams in 1961-63 should have, also given the relatively recent nature of the league, produced some pennants but when was the last time you saw a Chicago Majors, Cleveland Pipers, KC Steers, Long Beach Chiefs, Hawaii Chiefs, LA Jets, Oakland Oaks, SF Saints, Phil/Wash/NY Tapers, or Pitts. Rens pennant?
The most recent defunct teams consist of the GBA (1991-93), the WBA (1978-79) and the WBL (1988-92) but these are just two recent for the purpose of this article but given the track record for basketball pennants much just be a good time to put away a few if you have the inclination but for most collectors, this era just isn’t far enough behind us for most to consider collecting.
So what must one conclude from these ramblings? Pre 1980 basketball pennants from defunct teams/leagues are for the most part, the hardest to find of any pennants, period. Starting a collection of defunct team pennants, picture pennants, and even pre NBA logo pennants (1969) is a tough road. You will start with a few 1950’s pennants such as the Knickerbockers or St. Louis Hawks and add a few ABA pennants such as the Colonials or Pipers and then some 1960’s name change pennants such as the Rochester Royals or the San Diego Rockets and then you are going to hit a wall. That is what makes it so rewarding. If you could go to K-Mart and buy them all, what would be the purpose? Just remember that for most of the pre 1950 pennants, when one turns up regardless of condition, you will probably not see another for a long time so don’t turn one down just because it’s missing a tassel or the tip is rough or it has some fading or cracking in the graphics because holding such high standards with regards to such rarity will only result in your collection grinding to a halt.
Until next time, David Bushing