In the 1950s, Bowman Gum Company produced baseball and football cards from 1950 to 1955, continuing their post-war production that resumed in 1948 (no football cards were produced in 1949). Bowman was the only major sports card manufacturer in 1950. The monopoly was short lived, as Topps Chewing Gum began producing cards in 1951. The rivalry lasted five years, punctuated by disputes over exclusive contracts with players. In 1956, faced with diminishing profits due to legal fees and increasing production costs, Bowman was bought out by Topps in 1956 for $200,000. The following provides a brief summary of trading card sets issued during the 1950s by Bowman.
In 1950, Bowman printed a total of 200 million baseball cards, and had revenues of one million dollars.
1950 was the only year in which Bowman had a monopoly on baseball cards; there were no other national issues released that year. This set numbered 252 cards total. As with the 1949 Bowman set, the cards measured 2¹⁄₁₆″ by 2½″, quite a bit smaller than what is now considered the standard size for baseball cards. The card fronts feature hand-painted color reproductions of actual photographs.
As Bowman did not have any competition in 1950, most major stars of the era are represented in this set, including Ted Williams. However, the set lacks big-name rookie cards, which has hurt its collectible value. Unlike most vintage sets, in which the high-number cards are usually harder to find (and thus more valuable), the 1950 set is actually harder to find in the low numbers, cards 1–72. Cards 181 to 252 can be found with or without a copyright line at the bottom of the card's back (the versions without the copyright being less common).
The 1951 Bowman card set totals 324 cards. Like the 1950 set, 1951 Bowman features color-art reproductions of actual photographs. In fact, the 1951 set reused a number of images from the 1950 set, including the images for Tommy Henrich and Billy DeMars. The size of the cards was increased to 2¹⁄₁₆″ by 3⅛″. For collectors, this is the most valuable of the Bowman sets and one of the more valuable sets ever issued by any maker, due in large part to the presence of rookie cards for both Mickey Mantle (card #253) and Willie Mays (card #305). These are the two most valuable single cards Bowman ever issued.
Three factors combined in 1952 to mark the decline of Bowman:
- Bowman did not radically change the face of its cards in 1952. The images are color reproduction of actual photographs, just as they were in 1951. Only the player names changed, from typeface to facsimile autographs.
- Bowman did not increase the size of the set in 1952, as they had every year from 1949 to 1951. Instead, 1952 Bowman features only 252 cards.
- Most importantly, Topps emerged as a true competitor to Bowman. In 1952, Topps issued their first full set, in a larger format (2⅝″ by 3¾″, whereas Bowman maintained the same size from its 1951 set) and in greater number (407 cards, a very large set for the time). The increased size of the Topps set allowed for more information on the back of the card, and the player images were a bit more colorful.
Bowman Proofs were experimental cards of 12 players from the regular set. They were 45% larger (2½ × 3¾ in.) and had black-and-white and color variations with blank backs. Some of the differences with these cards involve picture cropping or uniform changes.
The 1953 Bowman baseball card set was printed in two series: 1) A full-color set of 160 cards, each beautifully photographed in rich Kodachrome color, with some of the biggest names of the day, and 2) a 64-card set featuring black-and-white images of mostly lesser-known players (though the backs did have color elements). Bowman increased the size of the cards in their 1953 baseball set to 2½″ by 3¾″, more in line with the popular 1952 Topps set. This was also the first Bowman set to include player stats on the back (like Topps). The key card to the set is #59, Mickey Mantle.
Card #159 in the Color set is incorrectly identified as Mickey Vernon. It actually depicts Floyd Baker, his teammate. An interesting innovation in the 1953 Bowman set was the first multiple-player cards: Card #44 has Yankee stars Mantle, Berra, and Hank Bauer, and card #93 features Billy Martin and Phil Rizzuto. The set features no major rookies, but the color portion is still avidly collected. In fact, other than the 1948 Bowman set, the 1953 color cards have the highest per-card value of any set issued by Bowman, according to the Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide, issued annually by Beckett Media.
There are four color proofs known to exist for this set. The 1953 Bowman proofs are the same size as the regularly issued cards but with blank backs. The cards feature Enos Slaughter, Warren Spahn, 'Dodgers In Action,' and Ferris Fain. Also, Bowman issued as either box fillers or salesmen's samples sequential 3-card panels.
The color images that Bowman introduced for a portion of the 1953 set spread to the whole set in 1954. As with the 1953 set, 1954 Bowman cards measured 2½ by 3¾ inches and were 224 in total count. On the back, Bowman added a trivia question across the bottom of each card, as had been done with the 1953 Topps set. The answer to the question ran just below the player’s statistics.
The 1954 Bowman set was printed so fast (due to the competition with Topps) that almost 20% of the cards issued had statistical errors. These errors were later corrected, making for a great number of variation cards in this set. There are several other variations worth noting, as well:
- Card #66 originally featured Ted Williams, but as it turned out Williams was signed exclusively to Topps. The card was later pulled and replaced with a card of Jimmy Piersall (who is also on card #210). Needless to say, the short-printed Williams is now highly sought after by collectors.
- Also of note are cards #33 (Vic Raschi) and #163 (Dave Philley); some versions mention the player being traded, while others do not (the cards which mention the trades are more valuable). To add to the confusion, there is a third Philley card which mentions the trade and also credits him with having played more games the previous year (157 rather than 152).
Bowman’s 1955 baseball set was its last. The company was bought out by Topps that same year. The 320-card 1955 set features one of the more creative designs in trading card history: Each card shows a color photo of a player inside a wood-grain color TV set. The 1955 Bowman set was also the first to include umpire cards. In addition, a number of cards include ‘personal testimonials’ from players, such as “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball” or “My Advice to Youngsters.” The cards measured 2½ by 3¾ inches. The most valuable card is Mantle (#202). This final Bowman set was also the first Bowman set to feature Elston Howard (#68), Al Kaline (#23), Hank Aaron (#179), and Ernie Banks (#242).
1956 Bowman Prototypes are 3 cards of then Pirates infielder Clem Koshorek. The cards are each of a different design which were samples of what was preferred by youngsters surveyed in a 'Baseball Card Preference Study' conducted by Bowman. The cards appear in a study report booklet.
All the Bowman football sets issued feature NFL players. The designs were similar to the baseball counterparts in each year, with the exception of 1955; for its football set that year, Bowman did not employ the wood-grain TV design.
- 1950 Bowman 144 cards Size: 2¹⁄₁₆ × 2½ in.
- 1951 Bowman 144 cards Size: 2¹⁄₁₆ × 3⅛ in.
- 1952 Bowman Large 144 cards Size: 2½ × 3¾ in.
- 1952 Bowman Small 144 cards Size: 2¹⁄₁₆ × 3⅛ in.
- 1953 Bowman 96 cards Size: 2½ × 3¾ in.
- 1954 Bowman 128 cards Size: 2½ × 3¾ in.
- 1955 Bowman 160 cards Size: 2½ × 3¾ in.
Set information is listed here by Year, Set Name, Quantity of Cards(#), and the card's Dimensions in inches.
- Blony Paper Novelties (#) varying sizes
- Wild Man (72) 2¹⁄₁₆ × 2½
- Jets, Rockets, Spacemen (108) 2¹⁄₁₆ × 3⅛
- Red Menace (48) 2½ × 3⅛
- Television & Radio Stars of N.B.C. (36) 2½ × 3¾
- Uncle Miltie (#) 1⅝ × 2⁹⁄₁₆
- U.S. Presidents (36) 2½ × 3¾
- Antique Autos (48) 2½ × 3¾
- Firefighters (64) 2½ × 3¾
- Frontier Days (128) 2½ × 3¾
- Television and Radio Stars of the National Broadcasting Company (96) 2½ × 3¾
- Power For Peace (96) 2½ × 3¾
- U.S. Navy Victories (48) 2½ × 3¾
- Magic Pictures (40) 2½ × 3¾ and (120) 1¼ × 2½ (240 total)
- Beckett, Dr. James et al. (2002). Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide. Beckett Publications-Dallas, Texas ISBN 1-930692-17-X
- Lemke, Robert F. (2006). Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards. KP ; Newton Abbot-Iola, Wisconsin ISBN 0-89689-372-3
- Beckett, Dr. James et al. (2005). Beckett Football Card Price Guide. Beckett Publications-Dallas, Texas ISBN 1-930692-41-2
- Tuff Stuff 2005 Standard Catalog of Football Cards. Krause Publications-Iola, Wisconsin ISBN 0-87349-866-6
- Benjamin, Christopher et al. (1991). The Sport Americana price guide to the non-sports cards 1930–1960. Edgewater Book Co.-Cleveland, Ohio ISBN 0-937424-53-6
- Murphy, Mark (2002). Unopened Pack, Wrapper & Display Box Guide. Mark Murphy-Stamford, Connecticut
- Jamieson, Dave (1 April 2010). Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. Grove/Atlantic, Incorporated. p. 92–101. ISBN 978-0-8021-9715-3. Retrieved 15 December 2013.