The “it” is the 1954 Bowman Baseball card set.
Much has been written about the battles between the upstart company Topps and the established baseball card manufacturers at Bowman in the early 1950s. The records clearly show that the Bowman Gum Co. had a significant loss of market share in 1952 and again in 1953, but it was not from a lack of trying to compete. Indeed, the bold color photography and large card size of the Bowman set in 1953 is easily seen as a reaction to the famed 1952 Topps set (which was many times larger than the Bowman cards of 1948-1952). The color set of ’53 was certainly a huge change for the veteran gum company, but it was clearly a reaction and the Topps company continued to innovate.
The color photography process Bowman used in 1953 proved to be too expensive to repeat. In fact, production costs were part of the reason behind what seems to have been a reduction in the 1953 Bowman set in mid-issue. No doubt there were several factors working all at once, but the 1954 Bowman baseball cards demonstrated a clear attempt to continue using some of the “new” elements while cutting costs. Sadly, this resulted in a somewhat less-than-stellar issue when compared to the bold color of the year before or the fresh-looking Topps designs. Sales results from that season would indicate the kids who spent pennies and nickels for the packs of cards felt that way, at the least.
Losing the Head-to-Head Battle
It is not that 1954 Bowman is horrible. It isn't. But they just seem lifeless when compared to the 1954 Topps design that featured a great head shot of each player and a smaller action photo also on the front. Bowman again used a painted portrait for the player’s image and kept the larger-sized card (approximately 2 1/2" by 3 3/4") they adopted in 1953. That portrait made up the front of the card inside of a white border, and a small pastel-colored box in a lower corner contained the player's signature (or block print of the name, for certain second-series cards).
Nuts and Bolts
The set was distributed in two separate series: card numbers 1-128 in the first series and 129-224 in the second. The pastel box combined with the muted colors of the portraits to the give the cards an older, almost faded, look right out of the pack. When compared to the Topps card of the same year (which also employed paintings, but very bold colors) the difference is startling.
Card backs also feature a startling disparity when the sets are compared. The 1954 Bowman cards feature a muted red and black print. A bat and ball graphic appear on the back, with the card number located inside the ball and the player's name in the bat. The write-up on the back provides a few vital statistics and a short biography, along with a trivia question that appears along the bottom of the writing. A small box to the right contains the stats, with the trivia question's answer below it.
In comparison, the 1954 Topps cards featured red, green and black print on a white colored background. In addition to the color use, the Topps cards contained some of the “cartoon” type artwork for which Topps card backs would become well-known. The inks used pops off the card backs for Topps very well, but the grey cardboard that the 1954 Bowman cards were printed on (likely another effort to cut production costs), make the plain card backs dull and dark and might have contributed to the condition problems that seem to plague this set.
Star Exclusives Gave Bowman a Boost
Now, this all seems rather negative, but the 1954 Bowman set does have its bright spots as well. In their attempt to stave off the challenge brought by Topps to the baseball card arena Bowman took the approach (and spent their money) in securing the rights to use the images of the standout players of that day for their cards. Topps did a better job of signing the young rookies to exclusive contracts. In 1954 this included players such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Al Kaline. Of course, at that time the idea of “rookie cards” and the mania they would foster were still decades away. The success of Topps came largely due to their focus on designing and producing a more attractive baseball card that had far less printing errors.
But Bowman certainly was ahead in the battle to get the most stars of the game onto their cards. Well-known diamond heroes such as Mickey Mantle, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese and Bob Feller, were under exclusive contract to Bowman for the 1954 season, which kept them from appearing in competitor sets. That, of course, would be Topps.
However, other stars also appear in the Bowman set that were not exclusive to the company. Phil Rizzuto, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Duke Snider and Whitey Ford are among the players appearing in both sets. Another superstar, perhaps the superstar of the era, also appears in both sets, but the situation around that little fact is what created the rarest card in the 1954 Bowman set.
The Williams Card and Jimmy Piersall
One of the hobby’s greatest rarities, the 1954 Bowman card #66, Ted Williams, was withdrawn most likely due to contractual issues after it had already been placed into early circulation. Some have put forth the idea that the card was actually stopped due to a broken printer’s die. The contractual problem seems to carry more weight, however (Williams would be the first and the last card in the 1954 Topps set), and Bowman replaced #66 with a card of Red Sox outfielder Jim Piersall (who was already set as card #210 in their set).Due to the extreme rarity and high cost of the #66 Williams card, the standard 1954 Bowman set is usually considered complete by collectors without the Williams card, when it contains both the #66 and #210 Jimmy Piersall cards.
The change to Piersall in subsequent printings of the ’54 Bowman cards was not the only card that experienced changes during the print run. Along with the variation of card #66, the set contains more than 40 total variations, most involving statistical errors that were later corrected. The cards to which changes were made are card numbers 12, 22,25,26,35,38,41,43,47,53,61,67,80,81,82,85,93,94,99,103,105,124,138,139, 140,145,153,156,174,179,185,212,216 and 217.
Variation cards have differences in statistics, birthplaces, trades, and even answers to the quiz questions on the back. Few of these statistical variations have been given any additional value. However, two cards (#33 Vic Raschi and #163 Dave Philley) had a line added to their backs that mention their trades to different teams, and those cards with the “traded” line are priced higher than those that do not.
Earlier we mentioned that Topps really had the market on rookies in 1954. Indeed, the only notable rookie cards in the Bowman set are those of Harvey Keunn (card #23) and Don Larsen (card #101). Interestingly, not only was 1954 Don Larsen’s first year on a baseball card, but it was also his team’s first year in their new city.
1954 was the Orioles’ first season in Baltimore, after playing as the St. Louis Browns since 1901. The move was announced and the new team name and logo had been unveiled earlier, but there were no pictures of any of the Orioles in their new uniforms by the time Bowman needed to go to press. So, Bowman's art department had to make do with their best guess, which resulted in having the Oriole looking the wrong way on some caps. Of course, this was likely of little consequence to those who were purchasing the seven-card nickel packs and one-card penny packs. The penny packs were issued 120 to a box while the nickel packs were issued 24 to a box.
Speaking of specific teams like Baltimore, the 1954 Bowman cards used a unique numbering system that rotated between all sixteen teams, so each team had a regular numbering pattern. For example, the Yankees had card 1, 17, 33, 49, etc. The Red Sox followed with cards 2, 18, 34, 50 and so on. Each team had 14 cards (unless you count both #66 cards, which gives 15 for the Red Sox).There is a 16 card rotation as there were 8 teams in each league at that time. Such a clear team rotation arrangement is not be seen in another vintage set.
A High Grade Challenge
Even though Topps would eventually win the bubble gum card war, the 1954 Bowman cards do command a measure of respect due to their vintage nature and the place they hold in collecting history. And their construction with the dark gray, cheaper card stock has also lent a hand in making this set a difficult one to collect in good condition. As of this writing, PSA has graded 55,784 cards from the 1954 Bowman set. Only 88 have been given a grade of 10, which is 0.0016%, and another 1,521 have been graded a 9 (just under 3%). The most graded card from the set has been Mickey Mantle, with 2,538 copies graded. Interestingly, 857 copies of the rare #66 Ted Williams have been submitted to PSA. In May of 2014 a PSA 8 Williams sold on eBay for $6,600.
SGC has graded 596 '54 Bowman Mantle cards with three reaching the mint (96) grade.
Beckett Vintage Grading has graded 467 Mickey Mantle cards, and the highest grade given by BVG to any of those Mantle cards has been one 8.5. The vast majority of the Mickey cardboard graded by Beckett have been graded at 6 or below.
In 1955 Bowman would give their “last ditch” effort with the famed television set before capitulating to Topps. But, in 1954 they were still hoping to hold out by using the large card format and several stars on their cards. It did not happen for Bowman in the way they surely hoped, but their efforts provide an interesting look into that time of transition for baseball cards.
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