As Americans said their good-riddances to the 1940s, a decade that shredded our hearts and families with war and decimated the National Pastime, sports fans were ready to finally enjoy their games with a full roster of superstars once again. When the first spring of the new decade dawned, the 1950 Bowman baseball set was ready and waiting to greet collectors who had waited all winter — and longer — for the boys of summer to return.
Whether they realized it or not at the time, Little Leaguers who pulled Bowman cards from those first wax packs of the season were holding a bit of hobby history in their hands. Not only was Bowman the lone card manufacturer for the sole time in their history, but their new card design signaled a major shift in pasteboard standards.
More Colorful Than an Elvis Jumpsuit
After dipping their toes into the rainbow pool in 1949 following a drab black-and-white debut issue the year before, Bowman bathed their 1950 cards in colorful paints that must have delighted collectors of the day.
Measuring 2 1/16 by 2 1/2 inches, each card front features a full-color rendering of a black-and-white photo, bleeding into thin black piping and surrounded by white borders. Most of the cards show simple head-and-shoulder shots, but many offer up interesting poses or mocked on-field action.
Card backs are bright by the standards of most early card sets, featuring black and red text against an off-white background. The player’s name appears in red block letters at the top, followed beneath by his position, team name, and biographical information in smaller black type.
The heart of each reverse is a paragraph highlighting the player’s career, and the card number and copyright information appear along the bottom edge.
An interesting feature of card backs, one not seen on any other sports issue, is the red “Bowman 5-Star Picture Card Collectors Club” in the upper right-hand corner.
Maybe They Were Waiting for Fleer
Unfortunately for Bowman and collectors, those five stars did not include Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio in 1950.
Even though Leaf was gone from the playing field and Topps was still plotting their course, Bowman was unable to ink “The Man” and Joe D. to contracts and were forced to muddle on without two of the biggest names in the game.
As the only outlet for collectors to grab their favorite players on cardboard, Bowman did their best to accommodate their customers, resizing their set from 240 cards in 1949 to 252 in 1950. The gum maker was especially friendly to the Philadelphia locals, producing 19 different cards of the Phillies, the most for any team.
Aside from stars of the that “Whiz Kids” team like Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty, Bowman also scored with cards of Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Duke Snider, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, and many other legendary names.
In fact, the 1950 Bowman set showcases 25 Hall of Famers in all, making it a heavy hitter for collectors interested in loading up on early gum cards of some of the game’s greatest players.
What you won’t find in this issue, though, are many impact rookie cards. None of those Hall of Famers have rookie cards in the set, though you can find the debut pasteboards of Don Newcombe (#23), Hank Bauer (#219), Konstanty (#226), and Al Rosen (#232).
If you’re really hungry for rookie cards and don’t mind stretching the definition (a lot), the Williams card (#98) was the Splendid Splinter’s first-ever Bowman issue.
Don’t “Skip” These Cards
Cleveland Indians’ skipper Lou Boudreau appears on card #94 in the third series, and then the seventh and final series leads off with the legendary Casey Stengel (#217), fresh off his first season with the New York Yankees and looking uncharacteristically taciturn. Three other managers also appear in that last series: Leo Durocher (#220), Eddie Sawyer (#225), and Frankie Frisch (#229), the old Fordham Flash who was in charge of the Cubs.
By expanding beyond the rank and file of MLB players, Bowman set the precedent for including other members of the baseball firmament on gum cards, and that roster would expand to include more managers, umpires, and league executives by the end of the 1950s.
Low on Frills
Heck, even the set’s variations are mundane. In particular, cards #181-252 can be found with and without the copyright line, though neither version garners a premium in today’s market.
If you’re grasping for a quirk to make the 1950 Bowman issue stand out from its post-war brethren, you might have to settle for an inversion of the usual series-scarcity relationship. While most sets issued before 1974 present collectors with challenging high numbers, it’s the first two 36-card series that seem to be the toughest for the initial Bowman set of the new decade.
That makes card #1, Mel Parnell, one of the tougher gets in the set. Not only does it suffer from the usual first-card conditioning blues, it’s also somewhat scarce just due to its series. When graded in NM condition, the Red Sox lefty can bring more than $500 at auction.
Collect `Em All
The Parnell condition and rarity premium notwithstanding, the 1950 Bowman set generally offers hobbyists an inexpensive avenue for adding beautiful cards of some of the game’s greatest players to their collections.
If you drop your sights on card #1 to ungraded EX territory, you can pick one up for under $50. And, while the biggest stars like Williams and Jackie Robinson sell for several thousand dollars each when slabbed in NM-MT condition, you can buy either in a crease-free, respectable grade for $400-600 at most.
Commons are fairly plentiful on eBay and often sell for just a few dollars apiece.
Without DiMaggio, Musial and any pricey rookie cards, complete sets in lower grades can often be found for $2,000-$2,500.
Whiz Bang Sweep
As so often happens in this hobby, the 1950 Bowman cards mirrored the action in the game itself, even if not in lock-step.
The Philadelphia Phillies put it all together that summer and enthralled the baseball world as the “Whiz Kids,” a storied bunch that lives on today as one of the most recognizable teams of the 20th Century. Alas, as dramatic and fun as their tale was that year, the truth is that the Phils were swept by the Yankees in the World Series that fall.
Like their hometown team, Bowman was on top of the world in 1950, and also like Philly, the gum-laced celebration was short-lived. By the next spring, a new competitor had taken the field and, within five years, Bowman had been swept into the closeout bins of hobby history.
In the sunlit days of 1950, though, Bowman stood all alone in centerfield, basking in the colors of their own rainbow.