Bowman was one of the earliest post-war producers of baseball gum cards. However, after a run of sets issued from 1948 through 1955, the company packed it in.
Bowman competed heavily with Topps once the latter began producing baseball cards. After a brief battle, Topps ultimately bought Bowman out. Rather than operate Bowman as a separate entity, Topps ended the production of Bowman cards after the acquisition.
The move was doubly bad for collectors. That not only meant the temporary end of Bowman’s popular baseball cards but also gave Topps a virtual monopoly for decades until Fleer and Donruss arrived on the scene in 1981.
A Changing Landscape
To see why a Bowman return was beneficial, one has to under stand that Topps was facing stiff competition in 1989.
Donruss and Fleer had captured a sizable share of the market. Score (in 1988) and Upper Deck (in 1989) were new baseball card producers as well. In particular, Upper Deck’s more expensive cards were turning heads, even if younger collectors couldn’t particularly afford them. And that’s to say nothing of other somewhat oddball baseball additions, such as the Star and Classic branded cards.
The baseball card industry wasn’t as flooded as it would become in the 1990s. But it was definitely getting a little crowded by the late 1980s, to be sure. Topps would benefit from the production of another brand in that landscape.
It wasn’t only more companies that would ultimately create the congestion collectors would later see. Rather, some companies would soon be producing more than one brand of cards shortly thereafter. Topps decided to try to beat them to the punch by resurrecting the Bowman cards in 1989.
The Return of Bowman
For many younger collectors, the Bowman name was an entirely new one. Even though Bowman had existed in the 1940s and 1950s, a lot of kids that had only just begun to collect simply didn’t know that. As an 11-year-old at the time, I don’t even think I personally became aware of the vintage Bowman cards for a few years after the fact. However, for those who knew of its place in hobby history, the return was big and somewhat stunning news–even if it was now a Topps-owned brand.
Any collector first seeing the 1989 cards instantly recognized the first Bowman cards were quite different from other issues. The most noticeable thing was the oversized card, similar to what Topps was doing with their Topps Big sets. They were no wider than your standard 2 1/2″ card but, at 3 3/4 tall, were bigger than others.
That was kind of cool. Even if not ideal, it was a nice idea to give collectors something a little unique. it also made since because several of Bowman’s earlier cards were similarly large as well. However, the size also presented a problem for storage. While they fit into standard 9-card sheets, the tops hung out over the edges, leading to a lot of damaged cards.
The company must have been forced to reconsider because, starting in 1990, Bowman cards were the same size as other standard issues.
Backs of the 1989 Bowman cards were also quite unique. Instead of a standard biography and aggregate statistics for a player, Bowman’s backs looked more like a jumbled Excel spreadsheet. That’s because they were overly analytical, breaking down a player’s statistics by how he fared against each opponent in his League in the previous year.
Stat geeks no doubt loved that. But for your average 10-year-old kid that merely wanted to be able to easily see a player’s vitals, the crowded backs sort of ruined that. Worse still was that only a player’s 1988 statistics and his statistics for his career were given. If you wanted to see how incredible Mark McGwire’s 1987 season was, for example, you were out of luck.
Still, the set got a lot right. Bowman became known as Home of the Rookie Card and unlike Topps and Score, Bowman made sure to squeeze the hottest rookie, Ken Griffey, Jr., in there, along with many others. Topps and Score wouldn’t include Griffey until their traded/update sets rolled around. Griffey’s card would become immensely popular and one of the more collected cards from that year.
Plus, large size notwithstanding, the look of the cards is just incredibly clean with bright white borders and a color photo in the middle of a red frame. One annoying aspect was definitely the fact that a player’s name was not printed on the fronts. But that was replaced with the idea to include a replica signature of the player, which was a nice consolation prize. And I was a big fan of the baseball field logo that Bowman rolled out, too. Overall, they were nice-looking cards.
The long-term prospects for the 1989 Bowman cards aren’t particularly great. Like most other issues from that time period, they were printed in large quantities. Aside from some gem mint graded specimens, the cards are dirt cheap. The most expensive card in the set is the Griffey with all but the highest graded examples usually available for less than $10.
Wax boxes and unopened sets are also plentiful on eBay, generally starting in the $15-$25 range.
But low prices notwithstanding, they certainly have a place in the junk wax era as a key set.