After World War II, the Bowman Gum Company quickly became a viable competitor to Topps. Both companies produced sets early in the postwar era but Bowman would eventually get swallowed up by its rival. Topps, of course, ceased printing cards under the Bowman label after 1955 until reviving the brand back in 1989.
But while Bowman’s first run lasted only from 1948 through 1955, the company’s card designs changed quite a bit over that brief time period.
Bowman’s first set was sort of a replay of the 1939 Play Ball issue. And if you think about it, that wasn’t too surprising.
See, Gum, Inc. actually produced the Play Ball sets and was the predecessor company of Bowman Gum. When Bowman produced its first full set of baseball cards in 1948, they turned to the 1939 Play Ball set, which had a similar design. Both sets not only used real black and white images of players but also left any kind of text off the front.
With no player names on the front, that provided for a bit of difficulty in immediately identifying the players. But given that Gum, Inc.’s first Play Ball set had the same design, it is easy to see what Bowman was thinking when they released the 1948 issue.
Finally, the cards also had a square-like design, measuring about 2″ x 2 1/2″ making them a bit smaller than the size used in the 1930s gum sets.
1949 and 1950 Bowman
It didn’t take long for Bowman to significantly alter their cards. In 1949 and 1950, they changed to a color version.
The size of the cards remained the same as the 1948 cards, but the color certainly made them look a lot different.
In addition, the company also fiddled with the notion of adding player names on the front to make them a bit more collector-friendly as some of the 1949 cards had names printed on them. That idea could have come about from Leaf, which also printed cards in 1948 and 1949, but added player names on the fronts of their cards.
Whatever the case, the idea didn’t last long as all names were again removed for Bowman’s 1950 set.
1951 and 1952 Bowman
Bowman again changed things up in 1951 and 1952. The color look remained, but two big changes occurred with regards to the design.
First, fronts in both sets included player names. In 1951, those names were presented in a thin black box and in 1952, replica signatures were used. But names were present in both releases.
The other major difference was with regard to the sizes of the cards. Bowman abandoned the square type of design and shifted to more of a rectangular card. Exactly why they did that isn’t clear. However, while a little smaller at about 2 1/8″ x 3 1/8″, the cards took on a shape that is more common to today’s standard cards.
Finally, the 1951 Bowman set also produced its most iconic vintage card – Mickey Mantle’s rookie card. Today, even in low-grade condition, the card starts around $2,000 – $3,000 and Willie Mays’ rookie in that set isn’t far behind.
1953 and 1954 Bowman
Bowman continued making significant alterations to their cards in each of the next two years.
In 1953, they actually printed two different sets – one in black and white and one in color. The 1953 cards removed the names from the fronts again but they were added back in 1954.
The biggest innovation in these sets, however, was that Bowman rolled out its famous jumbo sized cards. Bowman became famous for that larger sized and that is actually what Topps redebuted when bringing the cards back in 1989. But interestingly enough, the company only printed these larger cards in their final three years — 1953, 1954, and 1955. The majority of their years were spent making smaller cards.
Bowman’s final set was issued in 1955 and the company had a pretty interesting concept. Color television was becoming popular and Bowman wanted a card that matched the excitement of that innovation. The idea was to bring baseball cards to a television screen.
These cards were printed in color with the player’s last name being printed on the fronts. The oversized card remained but with a twist. The effect of the picture on the front was such that the player images were printed onto a makeshift color television design to make the collector appear to be watching them (in color, of course) on the card.
The idea was actually a pretty forward-facing one if you think about it. And I can see how it made sense given the time period. But the design more than 60 years later now just comes off as kind of cheesy. Some collectors (including this one) commonly have regarded the 1955 Bowman cards as their least favorite design.