In 1948, Bowman threw its hat in the gum card business. The company was quite ambitious, not only producing its first baseball cards, but also complete sets for two emerging sports, football, and basketball.
That had to raise some eyebrows as few football and basketball issues were produced to that time. But the sports were certainly growing and Bowman no doubt wanted to test the markets. The basketball set, in fact, is often cited as the first true set for the sport that was ever produced.
While the Bowman name was a new one, the folks involved were already very familiar with sports cards. That’s because Bowman’s predecessor was actually Gum, Inc., the makers of the popular 1939, 1940, and 1941 Play Ball baseball card sets. Bowman was technically issuing its first sports cards under that label but they had a pretty good idea of how to do things.
So when the company famously put out three card sets for the country’s major sports at the time, it wasn’t something beyond their scope. Each of the three sets is also known for producing some pretty desirable cards. The 1948 Bowman baseball set, for example, includes some of the earliest cards for Stan Musial and Yogi Berra. The 1948 Bowman football set has one of Sammy Baugh’s most valuable cards. Then, of course, the 1948 Bowman basketball set has the iconic George Mikan rookie card.
All of the designs had the same general kind of look with a square card and white borders. A player image was on the front but without a name. However, there was one significant difference as the basketball cards were printed in color while baseball and football got the black and white treatment.
To the Pop Reports
Of the three sports, baseball cards obviously had the longest track record. Football cards and basketball cards were still a bit of an unknown novelty, even though those sports were growing. And if you look at the established population reports for the three sets, you can tell that Bowman’s focus was clearly on baseball.
To date, grading companies have rated more than double the amount of 1948 Bowman baseball cards than basketball and about 60 percent more baseball than football. That would seem to indicate that more baseball cards were printed than anything else. Probably, even, significantly more.
Now, that may not technically be a surprise since, even today, baseball cards still outpace football and basketball issues. You’d expect the baseball set to be king and that it would be the one putting the most strain on printers. But one really interesting thing sticks out if you take a closer look at the population reports and the checklists of those sets.
A Checklisting Anomaly
Baseball was the most popular sport and the one that had the most cards produced to that point in time. Despite that, the baseball checklist was actually the smallest of the three. The 1948 Bowman baseball set included only 48 cards while the football set had more than double that amount (108). Sure, there are more football players on a team but look at the basketball set. Even with fewer teams and players, Bowman still managed to create a 72-card set for that less popular sport.
So, what gives? Why was the baseball checklist so comparatively small? It’s hard to say.
Gum, Inc., had plenty of experience producing larger baseball card sets. The 1939 Play Ball set had 161 cards and their 1940 set had 240 cards. With only 72 cards, the 1941 set was the smallest of the three. Still, that was significantly more than Bowman’s first baseball set. For whatever reason, Bowman’s baseball set was small compared to not only the Play Ball standards, but also compared to the standards they set for their football and basketball issues that same year.
It’s possible that Bowman viewed the football and basketball sets as first-of-their-kind specialties that commanded larger checklists. Fair. But even if the company wanted those sets to be larger, that doesn’t explain why they made the smaller baseball issue. All three could have easily included larger, fuller checklists.
We know that Bowman viewed baseball cards as their sort of cash cow when it came to sports cards. We can deduce that just from the perceived volume they produced that year compared to the other two sports. That’s what makes it difficult to understand why the set’s checklist was so small compared to the other two sets. After all, plenty of other players surely could have been included as the set is missing the likes of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and even 1948 American League Most Valuable Player Lou Boudreau. The set was not short for a lack of stars.
Bowman’s baseball sets, of course, would get dramatically larger as time went on. By 1949, the company must have seen collector interest in the cards as the set jumped to 240 cards. The 1950 set had 252 cards and the 1951 issue swelled to include a whopping 324 cards. But in the company’s inaugural year of producing cards, the set’s checklist fell well short of those established for their football and basketball sets.