After a flurry of colorful and interesting issues released just as the Great Depression began to lift in the late 1930s, baseball cards disappeared from the American landscape after 1941 thanks to the ravages and rations of World War II. Seven long years later, and nearly three full years after our troops came home, the 1948 Bowman baseball set gave the hobby a tentative breath of life.
Though rival confectioner Leaf produced a set that was arguably much more attractive that same year, it was the Bowman issue that seeded the soil for the gum-card wars of the 1950s and helped establish a base from which the the modern hobby could grow.
For all its historical importance, though, the 1948 Bowman set remains affordable and, in some ways, underrated.
The reason that the 1948 Bowmans have lagged in popularity over the decades is as plain as the nose on Warren Spahn’s face: an uninspired design executed on (relatively) tiny swaths of cardboard.
Measuring just 2-1/16″ x 2-1/2″, each card front features a simple black-and-white player photo surrounded by a white border. Many of the photos are basic head-and-shoulders shots, while a few venture into the realm of profiles (Spahn) or awkward posed action shots (Ferris Fain).
Card backs are a bit more interesting, presenting a wall of text that leads off with the card number and player name on top, followed by his position, team name, and vital stats. The middle third of each card is devoted to a biographical sketch, and the very bottom contains the Bowman name and copyright information.
Without question, the most colorful aspect of the 1948 Bowman issue are the three lines of text wedged between the bio and the legalese:
ASK FOR BLONY BUBBLE GUM
The Bubble Gum with
the three different flavors
What Little Leaguer wouldn’t line up for that?
Where Have You Gone …
Well, sure, if you were looking for a card of Joe DiMaggio in 1948, lining up for Bowman wouldn’t have done you any good.
They didn’t have him.
Prefer the Splendid Splinter? Um, Bowman whiffed on Ted Williams, too.
The hue-advantaged Leaf set picked up the slack on both of those gents, easily the most popular players in the game as Baby Boomers began clogging turnstiles with their parents.
Still, Bowman scored the only Dave Koslo rookie card (#48), and that should count for something.
Truth be told, the Blony Blokes managed to squeeze in a few more recognizable names into their debut set, too.
Spahn and Sain and Pray for … Rookies?
That Spahn card (#18) happens to be the lefty’s rookie issue, and rotation-mate Johnny Sain (#12) also makes his cardboard debut in the 1948 Bowman set.
Beyond the rain-dance twins, the issue contains rookie cards of Hall of Famers Yogi Berra (#6), Ralph Kiner (#3), Phil Rizzuto (#8), and Red Schoendienst (#38). The first BIG hero in the World Series during the television era, Bobby Thomson (#47), also calls 1948 Bowman his rookie home.
The major coup for Bowman in ’48, though, was the rookie card of Stan Musial (#36). Because Stan the Man made his Major League debut way back in 1941, the early years of his career were not chronicled by card makers. As a consequence, his 1948 Bowman rookie is a issue card that brings well over $1500 once you move into the realm of graded NEAR MINT copies.
If you add in veteran holdovers like Bob Feller (#5) and Enos Slaughter (#17), about a fifth of the 1948 Bowman set is devoted to men who today are enshrined in Cooperstown.
Of course, that ratio is boosted by both the dearth of cards during the heart of the 1940s AND the set’s tiny checklist.
Initially limited to just 36 cards, the 1948 Bowman set was expanded to 48 during a second print run. In order to accommodate the 12 new cards without busting their 36-card sheets, Bowman removed 12 of the original cards (#7, 8, 13, 16, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 29, 30, 34) from that final printing. As a consequence, the “deleted” cards are considered to be single prints and command roughly twice as much as other cards in the set.
The only major star that falls into the single-print category is the Rizzuto rookie, which can fetch close to $1000 in slabbed NM-MT condition.
A Contract to Kill … the Competition
It’s somewhat curious that Bowman limited themselves to such a small player roster, when there are indications that a much bigger pool was available to them.
Because, while Leaf was busy skip-numbering their set either to entice collectors to search for cards that didn’t exists or to allow for expansion into 1949, Bowman had a different tactic in mind for dominating the card world. According to the book The Bubble Gum Card War, Bowman had 106 players under contract for 1948.
Given their swap-out strategy for adding 12 cards to the set, it seems likely that Bowman was most interested in containing costs during their maiden voyage. Even so, locking down a large percentage of Major League players gave them an advantage heading into 1949, and Leaf bowed out of the market before the Fifties ever dawned.
Bowman’s failure to expand their initial offering beyond 48 cards makes building a 1948 set a reasonable goal for most collectors. You can usually pick up ungraded commons in VG (or so) condition for around $20, though slabbed MINT single prints bring more than $500.
If you want to take the leg work out of tracking down all 48 cards, you could opt to buy one of the complete sets of 1948 Bowman baseball that occasionally comes to market. Though you can hold out for a REALLY top condition specimen and hope it stays under $20K, you could also lower your sights a bit and pick up a decent looking ungraded set for less than $2000.
The Start of a Trend?
With a war-torn nation finally starting to settle into a more optimistic rhythm, the 1948 season looked like it just might sweep a couple of franchises into the frontrunner division to challenge the yearly supremacy of the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers.
When the Cleveland Indians put the finishing touches on the Boston Braves to take the World Series — four games to two — both clubs seemed to be on the verge of continued excellence. Touting strong pitching and talented hitters, Boston and Cleveland were poised to trade post-season jabs for the next decade or more.
Instead, both teams stumbled in 1949, and the Braves were in Milwaukee by 1953. Though the Indians romped to a pennant in 1954 before losing the Series and the Braves made it to the Series in 1958, neither club matched their promise from 1948.
As it turned out, Leaf fit right in with the Braves and Indians, thanks to Bowman’s foresight in signing players to card contracts and an improved 1949 set that pushed their promising competitor out of the market.
Though humble in style and execution, though, it’s the 1948 Bowman baseball set that stands as the progenitor to the modern hobby. This underrated set begat the Blony gum card dynasty of the early 1950s, which eventually gave way to the Topps monopoly just a few years later.
Who would have ever thought that a simple black-and-white Bob Elliott rookie, Bowman’s first-ever card (#1), could launch a billion dollar industry?