When old baseball card collectors gather around their shoe boxes full of rubber-band-bound stacks and conversation turns to the greatest sets of the post-War era, as it inevitably does, the predictable run of iconic issues fills the air: 1951 Bowman, 1952 Topps, 1953 Topps and Bowman. Sandwiched among these heavyweights of the hobby, maybe the 1952 Bowman set never had much of a chance to be considered an all-time great, but it is a beautiful issue in its own right and a hidden treasure that holds tremendous value for collectors seeking to tap into the nostalgia of 1950s baseball without spending a fortune.
Top Dog Losing Ground to the Young Pup
Coming off a four-year run that saw them outlast Leaf to stand as the king of the baseball card hill, Bowman Gum entered 1952 with little to prove and apparently not much fear that upstart Topps would be able to cut into their market share. After all, in 1951, Bowman had produced perhaps the most beautiful baseball card set collectors had ever seen, featuring hand-painted snapshots of 324 players on big (for the time), meaty cards. Topps, meanwhile, had debuted with two small sets in a playing card motif that limited player likenesses to a small black and white head shot in the middle of the card front.
Perhaps that wide gap between Bowman and their only competitor made the company complacent, because they scaled back their 1952 offering to just 252 cards, issued in seven 36-card series and sold in one-cent or five-cent packs, with each card measuring 2-1/16″ x 3-1/8″. At the same time, Topps was planning to wallop the market with their 407-card behemoth, a set that would become maybe the most important issue of all time and whose 2-5/8″ x 3-3/4″ measurements would help lead to the demise of small cards.
By the time Bowman realized what was happening, it was too late to adjust their plans for 1952, and the result was a set that is often overlooked on the historical landscape of baseball cards. Nevertheless, the 1952 Bowmans were an elegant alternative to the somewhat garish Topps issue, and today they represent a rare affordable offering from that golden post-War era of sports cards.
Better Than the Classics or Just Boring?
As in 1950 and 1951, the front of 1952 Bowman baseball cards feature full-color hand-painted reproductions of black and white photos set inside a moderate white border. At first glance, the cards look nearly identical to the 1951 issue, and in fact the only difference is in how Bowman presented the player name. In 1951, cards sported a black rectangle with the player name in white type, while the 1952 set employs facsimile player autographs printed directly over top of the player picture with no additional design element. The result is a cleaner, more artistic appearance, though player names are sometimes hard to decipher on the 1952 cards.
The similarity in appearance to their 1951 issue was likely detrimental to the popularity of the 1952 Bowman set as boys tore into fresh packs that spring and summer. Not only were the cards smaller and less flashy than their Topps counterparts, but they were essentially a rehash of the set that Bowman had offered the year before.
Card backs, too, are very similar in 1952 to those found in the 1951 set. The player’s name appears in black type at the top of the card, followed, in smaller black type, by his position and full team name. One line each is then dedicated the player’s birth date and birthplace, his height and weight, and his handedness, both in the field and at the bat.
Unlike most modern issues, the 1952 Bowmans do not contain a detailed stats table for the player, but instead feature a descriptive paragraph that delves into a few of the player’s recent highlights, and, sometimes, lowlights. Did you know, for example, that Joe Garagiola was “kept out of action by a shoulder injury during most of 1950”?
The text on some of the card backs also indicate that Bowman did their homework during the season, as well, alluding to trades that took place after the action on the field was already underway. Jackie Jensen (#161) and Tommy Brown (#236) were two of the players addressed by this on-the-fly “update set” treatment.
Beneath that occupational vignette is a wordy version of the card number: “No. XX in the 1952 SERIES.”
The bottom third of the card is dedicated to a Bowman promotion that allowed collectors to receive a baseball cap of their favorite team by sending in five baseball card wrappers and 50 cents. The hat deal is headlined by huge text that reads, “BASEBALL PICTURE CARDS.”
Aside from what may have been perceived as a stale look in the spring of 1952, this Bowman also issue suffered in comparison to its Topps counterpart due to a lack of Hall of Fame rookie cards and missing out on some of the biggest stars in the game. Whitey Ford, Eddie Mathews, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson are all missing from the Bowman set, though Williams and Ford were missing from the Topps issue, as well. Bowman did score one big hit on its younger rival by producing Stan Musial’s only single of 1952, card #196.
The Easy, The Tough, and The Unusual
Collectors who would love to delve into the look and feel of early 1950s baseball but can’t afford to tackle the expense of putting together the more iconic sets of the era should find 1952 Bowman to their liking. The PSA Population Report shows that nearly 55,000 of the cards have been submitted for grading, and though that number pales next to the 173,000 submitted for the Topps issue that year and the 74,000 Bowman submissions for 1951, it’s really not that far out of line. Considering that the 1952 set both contains less cards and has historically been less popular than its nearest neighbors, it’s not surprising that significantly fewer of them have been submitted for grading and is not necessarily an indication of exceptional scarcity.
In fact, a quick perusal of eBay listings reveals that there are plenty of 1952 Bowman baseball cards on the market at any given time. Items up for bid typically range from ungraded commons for a few dollars to multi-card lots in reasonable condition at an affordable price to high-grade superstars that can fetch thousands of dollars. Collectors intent on building a complete set of 1952 Bowmans, then, should have little trouble finding most of the pasteboards they need to get the job done.
There are a few cards among the 1952s, though, that are more challenging than the rest. As expected, the high numbers, and especially the last series (#217-252), are more scarce than those issued earlier that summer and spring, but near mint examples of most minor stars can still be found for a fairly reasonable cost.
For the master set collector, the 1952 Bowmans don’t offer too much of an additional challenge, as there is only one known variation. The Bill Werle card, #248, can be found with either his full signature as expected, or with the “W” in his last name mostly missing, as if it had been erased. The error version seems to be more scarce than the corrected version, though neither commands much of a premium in lower grades. In higher grades, however, the Werle error can be a challenge.
Beyond the Werle variations, the cards of Minnie Minoso (#5), Alvin Dark (#34), and Frank Baumholtz (#195) all list the wrong date of birth for the player pictured, but none of these were corrected.
One really challenging extension to the base 1952 Bowman set is a series of proof of cards that first came to market after Bowman executive George Moll passed away in 1984. Measuring 2-1/2″ x 3-3/4″, the cards are believed to have been a late-season test of the larger format with which Topps had won the summer gum battles, and the larger Bowmans displayed the same pictures as the smaller base cards.
Like most proofs, these sported blank backs and were originally produced in small sheets — four blocks of nine cards in this case, comprising the entire final series. When the sheets come up for sale, which is not often, they have fetched low four-figure prices.
Aside from the truly scarce proofs and the curious Werle error card, the 1952 Bowmans only become challenging as you move up the grading scale. Of the over 74,000 PSA submissions, just 79 have graded out at a 10, and only a little over 1,700 have come in at a 9. Poor centering affects many of the cards, and it’s not uncommon to find wax stains on card backs, courtesy of the one-cent, one-card packs that Bowman offered in 1952.
The high numbers seem to be a little tougher, condition-wise, than earlier series, and this applies especially to #218, the second-year card of Willie Mays. Just six of 1,500+ submissions have rated a 9, and there has yet to be a single PSA 10 Mays, with the most common condition problem being poor centering.
Likewise, the Yogi Berra card (#1) often suffers from poor centering and is tough to find in top condition. Adding to the condition problems for the Berra issue is the “first-card syndrome,” and the scuff marks and rubber-band dents that come along with it. With no PSA 10s and just six PSA 9s, it’s little wonder that a Berra PSA 8 can reach into the thousands of dollars. At the back end of the set, #252 Frank Crosetti may be even tougher than Berra, as just three 9s and no 10s have been graded by PSA. Even so, Crosetti’s relative lack of star power works to hold his top-grade singles below $500.
No discussion of expensive 1950s cards would be complete without mentioning Mickey Mantle, and his 1952 Bowman card (101) is predictably popular. With 3,100+ submissions, PSA has graded two Mickeys as perfect 10s, and 13 of the cards received a PSA 9.
If you’re anxious to get your hands on all of the 1952 Bowman beauties at once, you can, on occasion, find complete sets for sale. Prices vary, of course, spending on the overall condition, and especially the condition of key cards. You can usually find a few complete sets on eBay.
A Fresh Look
Regardless of whether the 1952 Bowman set ever gains the stature of its early 1950s contemporaries, taking another look at this underappreciated issue holds at least one unexpected benefit for most collectors. Because we have been clubbed over the head for decades with images of the 1951 Bowman, 1952 Topps, and both 1953 color sets, even the most striking of those cards have become old news, but that’s not the case with 1952 Bowman. Pouring through the 252 cards in this set is like stepping back to the summer of 1952 to break open a box of brand new cards, straight from the shelf, where the pictures pop with fresh faces and hidden details emerge from both the image backgrounds and the backs of the cards.
There aren’t many bargains to be found among the earliest major post-War cards, but the 1952 Bowman baseball issue offers nostalgic value that goes beyond dollars and cents.
Check out our live list of the ‘most watched’ 1952 Bowman baseball card auctions on eBay below.