Imagine for a moment that it’s late 1954 and your boss calls you into his office with exciting, yet terrifying, news: he’s putting YOU in charge of saving a crumbling bubble gum card empire that not too long ago virtually created the entire hobby. How would you go about designing the 1955 Bowman baseball set to pique collector interest and stave off extinction for another year?
With a dwindling supply of players under contract available to appear on your cards, and facing already diminished sales, you would have to do something dramatic in order to eat into upstart Topps’ market share.
Realizing that Bowman’s recent conservative designs had failed to excite collectors, you might turn toward popular culture to find an antidote to Topps’ huge and colorful issues. You might reflect on the evenings spent around a shiny new RCA with friends and family watching George Reeves or Lucy, and recognize the pull of the new medium.
You might, in fact, settle on the same television-themed design that marked the 1955 Bowman as decidedly different but did nothing to stanch the bleeding that would serve as a red carpet for Topps’ new monopoly just a year later.
They ALL Played for “Color TV”
The front design of the 1955 Bowman cards is both gaudy and simple.
In the first attempt by a major card manufacturer to convince collectors that colored borders are groovy, Bowman turned the entirety of each horizontal card front into a replica TV set. A brown wood-grain border dominates the design and is intended to simulate early console television cabinets. A gold concave inner border funnels the “viewer’s” attention to the middle of each card, where the full-color image of the player awaits, accompanied by a white box with the player’s last name in capital black type.
In the middle of the bottom wood border is a gold handle labeled simply “Color TV.”
And that’s it.
No first name, no team name, no position, no big head with a figurine action shot in the corner.
Bowman’s future hinged, it seems, on how well Little Leaguers liked to pretend that they were watching tiny television versions of (some of) their favorite players posing in front of light towers at Shibe Field.
Also laid out in a horizontal fashion, at least 1955 Bowman card backs offer a bit more variety and insight.
The upper left-hand corner features the card number inside a baseball glove and sits atop a black banner that stretches to the right to show the player name, position, and team. The upper right-hand corner is devoted to vital stats, and one-year and career statistics are presented in an orange rectangle tilted into the lower right-hand corner.
The majority of the card back is covered in prose, ostensibly written by the player himself, that details some particular aspect of his career. On Ernie Banks’ card (#242), for instance, Mr. Cub pontificates on the wonders of Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts.
They Were Well-Respected Men About Town
As it turns out, that Banks card is one of the highlights of the set, which may not seem like backhanded praise until you consider who is NOT in the 1955 Bowman issue.
For starters, a year after losing their exclusive rights to Ted Williams, Bowman lost the Splendid Splinter entirely in 1955. The stumbling gum company also missed out on the rookie cards of Harmon Killebrew, Roberto Clemente, and Sandy Koufax, which left them at a particular disadvantage as the summer progressed since Topps managed to include all three in their colorful set.
On the other hand, Bowman outdid their rivals by logging the only mainstream 1955 cards of Roy Campanella, Whitey Ford, Pee Wee Reese and, most significantly, Mickey Mantle. In higher grades, the Mantle card has been on the rise. Graded NM/MT ‘8’ examples have been consistently over $3,000 since last summer. 7’s were under $1,000 until the spring of 2014. Fortunately, you can still buy a fairly attractive example for under $500.
Bowman also scooped Topps by producing the only rookie card of New York Yankees legend Elston Howard (#68), an issue that sells for under $50 in decent raw shape but can approach $200 in slabbed NM-MT condition.
The real coup for Bowman, though, was a run of cards scattered throughout the high-number series (#225-320) that features some very special Hall of Famers. After all, what kid wouldn’t have been thrilled to pull an Al Barlick or Cal Hubbard umpire card rather than yet another pesky Teddy Ballgame?
Today, the umpire cards actually are fairly popular, and, since they’re part of the tough last series, can command some decent prices. The Barlick card (#265), for example, sells for more than $200 when graded at NM-MT.
A Chip Off the Old (TV) Block
Those lofty prices for the men in blue are due, at least in part, to condition problems that plague the entire 1955 Bowman set.
As collectors would come to find out in 1962 and again in 1971 … and yet again in 1985 thanks to Donruss … colored borders tend to show every little bit of wear that a rough-and-tumble boy can dish out. As a consequence, the baseball card landscape is littered with thousands of 1955 Bowman television sets missing a bit of cabinet here or a nick on the corner there. The photo paper that makes up the front of the cards also seems to be less than thrilled to be attached to dingy cardboard backs, as many of the pasteboards exhibit a “flaking” separation of the two sides, or wrinkled obverses.
Even if there were NO problems with chipping or crinkling images, the 1955 Bowman set would still be a conditioning nightmare. Purported to measure 2-1/2″ by 3-3/4”, the cards are all over the place when it comes to their actual length, and viewing a stack of ’55 Bowmans from the side is liable to make you run for the nearest doorway, so seismographic is their jaggednes.
Collectors noticed the size disparities right away since the situation made piling the cards into neat little rubber-band bundles somewhat cumbersome. In the intervening 60 years, Bowman’s inability to cut the cards consistently have left the set open to trimming by unscrupulous types and skepticism by those who are wary of the unscrupulous types.
The hacking woes didn’t stop with size fluctuations, though, as the 1955 Bowmans are notorious for poor centering. The woody brown borders make it tough to accurately eyeball centering, too, so collectors often get a surprise when sending the cards to be graded.
A surprise that greeted collectors as soon as the second series of 1955 Bowman cards hit store shelves was a marked change in the wood coloring as compared to first-series cards. In particular, while cards #1-64 are very light, with an oak or pine patina, the later series are several shades darker — walnut or cherry.
To complement that visual diversity, Bowman issued variations of five cards:
- Milt Bolling (#48) can be found with either Frank or Milt Bolling on the back.
- Similarly, Frank Bolling (#204) can be found with either Milt or Frank on the back.
- Harvey Kuenn (#132) was either “Kueen” or “Kuenn.”
- Ernie Johnson’s card (#157) showed either Don or Ernie Johnson.
- Erv Palica (#195) was either traded to Baltimore, or not.
In general, the error versions of these cards bring a bit more than the corrected.
All in all, though, with just 320 cards total and plenty available, the 1955 Bowman issue is a reasonable target for complete-set builders. Decent looking commons sell for just a few bucks, and even stars can be had for $20 or less if you’re not a stickler for top condition.
Complete sets come up for grabs on a fairly regular basis, and, though hardly any of them are in stellar condition, you can usually find one for $2,500 or less on eBay.
Dem (Card) Bums
By the fall of 1955, it was probably already too late to salvage the Bowman gum company. Topps had been nipping at their heels for years, and the Bowman baseball set had done little to win back a collapsing collector base. Even if it was a logical design — maybe even the one YOU would have chosen — the wood-grained TV probably would not have been enough to overcome the inertia of lost player contracts and an innovative young competitor, regardless of other circumstances.
If there was ever any doubt, though, the 1955 World Series surely sent Bowman employees scurrying for the exits.
After five Fall Classic match-ups with the New York Yankees, and after five soul-crushing defeats, the Brooklyn Dodgers finally toppled their uptown rivals to take the Series, four games to three.
Brooklyn … home of the 1955 World Champion Dodgers.
Brooklyn … home of Topps Chewing Gum in 1955.
Scoff at the idea of “baseball gods” if you will, but Bowman never stood a chance.
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