A year before one of the biggest releases in baseball card history, the 1951 Bowman Baseball set ushered in a little history of its own. It just took us all a couple of decades to understand the importance of each.
The ’51 Bowman set featured cards slightly smaller than modern ones today at 2 1/16″ x 3 1/8″ but they were still bigger than the squarish cards that Bowman had been known for in 1948, ’49 and ’50.
Before the season was over, Bowman had produced 324 cards including the true rookie cards of two baseball icons worth thousands of dollars each today. It was the largest set the Philadelphia-based company produced during its 1948-55 run and offered a comprehensive portrayal of Major League Baseball at the time.
Every set is known for something, and the 1951 Bowman set is no different. In particular, the Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle rookie cards are what collectors think of, although there are a few more Hall of Fame rookie cards in the set. Whitey Ford, Monte Irvin and Nellie Fox all made their cardboard debuts, but theirs are greatly overshadowed by the two legends of the set.
Bowman produced two series with the first 252 cards readily available for $10 or so each per crease-free common. Cards #253-324 are roughly twice as expensive.
Coming out before his famous 1952 Topps card, the 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle rookie card (#253) is among the most highly sought after baseball cards in existence. It is his first Major League card and because of this, it is not cheap. While decent lower grade examples can still be acquired for $2000-$3,000 (a bit less if you’re OK with a very low-grade), cards graded EX/NM tend to float around the $5,000-$7,000 range. Those who want nothing but the best know that a PSA 9 Mantle rookie sold back in 2013 for $220,150. With only one PSA 10 in existence, one could only imagine how much it would go for.
The “Say Hey Kid”, Willie Mays, may have been the greatest center fielder to play the game, but his ’51 Bowman cards (#305) have nothing on Mantle in terms of value. Although Mays was arguably the better player, his rookie cards sell for roughly half of Mantle’s. An SGC 92 (8.5) sold last year for $22,730 but two PSA 8s sold in 2014, with one selling for $32,524 and the other for $33,593. Only eight PSA 9 Mays rookies exist. An EX/NM graded example (6) will run $2,000-$3,000.
An ace for the New York Yankees, Whitey Ford (#1) might not have as expensive of a rookie card as his teammate, but it is not exactly cheap either. Ford did not even play in 1951 or 1952 for that matter. He was serving his country in the Korean War. While he was fighting the spread of Communism, Bowman printed a rookie card of him that goes for around $750 in PSA 6. An 8 sold for $11,300 in 2013.
Originally a star in the Negro Leagues, Monte Irvin was among the first African-American players to integrate into Major League Baseball. Despite making his big league debut in 1949, his rookie card did not come out until 1951. Better late than never though, Irvin (#198) was able to get a few big league cards including this one which is actually quite affordable for a player of his caliber. For the most part, a solid copy of his ’51 Bowman can be had for under $100.
15-time All-Star, Nellie Fox is truly an underrated player. On the same boat as Irvin, Fox made his MLB debut in 1947, but did not get cardboard until 1951 (#232). You’ll spend $100-150 for a decent one.
Managerial cards were included as part of the set and the two most successful managers in the set were Giants manager Leo Durocher and Yankees manager Casey Stengel, neither of which is too expensive.
Other Hall of Famers in the set include Yogi Berra (#2), Robin Roberts (#3), Phil Rizzuto (#26), Bob Feller (#30), Roy Campanella (#31), Duke Snider (#32), George Kell (#46, with a minor print error), Johnny Mize (#50), Bob Lemon (#53), Enos Slaughter (#58), Pee Wee Reese (#80), Warren Spahn (#134), Larry Doby (#151), Ted Williams (#165), Richie Ashburn (#186), Frankie Frisch (#282), Bill Dickey (#290), and Al Lopez (#295).
Some notable names from the early 50s are missing from the 1951 Bowman set. Jackie Robinson, who appeared in 1949 and 1950, did not have a card in ’51, nor did Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio (who never did appear on a Bowman card and was in his last year with the Yankees) and Ralph Kiner.
Finding a complete 1951 Bowman set for sale might be the way to go. A high-grade set with both major rookies graded NM sold for over $22,000 last year, which doesn’t sound that bad when you look at the selling prices of the individual cards. Budget-minded collectors can often find a very nice mid-grade set for under $8,000. Considering the size of the set, that’s not bad.
You can see 1951 Bowman baseball on eBay here.