By James Mercer
Much has been written of the baseball card wars waged between Topps and Bowman in the early 1950s. Technically, they lasted only five years, from 1951 to 1955, ending with Topps buying out Bowman in early 1956.
During four of those years, the battles were one-sided, with one company being a clear victor. In 1951, it was Bowman, whose one set clearly eclipsed all five (yes, five) sets produced by Topps. Bowman also prevailed in 1955, when its famous “Television Set” bested Topps in visual appeal, the number of stars in the set, and the sheer size of the set (320 cards, albeit including 31 umpires, to a mere 206 for Topps).
On the other hand, Topps clearly bested Bowman in 1952 with its attractive and historic set, still one of the most popular sets of the post-war era. Topps also dominated Bowman in 1954, when its eye-catching cards (including rookies Hank Aaron, Al Kaline and Ernie Banks) showed up Bowman’s set, best described as mediocre and boring.
Both sides brought out their big guns in 1953. They vied strenuously for the exclusive signing rights of players. Furthermore, they competed in making their cards desirable to young collectors. The 1953 Topps set is consistently rated as very popular with collectors. Its artwork is superb, with beautiful hand-drawn player portraits and realistic stadium scenes. Despite its best efforts, Topps had the misfortune of running up against the most beautiful set ever produced by Bowman (or anyone else).
As stated in “The Complete Book of Collectible Baseball Cards,” the 160 cards of the 1953 Bowman Color set “have virtually everything going for them. Gorgeous color photos, attractive backs, large size.” Bowman was even able to secure the recently retired Joe DiMaggio to appear on the set’s wrappers, telling kids that the cards inside are “The best cards I’ve seen this year.”
For only the second time in their six years of producing baseball cards, Bowman produced a second set in 1953. This was the considerably less popular 64-card Black and White (or B&W) set. Speculation continues today as to the reason for the two nearly identical sets. Some collectors theorize that they were intended to be a later series in the Color set but Bowman elected to save money by printing them in black and white. This is questionable, as no one today seems to remember the B&W set being released later in the season.
Others believe Bowman was unsure of which players it could sign to exclusive contracts and, thus, put all its big stars in an initial 160 card run and reserved its latter 64 cards for any lesser players for whose rights it could beat Topps. Whatever the reason, collectors ended up with a second Bowman set that served as a kind of kid brother or poor cousin to its classic Color set.
But there is no doubt that the 64 black and white cards are a separate set. Like 1949, when Bowman issued distinct sets for the major leagues and for the Pacific Coast League, the B&W cards have their own numbering system. The numbers run from 1 to 64, and not 161 to 224 as in a single set with the Colors. Furthermore, they have their own distinct wrapper, with the Yankee Clipper being replaced by a generic player and umpire. Bowman obviously intended to induce collectors to spend their pennies and nickels on both sets.
To be sure, the biggest difference in the latter set is its lack of color. How much of a drawback this is depends on individual taste. Before you disdain this absence, view Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterful black and white movie “Psycho” and then watch the far inferior color version made in 1998. Otherwise, the photos are just as large and beautiful as those in the Color set. There are no action shots, only posed pictures.
While Bowman itself was located in Philadelphia, its photographer under contract was based in Manhattan. It is usually reported that this resulted in all 1953 B&W Bowman card images being shot in either Yankee Stadium (for American League players) or the Polo Grounds (for members of the senior circuit). However, a small number seem to have been photographed at various spring training sites. Two of these are Walt Masterson (card #9) and Rocky Bridges (#32). Another is Pete Suder (#8), also significant for being the only horizontal card in the B&W set.
Having Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds serve as backdrops gives many of the cards a classic feel. For example, check out the spectacular backgrounds on the cards of Billy Hoeft (#18) and Bob Ramazotti (#41). Unfortunately, a number of cards lack this ambiance. Some have no background at all, such as Bucky Harris (#46), or merely a thin slice of sky and clouds, such as Morris Martin (#53). The shots are, similar to the Color set, free of any distractions or adornments, even the players’ names. They are also of an equally high quality. In a way, they are more representative of the era, when the game and its players appeared to fans the same way, that is, on the screens of their black and white televisions.
The backs of the cards are horizontal and identical to those of the Color set. The card’s number is in a baseball diamond in the upper left corner. The player’s personal information appears in a red box the width of the card’s margins at the top. A well-done write up takes up most of the card backs. Most consist of merely a straightforward account of the player’s stops in his professional career. Besides this, an occasional personal or oddball comment appears on some cards.
For example, Bill Nicholson (#14) “is nicknamed ‘Swish’ because of his habit of swishing the air with his bat before the pitch.” Wilmer Mizell (#23) “is nicknamed ‘Vinegar Bend’ after his hometown.” Rocky Bridges (#32) “is a fighting, old-fashioned personification of the typical ballplayer.” The most unusual entry in this (or probably any other) set is found on the card of Virgil Trucks (#17): “Virgil won only five games for the Detroit Tigers in 1952, while losing 19, but the first and last of his five wins were no-hit ball games.”
Today’s collectors might be surprised at the number of men who served in the military during World War II or the Korean War. For example, Pat Mullin (#4) has been with the Tigers since 1940 “with exception [sic] of four seasons spent in service.” Walt Masterson (#9) played with Washington “except for three years in service.” And Johnny Wyrostek (#35) was “carried on the Cards’ roster during his two years in service.”
The bottom of each card’s back carries three lines of statistics. For the first time in its six years of producing baseball cards, Bowman (probably borrowing from the Topps 1952 set) provided the player’s complete statistics, including fielding record for position players, for the past year and for his career. The third line, one never used again by any company, was blank and labeled “This Year.” Thus, collectors could write in how the player performed in 1953. The heads of Bowman evidently never envisioned their cards someday being worth serious money and their value being reduced by any extraneous handwriting. Fortunately for today’s collectors, few 1953 Bowman cards of either set are found with this line written in. Collectors evidently felt that this line could not and should not be completed until the end of the season, by which time they had forgotten baseball cards and moved on to collecting football cards, not to mention returning to school.
Overall, the backs of the 1953 Bowman B&W cards are just as attractive and classic as the fronts and enhance the set’s desirability.
For decades, the Bowman Black and Whites were considered to comprise 64 cards, all printed in about the same number. It was only in the last few years that a single variation was discovered, making the set complete at 65 cards. A sharp-eyed collector recently found that card #43 of Philadelphia Athletics third baseman Hal Bevan can be found in two versions, with a year of birth of either 1930 or 1950. Obviously, the 1930 date is correct. Neither version brings a premium price, although the erroneous 1950 version seems to be more plentiful.
There are two other interesting facts about Bevan. For one thing, his first Topps card does not appear until a full eight years later, when, as a thirty-year old catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, he was labeled a “1961 Rookie.” And, with his passing in 1968, he became the first of the 64 B&W players to die.
For those who follow such things, as of this writing there are but three of the 64 men still living and each is in his nineties. The most significant is probably Irv Noren (#45), who also had a three game professional basketball career (scoring one point) and who filled in for the injured Mickey Mantle in the historic 1955 World Series (batting .063). The others are Eddie Robinson (#20), who in his career played for seven of the eight original American League teams, missing only the Boston Red Sox, and who is the last living member of the 1948 Cleveland Indians World Series champions; and Howie Judson (#42), who somehow merited appearances in both the 1953 Topps and Bowman sets despite having a pitching record of 0-1 in 1952.
In contrast with the plethora of stars and superstars (Mantle, Berra, Ford, Campanella, Musial, etc.) in the Color set, the most notable card in the B&W set is Yankees HOF manager Casey Stengel (#39), shown on the steps of the dugout with a spectacular view of Yankee Stadium as the background. His is also the most desirable and valuable card of the 64, presently selling in the neighborhood of $200 in VG/E condition and three or four times that amount if Mint or Near Mint. There are but four other Hall of Famers in the B&W set. They are Johnny Mize (#15), Bob Lemon (#27), Hoyt Wilhelm (#28), and Bucky Harris (#46). All four presently go for about half of the Stengel card in excellent condition and in two figures in any lesser condition.
There are also a number of “minor” stars and prominent players in the B&W set. One of them is Johnny Sain (#25) of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” fame. Another is Jimmy Piersall (#36), author of the bestseller “Fear Strikes Out” concerning his bout with bipolar disorder, which caused him to miss the latter third of the 1952 season. Interestingly, his card cites his 56 game stint with the Red Sox and his short time in the minors, but does not mention the reason for the incomplete season.
Other noteworthy players included are future long-time manager Bill Rigney (#3); Lou Burdette (#51), MVP of the 1957 World Series; Jim Konstanty (#58), one of the first late-inning closers of the modern era; and Preacher Roe (#26), Ralph Branca (#52), Andy Pafko (#57), and Billy Cox (#60), all members of the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers of “Boys of Summer” fame.
Besides the erroneous date of birth for Hal Bevan, there are three uncorrected errors in the B&W set. Ebba St. Claire (#34) has his last name misspelled “St. Clair,” Casey Stengel’s year of birth is stated as 1891, instead of the true date of 1890, and Hoyt Wilhelm’s year of birth is, likewise, given as 1923 and not the correct 1922. This mistake is understandable, as he consistently gave the later date during his playing career. Wilhelm is also noteworthy as the last player in the set active in the major leagues, continuing to throw his knuckleball until 1972 when he was only days short of his 50th birthday.
The 1953 Bowman B&W set demonstrates the law of supply and demand better than any economics professor could. All sources state that B&W cards are in shorter supply than the ultra popular Colors. But authorities are equally unanimous in proclaiming them much less sought-after than the Color cards. All this results in prices that are roughly equivalent for both sets. B&W commons usually list for $20-$30 in excellent condition. Minor stars naturally bring a premium but all still go for much less than Stengel and the other four HOFers.
I had one interesting experience in this regard. About 10 years ago I was in a card shop that specialized in post-1970 cards but which had a handful of older cards. In the back of the case was a lone 1953 Bowman B&W of HOFer Johnny Mize which appeared to be in G/VG condition without a price sticker. When I asked for a price the dealer told me $120 and proceeded to tell me all about what a great career Mize had and all the World Series titles he won, as if this made the price reasonable. After recovering from the sticker (stickerless?) shock, I left without a comment. I was able to later purchase the card for a small fraction of that amount in a Kevin Savage auction.
For those seeking a more affordable alternative, both 1953 Bowman sets were reprinted in 1983 by Card Collectors Company (C.C.C.). These B&W reprints are readily available on the internet for a dollar or less each or $30-$40 for the entire set. Furthermore, there is no danger of confusing the sets, as the backs of the 1983 reproductions are printed on bright white cardboard and not the cream color of the originals.
It is understandable how today’s collectors, who have seen baseball in black and white only on the early installments of the Ken Burns PBS documentary, may be put off by the lack of color in the 1953 Bowman B&W set. However, those willing to overlook this one aesthetic feature and who are willing to spend the requisite time and money might just find a beautiful, interesting, and very collectible set just awaiting their appreciation.
James Mercer is a contributing writer to Sports Collectors Digest.