By John McMurray
Because of its distinguishing horizontal design showing players as if they were appearing on a large, brown-bordered color television set, the 1955 Bowman baseball cards are among the most recognizable ever made. Apparently inspired in part by the 1950 Drakes baseball cards, which also employed a television-set presentation, the ’55 Bowman baseball cards represented an obvious departure from the understated styles which both Topps and Bowman generally used throughout the 1950s.
With many images of catchers about to field a pop up, Stan Lopata (No. 18) being a good representative example, and pitchers from the waist up about to begin their windups, such as No. 152 Johnny Klippstein, the 1955 Bowman cards are sometimes remembered for their consistently similar player poses, ostensibly all from photographs taken at Shibe Park in Philadelphia.
More distinctively, 31 umpire cards make up the only such subset of the period. Add to it Ralph Kiner’s only card in a Cleveland Indians uniform (No. 197), the only mainstream Mickey Mantle card produced in 1955 (No. 202) and Chicago Cubs outfielder Gene Baker appearing on a card with a giant Band-Aid on his forehead (No. 7), and it makes for a memorable card set.
A few error cards have attracted collector attention: Most notably, Milt Bolling’s card (No. 48) exists with Frank Bolling’s card back (No. 204), and vice-versa. Harvey Kuenn’s name was misspelled “Kueen” on both the front and back of card No. 132, and Ernie Johnson’s card (No. 157) erroneously pictured Don Johnson. All of these errors were later corrected by Bowman, resulting in somewhat higher prices for the error versions. An additional variation is that Erv Palica’s card (No. 195) was updated by Bowman to include a line that he had been traded to Baltimore.
Several other players in the set have incorrect birthdates on their respective card backs (for example, Hoyt Wilhelm No. 1 and Minnie Minoso No. 25, among others), but these errors do not command a higher price since they were never corrected.
Interestingly, the first 64 cards of the 1955 Bowman baseball set have light brown wood-grain television borders, while the rest of the 320-card set has dark brown television borders. The shading of the card backs also varies between the three series. While no price premium is attached to a particular shade of borders or backs, the high-number cards in the set (Nos. 225-320) are more expensive, typically commanding at least double the price of the low-number cards.
The 1955 Bowman set, the last baseball card set the company released, surely has some of the most easily recalled images of the 1950s: Roy Campanella’s portrait (No. 22), Al Kaline’s batting pose (No. 23), Hank Aaron shown bending over while looking toward the sky (No. 179) and Ernie Banks’ follow-through of a swing (No. 242, a high number) have become some of the memorable cards of the decade.
Still, the ’55 Bowman set cannot compete with the rookies included in the 1955 Topps set, where first-year cards of Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew and Sandy Koufax are highlights. The most prominent rookie card in the ’55 Bowman set is that of Elston Howard (No. 68), which is relatively inexpensive.
Only seven Hall of Fame players appear in both the 1955 Bowman and 1955 Topps sets (Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Phil Rizzuto and Willie Mays). While contractual commitments allowed Bowman exclusively to include cards of Bob Feller and Whitey Ford in 1955, Topps trumped Bowman by having the rights to produce the only card issued that year of Ted Williams. Jackie Robinson, Warren Spahn and Duke Snider also appear only in that year’s Topps set. (Stan Musial was not in either set in 1955, as he did not agree on a contract to appear on a Bowman baseball card in either 1954 or 1955 or on any Topps card prior to 1958.) It quickly became obvious that the Bowman set did not contain the same caliber of star players that the ’55 Topps set did.
The result is that the 1955 Bowman baseball set inspires strong reactions.
“I would say the majority of people who collect sets from that era do not like it,” said Steve Brandenburg, a full-time card dealer since 1990 who lives in Maryland runs and has an eBay store under the name csacards3. “If collectors mention the set they hate from the ’50s the most, the 1955 Bowman set is the one that’s mentioned probably 80-85 percent of the time. But then, on the other hand, the people who kind of like it, really like it. It is just one of those sets that collectors either love or hate. There is no in between.”
Issues with the card design and player selection
“I believe that the design of the Bowman set was sort of a gimmick,” said Lee Blair, a dealer from Martinsburg, W.Va., who owns Stonebridge Vintage and has an eBay store at shannonly_99. “TV sets were new and popular at the time, but in order to stand the test of time, sets need star players, rookies, beautiful color and design. These categories were all won by Topps in 1955.”
Blair also cited “the lack of inclusion of top rookies in the Bowman set” as a major reason why collectors are not as bullish on the ’55 Bowmans.
“The Bowman set has no Koufax, Clemente, Killebrew, etc.,” said Blair. “Usually the popularity of a set is based upon established stars being included, as well as rookies of Hall of Fame players. The Topps issue also has rookies of other popular players, such as Ken Boyer and Harry Agganis.”
The appeal of the 1955 Bowman set may also be diminished since some collectors do not like the umpire cards.
“A lot of people who collected the ’55 Bowman cards when they came out say to me, ‘When I used to get a pack of cards when I was a kid and found umpires in it, I threw the umpires away. I never bought those cards again.’ I hear that a lot,” said Brandenburg.
“The 1955 Bowman baseball cards are not centered very well,” said Kevin Savage, the owner of Kevin Savage Cards in Maumee, Ohio. “A lot of collecting purists want cards which are centered on the back, too, or at least not miscut on the back. When Bowman produced the uncut sheets for this set, it didn’t seem like they matched the fronts to the backs very well. So you wind up getting a lot of cards that are decently centered on the front, and then you flip them over, and they’re cut to the edge of the back. So that drives some people crazy.”
Blair, too, has been frustrated by the poor centering on the 1955 Bowman cards from front to back.
“If you look at a ’55 Bowman card, it could be centered 55-45 on the front, and then you turn it over, and it could be 90-10 on the back,” said Blair. “A lot of times, you send cards like that to PSA, and they will come back graded ‘8’ O/C (off-center). The front may be beautiful, but the back will be the reason for the off-center designation, and that’s really tough. If the O/C is on the back, I think it is more appealing to collectors, obviously, than if it were on the front. But for people maybe building a registry set, that’s just not going to work. The centering problems are a never-ending challenge in this set.”
Inconsistently sized cards
While the 1955 Bowman baseball cards are each supposed to be 2-1/2 by 3-3/4 inches, the actual side-to-side length of the cards can vary significantly because of inconsistent cutting of the cards when they were produced.
“The bad cutting of the ’55 Bowman cards is beyond belief,” said Brandenburg. “I’ve actually bought several boxes of them. One I bought in Frederick, Md., 10 or 12 years ago. The guy I bought them from actually found the cards unopened. He opened them up on a Friday night, came in and sold me the cards on a Saturday morning. If you lined those ’55 Bowmans up, I don’t think there were two cards in the whole box that were the same size. You could see it. I mean, you could find a nice ’55 Bowman baseball set, take it out of the plastic sheets and put it in a box, and it will look like a picket fence. The cutting of those cards is horrible.”
Savage concurred, adding: “If you’re into centering, this set will drive you crazy. The ’55 Bowman cards come in all different sizes. However Bowman went about cutting them, you end up with cards that are dramatically shorter or bigger than the normal size, as much as a quarter-inch variance. I have bought tons and tons of shoebox collections of ’55 Bowmans where I know that people didn’t do anything to alter the cards, but these cards are all over the place size-wise, probably more than any major set from the ’50s and ’60s.
“You know, I don’t think they cared back then,” continued Savage. “They were trying to sell gum, and I don’t think that Bowman had meetings where they said, ‘Hey, you know, we’ve got to get the cards all the same size.’ I don’t think having a completely uniform size was particularly important to them. In general, for most sets, there is very little variation in card size. Card producers generally had a system where the cards were cut pretty much to the same specs. But the ’55 Bowmans, for whatever reason, are crazily different, in terms of how long they are. They’re always the same width, I think, but length-wise, they’re all over the place.”
Lack of variation in the set and limited statistics
While some card sets of the 1950s and ’60s include a variety of unique “special” cards, ranging from league leader cards to cards pairing star players from opposing teams, the 1955 Bowman set does not. Other than the umpire cards, some select manager and coach cards, and card No. 139 showing Bobby and Billy Shantz together, every other card in the ’55 Bowman set is an individual player card – and typically a posed shot, which can limit the set’s appeal.
“The ’55 Bowman set is basically just a straight player run,” said Brandenburg. “Also, the backs have very limited stats. There are only a few sets that are like that.”
Savage echoed that sentiment, saying, “If you go through most sets that collectors really like – maybe more in the ’60s – different parts of the set have different looks to them. In other words, the high-number All-Stars look a lot different than the regular cards, the World Series cards look different, the team cards look different. In general, including those kinds of special cards creates a nice mix in a set. But when you look at the ’55 Bowman set, except for the umpires, the cards all look exactly the same. You don’t have the same variety there.”
Brandenburg feels that Bowman’s limited use of statistics on the 1955 card backs hinders the appeal of the set.
“I thought using limited statistics was a negative against Bowman for their entire history,” said Brandenburg. “By 1957, Topps, all of a sudden, had all of the stats on the card backs. And I think including statistics matters, because many of the issues where Topps didn’t put all of the stats on the backs, to this day, they are some of the not-as-popular issues. And that applies to the Bowman cards as far as I’m concerned.”
At the same time, as Larrie Dean, owner of Dean’s House of Cards in Midlothian, Va., suggests, even if the ’55 Bowman backs are not particularly heavy on statistics, it might not matter much to collectors.
“Comparatively, the backs of the ’55 Bowman cards are very sterile,” said Dean. “Some of them are funny. At the same time, I know some collectors who don’t even care if there are gum stains on the back of the cards. Those collectors truly are focused on the front of each card. I don’t think most people take time to read the backs. I don’t think they even take time to even read the statistics. So it may not matter much.”
Colored borders make top condition a rarity
Since the colored borders of the 1955 Bowman cards can easily show slight damage, they can be hard to find in Near Mint condition, thereby frustrating collectors.
“One of the problems with the ’55 Bowman set, like the ’62 Topps and like the ’71 Topps sets, the edges are hard to find in great condition,” said Dean, who has collected cards for 63 years and been a card dealer since 1963 when he first sold cards at an antique show. “So that clearly is one of the things that makes the ’55 Bowman set a more difficult one to complete in a high grade.”
According to Savage, it is also challenging to find high-quality graded 1955 Bowman cards.
“From time to time, we get 1955 Bowman cards which are graded ‘8,’ ” said Savage. “But you can often find what look like really nice cards from that set send them in and not get that many ‘8s’. They tend to chip really easily, and they tend to show wear.
“I’m pretty old school, so most of my business is ungraded cards,” Savage said. “But we do have customers who only collect graded cards. So if I get really, really sharp cards, a lot of times, I’ll have them graded, just because I have customers that want them that way. They will buy a ’55 Bowman Feller if I have it in an ‘8,’ but if it’s a ‘6,’ they don’t really want it.”
The 1955 Topps set was – and is – more popular
Since the 1955 Topps baseball set includes more star players, has better production quality, a more attractive-looking card design and a stronger group of rookies, that set remains more sought after than does the ’55 Bowman set, according to Savage.
“I would say, generally, that’s the case,” Savage said. “I mean, there are some positives with the ’55 Bowman set: There are more cards in the Bowman set than in the Topps set (320 in Bowman vs. 206 in Topps, not counting four Topps cards that year which were not produced), and you do have the umpires. There are some things that are pretty cool about the Bowman set, including that it has a Mickey Mantle card. But, on the other hand, I think most people would say that the ’55 Topps cards are more colorful and more attractive. You can kind of tell by how well they sell. I would say, in general, ’55 Topps cards sell better.”
Positives: Distinctive design and exclusivity
“The Bowman set features the TVs, and TVs, at that time, were largely new and huge,” said Blair. “And they even had to write the words ‘Color TV’ to make sure collectors knew what they were looking at. I think Bowman was really, really trying to capture the newness of this to America, which gives this set a real sense of novelty.
“The big advantage that the 1955 Bowman set has over the Topps set is that – and maybe one of the only advantages, truthfully – it has a Mantle card,” said Blair. “And the Topps set does not. When kids collected in 1955, there were no checklists at that time.
You could buy as many Topps packs as you wanted, and you were never going to find a Mantle. In ’55 Bowman, you would.
“Also, I think that the ’55 Bowman Willie Mays card is one of his best cards,” Blair continued. “The photography is great on that card. I think it’s a lot better than the Mays cards in the ’54, ’55 and ’56 Topps sets, which basically all have the same headshot.”
Since the Bowman set contained 114 more cards than did that year’s Topps set, collectors could find the only 1955 cards of many lesser-known players in the Bowman issue. Moreover, certain cards in the 1955 Bowman set have left a lasting impression with collectors.
“I think the Banks is a cool card in the set,” said Blair. “And I have to say, I really like the Kaline card.”
A simple but important reason why collectors remain avid collectors of the ’55 Bowman baseball cards is that they remember them from childhood.
“If you talk to enough collectors, they like different sets for a lot of different reasons,” said Savage. “I’ve known people who say that the ’55 Bowman set is their favorite set. And generally, that is because that was the first year these collectors collected cards, and those are the cards they bought. They were the ones that were at their store, and that’s the first set they ever built. Maybe they didn’t finish the set, but they worked on it. So there’s some nostalgic memories there.
“I do think that ’55 Topps, in general, is the more popular of the two, but 1955 Bowman is a neat set,” Savage continued. “I like it. If you were to ask which set more people like, I would definitely pick ’55 Topps. Even so, we sell all of them, and there is definitely continued interest in the ’55 Bowmans.”
Dean also has found that collectors maintain a strong interest in the ’55 Bowman cards.
“The ‘TV set,’ as it’s popularly known, seems to be sought after by quite a few of my customers,” said Dean. “Now, obviously, the Topps ’55 has the rookies, so rookie collectors go for that. For the commons and for people who are just trying to complete set, I have as many or more working on the Bowman set.”
The variety of the card backs
While the ’55 Bowman backs list only basic statistics, each card back does include substantial text, often a first-person account by a particular describing “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” “My Favorite Baseball Memories,” “My Advice to Youngsters,” “The Greatest Fielding Play I’ve Ever Seen,” “The Best Pitcher I’ve Ever Seen,” “The Most Important Part of Baseball,” “The Most Exciting Game In Which I’ve Played” or “The Funniest Incident in a Game.” The rest offer a general summary of that player’s career. The result is that the backs of the Bowman cards are frequently more entertaining and edifying that those from that year’s Topps set.
Fans, for instance, learned that the best fielding play that Gus Keriazakos (No. 15) ever saw was made by Larry Doby [“… As (Doby) reached the fence, he leaped, still at top speed, caught the ball as he landed on the fence, mostly on the home run side. After the catch, he lay balanced on the top of the fence, rolled over, fell to the ground in fair territory.”] Alternatively, Matt Batts (No. 161) recalled a memorable fielding mishap he witnessed (“The funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a ball game happened when Billy Goodman hit a ball to Eddie Joost at short. The ball rolled up Joost’s sleeve and lodged in his shirt.”)
Mickey Vernon (No. 46) cited his home run to beat the New York Yankees on Opening Day in 1954 as his biggest career thrill, noting that “after I circled the bases, the President of the United States had me come to his box so that he could shake my hand and congratulate me.” Al Aber (No. 24), however, apparently felt constrained by his card’s limited space, saying: “By far the most exciting game I’ve participated in was a 16-inning game this past season, in which I lost to the White Sox and Jack Harshman by a score of 1-0. As you can imagine, in 16 innings, many things happened, so I won’t go into details. I’ll leave it right there …but I’ll never forget the game.”
The ’55 Bowman backs are filled with career highlights (like Lee Walls No. 82: “My biggest thrill was getting a triple off of Robin Roberts when I was only 17 years old.”); helpful comments (as from Vern Stephens No. 109: “Teamwork is the most important part of baseball.”); descriptions of player attributes (for Carl Furillo No. 169: “Carl, possessor of one of baseball’s best throwing arms is also a feared man with a bat.”); and suggestions for young players (from Rip Repulski No. 205: “My advice is never give up. Things really get rough in baseball when you start out.”)
Although the quality of the text on the 1955 Bowman card backs can vary significantly, together these cards make for some interesting and fun reading for those who take the time to examine them.
High numbers represent a challenge
“I find that the high numbers do sell better than the lower-numbered 1955 Bowman cards,” said Savage. “Don’t get me wrong – they’re not as scarce as the 1952 Topps high numbers or anything. But if people have a list of ’55 Bowmans and they’re working on a set, they usually need quite a few of the high numbers, in that last series. And, other than that, the star cards always sell the best. So, if I can, I always try to get nice ’55 Bowman cards of the Mickey Mantle, Mays and Aaron, along with Campanella, Kaline and Feller.”
Dean confirms that, while no individual high-number card from the 1955 Bowman set appears to be harder to locate than the others, the high-number cards in general are not easy to find:
“I have less than 1,100 1955 Bowman cards in stock right now,” said Dean. “And of that group, I’m sure that not more than 10 percent of those cards – and probably not more than five percent of them – are the high numbers.”
The challenge of finding, and the novelty of collecting, the umpire cards
“The umpire cards are fun,” said Dean. “They’re different. I have a lot of requests for the umpire cards, and the reason is, obviously, that they’re difficult to find. The umpire cards are a challenge to locate – just like the high numbers are for any of the Topps series – and collectors like to go for them.”
“One of the advantages of the 1955 Bowman set,” said Brandenburg, “is that most of the Hall of Fame umpires are included. Bowman kind of caught the older umpires before they had retired from baseball, and they included some of the younger umpires that eventually made to the Hall of Fame. So Hall of Fame collectors can actually have a card that came out during someone’s umpiring career, rather than, like, a Hall of Fame plaque card from Cooperstown or anything like that. So that’s always one of the advantages of the ’55 Bowman set.”
Brandenburg believes that one reason why the umpire cards remain in such demand is that children in the 1950s did not want them when they first were issued.
“The common umpire cards, I believe, are priced higher than they otherwise would have been today because kids in the 1950s saw the umpire cards and threw them in the garbage can,” said Brandenburg. “In that way, they are kind of like the league president cards in the 1959 Topps set – priced high today because no one wanted them at the time.”
The 1955 Bowman baseball set, for all of its plusses and minuses, set the stage for some card issues to follow. By being the first major card set with colored borders, ’55 Bowman surely provided at least some inspiration for the brown-bordered 1962 Topps baseball set. There can also be little doubt that the popular 1966 Topps football card set was modeled on the 1955 Bowman style.
Today, the beauty of the 1955 Bowman cards remain in the eye of the beholder. Yet with ’55 Bowman cards generally being less expensive than Topps cards from that year, there seems to be plenty of potential for upward growth with the Bowman set, especially considering that top-condition 1955 Bowman cards are becoming increasingly difficult to find. The 1955 Bowman baseball card set is well-known and easily recognized, but it also remains underrated.
John McMurray writes a monthly column for SCD focused on vintage cards. He can be reached at email@example.com.