Bowman's 1950 football cards are a classic in many ways, offering snapshots of the still-developing professional game and the era's life and culture more than seven decades ago.
The set was produced at an important moment in pro football history — the first season of an expanded league resulting from a merger between the National Football League and the All-American Football Conference.
It was Bowman's second football series and among the earliest nationally distributed sets devoted solely to the sport. Bowman's first football set was a black-and-white series produced in 1948, the same year the company produced its first baseball cards under the brand.
The earliest football set had been produced by Mayo Cut Plug tobacco in 1894. Then came a long respite from the gridiron until National Chicle, a gum company, produced a set in 1935. The game remained in an evolutionary stage until 1948, when Bowman and Leaf produced football cards, the latter now known mostly because of its terrible color registration and tricky skip-numbering.
After producing its first football set, Bowman had taken a year off from the game, giving Leaf an open field, which ironically turned out to be its last. When Bowman re-entered the football field in 1950 the result was 144 full-color cards that featured:
• 34 rookie cards, many picturing former stars in the AAFC, which had never been the subject of trading cards.
• Four winners of the Heisman trophy, college football's highest individual honor.
• 23 future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (including the rookie cards of 10 of them).
• 38 future inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame.
• Three future members of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
• 41 cards that are the only ones of the pictured players.
• 11 cards of players with the Cleveland Browns, the former AAFC team that upset the Los Angeles Rams to win the 1950 pro football championship.
• 12 cards of the Philadelphia Eagles, league champion the two previous seasons.
The full set is almost identical in design to two other Bowman card sets that year — its 252-card baseball series and a 180-card Wild West non-sport offering. Fronts feature colorized photos framed by thin white borders. All the print is on the backs with the player's name and Bowman collectors club logo in red at the top, followed by the player’s position, pro team, age, hometown, height and weight.
Card numbers and copyright lines run across the bottom. In between is info like career highlights from their college and pro careers, offseason jobs and military service. The latter is significant since the nation was just five years from the end of World War II, in which many players served. And offseason jobs were then a must because pro football salaries were low in a still-developing league.
All the card backs are horizontal in design as are 47 of the fronts (there are 97 vertical fronts). Most price guides list five player poses — portrait, passing, running, pass catching and kicking. But there's a sixth — four cards picture centers in poses unique to that position.
The guides also identify two types of errors among the 144 cards. One is a misspelling of the name of Bob Nowaskey on card number 3, leaving out the “e” in the last name of the Colts' end-linebacker. Additionally, some cards lack the copyright lines, though they carry no premium.
However, there are at least two other error cards. One is on card number 30 of Redskins' end Hugh Taylor. It mentions that “once in 45 minutes playing time with Oklahoma City U. he caught 9 TD passes.” Even if the TD total is correct, Bowman erred on Taylor's three other cards in 1948, 1951 and 1953. They claim that the 9 touchdowns came during just 41 minutes of play instead of 45.
Another error is on card 55, which pictures tackle Buddy Tinsley. It identifies him as playing for the Steelers, though he never suited up for Pittsburgh. After graduating from Baylor, Tinsley played with the AAFC Los Angeles Dons in 1949, then jumped to Canada and spent a decade playing for Winnipeg.
There are 11 cards of players for all but one of the 13 teams in the expanded NFL. Only the Eagles have 12 players in the set. Why one extra? For one thing, the Eagles had won the NFL championship in the two previous seasons, beating the Rams in 1949 and the Cardinals in 1948. And, of course, Philadelphia just happened to be the home base of Bowman Gum, which produced the cards.
Another team that played a key role in the Bowman cards was Notre Dame University. The Irish were a dominant team in collegiate football in that era, winning four national championships in the forties (1943, 1946, 1947 and 1949) with legendary coach Frank Leahy. Johnny Lujack, who quarterbacked three of those teams and earned the Heisman Trophy as a senior, is one of 19 players in the Bowman set who played their college ball for Notre Dame. The 18 other Irish grads include Leon Hart, an end who also earned a Heisman, and Jim Martin, an All-American at both end and tackle.
One other star in the Bowman set has a Notre Dame connection — quarterback Sid Luckman, a T-formation pioneer. His college was Columbia, which, like most teams back then, ran a single-wing offense. But Luckman learned the T-formation as a pro with the Chicago Bears and helped several college teams learn the new offense, tutoring young quarterbacks, including some at Notre Dame. Other colleges strongly represented in the Bowman cards are Louisiana State with five players and Michigan and Georgia with four each.
Some players appeared on scores of other cards, led by several quarterbacks: the Giants' Y.A. Tittle (who is on more than 150); the Browns' Otto Graham (74 cards); and the Lions' Bobby Layne (66). Also high on the list are Browns' tackle/placekicker Lou Groza (59 cards) and Eagles' center/linebacker Chuck Bednarik (57).
A total of 30 players in the 1950 Bowman set had been in the company's first in 1948. Bowman even recropped and/or recycled five player photos. And 29 cards from the 1950 set were in Leaf's 1948 series and 16 in Leaf's 1949 set.
Complete sets of 1950 Bowman Football range from $1,500 to $9,000 on eBay but have topped five figures in recent auctions. A complete sold in July 2020 for $28,800 at Heritage Auctions, while another complete set went for $22,200 at Heritage in May.
Individual commons cards are listed at about $25 each, while one of the scarce 5-cent wrappers is valued in the $70 to $150 range. One of the few display boxes to surface on the secondary market sold for $774 at a Leland's auction in 2012.