By Dean Hanley
If you close your eyes and conjure up visions of the perfect baseball card, you can certainly be forgiven if a vision of the 1953 Bowman Color Baseball issue pops into your head. Most people consider the 160 cards of the 1953 Bowman set to be the most beautiful ever produced. The set was the first in which color photography was used on a baseball card. The color process was very expensive to produce and Bowman let nothing interfere with the incredible full-color picture photographs. The cards did not have player names, team names, positions or team logos – just great pictures. The result was the purest vintage set ever produced.
The photography used on the 1953 Bowman Baseball cards is stunning. Some great examples include cards: No. 9 Scooter Rizzuto bunting, No. 81 Country Slaughter leaning on his bats, No. 32 Stan the Man relaxing in the dugout, No. 59 the graceful swing of the Mick, No. 98 Gil Hodges stretching for a throw, No. 121 Yogi with his glove and mask and No. 62 the biceps of Big Klu. The 1953 Bowman set also had the first multi-player cards: No. 93 Martin and Rizzuto and No. 44 Berra, Bauer and Mantle.
Beauty born from competition
The Bowman Gum Co. had been producing baseball cards consistently since 1948. They felt that the market was secure from competition because of their contracts with the players. As a result, the Bowman issues evolved very slowly in design, content and size.
Bowman’s lazy evolution of its bubble gum card came to a sudden end in the spring of 1952, when the Topps Co. aggressively seized the opening and issued a competitive set of baseball cards. Bowman seemed caught completely by surprise and was shocked at how quickly the superior giant-sized 1952 Topps Baseball cards snatched the majority of the baseball card market share. For more details, please see my article in the August 13, 2010 issue of SCD.
Bowman was now forced to create a better card. The 1953 set was Bowman’s direct response to the 1952 Topps surprise attack, and Bowman spared no expense in answering its competition. The 1953 Bowman cards would be bigger and roughly match the size of the Topps cards. Bowman also decided to use color photography on a baseball card for the first time.
True appreciation of the 1953 Bowman set requires a triple take
The 1953 Bowman cards were a great leap ahead in the evolution of baseball cards and demonstrated the benefits to the consumer of a competitive marketplace. The cards were now large enough to allow some unique color photos never seen before on a baseball card.
When I sit down to write a commentary about a particular set for SCD, the first thing that I do is to take out a complete set from the DeansCards.com inventory and go through it card by card. One is quickly overwhelmed with the wonderful, bold color photos of the players of the 1953 Bowman color set.
Without names on the card fronts, it is sometimes tough to determine who the player is in the photo. The 1953 Bowman set forces you to concentrate on the player’s face more so than any other set. As you go through the set, you find yourself turning over most of the cards, in order to verify the identity of the player. I was shocked on how many guys that I identified incorrectly. Once looking at the back of the card, it is impossible not to take a peek at his 1952 statistics.
And on your second pass ...
With the bright, bold, colorful photos of the players, it is very easy to miss some of the real beauty of the 1953 Bowman baseball cards. To catch these subtle features, one needs to go through the set again.
On your second trip through the 1953 Bowman set, try not to look at the player’s faces. Concentrate strictly on the uniforms, gloves and gear. Another benefit of the pure photo design of the large 1953 Bowman cards gives us a great look at the game, as it appeared in the early 1950s.
The set gives the collector his first good look at the classic wool uniforms of the day. By July, these uniforms were as hot as Hades and ended up weighing close to 20 pounds when soaked with sweat. Fans of the day would see the players take batting practice bare-chested, especially in southernmost towns like Washington, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Particularly interesting is the design of No. 99 Warren Spahn’s Braves uniform. Don’t overlook the ornate trim on the collar and sleeves, the team name and tomahawk on his chest, and the Indian headdress on Spahn’s left shoulder. Also notice the outdated “B” on the traditional Braves hat. The “B” was replaced with an “M” in 1953, after the team moved to Milwaukee.
Card No. 44 gives us a good look at the gloves of Bauer and Mantle. It is easy to see why everyone used two hands to catch the ball. The fielders would leave their gloves on the field between innings, instead of bringing them into the dugout. Few old timers that I have spoken with can ever recall the gloves interfering with a batted ball.
Do not miss card No. 21 showing Joe Garagiola’s primitive catcher’s mitt, or No. 121 Yogi Berra’s mask with leather padding. Imagine having that sweat-soaked leather pressed to your face for nine innings.
And then you notice the shoes on cards No. 1 Davey Williams and No. 118 Billy Martin. Looking at those uncomfortable, antique spikes through the colorful photos of the 1953 Bowman Baseball cards, you can almost feel the pain on the bottoms of your feet. You have to love the leather belts and shin-high socks.
During this tour, you will see no batting helmets or batting gloves. Do not miss how small the bats look in the big hands of No. 46 Roy Campanella and No. 97 Eddie Mathews.
The bat is the only piece of equipment that appears similar to today’s game – but even that is deceiving. Today, wood bats are only used by professional players. Most of the young players of today have never swung a wood bat at a pitched ball! What a shame.
I love this set! It truly takes me back in time – but we are not done yet.
One last lap through the 1953 Bowman set
On the third trip through the 1953 set, focus strictly on the stadiums in the background. One warning: if “army green” makes you a bit queasy, you may want to sit down for this part of the 1953 Bowman tour. Why both the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium (and so many others) were painted with that ugly green paint is beyond my understanding. Maybe the paint was discounted WWII surplus and priced to sell, like the Army jeeps and searchlights of the day.
The photos were taken during the 1952 season, when color photography was extremely rare due to the expense of the process. The Philadelphia-based Bowman Co. had to act quickly to get all of the photos taken before the 1952 season ended, so they chose a New York-based photographer for the job. That is why almost all of the 1953 Bowman baseball cards were shot in the two classic stadiums that sat across Harlem River from each other.
It is fun to look at the cards of the National League players and piece together a panoramic view of the uniquely shaped Polo Grounds. No stadium this unique exists today. One can clearly see the distinct thick rim of above the Polo Grounds grandstand on cards No. 48 Hank Sauer or No. 65 Robin Roberts. Card No. 154 Turk Lown shows how center field went on forever and fades into the darkness. You can see the wooden bat rack of the Polo Grounds dugout pictured behind No. 10 Richie Ashburn and No. 32 Stan Musial. Unfortunately, this would be Musial’s last mainstream card until 1958.
The 1953 Bowman cards of the American League player cards give most of us a view of a Yankee Stadium that most of us are too young to remember. The awesome multi-player cards of the World Champion Yankees (cards No. 44 and No. 93) were shot in the corner of their home-field dugout.
Cards No. 8 Al Rosen and No. 25 Hoot Evers (among many others) clearly show the distinctive 15-foot frieze, often called the façade, that lined the roof above the grandstand of Yankee Stadium. Made of copper, just like the Statue of Liberty, time and weather gave the façade its green color.
In 1967, the façade was painted white. So were the outside walls of Yankee Stadium. The inside of the stadium was painted blue, giving it the look that most remember. The much-needed paint job was a definite improvement, but it is still fun to see “The House That Ruth Nuilt” in its 1950s décor.
A few of the veteran players have cards with photos that were not shot in New York. One of the more memorable cards in the 1953 Bowman set, No. 33 of Pee Wee Reese, is actually a painted over black-and-white photo, ie. a flexichrome. Cards No. 81 Enos Slaughter and No. 114 Bob Feller show the palm trees of spring training in the background.
1953 Bowman innovations
The 1953 Bowman Baseball Cards feature the first multi-player cards and the first real action shot – that aforementioned No. 33 Pee Wee Reese. Also unique about these cards is the fact that Bowman did repeatedly reuse these images in the following years, as was the case of many of the Topps cards of the 1950’s and to a lesser extent in the 1960’s.
The 1953 set was Bowman’s first issue to include player statistics on the backs of the cards. Bowman dropped the annoying advertising that they had used in previous issues and filled the card backs with information about the player. The card backs also had empty spaces below the player’s statistics so that the kids could write in the player’s statistics for 1953. Thank goodness that only a few of the kids took Bowman’s suggestion to deface the cards with handwritten numbers.
Debunking conventional sports cards hobby wisdom: a 1953 cold case mystery solved
For decades, hobby experts have been saying the following about the 1953 Bowman Color set:
Misconception No. 1: “1953 Bowman Nos. 113-160 were produced in lower quantities than the low-number cards of the set. Card NoS. 113-128 are extremely hard to find.”
To compensate for this perceived scarcity, most price guides have the common cards with Nos. 113 priced about twice as high as the first 112 cards in the set. My “number crunching” investigations do not support this conclusion.
Based upon my experience, the 1953 Bowman high-number cards have never seemed particularly rare to me. In fact, we just recently built a 1953 Bowman set to sell and posted a YouTube Video of it on our website for all to enjoy.
DeansCards.com builds dozens of sets from scratch every year. The four toughest vintage sets to build are: 1952, 1966 and 1967 Topps and 1955 Bowman. These sets are nearly impossible to build because we are always missing many of the high-number cards, which are found in much smaller quantities than the low-number cards of the same sets.
A snapshot of the DeansCards.com inventory confirms my suspicion that the 1953 Bowman high-number cards are not especially scarce – especially the cards numbered higher than 120.
l The DeansCards.com inventory has an average of 3.1 of each of the cards numbered 1 to 112.
l We have an average of 2.4 of each of the cards numbered 113 to 120.
l DeansCards.com has an average of 3.2 of each of the cards numbered 120 to 160.
My guess is that many years ago, someone decided the high-number cards were harder to find and worth more. Since both sellers and collectors consult the guides, they adjusted their price expectations accordingly and made the statement a fact. Today, these “high number” cards routinely sell for the stated premium, even though dealers do not seem to be flooded with 1953 Bowman low-number cards.
Misconception No. 2: Because of the high production costs, far fewer cards produced in 1953 than in other Bowman baseball card sets.
The DeansCards.com inventory of 1953 Bowman Color cards is very consistent with other Bowman baseball cards issues. What is true is that the1953 Bowman Color set is far more popular with collectors than the other Bowman sets and with no terribly scarce cards, the set is easy to complete. If completing just one Bowman set, most collectors would choose the one from 1953.
A very collectible set
Even though the 1953 Bowman Color Set has the most expensive common cards of any postwar vintage set, the set is still very collectible. With only 160 cards to buy and no real short prints, the 1953 Bowman set is affordable. The 1953 Bowman set has no superstar rookie cards to drive up the price. Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson are missing from the set, which keeps the complete set price lower than it would otherwise be.
Losing its color
In 1953, Bowman technically issued two separate baseball sets: one in color and one in black-and-white. The 1953 Bowman Black-and-White Set was an afterthought. Bowman misjudged both the sales and the expense of its 1953 color set. In response, the last 64 Bowman cards of 1953 were issued in the form of the 1953 Bowman Black-and-White Baseball card set.
As bad as the loss of color was, the Black-and-White set was also missing the big-name stars that were needed to make a set memorable. There are only five Hall-of-Famers in the 1953 Bowman Black-and-White set: Casey Stengel, Johnny Mize, Bob Lemon and Bucky Harris. Because of the lack of stars and color, the Black-and-White set is the far less popular of the two sets and was a very disappointing conclusion to the beautiful 1953 Bowman color set.
Fortunately for collectors, the cards are numbered 1-64 rather than continuing from the No. 160 that ended the Color issue. Ironically, the Black-and-White cards are on average harder to find than their splashy color counterparts, and generally are more expensive when you do come across them.
1953 Bowman – beautiful cards, but a sales flop
Most of today’s collectors would rate the 1953 Bowman Color Baseball card set above the 1953 Topps set, but the kids who voted with their nickels in 1953 clearly chose Topps. In 1953, I estimate that Topps sold three times as many baseball cards as Bowman. The DeansCards.com inventory shows that there are three times as many 1953 Topps cards in existence as 1953 Bowman cards. These results surprised me, as I (like most collectors) prefer the Bowman issue of 1953 to the Topps offering.
And there were some major shortcomings, too ...
First, kids who collect cards want every player from their favorite teams. The 1953 Topps set has 274 cards. There were only 160 cards in the 1953 Bowman Color set, with no more than 12 players from any one team. The lowly Pirates had just five players featured on 1953 Bowman Color cards. The Pirates may have stunk on the field, but kids in Pittsburgh still bought bubble gum.
Early in the 1953 baseball season, most kids were probably buying cards from both Topps and Bowman in order to get as many different payers as possible. As the season progressed, Topps kept coming out with fresh series of cards. The lower-than-expected sales of the Bowman Color cards failed to cover the high production costs of the color photography on the cards. After just two series, Bowman was forced to stop producing color cards and switched to the 1953 Bowman Black-and-White set as a lower-cost substitute.
Kids were not impressed with the ugly 1953 Black-and-White Bowman cards of mainly common players and quickly began giving all of their nickels to Topps. Topps clearly did a better overall job of marketing their product in 1953. By the summer of 1953, Topps owned the baseball card market.
Secondly, Topps secured exclusive contracts with two of the key National League players from the country’s biggest market: Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. If a collector wanted either of these guys on a 1953 card, Topps was the only option.
Finally, Topps’ “nickel packs” contained six cards and a stick of gum. The Bowman “nickel pack” also had the gum, but contained only five cards. Most importantly, Topps was able to keep its production costs under control and actually make money in 1953. (Ted Williams, who was flying jets in Korea, did not appear on either company’s card.)
As beautiful as the 1953 Bowman Baseball cards are to the eye, the set failed to meet Bowman’s primary objective: profit. Bowman did not sell enough cards in 1953 to cover the huge expense of the expensive color photography.
The great Bowman counter-attack of 1953 had failed. Bowman again lost both money and market share to Topps in their most profitable category for the second consecutive year. The failure of the 1953 set was a financial blow to Bowman from which they would never recover.
Topps continued to increase its dominant position in the sports cards market. Bowman would produce two more issues of baseball cards, before being bought out by Topps in early 1956, but neither of the 1954 or the 1955 Bowman set would match the beauty or charm of the 1953 baseball card set.
The giant-sized 1953 Bowman Baseball cards, featuring only the incredible full-color photography, remain a hobby classic. The two 1953 Bowman sets are the only major vintage postwar issues to feature this simple, streamlined design. Most hobbyists feel that the 1953 Bowman Color is the most beautiful vintage baseball card set ever produced. I concur.
– Dean Hanley
Owner of DeansCards.com