Monday, September 24, 2012

1955 Bowman – The T.V. Set

by +Dean Hanley
Black and White TV’s were starting to populate American homes, and television was quickly becoming another way for Americans to enjoy their national pastime. The first color television set appeared in the stores in 1954 and Bowman felt that it would be a fun and classy way to highlight their 1955 baseball card set.

Collectors of vintage cards know the 1955 Bowman baseball cards as the “T.V. Set”. The set itself consists of 320 cards, with the high number series (cards #225 - #320) as the most expensive.

The wood grain border being the distinctive mark of this set hides corner wear better than one would expect. Cards #1 to #64 feature a lighter blond-colored wood border and cards from #65 -#320 feature a darker-colored wood border. Inside the card’s border, the player's color photo is shown on the TV’s “screen”.

Set Features

The 1955 Bowman baseball cards were sold in one card penny packs or a six card pack that cost a nickel. Both, of course, included a stick of Blony bubble gum. The cards size remained at the standard 3 3/4" by 2 1/2" dimension Bowman had adopted in 1953. In comparison to Topps cards, Bowman’s cards are slightly thinner.

By 1955, Bowman had signed more players to exclusive contracts than Topps, yet Bowman still had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find enough images for 320 cards. The set contains cards for players who had very short, unremarkable careers, such as managers, coaches and even umpires. Many of the players would never have another card printed.

All of the player pictures were taken in Shibe Park in Philadelphia, the home of the Bowman Gum Company. Many of the player photos feature Shibe Park’s characteristic green wall in the background.

Card Backs

For one of the few times in a vintage card set, the backs of the 1955 Bowman cards are not standard. Many cards have the standard career highlights but some quote the featured player. "The Best Hitter I've Ever Seen," "My Favorite Baseball Story," "My Childhood Hero," "My Biggest Thrill in Baseball" and "My Advice to Youngsters".

Although I am all for creative and innovative ideas, not having the statistics on every player’s card is a bad one, witnessed by the fact that the idea was never repeated. Part of the fun of collecting cards is to flip it over and look at a player’s statistics.

Another problem is that most of the stories are fairly routine and somewhat boring, even to a baseball historian, like myself. The player’s advice usually is along the lines of "practice hard and be good", which are still popular clich├ęs used by today’s players. I guess it is unreasonable to expect advice on how to sneak out past curfew, which player they considered the biggest jerk or most over-rated, or what they really thought of their manager. Now that would have made for a great set of cards!

The stories often refer to a memorable event like the player’s first game or home run. One of the funniest stories is told by Virgil Trucks:

"It was my first year in the big leagues. I was pitching against the Boston Red Sox. The first hitter was Bobby Doerr. He doubled on the first pitch. The next hitter did the same, and the next one tripled, again on the first pitch. Ted Williams came to the plate. He hit the first pitch too, for a home run. Manager Del Baker came to the mound and asked Bob Swift, my catcher, 'Doesn't Virgil have it today?' Swift answered, 'How do I know? I haven't caught one yet!'"

The most unique story has to be that of Eddie Waitkus (#4), whose "greatest thrill" begins: "In 1949, I was shot by a deranged girl." I imagine that Waitkus's story, which was the basis for the movie "The Natural," confounded more than a few of the boy collectors of the day.

 In my opinion, the most interesting information contained on the 1955 Bowman card backs is finding who the players considered the toughest hitter or pitcher in the game. While there was no clear consensus as to who was considered the toughest pitcher to face in either league, Warren Spahn and Bob Feller were mentioned the most often.

The pitchers of the day were much more unified on whom they did not wish to see standing in the batter’s box holding a piece of lumber. Almost every pitcher named either Stan Musial or Ted Williams as the best hitter in his respective league. It is not a credit to the 1955 Bowman set that neither player has a card in the set for this year.

 Rookie Cards

One of the major negatives voiced about the Bowman sets issued during the Bubble Gum Card War is the lack of outstanding rookie cards, as compared to Topps. On the surface, the 1955 Bowman set seems to also be afflicted, especially with the 1955 Topps set featuring future Hall-of-Famers such as: Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew and Sandy Koufax. While it is true that all of these players had outstanding careers, they took a while to become great and none played in the All-Star Game until 1959.

The two biggest rookie cards in the set are #68 Elston Howard and #296 Elroy Bill Virdon, both of whom had good years in 1955.

The Men in Black

The umpire cards are the most difficult cards in the set to find. Not only were they issued in fewer numbers, as part of the high-number series, the umpires were understandably ignored by the kids who purchased baseball cards. Part of what makes the umpire cards so difficult to find is that they were often thrown away by kids looking for their baseball heroes. The umpire cards feature short biographies and included facts such as the national heritage of the umpires as well as personal hobbies, family and professional sports, or umpiring experience.

Curiously, the Bowman Company put the umpires in the last series, which historically competed with the football card sets that were being released at the same time. Kids who had already bought the previous two series full of players and had no interest in the coach and umpire-heavy last series. Topps was busy releasing the 1955 Topps All-American football card set and Bowman was releasing their 1955 football card set, so most kids spent their nickels on those sets instead.

The 1955 Bowman umpire cards represent a fun challenge to collectors and another example of baseball cards that went from unpopular to considerably valuable. Although baseball cards have had many innovations over the years, issuing umpires in the set has never been attempted again.


As much as I like the unique design of the 1955 Bowman baseball card set, it still falls a bit short when compared to the Topps issue for that same year. Although color televisions were a very big deal at the time, the concept did not translate that well to baseball cards.

The biggest flaw, with the front of the 1955 Bowman cards, is the same one that Bowman had the previous year. There is too much wasted canvas space. Most of the pictures of the players are standing upright, resulting in small pictures and a lot of empty background. The design of the 1955 Topps set did a much better job of filling the canvas and creating a more attractive product.

 Despite Bowman’s advantage in exclusive player contracts and Bowman’s many innovations on the design of the cards, Topps again produced a more attractive baseball card. For the fourth straight year, the kids choose the Topps product over the cards issued by Bowman and that is where they spent their money.

Although few realized it in 1955, the TV set would be the last baseball card set for the floundering Bowman Gum Company. The 1955 Bowman Baseball card set has since become a hobby classic with its unique design and charming quirks.

This article is taken from Dean’s book “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955”, which is now available for sale at 

Dean Hanley is an authority on vintage sports cards and has written numerous articles on the topic. Mr. Hanley is the founder, and with well-over one million vintage cards in inventory, is the largest seller of vintage cards on the web. Dean has also published “Before there was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Cards”, which is also available in eBook form at and has just released a T207 reprint set. For more information, please visit 

 If you are looking to sell your cards we would be happy to hear from you. Please fill out our sell your collection form here and we will be in touch.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

1955 Topps – Going Horizontal

 The 1955 Topps set is also printed on the large size cards that measure 3¾” by 2⅝”, but Topps kept their offering fresh by employing a horizontal layout on the front of their cards for the first time. While the 1952 Topps cards featured horizontal backs, Topps never attempted a horizontal front until 1955. Fortunately for Topps, they had learned so much about what card consumers wanted since 1951, that they had enough interesting material to fill the large canvas.

 As in 1954, the 1955 Topps baseball cards have two different pictures of the players on each card. A close-up portrait and an action shot set further away, which was an improvement on the idea formulated in 1954. Topps also incorporated a facsimile autograph as they did in their 1954 set. Topps continued the use of the Major League logos, which had become a unique signature of their sets. This was a concept that Bowman never adopted. The 1955 Topps can be distinguished by the panel at the bottom, which features the players’ name, position, and team.

 Losing the contract battle, but winning the war

The entire 1955 Topps baseball card set consists of only 206 cards. Although Bowman was losing the gum card war in terms of sales, they were actually winning the battle for exclusive contracts with the players. As a result, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Bob Feller are conspicuously absent from the 1955 Topps set.

By 1955, the battle lines in the Great Baseball Card Gum War were stabilizing and as a result only 41 players appeared in both the Topps and Bowman baseball card sets. Only 144 players appeared exclusively on the 1955 Topps cards, while a record 210 players appeared exclusively in the Bowman set. Topps had already printed cards for some players who signed with Bowman in the 1955 set, just as they (Topps) had done in 1953. As a result, four numbers from the 1955 Topps set were never issued: Cards numbered 175, 186, 203 and 209.

There are no major variations in the 1955 Topps set, making it somewhat easier to collect. However, 1955 Topps does include a high number series (#161-210) that is more expensive than the low number series. Duke Snider (#210) is particularly difficult to find; it was the very last card issued by Topps in 1955 and is known to have centering and condition issues.

 Topps again has better rookie cards

Another reason the 1955 Topps set is popular with today’s collectors is the three rookie cards of future Hall-of-Fame players that can be found in this set: Sandy Koufax (#123), Roberto Clemente (#164) and Harmon Killebrew (#124). Unlike the Topps Rookie Class of the previous year, the performance of these rookies would not be a factor in card sales in 1955. The reason was that none of these three players were considered any more than prospects with raw potential in 1955 and none would become stars for at least another four years.


Topps was on a roll. Just one year after they issued their first set of baseball cards with dual images, Topps built on their momentum and took their 1955 set to the next level by including not one, but two color player images on the card fronts.

Although Bowman still laid claim to the most famous player of the day, Mickey Mantle, Topps made up for his absence in its 1955 set by issuing a solid first series that included: Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, Al Kaline, and Ernie Banks. This dealt a heavy blow to the Bowman Gum Company. Topps issued their final series late in the summer, filling it with the likes of Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto.

The result was that collectors again preferred the exciting and attractive Topps cards over the Bowman issue, and Topps sold more cards for the fourth consecutive year. Although few collectors realized it at the time Bowman had lost money each of those years and their losses had reached a critical point.

This article is taken from Dean’s book “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955”, which is now available for sale at

 Dean Hanley is an authority on vintage sports cards and has written numerous articles on the topic. Mr. Hanley is the founder, and with well-over one million vintage cards in inventory, is the largest seller of vintage cards on the web. Dean has also published Before there was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Cards”, which is also available in eBook form at and has just released a T207 reprint set. For more information, please visit

 If you are looking to sell your cards we would be happy to hear from you. Please fill out our sell your collection form here and we will be in touch.

Monday, September 10, 2012

1953 Topps – Up Close and Personal

The 1953 Topps baseball card set is considered the most personal set of the 1950s. Everything, from the hand drawn sketches on the front, to the signature, biographical paragraph and thorough statistics on the back, demonstrates that Topps had hit their stride with the 1952 set and now was ready to push the envelope with the 1953 set. While these cards do not have the notoriety of their predecessor, they have their own special place in sports card history.

With the exciting success of the 1952 Topps set, Sy Berger and Topps wanted to refine what they had already done so well in 1952. Instead of colorizing black and white photographs as they did for the 1952 set, Topps went to the expense of paying artist Gerry Dvorak $25 per card to sketch and paint the players. Although the 1953 Topps baseball card set contains some attractive action shots, the set is primarily noted for its carefully drawn expressions, which are chronicled on the head shot cards.

 The major drawback of the 1952 Topps set was that many of the players depicted in it inaccurately look very similar, particularly in terms of hair and skin color. The 1953 Topps set rectifies this flaw, especially on the head shots.The color paintings of the player’s faces have warm, relaxed and friendly expressions and completely dominate the large cards. The 1953 Topps cards showcase more “flesh” than any other set ever made.

 In order to fully appreciate the beauty of the 1953 Topps baseball card set, one should take a complete set and go through it card-by-card. The players’ faces are so large and life-like, that the cards give the impression of standing right in front of the players at the ballpark. Rarely, even today, can we see so much detail in players’ faces. The 1953 Topps Archive (or reprint) set, with its wider white borders, smaller card-size, and shiny gloss, does not offer the same experience as one gets looking at an original 1953 Topps set.

 A perfect example of a detailed head shot is card #220, Satchel Paige. The Topps artist captures the forty-seven year old Negro League star perfectly. He looks like the wise, well-travelled pitcher that was playing for the St. Louis Browns in 1953. The only imperfection with the card however is that Topps misspelled his first name as “Satchell”, by adding an extra “L,” making it the only real error card in the set.

 Although the 1952 Topps cards did have stadium settings and natural backgrounds, there was little emphasis on making the background look as good as the players. However, that was not the case in 1953. When making this set, the Topps artists paid close attention to every detail on the cards, including the backgrounds. When looking at the 1953 set, you will see that many cards feature fully occupied stadiums with the colorful advertisements on the outfield walls behind the player.

The 1953 Topps set also features a number of innovations on the card backs, starting with the vertical orientation. The banner on the top with the card number, the player’s name, height and weight were similar to the 1952 cards; however this time they were enlarged to make them easier to read. The biographical paragraph was updated and features a facsimile signature over the black text in red ink. Topps kept its statistical information consistent with the previous year’s table but also included a “Dugout Quiz” on the back of each card.

Fewer cards than in 1952 

Due to the court ruling, the 1953 Topps Baseball Card Set significantly decreased in size, down to only 280 cards, from the previous year’s 407 cards. The 1953 Topps set was issued in four series: cards #1-85, #86-165, #166-220, and #221-280.

The competition for player contracts between Bowman and Topps would create a unique problem for Topps in 1953. Topps would begin to print a series of the set and then find out that they had failed to secure the contractual rights for a player whose card was about to be printed. There was no sense in wasting a valuable spot on the printing sheet, so Topps would either promote a player from the next series or “double print” one of the current cards in the series.

None of the series were actually fully completed, as five cards each from the first and second series were "bumped" back to later series. This action created what is known in the hobby today as chase cards. With no printed checklist available, set collectors of the day probably went crazy looking for the missing cards, only to have them appear in a wax pack of the next series of cards.

The five cards skipped in the 1953 first series were: #10 Smokey Burgess, #44 Ellis Kinder, #61 Early Wynn, #72 Fred Hutchinson and #81 Joe Black. The skipped cards of series two included: #94 William Kennedy, #107 Danny O’Connell, #131 Harry Byrd, and #156 Jim Rivera.

This makeshift practice continued up until the fourth and final series of the set, when Topps finally ran out of players under contract and was forced to leave a total of six holes in the set. Cards numbered 253, 261, 267, 268, 271, and 275 were never printed. These spaces in the printing sheet were again filled with plates of current cards in the series, thus adding even more “double printed” cards to the set. There were no checklists available in 1953. Set collectors had no idea that these cards were not forthcoming and most likely bought a couple dozen extra packs of cards before giving up on finding the six missing cards.

The fourth and last series in the 1953 Topps set was also distributed late, making those cards several times more expensive than the earlier series. Card #244, Willie Mays, is in the fourth series and unfortunately for collectors was not “double printed”. Therefore Willie Mays proves to be the most difficult card to find in the 1953 Topps set.

 Double-Print confusion

There were three “double printed” cards in the last series of the 1952 Topps sets and they made perfect sense. In all my life, I have never heard a collector complain about Topps printing too many Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson or Bobby Thomson cards in its 1952 set. While Thomson is not as popular today, in 1951 he hit the shot heard ‘round the world and was a hot property in 1952.

The major flaw of the 1953 Topps cards were the underwhelming “bush-leaguers,” who were printed in greater quantities and have a higher population of 1953 Topps cards. So unlike the 1952 double printed cards of stars, the cards chosen to be double printed in 1953 did not make logical sense in terms of the player’s popularity.

There were a few exceptions to this however. The few Hall-of-Fame player’s cards that were randomly double-printed in 1953 were #37 Eddie Mathews, #54 Bob Feller and #77 Johnny Mize. But most of the “DP’s” are of very forgettable players; starting at the beginning of the set.

We’re overwhelmed with the likes of double-printed no-names such as #7 Bob Borkowski, #8 Clem Koshorek, #12 Howie Judson, and #13 Connie Marrero. Next we get the likes of #15 the “awesome” Bobo Newsom, #16 the “immortal” Harry Lowery and #18 the “unforgettable” Ted Lepico. A cool exception to this of no name DP’s is #1 card in the set - the great Jackie Robinson.

I could continue on for several more paragraphs with more examples of players such as these, but it seems a crime to waste the ink. As a card collector and dealer, it’s very frustrating to have the inventory bloated with cards of these types of players, as I’m sure the kids felt the same way back in the day.

Knowledge Quiz: Just for fun, out of those last seven cards, Borkowski to Lepico, how many of these guys could you match to the team that they played for in 1953 without looking at their cards? If you could correctly name four or more teams, you’re “good”. If you can name six teams correctly, then you’re a vintage baseball card expert.

Knowing the care and attention that Sy Berger typically gave to these early sets, it makes me think that the double-printed cards were randomly chosen by the printer, who likely knew little to nothing about baseball. As a set builder, I consider these random “double prints” a missed opportunity for the 1953 Topps set. Just think of how collectible (and affordable) the 1953 Topps baseball card would be today, if the 40 double-printed cards were strategically selected and used on the stars of the set like: #76 Pee Wee Reese, #82 Mickey Mantle, #104 Yogi Berra, #114 Phil Rizzuto, #147 Warren Spahn, #220 Satchel Paige, and #244 Willie Mays.

 Demand Scarcity - A cold case discovery

The 1953 Topps set is a challenge for set builders 

Despite all the “double-printed” cards, the 1953 Topps baseball card set still ranks “moderately difficult” to build and complete. I rank the 1953 Topps set as the third-hardest Topps set of the 1950’s to build in low to mid-grade conditions, behind only the 1952 and 1957 sets. Building the 1953 set in “Excellent” condition or better is a real challenge and will require quite a bit of time and money. As the condition of the set increases, the difficulty level to complete the set increases exponentially. My dad’s comment on this set is that the cardboard did not wear well, and was inferior to other years.

The condition of most existing vintage complete sets will vary greatly. Many vintage sets were built decades ago when condition was not a major consideration. Some early post-war sets will have cards in it that vary in condition from “Near Mint/Mint” all the way down to “Poor.” In my opinion, having this wide of a range detracts from the eye appeal of the set. A set looks much nicer when all of the cards are as close as possible to being consistent in grade. While a card in “Near Mint” condition may add to the cost of the set, it also brings out the flaws of the mid-grade cards, detracting from the sets overall appeal and value.

Dean’s Cards builds and sells hundreds of vintage sets each year. When Dean’s Cards builds vintage sets, we try to build three to five at a time. We break down several existing sets and then assimilate the cards of like conditions. Our million card inventory allows us to supplement the sets with needed cards if necessary. tries to maintain a constant inventory of at least one set of each grade, for every year from 1953 to present. For sets from 1952 and older, it’s often not possible. For these years, we build sets upon request.

 When Dean’s Cards grades a post 1954 set “Excellent,” we are usually able to have at least 90% of the cards exactly meet that particular grade and the other 10% of the cards grading no higher or lower than one grade off. It’s not unusual for to have 10,000 to 20,000 cards listed online for just one Topps year. Of course, this standard is much tougher to implement for pre-1954 sets simply because we do not have as many cards from those years.

Jackie, Mickey and Willie

Another challenge to building a 1953 Topps set is that the value is so heavily influenced by three high-dollar star cards: #1 Jackie Robinson, #82 Mickey Mantle and #244 Willie Mays.The 1953 Topps “big three” represent about half of the set’s total value. The first card, Robinson is condition sensitive, Mays is a “high-number” and Mickey Mantle is a baseball card god whose cards are always in high demand.

 Finding the 1953 Topps “big three” in the same particular condition, at the same time and at a fair price, is usually a challenge. Once accomplished, you then have to locate the scarce high number cards.

 Condition Scarcity

 The 1953 Topps cards also have a red partial border on the bottom of the cards for the American League players and a black border on the bottom of the cards for National League players. These borders have been known to chip much easier than cards with white borders. This is another reason that it’s hard to find 1953 Topps cards in better conditions.

American League
A survey of the inventory confirms the condition scarcity of the 1953 Topps set. Of the 1689 cards from the 1953 Topps set that we have in stock, we have only one card that grades higher than Excellent/Mint! The inventory has 41 Ex/Mt cards (2%), 237 in EX (14%), 826 cards in VG (49%), 562 cards in Good (33%), and 11 cards in Fair or Poor condition. This means 83% of the 1953 Topps card population grade “Very Good” condition. No other post-war set suffers from this degree of condition scarcity. This is why putting together a 1953 Topps set in pristine condition is a costly challenge for hobbyists.

 Missing a few stars

Although stars like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were featured in the 1953 Topps set, Topps was still missing quite a few stars that had also been omitted from their 1952 set. Ted Williams and Stan Musial were noticeably absent from the 1953 Topps set. Williams would give into Topps the next year, an especially satisfying victory for Berger, who is a lifelong Red Sox fan. Musial, on the other hand, would not sign a contract with Topps until 1958

 The 1953 Topps Archives set was issued in 1991. Topps again omitted the numbers that were left out of the original set; however, this time they were legally able to include cards of Hall-of-Famers’ Hank Aaron, Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby, Leo Durocher, Gil Hodges, Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts, Duke Snider, Casey Stengel, and Ted Williams.

 The 1953 Topps rookie card of an over-looked closer

The one thing that keeps the 1953 Topps set semi-affordable is that it was the only Topps set produced before 1970 to not contain a rookie card of a future Hall-of-Fame player. However, this may someday change if the Veterans Committee ever decides to recognize Elroy Face. Along with Hoyt Wilhelm in the American League, Face was a true pioneer of closing out baseball games.

Starting in 1955, Face would be the premier National League relief pitcher for the next 14 years. Back when relievers were hardly ever invited to All-Star games, Face was selected to three consecutive All-Star games. Roy Face literally forced an invitation to the mid-summer classic in 1959. Please consider his first-half stats: Face appeared in 32 games, finishing 29 of them. He pitched 56 innings. His record at the all-star break was 12-0, with 9 saves (this was before anyone knew what a save was) and a 1.13 ERA. Face did cool off a bit, but finished 1959 with an 18-1 record (all in relief) to give him a win/loss percentage of .947, a single season record that has yet to be broken.

 A short side trip

 Looking at Face’s 1959 stats made me wonder, “How is an 18-1 win/loss record for a relief pitcher even possible?” After some research, I concluded that five things were needed: 1) several below average starting pitchers, 2) a great closer who can pitch multiple innings, 3) a couple of good starting pitchers who can throw complete games and not force the manager to burn up his closer to save too many games, 4) a mediocre hitting team that would not blow out their opponents, but could manufacturer a game-winning run when needed and 5) lots of luck. If the team’s hitting is too good, the closer would only be in position to save games. If the hitting is too bad, the team would never score the winning run. In 1959, the Pirates and little Elroy Face were the perfect combination.

The Pirate starting pitcher would often allow a few runs and be lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 7th or 8th inning. Face would then enter the game tied or a couple runs down, putting him in a position to win it. In 1959, Face’s “fork ball” was extra nasty and he would keep throwing it for as many as five innings, if necessary - until the Pirates finally scored a run. Because few modern closers pitch more than one inning per game, this is going to be a tough record to surpass.


 The 1953 Topps Baseball Card set was certain proof that Topps knew how to manufacture innovative and high-quality sports cards. Bowman had gone to great expense to produce their 1953 “Pure Color” Bowman Baseball Card Set in an effort to win back the market share that they lost to Topps in 1952. Not only had Topps survived the Bowman counter-attack, Topps once again sold more cards in 1953. The Topps Gum Company had proven that they were in the baseball card market to stay.

This article is taken from Dean’s book “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955”, which is now available for sale at

Dean Hanley is an authority on vintage sports cards and has written numerous articles on the topic. Mr. Hanley is the founder, and with well-over one million vintage cards in inventory, is the largest seller of vintage cards on the web. Dean has also published Before there was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Cards”, which is also available in eBook form at and has just released a T207 reprint set. For more information, please visit 

 If you are looking to sell your cards we would be happy to hear from you. Please fill out our sell your collection form here and we will be in touch.