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 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.
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".
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 clichés 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!'"
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.
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
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 Amazon.com.
Dean Hanley is an authority on vintage sports cards and has written numerous articles on the topic. Mr. Hanley is the founder DeansCards.com, and with well-over one million vintage cards in inventory, DeansCards.com 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 Amazon.com and has just released a T207 reprint set. For more information, please visit www.DeansCards.com
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