Tuesday, October 2, 2012

1954 Bowman: A star-packed variation

by +Dean Hanley
The 1954 Bowman baseball card set has 224 total cards that are printed in two series: #1-128 and #129-224. Both series were printed in roughly the same numbers. Bowman employed some creativity in its numbering of the set. There is a sixteen card rotation, meaning that one team, in this case, the Yankees, would have card numbers 1, 17, 33, 49, etc, while the second team, the Red Sox, would have 2, 18, 34, 50, etc. This team rotation arrangement is not seen in any other vintage set.

Variations Galore

While nearly every baseball card set has a few variations, due to misprints and small errors the 1954 Bowman issue easily sets the record for post-war vintage sets. As for the printing mistakes in the 1954 Bowman baseball card set, a surprising 40 out of 224 total cards have some sort of variation.

The most prominent and valuable variation is the #66 Ted Williams card. Williams had been flying jets in Korea and returned to baseball for the 1954 season. Once home, Williams signed an exclusive contract with Topps. The Bowman Company, which had rushed to get its set out before Topps, had to withdraw the Williams card and replace it with Jimmy Piersall, who was already featured on card #210. Due to the extreme rarity and high cost of the #66 Williams card, the standard 1954 Bowman set is considered complete without the Williams card, when it contains both the #66 and #210 Jimmy Piersall cards.

Bowman’s hurry to get its set released before Topps resulted in many other variations in addition to the Williams/Piersall variation on card #66. Variation cards have differences in statistics, birthplaces, trades and even answers to the quiz questions on the back.

One example is the #12 Roy McMillan card. The first card that Bowman released for McMillan has the following stat line: 551 season ABs, 1290 lifetime ABs. The correct stat line should read 557 season ABs, 1290 lifetime ABs. Although this seems like a minute difference to the casual observer, Bowman had to correct similar mistakes 40 different times throughout the set.

Lots of established stars, but few star rookies

With Don Larsen being the only well-known rookie card in the set, Bowman clearly lost the annual battle of “set with the best rookie cards” to Topps. Although rookie cards are much more valued by today’s collectors, the 1954 Topps set featured Hall-of-Famers: Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, and Tommy Lasorda. It should be noted, that Lasorda made his name as a manager and added little star power to the Topps set in 1954.

Despite its lack of rookies, Bowman did a superior job of getting commitments of the baseball’s best players to appear on their cards. There were eleven Hall of Fame players that were exclusively in the Bowman set in 1954: Roy Campanella, Bob Feller, Nellie Fox, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Bob Lemon, Mickey Mantle, Pee Wee Reese, Robin Roberts, Red Schoendiest and Enos Slaughter. Comparatively, the 1954 Topps set only had 3 veteran players signed to exclusive contracts (not counting the rookies) that were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame: Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, and Jackie Robinson.

The loss of Ted Williams in 1954 was a shock to Bowman, despite clearly getting a larger number of the games’ stars to sign exclusive contracts. Some other stars that went exclusively with Bowman in 1954 were: Bobby Avila, Gus Bell, Lew Burdette, Sal Maglie, Smokey Burgess, Billy Cox, Al Dark, Del Ennis, Carl Erskine, Dee Fondy, Carl Furillo, Whitey Lockman, Gil McDonald, Jimmy Piersall, Minnie Minoso, Eddie Yost, Jerry Coleman and Billy Pierce.

One big star was still missing from both the 1954 Topps and Bowman sets. In a declaration reminiscent of Honus Wagner, Stan Musial did not want his picture on a card. He continued to hold out for another four years before finally appearing in the 1958 Topps set.

Completely New Card Design 

The Bowman Gum Co. was still reeling from the loss of market share that they suffered in 1952 and again in 1953. In both 1953 and 1954, Topps took the previous year’s card design and added features to make it even better. Unfortunately, Bowman did not have that luxury in 1954, as the color photography used in 1953 proved to be way too expensive to expand upon.

The 1954 Bowman baseball cards demonstrated a clear attempt to scale back the production costs that derailed the 1953 Bowman in mid-issue. For this set, Bowman again used the painted portrait for the player’s image except chose to put it on the larger-sized card. Bowman tried to emulate the “pure color” concept that they employed on the 1953 Bowman cards, but without the beautiful color photography the technique fell short. As a result, the 1954 Bowman baseball card design was very plain when compared to the exciting design of the Topps issue. The 1954 Bowman card also has a colored box at the bottom of the card that contained a facsimile of the player’s autograph.

The main problem with the portraits on the 1954 Bowman cards is that they make poor use of the entire canvas of the card. The pictures of the player’s faces seem too small and do not pop off the card, especially compared to the 1955 Topps cards. The smaller sized portrait leaves too much “dead” space on the card. Also, whereas the backgrounds on the 1953 Bowman baseball cards catch the viewer’s eye and add to the charm and beauty of the set. The blurry, painted backgrounds on the 1954 Bowman cards have the opposite effect. They completely fail to catch one’s eye or interest. By simply increasing the size of the player’s portrait, the Bowman cards would have been much more appealing.

The back of the 1954 Bowman baseball cards are even more disappointing than the card fronts. The only new features added to the cards were trivia questions, but most of the questions and answers are not interesting enough to bother reading. Although the card backs contain player information and statistics, they fall far short of the exciting card backs of the 1954 Topps set. The grey cardboard that the 1954 Bowman cards were printed on (probably another effort to cut production costs), made the very plain card backs look even darker and less attractive.


The 1954 Bowman baseball card set was issued at the pinnacle of the Bubble Gum War and was a good representation of the strategies employed by both combatants. Bowman dedicated more effort (and money) to securing the images of the marquee players of the day to place on their cards, while Topps did a better job of signing the young exciting rookies to exclusive contracts. Players such as: Aaron, Banks, Kaline and Kuehn. Topps also focused on designing and producing a more attractive baseball card that had far less printing errors.

Bowman was clearly winning the battle to get the most stars of the game onto their cards, but it is a shame that Bowman did not design a better product on which to display the images of these marquee players. This missed opportunity resulted in yet another second place finish; in both popularity and sales for the Bowman Baseball Card Set in 1954. The clock was ticking for Bowman, both in time and in money, and they were beginning to run both short.

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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