Getting into Bowman

When I started to collect cards in the late 1980s, Topps was clearly the card of record. Having a set every year back to 1952 was extremely impressive to me and the idea that I could own a piece of the game’s history by getting cards from each year was my first real baseball card project.

I was vaguely aware of Bowman but didn’t think anything of it until Topps relaunched the brand in 1989. Bowman in those years was a smaller set than Topps but didn’t really offer much different aside from the interesting statistics on the back which showed how the player did against each team.* It’s only been in the past year that I’ve really learned about how Topps and Bowman were rivals in the 1950s and that players might appear in only one of the sets each year.

*Something that’s impossible to do now with interleague play. And I do like the way that Topps’s different brands in the junk wax era had distinctly different statistics on the backs. Flagship had the traditional stat line. Bowman had its per-team breakdown. Stadium Club had that neat strike zone performance which presaged a lot of SABRmetric stuff.

As I’ve been filling out my 1960s Giants sets I’ve been moving back into the 1950s and Bowman is looming on the horizon. It’s pretty fun. I get to learn about new sets and whenever I get a new Bowman card there’s a decent chance it’s my first from that set.

I picked up my first 1950s Bowmans when I started my Stanford Project. Lloyd Merriman was a Bowman-only guy and his 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1955 cards were my first exemplars from each of those sets. I remember being struck by the crispness of the art in the 1950–1952 cards—that keyline around the player really makes things pop—as well as the way the backs are completely biographical. I also didn’t quite realize how small they were. They’re not exactly mini/tobacco sized but they definitely feel different than modern cards.

Because Merriman was in the Marines in 1952 and 1953 he didn’t have any cards those years. Which is a shame since those years are gloriously photography-centered designs. Without seeing those years it’s hard to see how Bowman got to the 1955 design from the 1952 one. Knowing that Bowman went all-photography in 1953, then all color in 1954, makes the jump to “let’s pretend it’s on TV” make more sense.*

*Joke about how Topps has been playing with HDTV graphics ever since 2016 goes here.

Anyway I was talking on Twitter a couple weeks ago about how I planned to get into Bowman and had yet to acquire any 1953 or 1954 cards when Otto Lehmann popped into my mentions offering to send me an off-condition 1954 Bowman.

A few days later this card arrived in my mailbox. It’s pretty cool and the crease is way more visible in the scan than it is in person. I very much like the big photo thing. I also enjoy that this is a first-year Orioles card—making it the oldest example in my moves and expansion project.

At first the absence of a keyline around the photo kind of weirded me out. I’m coming around on it though as it makes the whole thing look more more like a photo to me.

I’ve also been eyeing some of the pre-1950s Bowmans. The 1948s are interesting because of them being Bowman’s first issue. But the 1949s have been calling my name since the pseudo-color is something I really wanted to check out in person.

A month or so ago I came across a nicely-priced lot of 1949 Giants cards. So I pounced.* They’re every bit as nice as I hoped they’d be and I love the printing and the way the black and white photographs were colorized. I was a little surprised to find that the background was not just a solid ink but also included some black screening though that also makes some sense to me photographically. I was also surprised and pleased to see that the yellow ink in the skin tones was actually screened as well—making those real duotones.

*For a few months these were my oldest Giants cards but Mark Hoyle’s Play Ball card is the new champion.

The rest of the details like how the orange color has been stripped in to give things a pop of color are similarly fun. This is a set I very much like as a print and design geek.

Going forward, I will no doubt be on the look out for more Bowman cards—and more pre-1960 cards in general— as my collecting branches into vintage sets about which I know very little. I’ve been enjoying it so far.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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