Set Registry: Small Wonders, A Look at the 1952 Bowman Small Football Set by Jim Churilla

Not many of us can say we remember collecting football cards back in 1952. In fact, the majority of current collectors were not even born. For those of you who are old enough to remember going down to your local dime store, the image is probably etched in your mind like the carving on a rock. Reaching into the card box, picking out seven or eight one cent packs, of 1952 Bowman Small football cards, pulling from your pocket those shiny new Lincoln wheat cents to pay for the packs, and then experiencing the thrill of opening up the packs and getting your favorite player or players! It's a certain rush that only a true collector can relate too and one that leaves a lasting impression.

For modern card collectors, it's hard to imagine a time when so little could buy so much but, back in 1952, such was the case. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President, the average income was a whopping $3,515, a house cost $16,800, gas was .20 cents per gallon, a stamp cost .03 cents, a loaf of bread cost .16 cents, mens t-shirts were 2 for .59 cents, telephone area codes began, Frosted Flakes were introduced, the first Mad Magazine came out, the World population was 2.63 billion (today China alone has over 3 billion), the U.S. population was 157,557,74 million, best actor was Gary Cooper in High Noon, best picture was Greatest Show on Earth, hit songs were Nat King Cole's Unforgettable and Jimmy Boyd's I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Elvis Presley was fired from his job at Lows State Theatre, and Mister Potato Head hit the shelves! That's what was going on in 1952, and what a year it was.

Van Brocklin

Entering 1952, Bowman was firmly entrenched as the big player in the card market with its only true competition coming from a start up company called Topps. Topps, however, was determined to develop its own identity in the card business and to do so they needed to be original. They did this by introducing their now famous and highly sought-after standard sized 1952 Topps baseball card set which, at the time, was thought to be a failed attempt to compete with Bowman. Topps was so convinced that they ended up dumping scores of cards from the final series of the set into the Atlantic Ocean. The same series that contained the Mickey Mantle card! Little did anyone realize then that the year marked a big turning point in the sports card collecting business, as it was the last of the small sized issued cards.

In 1952, Bowman put out its 144-card small sized football set but a very important problem surfaced. They were losing sales to their main rival Topps. Topps introduced the first full sized cards in 1952 and it was now the full sized cards that appealed to the everyday collector, not the small sized cards that up until this point had dominated the hobby. So what was Bowman to do in order to rectify the situation, after having just released their new 1952 football set in small size form? The solution was to re-issue the exact same set that year but this time as a full sized card set that would appeal and meet the demands of the collector. That meant stopping the printing and distribution of the smaller sized set and for Bowman to begin producing the larger set immediately.


This story will solely focus on the 1952 Bowman small sized football card set but it's important to note why two different sized sets were produced by Bowman in the same year and the role they played in trading card history.

The 1952 Bowman Small football card set is one of the more valuable and desirable football card sets ever produced. The set consists of 144-cards that measure approximately 2 1/16" x 3 1/8" compared to the identical larger version which measures 2 ½" x 3 ¾". It is believed that the set was issued in 2 series, cards 1 to 72 and 73 to 144 with no known short printed cards. Like so many older card sets, it has been claimed by some that the first and last cards in the set, #1 Norm Van Brocklin and #144 Jim Lansford are more difficult to find in top condition based upon their location in the set by being the bookends. This is particularly true of the larger version.

Another noted possibility may have been the location of the cards on the card sheet, which exposed the cards to a higher probability of damage when the cards were cut. Cards could be purchased in either one card, one-cent penny packs or in five card, five-cent nickel packs. The pack wrappers consist of the colors yellow, red and white and contained a stick of bubble gum which, hopefully, would not stain the cards as was so common back then.


The front of the card depicts a player or a coach in a rich and colorful watercolor tinted photo drawn from an actual picture. There are regular portraits and action photos, which appear to jump out at the collector. A solid white border enclosing the picture frames the front of the card. Within the frame, you will find the player names in black letters encased in a white pennant on cards 1 to 72 and, on cards 73 to 144, you will have both the player names and team in black letters within the pennant.

If you're a fan of vintage football logos then you will find some very cool team logos on the front of these cards. A good example of this would be the classic dancing blue Chicago Bear found on all Chicago Bears players cards. Now we all know that bears are not blue, but it makes for an interesting visual! Another classic logo is the Southern Methodist University Mustang pictured on card # 93 of Fred Barnes. On certain team logos or symbols, the team name is also included underneath. Besides having the logos and team names of the professional players, you also have the newly drafted rookies who have their respected college name listed on the card front instead of the pro team that drafted them. Like the pro player cards, some college players have a college logo on the front and some do not.

The backs of the cards contain all the pertinent information about that particular player in a horizontal format. You will find the player names in the upper left hand corner in all capital letters, the individual card number below, followed underneath by the player positions and finally the team. For college players, it is important to note that the pro team that the college player was drafted by appears at the bottom of the card. On the upper right side of the card back, you will find the players age, height and weight. Below the information and in the middle of the card reverse is a blurb that provides information about the particular player or coach. Below the player and coach blurb is the statistical information, which includes the player record for the previous season. Listed are his carrying, passing, receiving, and scoring statistics but only for non-lineman and coaches. The final bits of information, at the very bottom of the card, are the words "college to pro football picture cards" along with the copyright wording.


The 1952 Bowman small football card set features a number of great players who went on to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among them are the following key rookie cards of # 14 legendary coach Paul Brown, #16 of star New York Giants wide receiver Frank Gifford, #46 Art Donovan, #48 of Chicago Bears coach George "Papa Bear" Halas, #85 Andy Robutselli, #127 Ollie Matson, #129 Jack Christiansen, #23 Gino Marchetti, #140 Yale Lary and # 29 Hugh McElhenny. Key non-rookie cards in the set include the condition sensitive card # 1 of Norm Van Brocklin, #2 Otto Graham, #17 Y.A. Tittle, #30 Sammy Baugh, #78 Bobby Layne, #142 of Dallas Cowboy coaching great Tom Landry and card #144 of Jim Lansford, the other condition sensitive card and last in the set.

There are two uncorrected error cards in the set, # 53 of Joe Bach (which has his name misspelled on the back of his card as Back) and # 132 of Chuck Ortmann (which lists his yards per carry as a whopping 9.4 yards). The two most valuable cards in the set are the Frank Gifford and Tom Landry cards, according to the Sports Market Report. What makes this set appealing is the combination of beautiful artwork and flurry of quality players.

The 1952 NFL Draft was held on January 17th 1952, and in it was a strong core that helped make the 1952 Bowman football set a solid one. The first pick in that draft was Vanderbilt quarterback Bill Wade taken by the Los Angeles Rams, who would later lead the 1963 Chicago Bears to a championship, Wade did not even have a card in the 1952 Bowman set.


Another oddity was the fact that Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier, who was technically the first pick of the Chicago Bears in the draft, had opted not to play pro football. He would pursue a non-sports career. Frank Gifford coming out of USC had no intentions of playing in New York for the Giants but the "large bonus" he would receive of $250 would sway him to sign. The best undrafted player would be 24 year old and future Hall of Famer Dick "Night Train" Lane who would sign and star with the Los Angeles Rams, setting the single season interception record that year with 14 that still stands today. He did not have a card in the 1952 Bowman set.

The 1952 NFL season would see the Cleveland Browns win the American Conference with an 8-4 record, while the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams would tie in the National Conference with identical 9-3 records, forcing a divisional playoff that would be won by the Detroit Lions (31-21). The Detroit Lions would go on to win their first championship in 17 years by beating the Cleveland Browns 17-7. There would be no MVP award, and Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco 49ers would be the Rookie of the Year.

That same year, one of the worst teams of all time, the new 1952 Dallas Texans, would fold during mid-season, be taken over by the NFL to prevent a total collapse and play the rest of their games on the road, resulting in a 1-11 record! Their only win came when George Halas opted to play his second stringers versus the Texans thinking he could still win with ease. The next year, the Texans would become the Baltimore Colts.

The 1952 Bowman Small football card set may have represented the last of the small sized card sets but, for its size, it definitely packed a large punch and has reserved its rightful place in trading card history!

Comments or additional information is welcome and can be e-mailed to Jim Churilla at [email protected]