Set Registry: The Story of the 1950 Bowman Baseball Set by Jim Churilla

For the majority of today's baseball card collectors, the staple name in the sports card industry has been the Topps Company. No other card manufacturer has played such a pivotal role in the evolution of the hobby as Topps. It is their company slogan which points this out, . The Leader In Major League Baseball Trading Cards Since 1951. . For fifty-seven consecutive years, Topps has produced trading card sets but, prior to 1951, it was the Bowman Gum Company (in 1950) that had the monopoly on the baseball card market, at least for one year.


Prior to 1950, the 1940's were a relatively quiet time in the history of sports card collecting. With the attack on the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 by Japan, the United States officially entered World War II and, with it, came a nation-wide concentrated effort to win the war. Many major leaguers were either drafted or volunteered for service, depleting baseball of its star players and resulting in a complete stoppage of trading card production that would last until 1948 when both Bowman and Leaf would issue the first major trading card sets since the 1941 Play Ball set.

Many of us were either not born or were too young to remember what it was like to open a fresh pack of 1950 Bowman baseball cards. For those who are old enough to remember, it certainly had to be a thrill to see what treasures awaited one inside each particular pack.


Baseball card collecting for kids was the perfect cure or diversion from all the gloom and doom that persisted in the air in 1950. The Korean War began, President Truman approved the building of the hydrogen bomb, the USSR developed the atomic bomb, Senator Joe McCarthy began his communist purge, Truman threatened China with the atomic bomb while proclaiming a state of emergency against 'communist imperialism,' and there was an assassination attempt on his life! The Cold War was in full stride!

In 1950, the population of the United States was just under 151 million, less than half of what it is today. A stamp cost 3 cents, gas was 20 cents a gallon, the average new car was $1,750, a new home cost $14,500, and the average income was $3,216.


Debuting in 1950 was Silly Putty, Ball-O-Fire gumballs, Sugar Pops, the game Clue, the RCA 45 RPM record adaptor, Zenith's "Lazy Bones" tuning plug in T.V. changer, the Beetle Bailey comic strip, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts, Walt Disney's movie Cinderella, and James Dean made his first television appearance in a Pepsi commercial. The top shows in 1950 were The Ed Sullivan Show, Truth or Consequences, The Alan Young Show, and The Burns and Allan Show. Musically, Rock and Roll was still a few years away but topping the charts in 1950 was Mona Lisa by Nat King Cole, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer by Gene Autry, and The Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page.

In 1950, the talk in baseball was the National League pennant-winning Philadelphia Phillies or better known as the "Whiz Kids" because their entire starting line-up of players was under the age of 30. Led by MVP Jim Konstanty, the Phillies would win their first pennant since 1915 on the last day of the regular season and go on to face the American League champion New York Yankees and their league MVP Phil Rizzuto. The Yankees would sweep the Phillies in what would be the lowest scoring World Series of all time but every game was a nailbiter with scores of 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, and 5-2. The National League won the All-Star game 4-3 but Ted Williams would break his elbow. Billy Goodman of the Boston Red Sox would become the only player in baseball history to win a batting title without having a regular position, while Stan Musial led the National League.


The year 1950 saw the first opening day night game, Gil Hodges hit 4 Home Runs in a game, the only time during the 16-team era that 4 clubs in one league won 90 or more games, Luke Appling and Connie Mack would retire, and the debuts of Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Lew Burdette, and Jimmy Piersall. Jackie Robinson would become the highest paid Brooklyn Dodger ever by signing a $35,000 contract!

There were obviously no personal computers or Internet access like we now enjoy today and television was still a very new concept in its infant stages. The average baseball fan relied heavily on radio and the daily newspapers for all information gathering. Besides pictures of the players in magazines and newspapers, it was the new 1950 Bowman baseball cards with their new look colorized photos that put a face and player information in front of the fan.


The 1950 Bowman baseball card set, or R-406-4 as it is sometimes called, contains 252 cards each measuring 2 1/16 by 2 ½ in size which is the same dimensions of the 1948 and 1949 Bowman baseball cards. Unlike today's cards, 1950 was a time when small cards were... big. with many new and innovative ideas evolving. An example was the vast improvement made on the cards front photo which used color reproductions of actual pictures that were impressively hand-painted. Compare this to the 1949 Bowman baseball issue that used tinted photos on colored backgrounds and the collector was in for a pleasant surprise once they opened their first 1950 Bowman baseball card packs of the year.

The majority of the pictures were close-ups or poses of players with an abundance of great background scenes. Bob Feller warming up, Phil Rizzutto snaring a line drive, Warren Spahn in his classic wind-up, Hank Sauer with Wrigley Field in the background, and Ted Williams swinging the bat at Fenway Park are just a few great examples. The picture on the front of the card is framed in a solid white border with a thin black line separating the border from the picture.


The card back is vanilla in color and displays a short blurb about the player or manager while also supplying the player or manager's bio which includes his position, team, birthplace, birth date, height, weight, and how one bats and throws all in black ink. The player's name in capital letters is in red ink as is the "Bowman 5-Star Picture Card Collectors Club" logo, the only Bowman sports set that it appeared on. The bottom of the card shows the card number and the Bowman copyright, however, cards 181 thru 252 can be found with or without the copyright, neither variation is worth more than the other. Of the 252 cards in the set, it is cards 1 thru 72 which have proven to be more valuable due to the belief that they were short printed and that they seem to be tougher to find in top condition.

Like most sets from this era, it is usually the high-numbered cards which are more valuable or scarce but it is not the case with the 1950 Bowman Baseball set. The 1950 Bowman Football cards are identical to the baseball cards while the 1951 Bowman Baseball set used some of the same images from the 1950 Bowman baseball set.


The set is believed to contain seven series, cards 1 thru 36 make up series one, 37 thru 72 series two, 73 thru 108 series three, 109 thru 144 series four, 145 thru 180 series five, 181 thru 215 series six, and 216 thru 252 series seven. Thirty-six card uncut sheets representing an entire series are in existence and help to validate the series breakdown. Occasionally, one will be put up for auction on one of the many sports auction sites.

It is no surprise that of the sixteen teams represented in the 1950 Bowman set, the Philadelphia Phillies have the most examples at nineteen as do the Detroit Tigers. Since Bowman was located in Philadelphia, PA, what better way to represent the hometown heroes who, in this case would be the eventual pennant-winning Philadelphia Phillies. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were next with eighteen cards each while the Cincinnati Reds at twelve and the St. Louis Browns at thirteen had the fewest cards.


Besides the new innovative front pictures, the set was the first to feature cards of managers. Gracing the set are managers #217 Casey Stengel, #220 Leo Durocher, #225 Eddie Sawyer, #229 Frankie Frisch, and #94 player/manager Lou Boudreau.

The cards were sold in five-card nickel packs or one-cent penny packs. The one-cent wrapper and the five-cent wrapper were nearly identical in design and color. Both wrappers were red, white, and blue showing a pitcher releasing a ball and a catcher about to catch a ball. The five-cent wrapper says "5 Picture Cards Inside" while the one-cent wrapper says "1950" and the words "Picture Card And Gum, One Cent." Both have the usual copyright and basic information on the wrapper edges. Unopened packs and wrappers are scare with both demanding a premium. It's believed the penny packs with their one card and one piece of gum were the most susceptible to card stains for obvious reasons.


I recently came across a 1950 Bowman baseball card advertising sign that most likely hung in a store window. The advertising sign is orange, white, and black in color showing six cards in the set all from the first two series but what is interesting is that the sign says "6 Picture Cards of Famous Players And 2 PCS Gum 5 Cent." It sounds like an in store promotion offering a penny and nickel pack for 5 cents since no known 6 card and 2 pieces of gum packs or cellos are known to ever exist. A one-cent 1950 Bowman baseball hobby box found says the following, "Full Color Pictures Of Your Favorite Players. 1950 Baseball Picture Card And Gum, Save the Complete Set, 1 Cent." Like the wrappers the box is also colored red, white, and blue.


The 1950 Bowman baseball set's key cards are #22 Jackie Robinson which would be his last Bowman card appearance, #98 Ted Williams who was making his first Bowman card appearance, #46 Yogi Berra, #11 Phil Rizzuto, #19 Warren Spahn, #6 Bob Feller, #21 Pee Wee Reese, #75 Roy Campanella, #77 Duke Snider, #32 Robin Roberts, and the first card in the set #1 Mel Parnell, a difficult card to find in top condition. You will not find a Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial card in the set because Bowman had neither under contract. There are twenty-five Hall of Famers and twenty-three rookie cards, most notable rookies are #23 Don Newcombe, #219 Hank Bauer, #226 Jim Konstanty, and #232 Al Rosen. All in all, the set is very affordable with no big rookies, no error cards, and the omission of DiMaggio and Musial makes completing the set very realistic.


According to the PSA Population Report, over 21,000 1950 Bowman baseball cards have received grades and of those over half fall in the PSA 7 to PSA 8 range which is a testament to the durability and preservation of the 1950 Bowman baseball cards. Only a handful of cards, 21, have received the elusive grade of PSA Gem Mint 10 with the most notable being #19 Warren Spahn, #37 Luke Appling, #148 Early Wynn, and #195 Phil Cavarretta. The Early Wynn example sold for over $12,000 back in May of 2004! There is even a graded and signed #22 Jackie Robinson PSA/DNA certified card which one can only imagine what it would command. For the past five years, the number one PSA registered fully graded 1950 Bowman baseball set has been Charles M. Merkel's with an average grade of 8.80, truly amazing that so many fine examples survived the test of time to attain such a high grade!


In 1989, Topps would bring back the Bowman set and in each wax pack there would be a Bowman reprint insert card from one of its earlier issues, which was used to promote a sweepstakes. There were 11 reprint insert cards with original fronts and sweepstake information on the card back. One of the cards was a reprint 1950 Bowman Jackie Robinson card. A full 1950 Bowman reprint set was also produced with the permission of Topps by an independent manufacturer as were individual examples in the 1970s by a company called Dover. In the near future, Topps Bowman Heritage will honor the set as it has other early Bowman issues. Today, most every vintage set is offered in reprint form for those who can't afford the high price of an original.

For at least one year, back in 1950, Bowman was on top of the young card collecting industry. The 1950 Bowman baseball card set introduced such new ideas as improved picture art and the introduction of manager cards. The set also helped bring the hobby back to the fans after the lull in the industry during the 1940s. It may not have been the most star-studded or flashiest set to collect but it's certainly worthy of recognition as one of the more important sets in card collecting history.

Please feel free to contact Jim Churilla at [email protected] with any additional information or comments.