Being an avid fan of baseball card collecting, I have been fortunate to see and handle some of the greatest cards the hobby has known. From the 1909 T-206 Honus Wagner card, to the 1933 Goudey Napoleon Lajoie to the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card, each has a unique story of it's own as to why it is so valuable and desired in the hobby. As a historian, I have been intrigued by such stories but, more importantly, I have enjoyed researching and writing about the various vintage sets. It is, however, the evolution of baseball cards that has truly fascinated me and one set which I feel played an important role in "modernizing" the hobby was the 1949 Bowman baseball card set.
The 1949 Bowman baseball card set is considered by many sports card historians to be the beginning of the modern era of color baseball cards. Since its introduction and for the past sixty years, baseball card sets have been issued in colorful and mostly plentiful numbered sets. Prior to 1949, this was not the case because, from 1942 thru 1948, there were no true baseball card sets released due in large part to the technology of the time, the start of World War II and also due to war-time paper shortages. Many baseball players felt it was their duty to contribute to the war effort and, thus, a large number of players either volunteered or were drafted which depleted the player pool. The group included 35 futures Hall of Famers who formed the core of the game, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize, Billy Herman, Warren Spahn, and Luke Appling. Also included were more than 500 other major leaguers and over 4,000 minor leaguers. There was even consideration given by then baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that perhaps baseball should be discontinued until the war was over. President Roosevelt would reply in what is known as his January 15, 1942 "Green Light Letter" saying "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before." World War II finally ended in September of 1945 but a number of players were not discharged until 1946 and no serious baseball card sets were issued thru 1948. The only minor exception was the 1948 Bowman baseball card set, however, it only contained 48 cards and lacked color. Also, the 1947 Tip Top Bread set had a fair amount of star players for a non-sports card manufacturer.
It is hard for today's young collectors to imagine a period where there were no true baseball card sets, no colored cards, no numbered cards, nothing really at all but the occasional "set" which consisted of a few cards that hardly could be called sets. Radio was basically the only means by which the game was relayed to the fan live with the exception being the rare and well-to-do family who owned a television set but few games were televised. Many kids could only put a face to a player by seeing a picture of him in a newspaper, magazine, on a billboard, or a product which that player endorsed. Times were much different back then but the thrill of opening your first red, white, and blue nickel packs of the new 1949 Bowman baseball cards and seeing the players in color had to be exciting.
It is important to note that not only did Bowman release a colorized baseball card set that year but so did the Leaf Company of Chicago. Leaf's 1948/49 issue is actually credited as being the first colorized set in the modern card era since it was released just prior to the Bowman set. However, the 1949 Bowman set had bragging rights for being the first modern set to include a piece of gum in each pack to the delight of many kids! This was the largest baseball card set produced since the 1941 Playball set Gum Inc. who, in 1948, would change their name and be known as the Bowman Gum Company. The set also contains some of the first black baseball players to play in MLB, which include the Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella along with the Cleveland Indians Satchell Paige and Larry Dolby. Featured in the set are the rookie cards of Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Richie Ashburn, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, George Kell, Jackie Robinson, and Satchell Paige with the latter two also having rookie cards in the 1948/49 Leaf issue. Since Bowman and Leaf were competitors, it came as no surprise that Bowman would sue Leaf. Bowman argued that if a player was in one set, he couldn't or was not supposed to be in the other manufacturer's set. Satchell Paige did appear in both sets and this was believed to have been the basis for the lawsuit which, in the end, left Bowman as the sole major producer of baseball cards (until Topps would debut a few years later in 1951 and eventually absorb Bowman in 1956).
Leaf would not produce another set until 1960. It is interesting to note that a 1949 Bowman baseball card contract, signed by the Chicago Cubs Peanuts Lowrey on October 1st, 1948, paid him $1 for signing with Bowman to use his likeness and an additional $99 was paid out in January of 1949 for a grand total of $100! This is definitely "peanuts" by today's standards!
The 1949 Bowman baseball card set consists of 240 cards and the master set contains 252 cards. Some collectors argue that the true master set actually has 324 cards, which is the 240 card base set, the 12 additional cards, and the 1st and 2nd series cards numbered #1 thru #73 that were first printed on white card stock and later on gray card stock. The additional twelve cards are different variations of existing numbered cards that are believed to have been added to the series seven press sheet so that the final press sheet had a full 36-card compliment of players instead of only 24 cards and twelve blank spaces. To verify this, the twelve additional or double printed cards were all found to be on an intact, uncut series seven press sheet and are listed in numerical order #4 Jerry Priddy, #78 Sam Zoldak, #83 Bob Scheffing, #85 Johnny Mize, #88 Bill Salkeld, #98 Phil Rizzuto, #109 Ed Fitzgerald, #124 Danny Murtaugh, #126 Al Brazle, #127 Hank Majeski, #132 Al Evans, and #143 Bob Dillinger. The first six cards were from the third series and the last six cards were from the fourth series. Since it was already Fall and the football season had begun, it was just too late to have any new players added, which explains the usage of the twelve existing players. Cards were issued in five-cent packs with each card measuring 2 1/16 by 2 ½ in size. There are two different five-cent pack wrapper variations, one is colored red, white, and blue while the other is the tougher to find green, red, and white example. The first 72 cards in the set were printed on both white and gray card stock with gray card stock being used for the remainder of the set. This means cards 1-72 have two card stock color variations and, despite the belief that gray examples are tougher to find, the value of the two versions remain the same.
The set has seven different series of 36 cards that were released throughout the year beginning with series one and series two during the Spring of 1949. Each press sheet of cards contained four rows of nine cards for the thirty-six card total. The first two series of cards were issued during the first printing of cards, which was the only time more than one series was released simultaneously. All subsequent series were issued individually during the remaining 5 printings.
The cards themselves are black and white photos and most were actually team issued pictures distributed at ballparks in 1948. The background of the cards used six various pastel colors, which by today's standards were rather unrefined in nature but groundbreaking technology then. The pastel colors used were light blue, red, green, orange, dark blue, and yellow but due to a printing error, there are two known rare color variations that have either a slate or pink colored background with both commanding a premium.
One of the biggest believed marketing "coups" in the history of baseball card collecting happened in the initial series issue of the 1949 Bowman set. The first issue of cards contained both series one and series two cards, 72 different cards produced on two 36 card sheets. Right off the bat, the series one cards numbered 1 thru 36 proved to be an incredible challenge to complete. No matter how many packs of cards a kid bought, the elusive card #4 was nowhere to be found, it was totally missing from the series. How could this be? To add to the confusion, card #73 of Billy Cox was in the series one packs, which meant there were still 36 total cards in the series. That said, instead of having card #4, there was card #73, but why was there a card higher than card #36 in there? The answer was unknown to the buyer but Bowman decided to put card #73 on the printing sheet where card #4 should have been. Collectors of the day thought card #4 would be one of the better know players such as Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams but neither player would be in the set. Needless to say, there was a lot of confusion but, if Bowman's plan was to get people to buy more cards, it certainly worked. Unlike series one, series two cards (numbered 37-72) produced no such panic whatsoever! There were no missing or out of order cards, just a simple and uninterrupted sequence much to the relief of the collector, at least for the time being.
Exciting for the collector were the 72 total cards in the first two series, which have 60 red-colored backgrounds and 12 dark blue backgrounds, the first true colorized cards! The first 72 cards had no player name on the front but the back of the cards had a wealth of information. Included is the number of that particular card in the series in blue ink (on the top of the card back) along with the player's name right below in red ink. A very informative player bio in blue ink followed and, below in red ink, was an advertisement explaining how one could mail in for either a metal baseball ring by sending 15 cents and 3 wrappers or a baseball game and bank for 25 cents and 5 wrappers.
The second issue of cards, which came out in late Spring and early Summer of 1949, contained the cards on the third printing sheet numbered 74-108 plus the missing #4 card of none other than Jerry Priddy? Talk about a let down! The cards in the second printing were identical to the first printing cards except they introduced the new pastel background colors of orange and green. It has also been found to contain 17 different rare slate or pink colored variations believed to have been the result of manufacturing carelessness. Pink variations are thought to be very scarce.
The third printing of cards released during the Summer of 1949 includes the 4th series of 36 cards numbered 109-144. Changes to series four cards included the player's name now being printed on the card front while a simulated scripted autograph was added to the card back. In addition, two new pastel colors were introduced, yellow and light blue. The fourth printing of cards was released in September of 1949 and contained the 5th series of cards numbered 145-180. The 5th series marked the beginning run of the rare high-numbered cards in the set, cards 145-240.
Because the baseball season was close to being over, most store owners did not order the remaining series of cards in the set thus causing the scarcity. The scripted autograph that was on the reverse of the third printing of cards was changed back to a printed name format, the only deviation in the series. The fifth printing of cards was released during the Fall of 1949 and contained the 6th series of cards #181-216. There were no changes done to this series, leaving it identical to the previous series. The sixth and final printing of cards was also released during the Fall of 1949 and contained the 7th series of cards numbered 217-240 plus the additional 12 cards that were mentioned earlier to fill out the entire 36 card printing sheet.
The six cards from the 3rd series and six cards from the 4th series added to the final printing sheet are considered double printed but are different in appearance from their original series release. The difference is that the cards were printed the same as the other 24 cards on the final printing sheet, which meant names were added to the card front and the scripted name on the back was changed to a block letter format. Card #240 of Babe Young, which is the final card in the set, is an uncorrected error card that is actually a photo of Bobby Young.
By the time this last series was released, the New York Yankees were well on their way to winning the organization's 12th World Championship by beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 4 games to 1. It would be their first of a run of five championships in a row that started with Joe DiMaggio and would end with Mickey Mantle in 1953.
Little did the collector know, sixty years ago, just how significant the 1949 Bowman baseball card set was from an innovative and historical standpoint. The set proved to be a tremendous challenge to complete for a number of reasons. Bowman employed many new ideas "on the go" which one could say was a blueprint for the many subsequent sets in the modern card era by the different card companies. Color variations, scripted autographs, bubble gum in packs, mail-in offers, different series releases and a mysteriously missing card ploy were just some of the many new ideas that came out of the 1949 Bowman baseball card set.
I would like to thank Mr. Ted Zanidakis for offering his expertise on the subject and his first-hand knowledge from one who was fortunate enough to have opened many 1949 Bowman packs of baseball cards!
Photos Courtesty of 707 Sportscard and Don Spence Please feel free to contact Jim Churilla at [email protected] with any additional information, comments, or questions.