PSA Set Registry

Collecting the 1952 Bowman Large Football Card Set

One of the Classics from the Gridiron World

by Kevin Glew

In a classic football set that features rookies of legends like Frank Gifford, Ollie Matson, George Halas and Paul Brown, why is the Jim Lansford card the set's most coveted single?

That's the question a new collector might ask about the 1952 Bowman Large Football set.

Fresh off a successful collegiate career with the University of Texas, Lansford played just one NFL season with the Dallas Texans, yet his 1952 Bowman Large pasteboard has been deemed the 1952 Topps Andy Pafko of football cards.

Not only is the Lansford a single print, but it's also the final card (#144) in the set. It was located on the bottom-right corner of a print sheet, a position that, even in normal circumstances, makes cards susceptible to flaws. But the unusual manner in which the 1952 Bowman Large cards were produced made the Lansford card even more vulnerable.

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Van Brocklin

Reeling from a summer that saw Topps dominate the baseball card market with their dazzling, larger-sized cards, Bowman realized that they needed to improve their product to regain market share. Their 1951 football cards had measured 2-1/16" by 3-1/8" and Bowman planned to release same-sized cards in 1952. In fact, cards this size, known as the 1952 Bowman Small Football series, were created and distributed. But in an attempt to recapture the interest of collectors, Bowman also unveiled an expanded 2-1/2" by 3-3/4" version of this series.

On the sheets, the 144 larger cards that comprised the set were laid out numerically from left to right (#1 to #9 on the first row, #10 to #18 on the second row and so on) in four rows of nine cards. In all, there were four, 36-card sheets. The prevailing hobby theory is that when the larger cards were produced, the sheets were still cut on the same machine as the smaller sized cards, but the machine's settings were not adjusted.

This resulted in cards in the left column (#1, #10, #19, #28 on the first sheet and cards in the same positions on the ensuing three sheets) and cards in the right column (#9, #18, #27, #36 on the first sheet and cards in the same positions on the ensuing sheets) often being miscut or discarded. As a result, cards divisible by nine (cards on the right-edge column) and cards divisible by nine plus one (cards on the left-edge column) are widely acknowledged as single prints.

The Lansford card is on the bottom-right corner of the final, 36-card print sheet, so it was often miscut. And because it was the last card in the set, the Lansford cards that did make it into packs were regularly placed at the bottom of collector piles where they suffered additional abuse. The larger size of these cards also made them difficult to preserve and store.

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All of these issues, combined with the fact that the 1952 Bowman Large Football set is generally regarded as the best post-war gridiron issue, have combined to make the Lansford one of the most desirable football cards ever released. Of the 137 submitted to PSA, there have been just two PSA MINT 9s and 6 PSA NM-MT 8s. One PSA 9 sold for $21,500 on eBay in December 2013.

The Lansford is the most high profile card of the 32 single prints in this 144-card offering that features both professional and collegiate players. On top of the challenge of tracking down these single prints, this set also appeals to collectors for its bold and colorful design.

The white-bordered fronts showcase detailed paintings that often depict the players in action. The players' name is listed in a white pennant across the picture, with the team or college logo either above or below.

"They're kind of like the 1952 Topps Baseball cards. They're large cards compared to the Bowman sets before them," said Bill Miller, who owns the No. 1 Current Finest, 1952 Bowman Large Football set on the PSA Set Registry. "I really like the old Bowman football cards because they're so colorful, and I love looking at the old logos on the cards."

Most of the cards boast a vertical orientation on their fronts, but three of the quarterbacks - Norm Van Brocklin (#1), Y.A. Tittle (#17) and Sammy Baugh (#30) - are aligned horizontally. There are also memorable horizontal images of Bill McColl (#60) and Bobby Walston (#138) extending to make catches.

The 1952 Bowman Large backs are horizontal and showcase black text on a gray background. The players' name is on the top-left just above the card number, position and team, while the players' vitals are on the top-right. Biographical information ensues. This is generally restricted to the players' collegiate and professional accomplishments on the field, but some of the backs offer glimpses into their lives away from the gridiron. McColl's single (#60), for example, notes that he's the "son of a doctor" and that he maintains a "B-plus average in his own medical studies," while Tom Johnson's single (#90) reveals that his "hobby is music and he toots a mean trumpet."

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Donovan

It's also interesting to read about some of the players' off-season jobs (see accompanying sidebar). We also learn that several players - including Les Richter (#61), Jack Blount (#80), Harry Minarik (#82), Chet Ostrowski (#124) and Chuck Ulrich (#134) - were scheduled to miss the 1952 season due to military obligations.

For the first time in Bowman Football card history, the backs also presented the previous season statistics for offensive players. The bottoms of the backs also feature an ad for the cards that reads: "College to Pro Football Picture Cards."

The 1952 Bowman Large cards were distributed in five-card, five-cent packs in two series (#1 to #72, #73 to #144) in the fall and winter of 1952. Miller says the high-number series cards are slightly more difficult to track down than the low numbers. It's also believed that because football was far less popular than baseball in 1952, these cards were produced in smaller quantities than their baseball counterparts.

"In baseball sets [from this era], no matter what set you're going after, there are a lot of cards [available]," explained Miller. "With 1952 Bowman Large Football cards and 1952 Bowman Small cards, there are very few cards available, so if you're a collector, it can be very frustrating."

Three cards from each of the NFL's 12 teams, in the same 12-team sequence, comprise the first 36 cards of the 1952 Bowman Large Football set (see accompanying chart).

Teams in the 1952 Bowman Large Football set

The sequencing is abandoned shortly thereafter, but Bowman ensured that the teams are almost equally represented. With 13 cards each, the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Dallas Texans have the most representatives, while the Detroit Lions (10) have the fewest.

The Lansford may be this set's most heralded card, but this issue also boasts the rookies of several Hall of Fame players, including Frank Gifford (#16), Gino Marchetti (#23), Hugh McElhenny (#29), Art Donovan (#46), Les Richter (#61), Andy Robustelli (#85), Ollie Matson (#127), Jack Christiansen (#129) and Yale Lary (#140).

"I think the Hall of Fame rookies are the set's biggest asset," said Joe Mancino, who owns the No. 7 Current Finest, 1952 Bowman Large Football set on the PSA Set Registry.

Mike Thomas, founder of the Football Gallery website, says the Gifford (#16) is one of the most coveted rookies. This card depicts the Giants superstar in a running pose and is rarely found properly centered. Of the 359 submitted, there are five PSA 9s, four PSA NM-MT+ 8.5s and 21 PSA 8s.

The Matson rookie (#127) is also highly sought after.

"The Matson is probably my favorite card in the whole set," said Thomas. "I just like the design of it."

Miller is also fond of this card.

"My favorite card is the Matson rookie," he said. "It's a single print. It's a Hall of Famer. It's a high number. And I would say it's one of the more difficult rookie cards."

The Matson was the first card on the left, third row of a print sheet, and it's frequently found miscut. The two PSA 8.5s are the highest graded copies.

This set also houses cards of the 12 NFL coaches at the time. Many of these are the coaches' rookie cards, including the singles of Hall of Famers Steve Owen (#4), Paul Brown (#14), George Halas (#48), Wayne Milner (#57) and Joe Stydahar (#99).

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Miller and Thomas both cite the single-printed Stydahar (#99) as a tough card. This is the last card on the right, third row of a print sheet. There's just one PSA 9 and eight PSA 8s. The sole PSA 9 fetched $11,400 in a Greg Bussineau Sports Rarities auction in December 2014.

There's also no shortage of veteran Hall of Fame player cards in this issue. Norm Van Brocklin (#1), Otto Graham (#2), Chuck Bednarik (#10), Tom Fears (#13), Y.A. Tittle (#17), Sammy Baugh (#30), Elroy Hirsch (#37), Steve Van Buren (#45), Bobby Layne (#78), Joe Perry (#83), Lou Groza (#105), Bob Waterfield (#137) and Tom Landry (#142) are amongst the most legendary players highlighted.

Mancino says the single-printed Bednarik (#10) is particularly tough to find in top grade. This is the first card on the left, second row of the first print sheet. Of the 130 evaluated, the sole PSA 8.5 is the highest graded example.

Thomas adds that the Van Buren (#45) is elusive in pristine form. This card is also a single print, and it's located at the top of the right column on the second print sheet. There are just four PSA 8s (with no examples grading higher). 

Charlie Conerly (spelled "Charley" on the card itself) is not a Hall of Famer, but Thomas points out that his card (#63) can also command lofty sums. It's a single-printed card, and it's the last card on the right, third row of a print sheet. This card is almost impossible to find centered. There's just one PSA 9 and nine PSA 8s. One PSA 8 sold for $2,800 on eBay in June 2015.

But it's the single-printed commons that are generally the most elusive in high grade. The Lansford card might be the most talked-about, but the PSA Population Report reveals that there are seven cards that have fewer examples that grade PSA 8 or better. With just two PSA 8s, the John Schweder single (#72) is the most evasive in top condition (see accompanying chart).

PSA 8s in 1952 Bowman Large Football

It's noteworthy to point out that the seven cards that are most difficult to uncover in PSA 8 or better are all in the first series.

"When I was a kid, we played with cards from the first series [of any set] more because we had them in our hands longer," explained Thomas. "So that could've happened with cards from this set."

If you look closely, you'll also notice that there are several uncorrected errors in this issue. For example, the "t" is omitted from Hubert Johnston's last name on the front of his card (#108) and Jim Donahue's last name is listed as "Donague" on the front of his card (#117). Also, if you review the back of Chuck Ortmann's single (#132), it incorrectly states that his average "Passing" gain was 9.4 yards, when it should be 4.8.

These uncorrected errors add intrigue to this classic and trailblazing set that's widely ranked as the best post-war gridiron issue. But despite this set's vaunted status, Miller hasn't noticed an increase in the number of hobbyists pursuing it in recent years.

"I think the reason for that is that it's very hard to collect it. There are very few of these cards available," he said. "It's not like 1952 or 1953 Topps Baseball [sets], those cards are available ... If you're trying to piece a 1952 Bowman Football set together one-by-one, you might never see some of the cards."

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But Miller still regards the set as a worthy venture, as does Mancino.

"The reason I've stuck with it is that I think it's a good investment," said Mancino. "There are a lot of great Hall of Famer rookies in it - that's primarily why I put it together, because I thought it would be a good investment down the road."

Thomas offers a similar assessment.

"If any football set is going to hold its value, I think this would be it," he said. "It's probably the classic Bowman Football set. If I were going to make an investment, it would probably be in this set."

• • •

Offseason Jobs

With the average annual NFL salary around $2 million today, the players don't have to worry about finding work in the offseason, but that was not the case in 1952. If you read the backs of the 1952 Bowman Large Football cards closely, you'll see what some of these players had to do to make additional income. Here's a summary of some of their offseason occupations:

• #15 Leon Hart - Worked in sales department of an asphalt company.

• #26 Tommy Thompson - Brokerage business.

• #30 Sammy Baugh - Ran Texas ranch.

• #52 Jim Martin - Recreation director in Cleveland.

• #68 Wayne Robinson - Insurance agent.

• #71 Tex Coulter - Sports cartoonist for a newspaper.

• #96 Bill Wightkin - Engineer.

• #110 Jack Simmons - Insurance salesperson.

• #112 John Badaczewski - Automobile salesperson.

• #116 Russ Craft - Operates a restaurant.

• • •

For more information on the 1952 Bowman Large football set, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/football-cards/1952-bowman-large/55.


Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of April 2016.