While standing essentially alone in the 1951 baseball card marketplace, Bowman flourished during that year's campaign to dominate the candy counter.
Although a few lesser and regional trading card productions, like Berk Ross, Bread for Energy bread labels and Wheaties box-panel collectibles, as well as some strange game cards from an upstart manufacturer (not to be taken seriously) the colorful offerings from Bowman Gum served as the prevailing brand for anyone interested in Major League Baseball-themed gum cards. An archetype, the Bowman product conformed in size to its accompanying wad of chewy confection. Its cards' lovely artwork was embellished only by efficient name captions; the cards' backs exercised brevity in detail. In every respect of the standard of the time, Bowman cards delivered satisfactory levels of familiarity and comfort.
In direct contrast to Topps' upcoming, radical departures in terms of style and design, which no one could have foreseen as the established company's fourth postwar edition emerged, 1951 Bowmans were graceful and dignified pieces, even elegant in their own way. Their 2 1/16" by 3 1/8" dimensions were sufficiently restrained to avoid making the cards cumbersome when carried in a back pocket, but ample to allow uninhibited clarity in their illustrations' features. Player images (most of which were recognizable as press photographs, enhanced by the addition of painted color) had been thoughtfully selected and carefully rendered.
The set's roster couldn't be beat: Stan "The Man" Musial and Ted Williams were included, as were Yogi Berra, Pee Wee Reese, Warren Spahn, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider. Whitey Ford and Nellie Fox appeared on their rookie collectibles, with the former leading off as the series' very first card. The game's full pantheon seemed to be accounted for in this superb gallery.
But that was only the first group of 1951 Bowman cards...
Composition - Although comprehensive and impressive when judged on its initial 252 cards, the 1951 Bowman series became absolutely breathtaking when - late in the issue's production run - it expanded to a grand and final total of 324 entries. Those last 72 pieces (the "High Numbers") elevated the production at once from the satisfying level to the hobby's "all-time" stratosphere.
The final segment of 1951 Bowman holds a worthy group of stars, minor stars and managers, but two depictions, in particular, have ensured its revered status: the rookie cards of young New York stars Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
Mantle and Mays were up-and-coming ballplayers who had begun to captivate the game's major market, and Bowman, the savvy, veteran producer of gum cards, eventually had recognized this fact just in time. Mantle's horizontally-oriented, over-the-shoulder batting pose became an immediate sensation among collectors, and the portrayal of his Giants counterpart, Mays, followed close behind. Today, more than 50 years after they first turned up in packs during the Fall of 1951, these are two of the most beloved, in-demand mementos in the card-collecting hobby.
Key Features and Rarities - The high-number series (#s 253-324, inclusive) is naturally a bit scarce, but Mantle and Mays are in such high demand that actual production numbers become meaningless. They're the indisputable "keys" to the set. The 1951 Bowman release contains plenty of future Cooperstown enshrinees, acknowledged stars, and popular players, and with the aforementioned caveats noted, they all enjoy general availability in roughly equal measure.
Bottom Line - Its big pair of rookies alone would seem to make 1951 Bowman a keeper, but to view the issue from the perspective of just two cards unfairly ignores its significance. The production defined a period, soon to culminate, that was well-served by a single, mainstay release. The very next year, the 1951 Bowman set's maker would encounter and try to cope with a market determined to shift toward more complex, inherently exciting products. Proven favorites, such as the nicely done (and sometimes, it seems, under-appreciated) 1951 Bowman gallery, would be left to receive their deserved glory in the future as classic objects of nostalgia.