Author’s note: The “Cardboard Crosswalk” series aims to compare and contrast different baseball card sets. Earlier installments can be found here and here. Also note that SABR author Don Zminda compares these same two 1954 sets as part of his “Back Story” series.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
—Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
In short, it was 1954, and Brooklyn and Philadelphia were at war—not for the National League pennant but rather for the hearts and pocket change of the young gum chewers and cardboard flippers who would spend their pennies and nickels with one or the other.
Brooklyn was the home of Topps, whose third major baseball release featured 250 cards, a terrific new dual-image design, and not one but two cards of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.
Philadelphia was the home of Bowman, whose penultimate vintage release would feature 224 cards, lackluster player images, and—just barely—a single card of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.
A war on two fronts
The story of the Bowman Ted Williams card is the story of a second war, the war for player contracts. While the Splendid Splinter had appeared in the 1950 and 1951 Bowman issues and even launched his cardboard career in Warren Bowman’s 1939 “Play Ball” set, history and loyalty didn’t pay the rent.
Teddy Ballgame was a Topps man now, and Bowman was forced to replace his card with that of teammate Jimmy Piersall early in the release of its first series. Of course, Bowman had its own stable of enviable exclusives, including Mickey Mantle and some other pretty good players.
While it’s the Hall of Famers in the sets who attract most of the collector interest, the competition for players went well beyond the top stars of the game. For this Cardboard Crosswalk, we’ll take a much broader look at who went where and hopefully learn some new things along the way.
Analyzing the sets
Using the term “subjects” generically to include players, managers, coaches, and the O’Brien twins, there were 389 different subjects represented in the two sets. The Venn diagram below shows their distribution. (Figures don’t sum to total cards in set due to two Williams cards in the Topps set and two Piersall cards in the Bowman set.)
We should be careful not to assume that the 165 “Topps only” subjects and the 140 “Bowman only” subjects were all under exclusive contracts. After all, there certainly would have been marginal players who either company may have omitted by choice. As for the 84 subjects in the “both” section of the diagram, it is probably a fair assumption that Ted Williams was the only one under an exclusive contract.
This next figure shows the distribution of players common to both sets within the Bowman set. Though there are some streaks and gaps evident, the distribution of players toward the beginning of the set largely matches the distribution toward the end. Series One more or less looks like Series Two. (If you are reading on your mobile device, you may need to go landscape mode here.)
When we generate a similar plot for Topps, the result is a very different one, and the differences will form the basis for most of this article.
In the first half of the Topps set, 55 of 125 cards are “Topps only.” In the second half, 110 of the 125 cards— almost 90% of them—are “Topps only.” This is too big a difference to be explained by randomness alone. Absent any deeper look, the data suggest one of two possibilities:
- Either the Topps exclusive contracts were secured so late in the process that cards of the players were not ready until Series Three, or
- Bowman locked so many players up that Topps was forced to cobble together the second half of its set largely from Bowman’s unwanted scraps
Under scrutiny, the second hypothesis appears to hold up much better than the first. Two quick clues come from an examination of coach cards and rookie cards. A less quick but equally telling clue will come from an examination of star players in the set.
While the Bowman set included a limited number of managers, it did not include any cards of coaches. That left coaches ripe for the picking by Topps. In the first half of its set Topps included cards of three coaches: Bob Swift (Tigers), Bob Scheffing (Cubs), and Billy Herman (Dodgers). The second half included 19!
As for rookies, the Bowman set featured only 14 of them, leaving a lot of rookies up for grabs. In the first half of its set, Topps included 15 rookies, two of whom were also in the Bowman set: Harvey Kuenn and Dick Cole. Meanwhile, the second half of the Topps set featured 52 rookies, none of whom were in the Bowman set!
Star power, part one
The first and second halves of the Topps set are also quite different when it comes to star power. However, I need to emphasize that I don’t mean Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, or other Hall of Famers who are huge today but would have been near unknowns when the 1954 season kicked off. Rather, I’m referring to the players viewed as top stars at the time.
We’ll start with a look at the the Top 10 MVP vote-getters from each league in 1953. I won’t pretend these were THE 20 biggest stars in baseball at the time, but they at least provide us with a reasonable starting point. This Venn diagram shows how these 20 players fell across the sets. Interestingly, NONE of these 20 players were in the second half of the Topps set.
Star power, part two
A similar analysis can be done using the Top 5 MVP finishers each of the previous five seasons (1949-1953). This smooths out our previous results to be more representative of the era rather than just a single year. It also adds heavyweights like Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson who were missing previously. And still, the result is exactly the same!
The data examined thus far seem to support several conclusions that make perfect sense in light of Topps being newer to the gum card business than Bowman—
- Bowman had the inside track on the game’s biggest stars.
- The stars Topps was able to sign were always placed in the first half of the set.
- The second half of the set was cobbled together mainly with rookies, coaches, end-of-rotation pitchers, bench warmers, and one lone repeat (Ted Williams).
Regarding the second bullet, the front-loading of star players was even more extreme than merely the first half of the set, as illustrated by this plot of the 20 Topps stars from the prior Venn diagrams.
In fact, every one of the star players except Ray Boone (#77), Joe Black (#98), and the second Ted Williams (#250) was placed within the first 50 cards of the set, i.e., Series One.
It’s fair to wonder if the front loading of stars was simply the way things were done back then, but a quick look at the Bowman checklist shows a more even distribution. Among the second half cards in 1954 Bowman are Feller (132), Hodges (138), Newcombe (154), Berra (161), Wynn (164), Snider (170), Ford (177), and Lemon (196).
Twists of fate
When collectors think of the 1954 Topps set today, three cards immediately come to mind: the rookie cards of Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Al Kaline. (Throw in Tommy Lasorda too if you like.) I suspect most collectors simply assume Topps got lucky in choosing these future Hall of Famers for its set while Bowman whiffed on all of them. What I believe the data show is that Topps “lucked into” these HOF rookie cards through the misfortune of having no better players available.
Meanwhile, when collectors think of the 1954 Bowman set, the Mantle card of course comes to mind. However, the key card in the set is definitely the Ted Williams who wasn’t supposed to be there. As such, just as the best cards in the Topps set are the result of Bowman exclusives, the best card in the Bowman set is the result of a Topps exclusive. I’m pretty sure this is the exact opposite of how things are supposed to work.
I thought it would be interesting to track the players mentioned in this post into 1955 to see if there was any discernible shift of talent away from Bowman in what would be the Philly card makers last hurrah.
What follows is an alphabetical listing of the 46 star players mentioned in this post (and Willie Mays as a bonus), along with their Topps vs Bowman status in 1954 and 1955. Players whose status changed from 1954 to 1955 are shown in bold.
The main takeaway from the chart is that most players stayed put. The greatest movement involved players who had been in both sets in 1954 but went to a single set in 1955. Of the seven instances of this, four went to Bowman and three—counting Ted Williams, who wasn’t supposed to be with Bowman in the first place—went to Topps.
There was also one player, Jim Konstanty, who went from neither set in 1954 to Bowman in 1955. Finally, Eddie Stanky went from Topps-only to both sets. Other than that, the remaining 38 players stayed the same.
While Bowman would ultimately and utterly lose the war with Topps, any advantage in the battle for talent would only come over Bowman’s dead body—just the way Topps wanted it!