Part III of my series about a neglected feature of baseball cards—the material on the back of the cards—continues with the two major baseball card sets from 1954: Topps and Bowman. (For review: Part 1, and Part 2)
By 1954 the companies had been competing in the trading-card market for several years, and in most years a number of ballplayers were featured in both card sets—an issue that became the subject of litigation, with Bowman claiming that they had exclusive contracts for use of the players’ images. (The courts ultimately upheld exclusivity on some of the Bowman contracts, but not all.) With the benefit of that quirk, this article will compare the material featured on the card backs of several players who had card images in both 1954 sets.
Prior to 1954, neither Topps nor Bowman had done much innovation with the material that appeared on the backs of their cards. Here are the card backs for Mickey Mantle’s Topps and Bowman offerings from 1953. (A confession: for the 1953 Topps and Bowman sets and the 1954 Topps set, the images I’m using are from the reprints of these sets that were produced several decades later. Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford the originals…)
(Ed: in all cases, the Bowman card is shown first, followed by the Topps card).
Apart from the “Dugout Quiz” that appeared on the Topps cards, the material on these card backs was fairly identical. Both sets presented biographical data, past year and lifetime statistics (what, no WAR or Defensive Runs Saved?), and a few sentences of prose about the player that could have been swapped between Topps and Bowman without anyone noticing.
Under the leadership of the great Sy Berger, Topps went in a completely new direction in 1954—one that put Bowman to shame. Both the fronts and backs of the 1954 Topps cards were much more innovative and colorful than their Bowman counterparts. I’m primarily focusing on the backs, of course, but here’s a quick peek at the 1954 Topps and Bowman card fronts for one of baseball’s top stars of that era, Eddie Mathews of the Braves.
In its 1953 set, the Bowman card fronts had featured beautiful full-color portraits of its players for the majority of its cards (the final 64 cards had featured black-and-white photos). The result was a set that would be prized by collectors in the years to come… but one which was outsold in the marketplace by Topps in 1953. To save money in 1954, Bowman opted for a cheaper method of photography on its card fronts… basically black-and-white photos that were colored over. The result was a dull, washed-out image that compared unfavorably to the vibrant Topps card fronts.
The backs of these cards were another big win for Topps. Both sets featured the usual stats and biographical info. But the Topps cards added a two, sometimes three-panel “Inside Baseball” story told in cartoon fashion. I ask you, what sticks with you more: reading about how Mathews lost the 1953 slugging percentage crown to Duke Snider by two-tenths of a point, or a cartoon showing how he once landed in the lap of baseball commissioner Ford Frick?
Moving onto another future Hall of Famer, Larry Doby, while the back of the Bowman card was asking for the real first name of Grasshopper Whitney (I’m guessing that young Dick Cramer knew the answer without batting an eye), Topps was presenting a fun cartoon showing how Doby improved his speed by working with track legend Harrison Dillard.
Jim Greengrass of the Cincinnati Redlegs (no “Reds” during the McCarthy era!) was hardly a major star, but I loved reading on his Topps card about how his wife Cathy had talked him out of quitting baseball. Over in Bowman-land, you could try to guess how many night games the Cleveland Indians had won in 1952.
Both Topps and Bowman noted that Don Mueller of the New York Giants was nicknamed “Mandrake the Magician,” with different explanations for the source of the nickname. According to Mueller’s SABR bio, neither explanation is correct, but never mind… as a child and as an adult, I enjoyed the cartoon on the Topps card more than Bowman’s dull prose.
I’m being a little rough on good old Bowman here, so I’ll point out that the back of Richie Ashburn’s Bowman card included a nifty story about how Ashburn improved his timing by swinging at the pitcher’s offerings while in the on-deck circle. That’s probably a better story than one in the Topps cartoon about how Ashburn moved from catching to the outfield, but cards are marketed with kids in mind… and kids love cartoons.
In his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955, author (and major card dealer) Dean Hanley noted that due to its exclusive contracts, “Bowman was clearly winning the battle to get most of the stars of the game onto their cards.” However, he added that “it is a shame that Bowman did not design a better product on which to display the images of these marquee players.” The Topps cards simply were more attractive and more fun, both front and back. After one more year of competition in which Bowman finally tried to do something different with its card backs (and fronts), Bowman was sold to Connelly Containers, Inc., a company which had little interest in trading cards. In January of 1956, Connelly sold all of Bowman’s assets—including its contracts with the players—to Topps for a measly $200,000. The Topps-Bowman card war over, and Topps had won. Sy Berger’s creativity—including innovations such as the cartoons on the backs of the 1954 Topps baseball set—played a major part in the Topps victory.