The first Bowman baseball card sets might technically be considered the 1939-41 Play Ball sets produced by Gum, Inc. However, the first baseball cards to use the Bowman name were released in 1948.
The 48-card set used black and white photographs and looked very much like miniaturized versions of its 1939 Play Ball predecessor.
Bowman followed up its 1948 offering with a set five times the size. The appearance of the cards differed from the 1948 cards primarily in using color over the player images and using one of several solid colors for the background. The backs also used color ink.
Bowman changed things up again in 1950. Player images used a fuller color palette and backgrounds were quite remarkable in their mix of color and detail. Among full-color baseball card sets, this was almost certainly the most lifelike one ever produced.
When the 1951 season rolled around collectors had been treated to fresh, if not revolutionary, new designs each of the past two years. How could Bowman possibly keep the wheels of progress turning? What would they do for an encore? Would the 1951 cards be 3-D? Scratch and sniff? (Let’s hope not!) True color photographs? Let’s take a look.
Well those cards sure look familiar, don’t they? Aside from adding names and making the cards taller, Bowman seemed content to put out more or less the same product as the year before.
In almost all cases, Bowman (or rather their artists at the George Moll Advertising Agency) employed a standard formula for turning the 1950 images into the 1951 images.
The 1950 image was enlarged about 25%, its full height was used, and excess width on each side was discarded, possibly unevenly. For players whose 1950 Bowman card used a landscape image, Bowman took an analogous approach.
Having just written about the laziest set ever, the thought crossed my mind that 1951 Bowman might at least warrant a seat at that table. However, reuse of prior images, and generic ones at that, was employed by MP & Company for its entire 1949 set, while reused Bowman images were at least based on actual player photos and in fact made up barely a third of the total set.
118 of the 1951 Bowman set’s 324 cards featured repeated players and images from the year before, such as the six I’ve shown. (See this article’s Appendix for a link to the full list.) I should note here that I’m referring to repeated source images, even if modifications were made to reflect team changes. For example, this Peanuts Lowrey card is counted among my tally of reused images.
Another 116 cards were of players who had no card at all in the 1950 release, including these two particularly famous ones.
Finally, there were 90 repeated players from the 1950 set whose cards used new images. While I’ve chosen two superstars to illustrate the point, it’s not evident to me that star power was a primary factor in selecting which players would receive image makeovers…
…nor was the player’s position on the checklist. For those of you with Ted Williams 20/10 vision or really large computer monitors, I’ve plotted the entire checklist using the color scheme from the pie chart (e.g., the top row of blue dots represents repeated players with new images.)
As much as I was hoping to spot a pattern, the dots strike me as largely random other than the unsurprising clustering of brand new players in the set’s final three series.
While my research into the set didn’t turn up any big find, there was at least one card pair that I was glad to stumble upon, not because it confirms any particular theory I had but because it does the opposite.
At first glance these Eddie Lake cards appear a lot like the landscape cards of Mueller, Kerr, and Snider that I showcased earlier. However, a closer look at Lake’s rear end on the 1950 card shows it just about (ahem) butting up against the card edge while the 1951 card leaves room for a sliver more of infield dirt. Likewise the 1951 card shows (nearly) full bodies of two players in the background while the 1950 card barely shows more than one.
These are minor details, but they are enough to illustrate that not all repeated artwork followed the simple crop strategy I showed earlier. In Lake’s case, previously unseen elements were added to the card whereas all earlier examples only showed elements subtracted. Had Bowman followed the standard formula, the result would have been the Fake Lake on the right instead of the Honest Eddie on the left.
Admittedly, I’d be a bigger fan of the 1951 Bowman set had it used all new images rather than recycling more than a third of them. Still, the subtle differences in the reused images–the cropping necessary to produce a new aspect ratio, the occasional team/uniform updates, and the bonus art of the Lake card–provide ample reason to take some of these cards out for a second look, an encore if you will.
Take a Bow…man!
Want to do your own comparisons? I’ve created a Google Sheet with the 118 cards from the 1951 set that recycled images from the 1950 set.