The Story Behind The 1953 Bowman Color Pee Wee Reese Card

The 1953 Bowman Color Pee Wee Reese is one of the most popular and iconic cards ever produced. And yet surprisingly, very little documentation exists on the origins of its creation. Who took this striking photograph of Reese leaping in the midst of a play? Why does this card look so different from the other Bowman Color cards? And who is that base runner on second?

Pee Wee in flight.

The main reason these questions persist can be traced to the famous commercial war between Topps and Bowman Gum of the early 1950s, which left Bowman on the losing end of things. In any war, commercial or otherwise, the loser rarely gets much of a chance to tell their side of the story, and the details are soon lost to time. As such, much of the Bowman legacy was unceremoniously thrown out or auctioned off into the ether. And so here we are decades later as collectors, attempting to put the puzzle back together again in the hopes of shedding some light on these marvels of pop culture.

The majority of the photographs featured in the gorgeous and eye-catching Bowman Color Set were taken during the 1952 season. It’s widely known that the folks lighting, composing, and snapping these shots were also taking photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, and other cultural giants of the time to grace the covers of every major publication of the era: Sports Illustrated, Life, Look, National Geographic, to name just a few. 

In order to ease the workflow for the New York City-based photographers, Bowman arranged to take most of the shots in two of the game’s biggest hubs: Yankee Stadium for the American League players, and The Polo Grounds for the National League. Not to be completely left out of the mix, there’s exactly one card that represents Ebbets Field, where Brooklyn first baseman Gil Hodges mans his position against the backdrop of the iconic Schaefer Beer scoreboard. But sprinkled here and there throughout 160 photos captured in New York stadiums are a handful of outliers – Spring Training shots of players fielding and throwing in staged poses that feature palm trees instead of grandstands as backdrops.

Aerial view of City Island Ballpark – Daytona, FL

In 1946, the Brooklyn Dodgers would spend their spring training at City Island Ballpark in Daytona, Florida – the site of Jackie Robinson’s appearance with the Montreal Royals in an historic exhibition game vs Brooklyn that same year. The Brooklyn organization was still a couple of years away from the purchase and conversion of a WWII naval base in Vero Beach that would famously become known as Dodgertown. 

It was here in 1946 that the now-iconic image of Pee Wee Reese leaping over a baserunner to make a throw to first base was taken – 6 years earlier than the majority of the photographs from the 160 card set. When you compare the environment behind Reese in the photo, it most clearly matches up with the low fence and sparse tree-lined backdrop of the Daytona ballpark. The Reese card would be one of the few that fell outside of Bowman’s 1952 season-long photo shoot. 

Publications featuring the Reese image. From author’s collection.

As it turns out, this particular image had a life in the public eye well before it was used on a baseball card in 1953. Images from the Reese photo shoot were featured in several magazine publications in the late 40s and early 50s, including a 1950 edition of The National Police Gazette and a 1946 edition of This Week Magazine from the New York Herald Tribune. While the image used on the magazines is slightly different (take note of both Reese and the baserunner’s position in comparison to the Bowman card), it’s no doubt from the same photoshoot. Thanks to these publications, it is finally possible to identify and give credit to the photographer of this unforgettable image – David Peskin.

Peskin’s photo credit in 1946 NY Herald Tribune.

Peskin’s work can be seen across a myriad of publications from the era, most of them depicting sports figures in the midst of their craft. Although he did cover live sporting events, his most striking images are posed moments of athletes in action. From these works it’s easy to see how Peskin’s disposition to capture athletes in motion led him to favor Reese’s leap for his image.

Magazine covers featuring David Peskin photography.

It’s worth mentioning that Peskin’s horizontal image of Reese was not the only card of its kind originally being considered for the set. A Bowman Color proof card exists which has been dubbed “Dodgers In Action” – clearly following the same formula of a horizontal card depicting action from the field, although this image appears to be from an actual game, as opposed to Reese’s staged leap for Peskin. Ultimately, the “Dodgers In Action” card never made it past the concept phase; traces of a horizontal action subset for the 1953 set? It is fun to speculate. 

“Dodgers In Action” proof card

Lastly, the debate as to which player is desperately hanging on to second base underneath Reese lingers to this day, with names like Morgan, Hodges, and Snider bandied about. The theory given the most credence seems to be the one offered by Reese himself, who was asked about the photo years later. He identified Stanley George “Frenchy” Bordagaray as the base runner, which checks out: Bordagaray was with the Dodgers up until the start of the 1946 season, when he was released. He was soon offered a coaching position within the Dodgers’ minor league system. With no definitive proof on the card however, collectors are still inclined to speculate: staring intently at the folds of the base runner’s jersey, straining to make out the number on his back. Now, why is the runner facing the wrong way on the basepaths? Despite being known as an action shot, it’s clearly a posed moment for Peskin, who was likely less concerned with game accuracy as he was with grabbing an aesthetically pleasing moment. Bordagary is not sliding so much as lying down, allowing Peskin to focus his attention on getting the best shot of Reese’s leap.

Stanley George “Frenchy” Bordagaray

These cards, once thought of as trivial bits of ephemera for bicycle spokes and shoeboxes, have grown in both value and lore over the decades. It’s only fitting then to give credit where credit is due; Warren Bowman and his cohorts, along with some talented hired guns – David Peskin among them – who went out onto the ballfields of the late 40s and early 50s to shoot some of the most breathtaking images the hobby has ever seen. 

Reese stands out amongst his Bowman Color brothers. From author’s collection.