Back Story: Bowman Bows Out (on Color Television!)

Note: This is Part IV oa series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards (previous articles featured the 1956 Topps1960 Topps, and 1954 Topps/Bowman sets). 

By 1955, the battle for baseball-card supremacy between Bowman and Topps had been going on for several years. And though Topps was making some inroads, Bowman still had the edge when it came to established stars signed to exclusive contracts. Frankly, it wasn’t even close. Here’s a comparison of the number of players named to the American and National League teams for the 1954 All-Star Game who were featured in each company’s 1955 card set. 

1954 MLB All-Stars in 1955 Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets 

Only Bowman              32 players 

Only Topps                   16 players 

Both Sets                         4 players 

The All-Stars who appeared in both sets were Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Sherm Lollar and Willie Mays. (Somewhat mysteriously, three 1954 All-Stars had cards in neither 1955 set: Larry Doby, Don Mueller, and Stan Musial). Bowman also boasted four future Hall of Famers who didn’t make the 1954 All-Star teams: Richie Ashburn, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, and Early Wynn; Topps only had a well-past-his-prime Hal Newhouser. (Non-1954 All-Star but future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto had cards in both sets.)  

Yet despite Bowman’s edge in overall star power, Topps had been beating Bowman pretty handily in the marketplace. Kids just seemed to prefer the innovative, attractive design of the Topps cards, a credit to the work of Topps’ master card designer, Sy Berger. 

So in 1955, Bowman pulled out all the stops in their card design, on both the fronts and the backs. While my primary focus continues to be the material on the backs of the cards, the fronts of the 1955 Bowman and Topps sets deserve a look as well. That year, both Bowman and Topps used a horizontal (or landscape) design on their card fronts for the first time. The Topps cards featured both a head shot and a small “action pose” of each subject, set against a solid colored background. This was essentially the same design that Topps had used in 1954; the main difference was that the head shot and action pose had been in vertical (or portrait) mode in ’54. For players who had cards in both its 1954 and 1955 sets, Topps often used the same head shot in both sets (and continued to use the same head shot in 1956). 

The 1955 Bowman cards, by contrast, were completely new and daring. Color television was brand-new in 1955—the first color TV sets had only become available to the mass market in 1954, and there were next to no actual color broadcasts available—but Bowman put the new medium into the hands of card collectors by featuring each subject on the screen of a wood-grained color TV. Pretty “hep,” as we cool cats used to say back in ’55. 

But did the new design work? Before moving on to the backs of the 1955 Topps and Bowman cards, let’s compare the card fronts of a few players featured in both sets that year. Here’s Ernie Banks, a young star who would have his first big season in 1955. 

I have to say that, then and now, I preferred Ernie’s dreamy-eyed look on his Bowman card to the blank expression featured on both his Topps head shot and action pose. (He looks like he’s saying, “Let’s play none today!”) Even so, there is one problem with the Bowman design that was apparent even to a kid unconcerned with the future value of his cards: with no white border on the edge of the cards, those Bowman TV sets could often start to look pretty beat up. 

Like Banks, Al Kaline had his breakthrough season in 1955, and I like the fronts of both his Bowman and Topps cards: relaxed and confident on the Bowman, determined kid on the Topps. Two nice cards. 

Steve Bilko’s Bowman card shows him staring off in the distance… maybe toward the Pacfic Coast League, where he was about to become a legend as a slugger with the minor league Los Angeles Angels. Bilko’s Topps card isn’t exactly beautiful, but the head shot gives you a better glimpse of him, and the corkscrew swing and Cubbie logo are nice touches.  

Give Bowman points for innovation; its 320-card set featured not only the TV-set design, but 31 cards devoted to major-league umpires (including one for American League umpire supervisor Cal Hubbard, a future member of both the baseball and pro football Halls of Fame)—certainly a unique touch. 

Bowman continued the innovations on its card backs: about one-fourth of the Bowman cards had articles supposedly written by the player on subjects such as “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” “My Childhood Hero,” “The Best Hitter I’ve Ever Seen,” and “My Advice to Youngsters.” I’m sure that seemed like a promising idea to Bowman, but the result was usually pedestrian and sometimes outright comical. Let’s look at a few examples. 

Typical of the genre were “The Most Important Part of Baseball” by Don Hoak and “My Advice to Youngsters” by Rip Repulski.  “As far as I’m concerned, ‘Hustle’ is the most important part of baseball,” writes Don. “Never give up,” says Rip. Good advice, to be sure, but it makes for pretty dull reading. Heck, when Don Hoak was in the minors, he was one of four members of the Fort Worth Cats who were married at home plate (by four different ministers) before the start of the game. Wouldn’t that have made a good “Greatest Thrill” article? 

The afore-mentioned Steve Bilko’s card has an article entitled “My Favorite Memories in Baseball.” His biggest thrill was the day he hit four home runs in one game, but he doesn’t mention when or where it happened; it definitely was not in the major leagues, and I’ve yet to track down a four-home game by Bilko in his minor-league career, either. When and where it happened would have been pretty nice to know. Bilko picks Willie Mays’ great catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series as the best catch he’s ever seen, but as he was neither a member of the Giants nor the Indians, he likely only saw the catch on film or on (black and white) television. He picks picks Stan Musial as baseball’s best hitter and Robin Roberts as the best pitcher. Not exactly scintillating stuff. 

“The Most Exciting Game in Which I’ve Played” by White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar recounts a 1953 game in which the Sox—trailing 3-1 with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth—beat the Yankees with a pinch-hit, grand-slam home run by Tommy Byrne. But Lollar gets some of the details wrong, and doesn’t mention the fact that Byrne was a pitcher, the main reason why the homer was so memorable. Even more strangely, Byrne had a card in the ’55 Bowman set, but the Bow-men did not select Tommy for one of those “Greatest Thrill” first-person articles, opting instead for a boilerplate rundown of his career. 

Then there is “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” by Eddie Waitkus. “In 1949, I was shot by a deranged girl,” it begins, recounting the bizarre incident in which a female fan who was obsessed with Waitkus invited him to her hotel room and then shot him in the chest. (The incident was later fictionalized in The Natural by Bernard Malamud.) The article recounts Waitkus’s recovery, with the help of the woman who became his wife, and it’s a heck of a story, but… getting shot… that’s your “greatest thrill”? 

The backs of the 1955 Topps cards avoided such histrionics, instead opting for a prose rundown of the player’s career, his 1954 and lifetime stats, and a cartoon Q&A that was very similar to the “Dugout Quiz” featured on the backs of the Topps 1953 set. Here are three examples, using players who also had Bowman cards that year. 

To summarize, the Bowman 1955 cards were very creative on both sides of the card, while the Topps cards recycled formats they had used previously, down to even using the same head shots from 1954. Bowman also had a bigger set—320 cards versus 206 for Topps (the Topps set was supposed to have 210 cards, but they had to pull four players who turned out to have exclusive contracts with Bowman)—along with more star players. Yet Topps dominated the marketplace once again.  Why was that? Here are a few reasons: 

  • As card dealer and author Dean Hanley has pointed out, Topps countered Bowman’s edge in overall star power with a stronger first series. That included baseball’s biggest star of the day—Ted Williams (who had shifted from Bowman to Topps in 1954), along with Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn. Additionally, the Topps first series included rising stars Banks, Kaline, and Hank Aaron; all three players appeared in the Bowman set as well, but only Kaline was part of Bowman’s first series. Topps was faster out of the gate. (Topps did similar in 1954 as well.)
  • Hanley also notes that Topps’ last series included the likes of Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider, while Bowman was countering with a series full of lesser lights and umpires. Topps had Bowman coming and going. 
  • The Bowman set included some quality control issues, like blurry photos; mixing up the card fronts and backs for Milt and Frank Bolling and Ernie and Don Johnson; and misspelling Harvey Kuenn’s last name. Bowman issued corrected cards for the Bolling, Johnson and Kuenn gaffes, but the damage was done. 
  • With the TV-set design taking up a large part of the borders of the Bowman cards, the player photos were smaller by necessity. That was a major contrast to the large head shots on the Topps cards, and an obvious disadvantage. Here’s Hanley again, from his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955: “There is too much wasted canvas space [in the Bowman set]. Most of the pictures of the players are standing upright, resulting in smaller pictures and a lot of empty background. The design of the 1955 Topps set did a much better job of filling the canvas and creating a more attractive product.” Amen to that!

Ultimately Topps outsold Bowman again in 1955, as it had for the previous few years; kids just liked the Topps cards better. As a Chicago-area youngster who was just beginning to collect baseball cards in the spring and summer of 1955, I can attest to that: I and most of my friends preferred the look and feel of the Topps cards, with their large head shots and team logos on the card front, and the clever cartoons on a clear white background on the back.  

By the time the 1956 baseball season rolled around, Bowman was out of the trading card business (the final nail in Bowman’s coffin came when Topps issued its first football card set in the fall of 1955, an all-time college All-American set that logged better sales than Bowman’s NFL cards). This was a major loss for collectors: whether or not they sold as well as Topps, the Bowman cards were always great, and continue to be a worthy part of anyone’s collection. 

Back Story: 1954 Topps and Bowman Baseball

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).

Mantle 53B  Mantle 53T

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?

Mathews 54B  Mathews 54T

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.

Doby 54B  Doby 54T

 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.

Greengrass 54B  Greengrass 54T

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.

Mueller 54B   Mueller 54T

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.

 

Ashburn 54B   Ashburn 54T

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.

 

Back Story: 1960 Topps Baseball

Part II of my series about a neglected feature of baseball cards—the material on the back of the cards—continues with the 1960 Topps set. (For Part I, read here.) To my knowledge, this was the third and final “regular” Topps set where the front of the card was in landscape (horizontal) mode, rather than portrait (vertical) mode; the others were 1955 and 1956. So right away, it’s an unusual set. The card fronts feature a large head shot of the player along with a smaller “action” shot, something that Topps did a few times over the years (also 1954-55-56-63; in 1983-84, the head shot was the smaller one). Here’s the front of card No. 1 in the set, 1959 Cy Young Award winner Early Wynn of the White Sox.

Wynn front

As for the backs of the cards, the 1960 set marked one of the last times that Topps opted to present stats only for the player’s previous year and career, rather than a year-by-year rundown. What makes the set unique was how Topps used the extra space made available by skipping the rundown. Along with a cartoon highlighting something about the player, the 1960 set featured bullet points with highlights from the player’s 1959 season. Here is Wynn’s card back.

 

Wynn

Here’s the card back for another of the big stars featured in the set, 1959 National League MVP Ernie Banks.

Banks

The bullet point idea worked very nicely for players like Wynn and Banks who had a lot of 1959 highlights. Topps was more challenged finding positive bullet points for players with lesser performances. Sy Berger and company did their best. Leon Wagner, a year or two away from becoming “Daddy Wags,” batted only 129 times in 1959, with 29 hits, but the bullet points on his 1960 Topps card made him look like the star he would eventually become.

Wagner

Sometimes Topps opted for brevity. In 1959, Carl Furillo of the Dodgers was a little-used sub and pinch-hitter nearing the end of his career. But he had two huge hits that contributed to the Dodgers’ World Series championship, one in the playoff series against the Braves and the other in Game Three of the Series. Those became the only bullet points on his 1960 Topps card—an excellent decision, I think.

Furillo

But there were cases in the 1960 set where Topps seemed to be a little clueless when it came to digging up highlights from the previous season. Relief pitchers seemed to be a particular challenge. Roy Face of the Pirates had a legendary 1959 season, winning his first 17 decisions on his way to posting an 18-1 record. While Face’s season was an early cautionary note against the value of pitcher wins—several of his 1959 victories came after blowing a save—his season included a number of outstanding performances, such as seven games in which he worked three-plus relief innings without allowing a run. Yet Topps could come up with only three highlights for Face’s ‘59 season, and one of them involved a game in which he came back “after being sidelined 10 days with a cut hand.”

Face

In the case of Jerry Staley (the player’s preferred spelling of his first name, rather than “Gerry”), one of Topps’ highlights was a World Series game in which Staley worked the final two innings to “save” an 11-0 victory. Topps completely missed the performance that every veteran White Sox fan would regard as the highlight of Staley’s White Sox career: his one-pitch outing against the Indians on September 22 that induced a double-play grounder to clinch the team’s first American League pennant in 40 years.

Staley

And Topps completely went off the rails with relievers Don Elston and Stu Miller, opting to go with a prose summary instead of bullet points. That seemed particularly short-sighted in the case of Miller, who started nine times, worked over 100 innings in relief, and ranked second in the National League in ERA. Surely there were a few notable highlights in there.

Miller

On the other hand, I have to say that the phrase “his ‘junk ball’ slithered enough to keep the senior circuit hitter confused” might top anything Topps could come up with in terms of Stu Miller bullet points.

But sometimes Topps could be forgiven for failing to come up with either good bullet points, or good prose. Consider the player who, in 1959, played in 152 games and had 527 plate appearances, while amassing a total of 12 (!) extra-base hits and 42 runs scored and posting an OPS+ of 43. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man described by Topps as “a swifty on the bases” (1959 totals: 6 SB, 9 CS) and “a good clutch hitter” (.584 OPS with runners in scoring position): George Anderson, better known as “Sparky.”

Anderson

Sparky’s managerial career would include plenty of material for bullet points, at least.

 

Back Story: 1956 Topps Baseball

I love all aspects of baseball-card collecting, but one area of particular interest to me has always been the backs of the cards. Naturally the front design of a card set is going to be the first thing that people remember about it, but what’s presented on the flip side can greatly add to a set’s appeal, and sometimes detract from it. This article is hopefully the first of a few in which I’ll delve into what I consider sets with good—or lame—card backs.

 

I’ll start with the first baseball card set I completed as a child: the 340-card 1956 Topps set. This was their first set since Topps had won the war for sports card supremacy from Bowman, and it was the biggest Topps set since 1952. It’s also a very creative set, both front and back. The fronts feature a head shot superimposed over one of the player “in action.” The quality of the action shots vary greatly, and sometimes they’re even bogus… most famously, the Hank Aaron action shot is actually one of Willie Mays with a Milwaukee cap airbrushed onto him. When they work, they’re great, like this one of Jackie Robinson sliding home.

JRobinson front.jpg

The backs of the 1956 Topps set, however, are almost universally outstanding. The stat lines only included the player’s 1955 stats, plus his career totals, but that left plenty of room for a three-picture cartoon graphic about the player, Those cartoons were simply fabulous. Articles about this set say that the work was done by some of the leading comic-book artists of the time… I would love to know exactly who they were, if anyone has more information. The graphics tell a little three-panel story about the player, in a very creative way. Let’s start with the back of the same Jackie Robinson card, nicely summarizing his greatness.

JRobinson back

What appealed most to me about these 1956 card backs was how creative and downright funny they often were. Here’s Hoyt Wilhelm’s card, starting with a cartoon of his knuckler making a hitter dizzy and finishing with Hoyt having worn a trench between the bullpen and the mound.

Wilhelm 

Earl Torgeson’s card shows him watering some flowers (“Things grow fast in Detroit,” like Earl’s batting average); the oft-injured Torgy jumping out of bed because “The Tigers need a pinch hitter”; and Earl watching a game from first base while reclining on a bed, to note the time he played an entire game at first without making a putout. I love it.

Torgeson

Here’s Wally Moon, breaking out in song because he’s playing ball between school terms (any kid could relate to that); wearing a Roman garland on his hat for winning the Rookie of the Year award; and literally stealing some bases.

Moon

 The sheer irreverence in so many of these cards is pretty wonderful. Windy McCall’s early control problems are depicted by a batter wearing a suit of armour while the pitch clangs off his head; meanwhile the suffering catcher sweats behind the plate with his right arm in a sling. I am fairly certain that if this was 2018 and Windy McCall was a Scott Boras client, this card would not have been made.

McCall

One of my all-time personal favorites, the Erv Palica card lampoons Brooklyn accents by showing a Dodger fan, thrilled with Palica’s fine 1950 season, exclaiming, “When Oiv pitches, da boids choip.” This cracked me up when I was eight years old; it still cracks me up at the age of 70.

Palica

The artists of these 1956 cards were challenged by the frequent presence of 1950s bonus players forced onto major leagues with no prior MLB experience. Cue cartoons featuring bags of money and captions saying things like, “The Redlegs feel Al (Silvera) will be a big star.” (Silvera would have exactly seven at-bats in his major league career, with one hit.) Well, it worked for Harmon Killebrew (card No. 164), and—eventually, as with Killebrew—No. 79, Sandy Koufax.

Koufax

“An Educated Fast Ball,” indeed.

As a child with a reasonable degree of intelligence, I appreciated the fact that these cards weren’t afraid to be clever; they appealed to me in much the same way that TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” would wink and nod to me as I continued to mature.

But those were TV shows; this is a baseball card set. There’s never been a set quite like it.