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.