The Mystery Cards Continue in Football, With Insight from Sy Berger and Woody Gelman

By George Vrechek

The following is the second part of a two-part series in SCD. The first installment can be read here.

In my previous article in SCD, I described how collector Landon Sims got his hands on some mysterious baseball and football cards the size and style of the 1950 Bowmans. The blank cardboard backs of the “mystery” cards had the hand-written names of the players, positions, teams and usually a card number written with a different color of ink. The cards were accompanied by a catalog page dated September 1957, from card dealer Sam Rosen, stepfather of early Topps product development director Woody Gelman, with notations about cards purchased. I looked at the 17 baseball cards in the prior article. Let’s look at the 130 football cards in this installment.

Player cards
My impression about the football cards was similar to that of the baseball cards. They look like they were prepared at about the same time and in the same style as the mystery baseball cards and the early Bowman “small cards” from 1948-50. The colorized photo artwork on these mock-up cards vary somewhat, leading to the thought that more than one person worked on the cards. The players are pictured in their college uniforms, and the hand-written back descriptions relate to their college teams and positions. At least two cards, Andy Kozar and Max Boydston, utilized the same photos that Bowman used on prior professional football cards of these players, lending credence to the assumption that the cards originated from Bowman. Boydston’s Bowman card showing him as a Chicago Cardinal rookie in 1955 was probably created using a photo of him from his earlier Oklahoma Sooner days. In some cases, the writer added notations like “All-A 1954.” The cards were hand-numbered on the back with not all numbers accounted for and the highest number being 174. Most of the players were recently active in college, and most were members of All-America college teams.

Maybe Bowman had lost the rights to NFL players and was going to respond with a set in 1956 that was similar to the Topps All American football set of 1955?

Players included
I’ll let Landon Sims describe his thoughts on these cards: “I have duplicates of some players (Knox and Kowalczyk), one close up, one running. Most all these are from the 1954-57 College All-America teams, with many coming from 1955 and 1956. Glen Davis, Doc Blanchard and Doak Walker were also All-Americans in the past. The only All-Americans from 1957 are Clendon Thomas, who led Oklahoma in rushing in ’55 or ’56 and was a Heisman candidate those years, and Walt Kowalczyk, who was also very well known in ’56. I also found striking resemblances to the photos used for these guys on their 1955 Bowman cards. The cards are all painted and colored except for the faces. Some are better than others, but the quality on some is unbelievable. Every football card is either a team captain or an All-American.”

Bernie Flowers

I’ll list some of the players in the “set” and the last year that they played college ball: Alan Ameche, 1954; Doc Blanchard, 1946; Preston Carpenter, 1955; Howard Cassady, 1955; Glen Davis, 1947; Len Dawson, 1956; Bernie Flowers, 1952; Sid Fournet, 1954; Paul Giel, 1953; Frank Gifford, 1951; Paul Hornung, 1956; Jim Hower, 1956; Vic Janowicz, 1951; Ronnie Knox, 1955; Walt Kowalczyk, 1957; Ron Kramer, 1956; John Majors, 1956; Earl Morrall, 1955; Jim Mutscheller, 1951; Johnny Olszewski, 1952; Babe Parilli, 1951; Clendon Thomas, 1957; and Doak Walker, 1949.

Was the set prepared in 1955 or 1956?
As far as I was able to tell, any of the players who didn’t leave college until after the 1956 season had promising careers in 1955, e.g. Hornung, Majors, Thomas, and Kowalczyk. Kowalczyk is one of the “keys” in that he didn’t graduate until 1958 but was a highly touted high school player and started all three years at MSU. He (barely) fit the criteria of being a known college star as of late 1955. The players selected would likely be identified as recent college players of renown, if not yet All-Americans. They added well-known collegians from a few prior years, like Misters Inside and Outside of Army, Frank Gifford, and baseballers Vic Janowicz and Paul Giel.

Given Bowman’s sale to Topps in January 1956, it seems likely that these cards were prepared in late 1955. Why would Bowman have worked on a football card set after the sale to Topps? Nonetheless, the Walt Kowalczyk card might be telling us that for some reason the set wasn’t put together until late 1956.Tommy McDonald

“TD Boy” football set even more mysterious
Adding to the confusion and mystery are the backs of the baseball cards described in part one of this article. Several of the cards of baseball players have the hand-written (I’d say “scribbled”) names of football players crossed out. Nellie Fox’s card back lists Fox’s information below the crossed out name of “Dante Lavelli, End, TD Boy, Cleveland Browns.” On Del Crandall’s card is the crossed out name of “Dan Towler, FB, TD Boy, Los Angeles Rams, Deacon Dan.” Wilbur Mizell’s card has “Tom Fears, End, TD Boy from Los Angeles Rams, Chrome Dome” crossed out on the cardboard.

None of these players are in the collegiate mystery set. Towler’s last season was 1955; the others played through 1956. Perhaps the Bowman boys thought initially about doing a set of NFL players in their NFL uniforms called “T.D. Boys,” got the word that such a set wouldn’t fly due to the contract rights and then used the same darned cardboard to mount the 18 baseball cards?

Multiples of 18?
The 130 cards Sims purchased included 126 different football players (with two views of four of the players.) If you added in 50 more cards out of the blue, you’d have a nice total of 180 cards which is the sum of 5 times 36. I’ve seen uncut sheets of 1950 Bowman baseball cards with 36 cards on a sheet. That would help explain why the football card back numbering would go up to at least 174.

Time to call Sy
While going though the process of trying to understand the mystery behind the cards, I always thought it would be great to talk to someone who was there at the time. Fortunately for the hobby, Sy Berger was definitely there at the time and is still with us today.

With the above information in hand, I placed a call to the 88-year-old Berger, who had worked for Topps for 55 years. I last talked to Sy about the “card wars” with Bowman between 1951-55 (which appeared in SCD in March and April 2009). Sy was very cordial in sharing what information he recalled from this mid-1950s period. He apologized that he “couldn’t remember” as much these days, but then proceeded to recall in detail many events from 55-plus years ago.

I told him about the cards that Sims had purchased and asked him if he knew anything about them. Sy started by recalling the baseball player rights at the time. Sy told me that “they were fighting with (Bowman) as to who had rights. I got the idea and talked to (Joe) Shoirin, a brilliant man, and I went to the minors and signed everyone up for $5. If they were pictured (made the major leagues and got on a Topps card), they’d make more money.” The football rights were even less of a problem in that Berger remembers befriending then NFL commissioner Bert Bell. According to Berger, Topps got the rights away from Bowman for all the NFL players by dealing directly with Bell. Bowman would have had no players they could picture for the 1956 season, just like Topps had no one they could picture in a NFL uniform for the 1955 season.

Sy added, “We didn’t need anything from Bowman” since Topps had most of the future players signed. Sy stated that he “told Woody Gelman exactly what to do.” Sy never “touched any Bowman” cards in progress after the purchase in January 1956. He couldn’t really say, however, that Gelman hadn’t picked up some Bowman cards in progress. Sy also added that “he had no business with who printed the cards and where they were printed. (He) was running around (signing up players) having a good time.”

Input from John L. England and Ray Medeiros

Max Boydston

I thought I would also check with a few hobby veterans. I talked with 71-year-old John England, a long-time collector from Ft. Smith, Ark. Since there seemed to be few old-time collectors from Arkansas, I asked John if he knew of any collector from Hot Springs who would have purchased the mystery cards. John has been a collector, hobby writer and card store owner. He operated his card shop in Ft. Smith from 1973-96. He traveled the state and was buying and selling cards starting in 1952 and sold his massive vintage collection to Larry Fritsch in 1984. John recalls meeting no one in Hot Springs or anywhere else in Arkansas who was a serious collector in the 1950s.

Postcard stadium guru Ray Medeiros recalled, “In l948 and 1949, I purchased snapshots of major league ballplayers of the 1930s and 1940s from a fellow in Hot Springs. While I still have some of the snapshots, I can’t recall the collector’s name. He would be very old, if he were alive today.”

I also checked with veteran Philadelphia collector Irv Lerner, who is very knowledgeable about Topps and Bowman in the 1950s. He was as stumped as the rest of us.

What to make of all this?
After trying to piece together the story of these mysterious baseball and football cards, I was left with as many questions as answers. I can’t be positive, but I think the fronts of the baseball cards were prepared in late 1953. I think the fronts of the football cards, though, were prepared in 1955. These assumptions are supported by the consistency of the artwork, the player uniforms and the youngest players selected – Walt Kowalczyk in football and Ray Jablonski in baseball. The backs of the baseball cards were likely described in late 1956 after Bowman’s sale to Topps based on the team designations of Schoendienst and Jablonski (their trades to the teams indicated were in late 1956).

Recapping the many questions in my mind, I first wondered why Sam Rosen and Woody Gelman would have sold these one-of-a-kind cards for 2 cents each in 1957 and caused me all this investigative work. Why didn’t Gelman hang onto them like he did with the 1956 prototypes in the recent REA auction? Was it possible that someone other than Bowman put the sets together or perhaps Bowman was doing it on behalf of some customer? Why would they go back to the 1950-sized cards? Was colorizing photos still drastically less expensive than full-color photography at the time or were they going for a vintage look and size? Why would they have included retired players Dom DiMaggio and Marty Marion as well as a defunct team, the St. Louis Browns? Why were only 17 or 18 baseball cards mocked-up, including Musial who had not allowed anyone other than Rawlings to print his image between 1954-57? What happened to the 50 or so missing football cards based on the card numbers going up to at least 174? Based on including Knox and Kowalcyk, the cards couldn’t have been produced much earlier than late 1955 (prior to the sale to Topps) but could they have been produced in 1956 when the baseball card backs were described?

The handwriting
I had just about despaired of figuring out much more about the puzzle of the mystery

Could the handwriting provide a clue?

cards when I thought about what Sy Berger had said. Berger told me that “he told Woody Gelman exactly what to do.” But wait a minute. Berger at 88 must have been born in 1923. Gelman was born in 1915. Why would a 41-year-old creative guy in 1956 do exactly what a 33-year-old guy told him to do? Maybe the crummy handwriting was indeed that of the creative art director, Woody Gelman?

Jim Zak is a 68-year-old Chicago-area collector and dealer who ran a card store I visited years ago. I knew that he had known Woody and his son, Richard Gelman, personally and that Jim had edited Gelman’s Card Collectors publication in the 1960s. I called and asked Jim if he knew what Gelman’s handwriting looked like. Jim said, “It was terrible!” Bingo! I thought. Jim also said that he recalled that Topps “had talked to Bowman about not only player contracts but their method of colorizing photos” on their 1954 and 1955 cards. Jim recalled Gelman as being a “leader and independent.” I sent samples of the writing on the backs of the cards to Jim. Jim didn’t have any samples of Gelman’s handwriting around and could not determine if the handwriting was Gelman’s or not.

Bob Lemke of Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards fame suggested I call Jeff Fritsch. Jeff’s late father, Larry Fritsch, purchased the bulk of what was left of Gelman’s 10 million cards in the 1980s. Jeff didn’t have any Woody Gelman writing samples handy either. Through the efforts of collector Leon Luckey, I was able to contact veteran collector Fred McKie. Fred was kind enough to send me some short samples of Gelman’s writing. Several of the letters looked similar, particularly the capital letters K, S and B. The handwriting looked pretty close to me, but McKie’s samples were all capital letters and neither of us are handwriting gurus.

Richard Gelman
Another light went off in my head. I hadn’t pursued Richard Gelman, Woody’s son. Through Mint Condition author Dave Jamieson, I got in touch with 69-year-old Richard Gelman, who quickly confirmed that the writing on the back of the cards was not his father’s. He didn’t know whose writing it was.

Richard Gelman started helping his father and step-grandfather with card sales while he was still a kid. He recalled his step-grandfather died in 1957, and it’s not clear whether it was Rosen or Woody Gelman who actually sold the mystery cards. Richard remembered that the Topps creative people like his father would carpool to work and come up with many ideas for sets and junk most of them. They would put together a few samples, but not 130 football cards. It was entirely possible that the folks at Bowman were doing the same and that the mystery cards were from Bowman’s own larger junk pile. Richard thought it would be unusual for his father to have sold any of his own mock-ups or test issues in that most such efforts were passed on to Richard, and he sold them after his father’s death. At one time, Richard had 30 million cards. I sent Richard copies of the cards, but they didn’t ring any bells, other than he agreed that they looked like a product of Bowman. I sent copies of the cards and their backs to Sy Berger, but I didn’t hear back.

The exciting conclusion?
Although I didn’t unravel the mystery of the cards, I felt that it was likely that Bowman turned over their in-progress files, artwork and these mystery cards to Topps, all of which got to Gelman’s product development group. The names of the players were not on the backs of the mystery cards when Gelman took possession (still puzzling), but must have been described separately. Someone other than Gelman then wrote the player information on the card backs during 1956. Topps didn’t retain the cards and they wound up with Gelman personally. Rosen or Gelman sold the cards for not much money to some unnamed collector who lived in Hot Springs, Ark., at some time. After the collector’s death, the cards went to a dealer, and then were purchased by Landon Sims.

If I had to pick a name for these mystery cards, I’d call them “one-of-a-kind Bowman major league baseball and college football mock-up cards created before 1956 that were described on their backs in 1955 or 1956 and never issued.”

If our alert readers have another thought on these cards, I would welcome any feedback. Collector Landon Sims has sold a few of the baseball cards via eBay. He might hang onto these wonderful mystery cards or weigh his collecting options . . . or maybe issue a set of 1956 Sims All American football cards, hopefully with bubble gum.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at vrechek@ameritech.net.

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