By George Vrechek
The following is the first part of a two-part series in SCD. Look for Part II in the June 15 issue of SCD and online.
Would anyone out there like to trade 1956 Bowman football cards? There is probably only one person in the world who is capable of responding to such an offer. But wait, you say there are no such things as 1956 Bowman Football cards? You might be right, but you need to talk to Landon Sims.
Small wooden box find
Sims started collecting cards as a kid in the 1980s, remembering the 1986 Topps set, wrestling cards and other such products of the prolific card issue era. He has gradually become enthused about older cards. A flea market show near his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., has been a source for occasional collecting finds. At one such recent show, a dealer had a small wooden box of some new items. The box included cards from the proverbial “estate.”
The contents substantiated that this was indeed from someone who had been active as a collector years ago. There were 1955 Topps Doubleheaders in beautiful shape. There were also some unknown baseball and football cards that looked like they had been almost home-made, but by a professional artist. They were the size of the 1950 Bowmans and looked similar to the Bowmans in style and appearance. The blank cardboard backs had the hand-written names of the players, positions and teams. The generally poor handwriting was consistent and accurate enough to not look like it was written by a young collector.
The catalog page
Also in the box was a catalog page dated September 1957, with the heading of card dealer Sam Rosen of New York City, stepfather of early Topps product development director Woody Gelman (1915-78). I later learned that Gelman had facilitated Rosen getting into the business, a convenience to Topps in that they could forward the many time-consuming collector requests they received for missing card numbers to Rosen. Rosen would buy the cards he needed from Topps.
The catalog page contained hand-written numbers with 128 times two equaling 2.56, 1.76 and 1.32 added together to get 3.08, and then all numbers added again of 1.28, 1.28, 1.32 and 1.76 to total 5.64 – a whopping $5.64 in payment. Someone had drawn a circle around the descriptions of the 1957 football cards for sale at $1.76 for the first series of 88 cards and $1.32 for the second series of 66 cards. The numbers 1.28 and 1.28 are a little more mysterious. They could stand for 128 Bowman football cards from 1954 at 2 cents each, or (in Landon Sims’s opinion) they could stand for 128 of his mysterious football cards at 2 cents apiece.
Topps 1955 Doubleheaders were also available for 2 cents each or $1.32 for the set. Topps 1952 high numbers were rather pricey though at 5 cents each. No sense buying any of those ancient cards. The Rosen catalog states they didn’t have sets of all cards and the 1954 Bowman Football cards were not advertised as being a complete set. There was no mention of the miscellaneous football or baseball cards per se on the catalog sheet. Perhaps they priced the mystery cards at the same price as the other Bowman football cards – 2 cents each?
After some negotiations with the flea market seller, Landon passed on the Doubleheaders but bought the “miscellaneous” cards. Sims heard that a 1948 Bowman Baseball set, a 1949 Bowman Baseball set, a 1948-49 Leaf Baseball set and a 1948 Bowman near-complete basketball set had also been in the estate but were no longer available.
I’ll let Landon describe the “miscellaneous” cards he bought: “The cards include 17 baseball cards (numbered to 18 with one number missing) and 130 football cards (most of them numbered on the reverse with numbers up to No. 174). The cards are all cut to 21/16-by-21/2 inches; the same size as the 1948-50 Bowman Baseball cards. The cards are all hand-painted-over photographs on pieces of paper that have been glued to the card. The field background and jerseys are all drawn in with paint or a type of pencil or both. The artwork is stunning. These are all like miniature one-of-one hand-painted cards. The cards also have similar pictures to the early Bowman cards. At the time, I had no idea what they were other than hand-painted cards from an early sports card dealer. After visiting Books a Million and thumbing through some old catalogs, I found that Bowman had issued proof cards. These were different than mine in that the proofs went through production and had different backgrounds and looked like ’52s but were a little larger. I then went on a quest. Did Bowman have any other proofs that were hand-painted? What did they look like? There were some early football cards that players received that were hand-painted and given to the player. I knew that Bowman did proofs like these, but what set were these?”
Vrechek is on the case
At about this point, Landon got in touch with me to assist in the investigation, sending me several cards for inspection. My first impressions were that the cards were colorized photo mock-ups for sets that were never issued and that the cards were created at Bowman over a brief time span and transferred to Topps upon the sale by Bowman. They were certainly well done and looked old enough to have been around with Eisenhower.
I remembered an article from a few years back featuring photos of baseball cards Bowman was considering for use in its 1956 set. There were three prototype cards, featuring either Klem Koshorek of the Pirates or George Shuba of the Dodgers. One card style was similar to the 1953 color Bowmans, another looked like the later Hires Root Beer issue of 1958 using a knothole and the third version was a card similar to the 1957 Topps Football card design with two pictures of the player.
Robert Edward Auctions sold three Koshorek cards in 2011 for $10,440, according to their website. An interesting comment on the auction description was “Plans for the 1956 Bowman set were entirely unknown in the collecting world until 1983 when the two Bowman reports (market research reports containing the cards) were discovered in the personal files of Topps art director and hobby pioneer Woody Gelman, who had saved them as keepsakes of Bowman’s final days.”
Topps comes in like conquering heroes
The football cards purchased by Sims looked they were prepared in the same manner as the baseball cards and none of them looked anything like the 1956 baseball mock-ups. I checked my baseball card history by referring to Dave Jamieson’s wonderful Mint Condition book: “By 1956, Bowman had had enough. The escalating production cost and legal fees had squeezed its profit margins to new lows. Just as the 1956 baseball season was about to begin, the company agreed to transfer all of its gum and card-making machinery and, more important, all of its contract rights with players to Topps in exchange for a modest $200,000.”
Sy Berger of Topps recalled, “We went down like conquering heroes and took over the Bowman place.” I also re-read my own previous 2009 SCD article dealing with the “card wars” of 1951-55 and players appearing in products of either Topps and/or Bowman. The Topps website mentions the sale of Bowman to Topps was actually completed in January 1956.
I started with the 17 baseball cards to get an idea of when the cards were produced. The players pictured were as follows (card numbers and teams are based on the hand-written information on the back of the cards):
- #1 Warren Spahn, Milwaukee Braves
- #2 Jimmy Piersall, Boston Red Sox
- #3 Gil Hodges, Brooklyn Dodgers
- #4 Del Crandall, Milwaukee Braves
- #5 Ray Jablonski, Cincinnati Redlegs (pictured in a Cardinals uniform)
- #6 Duke Snider, Brooklyn Dodgers
- #7 Chico Carrasquel, Cleveland Indians (pictured in a White Sox uniform)
- #8 Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals
- #9 Nellie Fox, Chicago White Sox
- #10 Jimmy Hegan, Cleveland Indians
- #11 Ned Garver (no team indicated but pictured in a St. Louis Browns uniform)
- #12 Vinegar Bend Mizell, St. Louis Cardinals
- #13 Enos Slaughter, New York Yankees (but with St. Louis Cardinals crossed out and pictured in a St. Louis uniform)
- #14 not included in the find, unknown
- #15 Dom DiMaggio, Boston Red Sox
- #16 Red Schoendienst, New York Giants (but pictured in a Cardinals uniform)
- #17 Marty Marion, St. Louis Browns
- #18 Al Rosen, Cleveland Indians.
Typical of the 1950s, most of the star players stayed with the same team throughout most of their careers. Several of these players had been Bowman “exclusives.” Fox and Piersall had only appeared on Bowman cards between 1952-55. Carrasquel was only on Bowmans in 1953, 1954 and 1955. Slaughter and Schoendienst were Bowman exclusives in 1954 and 1955. Musial and Marion appeared through 1953 with Bowman only. Crandall was a Bowman exclusive in 1955. Hodges, Garver, DiMaggio and Snider generally appeared with both companies during the “war years.” On the other hand, Hegan, Rosen and Spahn were missing from Bowman in 1954 and 1955 but continued with Topps. Mizell had only been on Topps, save a 1953 Bowman. Jablonski had only been on Topps cards.
Observations about the players
Information I gleaned on the players pictured (courtesy of baseball-reference.com) included the following clues:
- Crandall and Spahn are in Milwaukee Braves uniforms. The Boston Braves didn’t ask permission to move to Milwaukee until March 1953.
- Jablonski didn’t make it to the majors with the Cardinals until April 14, 1953, and was traded to the Redlegs on December 4, 1954. He’s in a Cardinals uniform but his card back has him as a Redleg. He was traded to the Cubs on Nov. 15, 1956.
- Carrasquel was traded to the Indians on Oct. 25, 1955. He’s in a White Sox uniform but the card back says Indians.
- Musial was never on a Topps card until 1958. He wasn’t on a Bowman card either after 1953.
- Ned Garver was traded from the Browns to Detroit on Aug. 14, 1952. He was traded to the A’s on Dec. 5, 1956. He was hurt for most of 1956. His card back doesn’t mention his team.
- Slaughter was traded from the Cards to the Yanks in April 1954. He went to the A’s on May 11, 1955, but was back with the Yankees on Aug. 25, 1956. He is in a Cardinals uniform, but the card has “Yankees” on the back.
- Dom DiMaggio only played in one final game in 1953.
- Schoendienst was traded from the Cards to the Giants on June 14, 1956. He came to the Braves June 15, 1957. He is in a Cardinals uniform but the back says Giants.
- Marty Marion was released November 24, 1953, after appearing in three games that year as the St. Louis Browns playing manager. From 1954-56, he managed the White Sox and retired after the 1956 season.
- Flip Rosen’s final game was September 30, 1956.
- No one in a Yankees uniform is among the 17. Mantle was exclusively with Bowman in 1954 and 1955 but wasn’t with the group. Could he be card #14?
When were the back descriptions written?
The cards were so professionally and consistently produced that I started with the postulate they were assembled to create a set to be issued at one time rather than created over a number of years. Therefore, I assumed the fronts of the cards were all prepared at the same time and that the backs of the cards were written at the same time, although not necessarily at the same time as the fronts.
Looking just at the backs of the cards, I found that most of the team designations fit into a window that was only open from June 14, 1956 (Schoendienst’s trade to the Giants) to Nov. 15, 1956 (Jablonski’s trade to the Cubs). If the backs were all described at the same time, all the players would have been properly listed as of the five-month 1956 window other than Garver, Slaughter, DiMaggio and Marion.
Garver was with the Tigers in 1956, hurt most of the year and not traded to the A’s until December 1956. He is listed without a team designation. Although he was a member of the Tigers during the five-month window, the writer could have just left the team name off due to his uncertain situation.
Slaughter is listed as a member of the Yankees but with Cardinals crossed out. He went from the Yankees to the A’s in May 1955 but came back to the Yanks on Aug. 25, 1956. (The Yanks and A’s shuttled players between themselves seemingly at will in those days.) Perhaps the writer first listed the Cardinals (as pictured) and then updated it to the Yankees after Aug. 25, 1956?
The above explanations would support a conclusion that the card backs were hand-written between Aug. 25, 1956, and Nov. 15, 1956, a three-month window. The unexplained card backs are then Marion and Dom DiMaggio. Marion left the Browns in November 1953. He was still in baseball but managing the White Sox in the “three-month window.” DiMaggio played his last game May 9, 1953, and quit baseball after being benched.
I’ll stretch out with another assumption that the card creators decided to include these two retired players with the team shown on their uniforms as displayed, including St. Louis rather than Baltimore. What they were doing in the set at all though is a good question. More importantly, if Bowman sold their business to Topps in January 1956, what was Bowman doing writing on the backs of card mock-ups in late 1956? Maybe someone else wrote on the backs (like the Topps conquering heroes?), but the fronts of the cards must have been prepared before Bowman sold in January 1956?
Two teams of nine?
What kind of “set” was this anyway? Eighteen players could make up two teams. The 17 known players were pretty close to making up a team for each league, which seemed to me to be more than a coincidence. The missing card #14 needs to be able to play first for the American League and either pitchers Spahn or Mizell needed to move to the outfield for the Nationals to make up a nine-player team for each league. With Jablonski at third for the National Leaguers, this didn’t look like any kind of All-Star team. I detected a St. Louis flavor to the player selection. Seven of the 17 players were pictured in either Cardinals or Browns uniforms, two more each came from nearby Chicago and Milwaukee, and only six came from the rest of the league.
Bowman printed multiples of 18 of these smaller cards on a sheet in the past, although these cards had to be created on individual pieces of cardboard. Maybe they just grabbed 18 representative players for the mock-up of what was envisioned as a larger set. They started with their “exclusives,” added a few more players and hoped that they could include Musial with the rest. Putting all of these wacky assumptions together, maybe this set was two teams of prominent players Bowman thought they still had under contract that would be sold in the St. Louis market, and the backs of the cards were written not by Bowman but by Topps people in late 1956. But maybe they weren’t.
When were the card fronts created?
Given the differences between the team uniforms in the photos and the team designations on the card backs, it is logical to assume that the fronts of the cards were prepared sometime before the backs were written. You can’t really use the uniforms pictured to date the production period for the fronts since they used old photos that ranged over several prior years.
For example, you have Garver in a Browns uniform, but he was traded from the Browns to the Tigers in August 1952. Spahn and Crandall are in Milwaukee uniforms which weren’t worn until 1953. Slaughter in a Cardinals uniform would have to come from before April 1954. Marion as a Brown couldn’t have been later than 1953.
The images themselves are surprisingly unique. While Topps and Bowman would reuse photos for years, few of the mystery set photos appeared in other sets. The Piersall image is particularly noticeable and interesting.
The exceptions I found to the photo uniqueness were images of Hegan and DiMaggio. Hegan is apparently from a 1949 team photo that was used for his 1951 Bowman card and also Num Num cards from 1952. Dom DiMaggio was cropped and used for the 1952 Redman tobacco issue. None of the images had ever been used by Topps based on my review. The card images came from photos created over many years spanning at least 1949-53. If you assume that the fronts of the cards were prepared at about the same time, the fronts of the cards had to have been prepared sometime after 1953, but it doesn’t make much sense that it was after January 1956, when Bowman sold the business.
I’ll go way out on a limb for a moment and guess that the card fronts were prepared shortly after the 1953 season. You could also argue that the cards were prepared haphazardly over a period stretching from 1952-55.
Could it be that even though the cards looked like Bowman cards, they weren’t created by Bowman or at least the descriptions on the back were not by Bowman employees?
One guy, who might actually know the answer to that question, would be 88-year-old Sy Berger, retired Topps guru. Sy worked as an employee or consultant for Topps for 55 years.
But before we call Sy to test his memory, let’s look at the next bit of cardboard, the 130 football cards in the upcoming second and final part of this article.