The Bowman brand originates from 1927 with the foundation of Gum Inc. A decade later, the company had half of the bubble gum sales in the country. Bowman trading cards began in the 1930s with “War Gum,” which was called the Horrors of War series with 288 cards depicting conflicts across the world.
Bowman began producing sports trading cards in 1939 with the Play Ball sets. Paper rationing from World War II caused a hiatus until 1948 when Bowman released baseball, football, and basketball sets. After a brief competition with Leaf, Bowman had a year of a monopoly. Topps entered in 1951, and Topps soon bought out Bowman for $200,000 in 1955.
The Bowman football sets from 1948 to 1955 are popular vintage sets today. Topps brought back the Bowman brand in 1991, but it fizzled out by the mid 2000s due to consolidation. Though Bowman football is defunct, the Bowman brand is succeeding today by producing baseball prospect sets.
This article is devoted almost entirely to the Bowman football sets from 1948 to 1955 because they are most important sets to the hobby. As with most modern cards, the Bowman sets from the 90s and early 2000s are not worth much.
The 1948 Bowman set is interesting to collect because it is one of the first post war sets, along with the 1948 Leaf. It’s often called the first modern set, calling in a new era of football cards. There are tons of listings on eBay and other sites with money to be made from a good eye that picks out ungraded cards.
The 1948 Bowman is held in higher regard than its Leaf counterpart. While Leaf used more color, the Bowman set has ten future Hall of Famers and solid rookies. The rookies include Steve Van Buren, Sammy Baugh, Bulldog Turner, Pete Pihos, and Sid Luckman.
The cards measure at 2 1/16” x 2 ½” with 108 cards in the set. The third printed sheet was heavily under printed. This includes every third card, #3, #6, #9, etc. The main conditioning issue is centering, and the borders are easily stained. Out of the 13,000 graded by PSA, only 6 have a Gem Mint status
The design is similar to the 1948 Bowman baseball cards. There is a photograph of the player with no team name, player name, or logo. The back has the card number, player name, team name, and statistics as well as a brief biography. The bottom has a wrapper redemption offer.
Bowman’s Year Hiatus
It is important to mention that Bowman did not issue football cards in 1949. Bowman allowed Leaf to be the sole producer for the year in an agreement that had Leaf exit permanently. Bowman would have a monopoly in 1950.
Again, the 1950 football set looks similar to the 1950 Bowman set. Bowman stuck with the white border, but they added a painted photo. It is the first full color set that was nationally distributed after WWII.
There were no names or logos on the front. The backs are different with a large biography and few statistics.
There are 31 rookies and 20 Hall of Famers. The major reason for the influx of rookies is that men were graduating from college after the GI Bill from WWII. One of the most valuable is the Otto Graham rookie card who was entering from college from the GI Bill. Otto Graham led the Cleveland Browns to three NFL championships in his ten years with the team. One of the championships came from his rookie season. He is a key to the set.
There are 144 cards of the same size as 1948. An interesting format is that teammates were grouped together. There are no short prints or significant variations. Centering is an issue, and there are few higher grade cards out thousands of submissions. There are, however, thousands at PSA 6, 7, and 8.
Overall, this is another historical, undervalued, and reasonably collectible set. At a PSA 7, most of the cards sell for below 50 dollars.
The 1951 Bowman also has 144 cards, and they are a little bigger at 2-1/16” x 3-⅛”. A major difference is the addition of the players name with a mascot on top. There are far fewer stellar rookies and other notable players. This makes the 1951 Bowman a less popular set.
At the same time, in terms of design, the 1951 Bowman set is considered its best to this point because of the larger cards, more colorful pictures, and the action shots.
The Norm Van Brocklin and Tom Landry rookie cards anchor the set. While Van Brocklin is remembered as a player, Landry made the Hall of Fame as a coach. A Gem Mint Landry sold for $22,100 in June of 2016.
There are no short prints. The cards were produced on four sheets of 36 cards, and they came in a single series. Yet, this set is very hard to find in high grade.
Bowman stepped up its quality with its 1952 football cards. They are bigger for a second year in a row with Bowman Large at 2-½” x 3-¾” and the colors are much brighter. The set is grouped into Bowman Large and Bowman Small. The Bowman Small remained the same size. The two types were largely the same except for the size.
The set is dominated with great cards such as Gino Marchetti, Andy Robustelli, Hugh McElhenny, and Art Donovan for rookies, and a number of already mentioned greats (Tom Landry, Otto Graham, Steve Van Buren) returning. It is considered a great post WWII set.
Finally, Jim Lansford rounds out card number 144. Looking mean, the Lansford card has great appeal. 1952 was Lansford’s only season in the NFL. A single print card that was on the bottom right corner, the card was frequently miscut. Its expense comes from the rarity of high grade cards.
Many cards came in a horizontal format. There were 12 teams in the NFL, and the first 36 cards featured 3 players per team. In the Bowman Large set, every coach was represented on a card.
The Bowman Large was a challenge to Topps as the Bubble Gum War was in full swing.
This year had Bowman as the only producer. The Bowman set for 1953 maintained the size of the Bowman Large. There were 96 cards in the set which was the smallest for Bowman football, and the front has a nice color portrait of each player, featuring the names of the team and player. The backs stuck with a standard description and biography, while adding on a question.
Norm Van Brocklin is a key to the set as well as the Redskins quarterback Eddie LeBaron’s rookie card, Bobby Layne of the Lions, and Otto Graham. They can all be bought for a respectable $100.
Once again for this era of Bowman football cards, they are extremely rare in high grades. 24 cards are short prints, but the reason is unknown because the cards were printed on three sheets of 32. Speculations abound, and some believe that Bowman was having trouble cutting larger cards. There are several times as many Bowman baseball cards graded from 1953 as football.
Bowman continued with the same size, while bumping the 1954 set up to 128 cards. The fronts featured a mascot and an action shot, while the backs included statistics and a quiz. It is noted for its deviation from mimicking its baseball sets. Packs were sold a penny a card or a nickel for seven.
There are 26 Hall of Famers in the set with one of five players in the Hall of Fame. This includes the rookie cards of John Lattner and George Blanda. Lattner was the last card in the set. It is incredibly difficult to find his card with proper centering. He had just won the Heisman at Notre Dame.
Numbers 65-96 are short prints. Tom Finnan and Emlen Tunnel have error cards which are more valuable than the corrections.
The final set of an independent Bowman, the 1955 Bowman football set printed 160 cards. It continued to have solid stars, and Bowman went further with diverging from its baseball cards’ format.
A major difference was that the background of the front was determined by the player’s team’s colors. The pictures show a type of aura outline. Also, the backs had a vertical orientation, and most of them had a diagram of a play.
There are 30 Hall of Famers in the set. It is more affordable because the commons can be bought at good prices.
There were five sheets of 32 cards printed, and the last three sheets are somewhat less common. Condition is a major concern, in common with other Bowman cards.
Bowman would not be back until 1991 when revived by Topps.
1991 Bowman and Forward
Bowman cards from this era are typically not valuable. For example, at the time of writing this, there was a factory sealed 1991 Bowman set on eBay for $15. That’s all 561 cards in good condition for $15. The 1950s Bowman football cards had influence on the hobby, and the 1991 Bowman cards were inspired by the 50s Bowman.
There are a few notable rookies. The 1996 Bowman’s Best Ray Lewis rookie card is one of the more popular from this era of Bowman. With the right refractor, the card can sell for 100. Yet, a box of this 1996 set can sell for less than $200 with the main draw being Ray Lewis.
Bowman football fizzled out as player’s unions consolidated producers. Today, Bowman is known as a stellar prospect brand for baseball.
When we discuss Bowman football, the focus must be on 1948-1955, as the later cards were part of a general market that struggles today. The vintage Bowman cards remain valuable. They experimented with design as sports cards grew up in the post war era. The main contribution of vintage Bowman football cards is that there are plenty of awesome rookies and Hall of Fame players on their cards. On the whole, Bowman football’s short run is an important era of the football card hobby.