Tuesday, May 21, 2019

1954 Bowman Baseball : Memo to The Man

How I got here

Somewhere in the middle of SABR's Cardboard Crosswalk article about 1954 Bowman and 1954 Topps baseball sets, I flipped through my own Bowman set and found some things I didn't expect or even remember. Weird player choices. Repainted uniforms for some offseason moves and not others. Missing autographs -- and even #123 Toby Atwell's odd-tograph. When professionals make these kinds of mistakes, I sound like my dad: "...and what can we learn from this?"

#101, Don Larsen. He's not mad at Bowman, he's just disappointed.

Using 1954's underlying structure and unexpected features, this article shows how team checklist consistency and exclusive player contracts explain the set's initial plan and final version. It also hints at what could've been, if Topps and Bowman cooperated more than fought.

Bowman by the numbers

First thing to know about 1954 Bowman: their team-sequenced numbering. At its root, Bowman wanted clean, 32-card sheets of players numbered #1 (Yankees) to #16 (Braves), with a steady sequence of guys slotted into two spots per team on each sheet. (Their 1949 and 1952 baseball sets followed similar patterns.)

1954 Bowman's "base" layout

This put #65 Mickey Mantle (Yankees slot) next to #66a Ted Williams (Red Sox slot), adjacent to #73 Don Mueller (Giants slot) and #74 Junior Gilliam (Dodgers slot).

Uncut sample panel, auctioned 2018 for $6K

Followed to its logical conclusion, this perfect layout adds two players per team, 32 per sheet, until you run out of guys "worthy" of cardboard. My gut says you top out at 20 "good enough" players, meaning 320 maximum set size. And yet, Bowman's own 1954 ads went bigger, promising over "400 major league headliners under exclusive contract!"

1954 Bowman season-opening ad

To the best of my knowledge, Bowman released #1-128 in April, followed by #129-224 around June. Despite aspirations to rival the 1952 Topps 407-card effort, they fell several sheets short of 400 "major league headliners," with at least three contributing factors.
  1. Slowing baseball sales. When kids stopped buying baseball, Bowman shifted card budgets to other projects, like 1954 NFL football and their military U.S. Naval Victories and Power For Peace sets.
  2. Not enough available players. The legal aftermath of fierce 1953 wrangling with Topps over exclusive player contracts led both companies to scale back 1954 set sizes. I doubt Bowman considered 400 cards a real goal.
  3. Quality problems. Text errors on 40 cards led to corrections on every print sheet, wasting money Bowman could've used on new players.

This final 1954 layout includes those late-game team changes, corrected print errors, and several "missing" player autographs, replaced by block letter names.

1954 Bowman team checklist, warts and all

These changes hint at who's left out of Bowman's original plans. They also tell us when they finalized the set. Let's start with the former, its absent players.

Missing player autographs

Most 1954 Bowman card fronts show a player's facsimile autograph, saving position and team names for the back. Some signatures loom larger than others!

1954 Bowman #65, Mickey Mantle

On the other hand, six 1954 baseball cards sport block lettering instead of autographs, two in series one (#60, 121) and four in series two (#179, 208, 219, 222).

1954 Bowman #179, Morris "Morrie" Martin

Three theories why Bowman left off some autographs.
  1. Bowman didn't possess a printable version, due to circumstances beyond their control. Based on this 1955 exchange with The Sporting News, we know they depended on media outlets for photos. Perhaps this extended to signatures.
  2. Block letter players served as "alternates," swapped into their team slot for someone Bowman couldn't secure the rights to print. (For example, #66 Ted Williams replaced by another Red Sox player, Jimmy Piersall.)
  3. Some autographs "failed" during test runs, so printers switched to letters.

For the six block letter cards, let's assess whether a) Bowman possessed usable autographs and b) on-card players served as stand-ins for other, better choices. Print failures could explain anything not covered by those two.

#60 Fred Baczewski (Reds pitcher, 1953 rookie)

Did Bowman own Fred's signature in time for printing? Based on 1953 game logs, his star rose well after mid-year, so perhaps not.

Did Fred step in for another Reds player? I think he did. Topps signed veteran Cincinnati teammate Bud Podbielan to an exclusive contract for 1954. Swapping in an emerging rookie on an otherwise moribund 1953 team makes sense to me.

#121 Ray Katt (Giants catcher, 1953 rookie)

Ray "arrived" even later in 1953 than Fred, serving as September fill-in for a fifth-place Giants team. I don't think they had his autograph ready by print time.

Did Ray step in for another Giants player? Topps signed OF star Monte Irvin to an exclusive contract for 1954. That could well be why Bowman substituted Katt, even though New York's everyday catcher (#25 Wes Westrum) also appeared in their "first series" (#1-128).

#179 Morrie Martin (A's pitcher)

Morrie first appeared in 1953 Bowman's black and white set, which feels like ample time to secure an autograph for 1954. If a player with prior cards can end up with block letters, other factors must be more important than service time.

Did he swap in for anyone? Martin did most of his work as mid-game reliever and "closer," not a glamor position in that era. Topps signed A's slugger Gus Zernial to an exclusive 1954 deal and could be who Morrie stood in for as a Bowman card.

#208 Johnny Antonelli (Giants pitcher)

Johnny serves double-duty set oddity, as both block lettered and occupant of #208, a "Braves" team number. When Milwaukee traded #208 Antonelli to New York for #201 Bobby Thomson, Bowman left them both in respective Giants and Braves checklist spots. More to say about these later.

As for the signature itself, Antonelli appeared in both 1950 and 1951 Bowman, removing time as a factor. This could be a legitimate autograph printing issue.

#216 Jerry Snyder (Senators shortstop)

Snyder's own 1952 Bowman card features an autograph, so we can skip that reason and look at player substitution. Based on field position alone, I bet Bowman planned this spot for Washington's everyday shortstop Pete Runnels, who Topps signed to an exclusive deal for 1954. Not sure Jerry's 29 games of spot duty merit a card otherwise.

#219 Hal Rice (Pirates outfielder)

Hal Rice first appeared on 1951 Bowman, so I doubt time's a factor for his signature. Topps held three Pirates exclusives for 1954 that look promising as swap-portunities: 1953 rookie 1B/OF Paul Smith and the O'Brien brothers (everyday 2B & SS), who Topps printed as their first multi-player card.

1954 Topps #139, Ed & John O'Brien

Topps also printed a card for absent Pirate shortstop Dick Groat, who served all of 1953-54 in Korea. I think Hal Rice appears in 1954 Bowman as stand-in for one of these four guys.

#222 Memo Luna (Cardinals pitcher, 1954 rookie)

After printing Stan Musial cards every year from 1948-53, Bowman failed to re-sign "The Man" for 1954. No doubt they hoped to include him, if at all possible. This spot serves as last gasp for St. Louis by team order, so I think Memo sits where Stan would be, if they'd landed him. As nice as Luna's card looks, he's far overshadowed by Musial's league-wide appeal.

1954 Red Heart dog food, Stan Musial

Musial declined to sign with Bowman or Topps after 1953, citing "insufficient compensation," and appeared on smaller sets like Red Heart dog food and Rawlings sporting goods until his return via the 1958 Topps All-Star subset.

1958 Topps #476, Sport Magazine AS Stan Musial

To Memo Luna's credit, he pitched in (1) and won (0) the same number of career MLB games as Musial. Stan faced a single batter (Frank Baumholtz) on Sept 28, 1952, as part of a first-inning marketing gimmick related to each man's pursuit of the NL batting title. (My "Selected By the Youth of America!" article says a lot more about Musial's impact on Topps and their All-Star sets.)

1954 Bowman #66a, Ted Williams

To summarize, Bowman's half-dozen, block-lettered players imply behind-the-scenes work to account for Topps 1954 exclusives that go beyond their infamous removal of #66a Ted Williams.

As Ted's exclusive contact with Topps happened after Bowman started 1954 production and distribution, let's use off-season player movement to narrow that "date of no return."

Players in the "right" or "wrong" team spot

Several off-season trades illuminate when Bowman prepared which parts of their 1954 set, based on their placement in or out of the intended team sequence.

#211 Al Robertson: Traded from Yankees to A's on Dec 16, 1953

Is Al in the right place? Yes, Bowman put #211 into an "A's slot" in the checklist and Al's card text leads with his trade. That repainted A's cap and uniform includes terrific detail on his catching mitt.

#75 Max Surkont: Traded from Braves to Pirates on Dec 26, 1953

Like Robertson, Surkont got a fresh coat of "Pirates" paint, his card text leads with the trade, and #75's the right checklist spot for Pittsburgh. This shows Bowman could make art, text, and numbering adjustments through the end of 1953 itself.

#180 Joe Tipton traded from Cleveland to Washington for #184 Mickey Grasso on Jan 20, 1954

#180 Tipton and #184 Grasso feature updated uniforms and card text leads with their trade. Both remain in "old team" checklist spots, so Bowman finalized their numbering before January 20, while text remained open for rewrites, at least for higher card numbers.

#128 Ebba St. Claire, #201 Bobby Thomson, #208 Johnny Antonelli traded on Feb 1, 1954

Bobby's the flip side to #208 Johnny Antonelli: Bowman repainted the 1951 Giants pennant hero to "Braves" without losing his autograph to block letters.

When Milwaukee and New York swapped these three as part of a six-player deal, Bowman card editors left #128 St. Claire, #201 Thomson, and #208 Antonelli in their "old" team number slots and noted the trades as postscript. That tells us Bowman finalized most of their back text by early February, while remaining open to player art and team bio changes.

#163 Dave Philley: Traded by A's to Indians on Feb 19

Three variations of Dave Philley exist, including one with a traded postscript. That tells us Bowman finalized its player art and initial back text prior to Feb 19, with further changes made during print revisions, even for higher-number cards like Philley. (You might ask, did Dave Philley ever play for the Phillies? Yes, he spent two-plus productive years there.)

#33 Vic Raschi: Purchased by St. Louis from Yankees on Feb 23

This Bowman trade variation added a postscript during later print runs, just like Dave Philley.

As mentioned earlier, Bowman made numerous stat errors in their initial 1954 set. Later print runs tweaked text for more than forty players, if you count both trade notes and things like "4.44 ERA" for Morris Martin, which means his career stats show 4.44 ERA (correct) and not .44 ERA (the "era-or").

1954 Bowman #179b, Morris Martin (corrected ERA)

While trades provide clear anchor points, I doubt we can pin down exact dates for these error-based variations, since they're backward-looking and not tied to anything known.

Chronological summary

Using our combo of block letter names and trade-related changes, we see Bowman finalized key parts of their design and checklist at the end of 1953. They locked player art soon after the start of February 1954 and started printing prior to February 19, making updates later for Vic Raschi and Dave Philley alongside stat error corrections.

Ah, Smilin' Ted, what secrets you hold

That implies Topps waited until at least mid-February to announce Ted's exclusive contract. At that late date, Bowman couldn't remove #66a Ted Williams from their first run of packs, at least not without paying a price they didn't care to bear. I surmise #66b Piersall appeared in their "corrected run," alongside the seven other error fixes in sheet three.

Thanks to their big trade with Milwaukee, 15 New York Giants appear in 1954 Bowman, breaking the tie with every other team at 14. That means the Braves drop to lucky 13. Those blue highlights from my "actual print sheet" show two more goofs to figure out.

Feeling loopy

Print oddities on two player pairs led to autograph variations, first found by former SCD editor Bob Lemke.

My article about #123 Toby Atwell's unusual autograph showed both pairs. It doesn't show them overlapped. Seeing is believing, so here you go.

Bowman corrected both cards in later printings by whiting out the loops. At least one more autograph overlap went unfixed, #184 Grasso to #192 Burdette, with Mickey's autograph overlaid to corroborate length of the "M."

Bowman's 1954 awkward autograph printing left themselves open to this kind of problem, disappointing kids with, say, "Willie Mau."

If Bowman sales trailed Topps in 1954, I think "poor name design" contributed. You can add that to my earlier ideas about "not enough available players" and "quality problems."

Summary of our knowns and known unknowns

1954 Bowman provides a lot to chew on, thanks to its cardboard curiosities and backstory of courtroom wrangling. While this post addresses several points to my satisfaction, some questions remain.

  • Why replace #66a Ted Williams with Jimmy Piersall, in particular, instead of another Boston guy? Creating a second card for Piersall implies, without confirming, that no other Red Sox player art existed to use once printing started.
  • How did Bowman identify stat errors to fix? Did players and teams call them out?
  • Would 1954 be a bigger set if Bowman decided not to spend money and time making corrections?
  • Why are the autographs so darn sloppy?

I invite any facts, opinions, and half-baked ideas on the above. Thanks for wading through the details of another set with me!