What’s a 1936 Bowman Baseball Card, Anyway?

In 1955, Bowman alluded to a pre-war set of baseball cards that collectors aren’t even familiar with

This weekend, the Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) Twitter account retweeted an interesting post, picturing a unique item for the 1955 Bowman set. While that’s a post-war series, obviously, the intriguing part is that the item in question referenced a pre-war baseball card set.

Only problem is, no one has ever heard of it.

The 1955 Bowman baseball card set is one that most vintage baseball collectors are likely familiar with. At the time, color television was beginning to make its way into the population and Bowman decided to combine that fascination with the world of baseball cards. The cards were actually mock television sets with full color images of players pictured on the screen.

Strangely enough, black and white pictures of players probably would have been more realistic. While color television had hit the streets by 1955, it was still a relatively early phenomenon. Color TV didn’t really become that popular until the 1960s and, according to this page, it wasn’t until the 1970s that color televisions began outselling black and white models. Black and white TVs were still not all that rare to find, even into the 1980s.

The cards’ aesthetics have drawn all sorts of opinions. I’m not a big fan of the concept but some collectors think they are one of the most impressive designs in the post-war vintage era, simply for their uniqueness.

One card in the set that fascinates me is pictured here. It’s a card of the legendary pitcher Bob Feller.

Feller’s career spanned three different decades but he still retired at the somewhat young age of 37. That’s because he got his start as a 17-year-old with Cleveland in 1936. There are few players (if any others, frankly) that were playing major league ball in 1936 that were still active in 1955, which is why it’s a great visual here because 1936 is the reason for this article.

The aforementioned retweet in question shows a three-card panel of 1955 Bowman cards. These were salesman samples that representatives could show when attempting to get stores to offer the cards.

On one side, these samples had pictures of three different 1955 Bowman baseball cards. While you can see these offered for sale from time to time, they are generally pretty rare. Different players are featured on them, though I don’t know if every card in the set can be found on the sample panels. And as you can imagine, ones with the bigger names tend to sell for significantly more than the ones offering common players or lesser stars.

But the intriguing part is the backs of these panels as shown here.

The backs advertised these as “Bowman’s TV Baseball Card Gum” cards, referencing the television-style on the front, as well as the sales price. Standard packs included one card and one piece of gum for one cent. But nine-card packs with gum were offered in what was called a ‘Big Pack’ of five cents.

In small print at the bottom, though, Bowman indirectly references a longstanding history of selling baseball cards that only exists if you blur some lines. The print states the following:

In 1936, Bowman Gum offered the first bubble gum baseball picture card series to enthusiastic millions of sport fans … now, after 20 years of leadership in the production of this fast selling number we celebrate our 20th Anniversary with a great new series of baseball stars, showing their new or regular club and league affiliations, with authentic records of each player. For the “best in baseball” order the Bowman TV series NOW.

Wait, 1936 Bowman baseball cards? That’s what the advertisement says.

Most collectors are likely only familiar with Bowman’s 1948 release as the company’s first set of baseball cards. But that’s only partially true. Bowman did, in fact, have earlier origins. Bowman’s founder, Jacob Warren Bowman, first came onto the scene in 1927 with Gum, Inc. and Blony Bubble Gum. And by the 1930s, the company was actually producing cards. The only thing is, their earliest cards weren’t baseball cards — they were non-sport series’, such as the Wild West cards and the popular Horrors of War set. The first baseball cards issued by the company didn’t come until Gum, Inc. produced the popular Play Ball sets from 1939 through 1941.

Here, as a point of reference, is a listing of Gum, Inc.’s and Bowman’s known card sets (some of the dates here may be in question. — the 1932-33 Wild West set listed is generally considered to be a 1937 series)..

In short, there are no known 1936 Bowman cards. So what could have happened here? Let’s look at some possibilities.

An Uncatalogued or Anonymous Set

The advertisement could reference an uncatalogued or anonymous series.

One that jumped to mind pretty quickly was the R312 Colored Photos set. The reason that one shot into my head almost immediately was because those were ‘picture cards’ of baseball players that were issued in 1936, which makes for a somewhat neat and tidy guess.

However, while those do not include a distributor name printed on them, and while I have never seen packaging for them, most have taken the R312 designation as a National Chicle issue in the American Card Catalog as gospel. Assuming Jefferson Burdick had that right, that could not be the Bowman set.

Other somewhat unknown series’ include things like the R315 cards, which, to date, have not been attributed to any specific manufacturer. But those are dated to closer to 1929-30 and seem like a mismatch, too.

It should also be noted that, Gum, Inc. did produce a set of baseball pins in the 1930s, known as double headers. But those aren’t cards and they are typically dated prior to 1936, too. It is hard to imagine those as the series Bowman is referring to, even if they are a living, breathing baseball set.

Typo?

A second possibility of a typo was mentioned by a few of the comments in that retweet thread. It’s possible that the company could have been trying to reference its Play Ball sets, which began in 1939 instead of 1936, and simply gotten the date wrong by mistake.

Is that plausible? I suppose. The thing I keep coming back to is that, Bowman references a very specific card set being widely produced in 1936. And the only thing that comes close to something of that magnitude would be the 1939-41 Play Ball cards. It might be easy to botch the date on a set 100 years old. But one that was still collected at the time and not even 20 years old?

And, remember, they weren’t only citing 1936 — this certainly isn’t as simple as hitting a keystroke on a keyboard for a 6 instead of a 9. Bowman was using that date to make a claim to producing cards as early as 20 years ago. That seems like it would be very hard to calculate by mistake.

Stretching the Truth

A third possibility is that Bowman may have been simply muddying the facts a bit here.

The company was really trying to prove its longevity here, which is why the backs are headlined as “20 Years of Leadership.” Bowman did have 20 years of issuing cards (21 if we point to the various issues that were released in 1935) so that part wasn’t really inaccurate. The wording is done carefully and if you look closely, the company doesn’t actually state they created baseball cards for 20 years. Rather, they merely claim that they created their first baseball card set 20 years ago.

If pushed on that specific claim, I think the company could have simply pointed to its 1939 Play Ball set, as well as the non-sports sets that preceded it. “See, 20 years of leadership — the order is just a bit wrong.”

Consider, too, the time. 1955 was the company’s last year of production before being swallowed up by Topps. I don’t know if they were in dire straights financially but by then, Topps had assumed the position of industry leader. Bowman was looking to stay afloat here, whether to remain in business or make themselves enough of a threat for a Topps purchase. The big advantage to Topps was that they had been around longer, and this was a way to capitalize on that.

The elephant in the room is Bowman’s definitive claim of issuing a baseball card set in 1936. Unfortunately, that remains a mystery with no such known release to date.

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