The pair of 1952 Bowman football sets, small and large, are two of the most desirable sets in vintage football. The small cards measure 2-1/16″ by 3-1/8″ while the large cards are 2-1/2″ by 3-3/4″. And while both sets feature the same 144 brilliant portraits, the large set drew immediate fan approval, and they remain more popular today. This popularity mostly comes down to the larger sizing looking more impressive. But what happened in 1952, and why did Bowman make the change in print size? In this article, I’ll chat about the prevailing thoughts on the history and printing of these sets.
Ultimately, the large cards were an answer to the format brought about by Topps’ 1952 baseball issue, the spectacular ‘Giant Size’ baseball cards that were incredibly popular with collectors. The following image is from the back-side of a 1952 Topps Baseball salesman sample advertising “GIANT SIZE” Topps Baseball Picture Cards.
The belief now is that Bowman was caught off guard halfway through the baseball season as their sales lagged expectations. But with a football set (the smalls) already in development, what could they do? Since they saw Topps go bigger with success, they salvaged their company’s financials by enlarging the small set to a large format. Remember, baseball cards came out in spring/summer and then football in fall/winter.
I’ve heard conflicting stories on whether Bowman released the smalls and larges simultaneously in terms of timing. But it does seem Bowman stopped the printing of the smaller-sized cards at some point to switch to the larger format. Bowman’s quick pivot meant far fewer smalls on the market and the creation of short prints in the large set that did not exist in the small set. I’ll explain both those topics in the following paragraphs. Interestingly, Bowman advertised the large set as Giant-Size, just as Topps did, printing it on the box and the wax packs, as you can see in the following images.
When it comes to print run size, it’s believed Bowman printed far fewer smalls than larges, and PSA’s Population Report sort of validates that. It’s always hard to take the Pop Report at face value as more popular sets get a higher percentage of all cards graded, but PSA lists over 22k 1952 grades Bowman large cards compared to just over 12k Bowman Small cards. Even so, the larges are far more popular and command higher prices.
The creation of short prints is a much more exciting story, and it comes down to card fit on an uncut sheet. Bowman initially set their machinery to cut sheets with smaller cards printed on them, so there were no problems.
However, on the large sheets, the story is a little different. Bowman printed the 144 larger cards that comprised the set from left to right (#1 to #9 on the first row, #10 to #18 on the second row, etc.). When Bowman printed the larger set, the sheets were cut on the same machine as the smaller-sized cards, but Bowman didn’t adjust the cutting machine’s settings (to the 43-inch printing press track they used from 1953-55). That means that any card on the far left (#1, #10, #19, #28, etc.) and cards on the far right (#9, #18, #27, #36) were miscut and thrown away.
Some collectors think they altered the cut, either ruining/cutting through the left column or the right column on alternating production runs. So that’s why the end cards on the sheet seem twice as rare as the other cards. Ultimately, the end-cards are all considered single or short prints. And that makes sense since it’s tough to find the end-cards in the large set. You can see the lower count number in the population report for the end cards on the sheet, while the small set is much more consistent.
In the following photo of a scarce 1952 Bowman Football Large uncut sheet, you can see that the first column of cards is already removed (#1, #10, #19, #28).
The 8 “middle” cards on a standard sheet were still too big for the machines (the larges are just slightly wider than smalls), so the non-end-cards cards that made it into packs were often cut off-center as well.
In the end, Bowman’s pivot to increase card sizes was successful. The 1952 Bowman Large football cards sold so much better than the smalls that Bowman stuck with the larger size for their future football AND baseball sets. To this day, the large cards sell for around twice as much as the small (excluding the rarity and high prices of the “short prints”).
Do you agree with the prevailing hobby theory about the printing history of the 1952 Bowman football cards? Let me know down in the comments, and don’t forget to follow @PostWarCards on Twitter for more hobby chats.