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A Look at the Loaded, Historic 1948 Bowman Football Set

Last month, I asked vintage Japanese baseball collectors to reflect on their favorite sets. I hope you read it, as the collectors provided good hobby content even if you know nothing about Japanese baseball cards. 

I decided to put myself to task and write about my favorite set: 1948 Bowman Football. It’s not my favorite-looking set (1955 Bowman is), but the black and white pictures of 1948 have a timeless appeal.

The set is iconic because it represents a changing America, is filled with tons of Hall of Fame rookies, features war veterans, and is reasonably easy to collect with 108 cards in the set. 

 Dick Poillon played five seasons for the Washington Redskins. 

He also served as a lieutenant in WWII for 3 ½ years. 

The images of these tiny cards give me the “feels.” Awkward as that is to write, the feeling is a cross between nostalgia and wonder. I suppose the nostalgia comes from the pictures. The black and white tone adds to it, but so does the look of the players in their leather helmets. You can see them without face masks, which adds to the connection between collector and player.

While the cards are more than 75 years old, they’re not the oldest ones I’ve held or owned. But I still respect their age. My father-in-law could have collected these. In my mind, my 40-year-old self is still a kid holding onto relics from a time when players like Pete Pihos, Sammy Baugh, and Sid Luckman were icons of the game. 

The Rookies

Nearly every card in the set is a rookie card since there hadn’t been a football “set” released since the iconic 1935 National Chicle. Bowman’s last release of any kind was in 1941 because of WWII. 

1948 Bowman came out to America on the cusp of an age of capitalism unlike any in human history. 1948 symbolizes the rebirth of a nation ready to prosper and do things like collect trading cards again.  

Steve Van Buren won four NFL rushing titles in five years. 

He retired after 1951 as the NFL’s career rushing yards leader.He is still the Philadelphia Eagles’ career leader in rushing touchdowns. 

The set has 10 Hall of Fame rookie cards, including Pihos, Baugh, and Luckman. Steve Van Buren, Bulldog Turner, George McAfee, Charley Trippi, Bob Waterfield, Alex Wojciechowicz, and Bill Dudley are also featured. 

The set also includes some of the earliest pioneers of an integrated NFL. There’s a rookie card of Kenny Washington, the first African-American football player. In the last few years, Washington’s card has doubled in price relative to its condition as more people have realized his place in football history. 

1948 Bowman contains one of Kenny Washington’s rookie cards. He is the first African-American to play in the modern NFL and played with Jackie Robinson in college at UCLA. 

There’s also a card of Bob Mann, a pioneering wide receiver, who was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1988.     

The set features players with strong support for making the Hall of Fame in the future, including Philadelphia Eagles great Al Wistert and Frank “Bucko” Kilroy for his executive career. Charlie Conerly (7x) and Marshall Goldberg (2x) have been Hall of Fame finalists multiple times. Many believe Conerly is the greatest eligible quarterback not in the Hall of Fame.  

War Veterans

So many of the players in 1948 Bowman served in WWII. Pihos was under the direction of General George Patton during the D-Day campaign. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and earned Bronze and Silver Stars for his bravery. 

Pihos was a decorated war veteran and one of the greatest football players of his day. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.

Conerly, who won an NFL Championship with the New York Giants and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame while starring for Ole Miss, fought in the Battle of Guam in 1944 before returning to Ole Miss in 1946. 

He finished fourth in Heisman voting the next year, leading Ole Miss to its first-ever SEC Championship. 

Tom Farmer (card #103) served in the Marine Corps. in the Pacific for three years. He also fought in the Battle of Guam with Conerly. 

Frank “Fritz” Barzilauskas (card #92) was a bomber pilot. He was shot down and survived but was held as a prisoner of war in Germany. 

The set is filled with many more players who served in the Armed Forces during WWII. These guys were more than professional football players. They were heroes.  

You would see history repeat itself just a few years later. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 226 NFL personnel served in the Korean War. Heck, Ralph Heywood (card #96) served in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

Rookie Heisman Winners

This Bowman set also includes the rookie cards of three Heisman Trophy winners. Those cards are of Bruce Smith (Minnesota - 1941), Les Horvath (Ohio St. - 1944), and Johnny Lujack (Notre Dame - 1947). 

Johnny Lujack’s card (#3 in the set) is short-printed, as every 3rd card in the set is. While the other two players are not short prints, they generally command a premium because they are Heisman winners. Lujack and Smith served in WWII. Horvath enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a dental officer in 1945.

   Bruce Smith helped Minnesota win back-to-back national titles from 1940-41.

During WWII he served as a Navy fighter pilot.

Favorite Cards in the Set

My favorite card in the set is Pete Pihos. The picture of him catching a football with his arms extended captures his energy and the passion with which the players of the time played. There’s an incredible amount of movement in the picture, and it feels like he’s derived a mysterious force from the football. It’s a masterpiece.  

His card also bears a remarkably similar pose to Travis Kelce’s 2013 Topps rookie card. When I first saw Kelce’s card, the first thought that popped into my mind was, ‘Pihos.’ It’s awesome that two all-time great tight ends are connected this way, with cards produced 65 years apart. 

On the back of Pihos’ card, you can tell there’s so much the writer wants to put down. The font on the back is so tiny. It’s as if they didn’t know where to stop complimenting the Hall of Famer. 

I do have a close second favorite. That’s of Bulldog Turner because he looks like a menace in his card. He looks like he’s about to jump out of the card and knock me out - even with his well-coiffed hair. 

Chicago Bears great Clyde “Bulldog” Turner. (Image of card slab not owned by Hobby News Daily) 

Collecting the Set

Since it’s a relatively small release, with 108 cards, it’s a great set to try and complete. Every 3rd card in the set is a short print, commanding a premium. That’s because of the way they were printed. The cards were printed on 36-card sheets. The third sheet, containing every 3rd card (#’s 3, 6, 9, etc.), was printed in smaller quantities than the first two sheets. 

Because of this, expect to pay somewhere in the range of $35 - $40 for raw short prints in good to very good conditions (PSA equivalent grades of 2 or 3) for common players. Hall of Famers and more popular players will go for more. 

A short print Dan Sandifer (card #87), in PSA 2.5, is currently on sale on eBay for $60 plus shipping.

But you can also find many cards cheap, especially in lower-grade conditions. Many of the common cards in decent shape go for less than $10, leaving you money to go after the more difficult and expensive short prints.    

The cards are smaller than today’s standard size, measuring 2 1/16” x 2 ½”. Because of their smaller size, they're somewhat more difficult to handle than standard cards. The paper they’re printed on is also more fragile and easier to bend by mistake. While they’re not overly thin cards, handling them with care is a good idea.

Look out for a 1948 Bowman reprint set released in 1990. The two sets are identical except for the backs of the reprints, which say, “Reprint 1990.” The reprints are also perfectly centered, and the borders are completely white. In contrast, originals are rarely perfectly centered and susceptible to yellowing on the borders. 

Lastly, if you can, hold them close to your nose so you can smell them. Vintage cards have a distinct smell, another trademark of this set which has aged like fine wine.  


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