Virtually every schoolboy who is interested in baseball cards knows the story of how Topps bought Bowman. After World War II, Bowman was the leading brand of baseball card, or, at least from 1948 until 1951. Then, in 1952, Topps released its landmark 1952 set. Bowman and Topps battled for baseball fans’ nickels and pennies until 1955. Then, in early 1956, Topps bought Bowman, and that was the end of Bowman until the late 1980s, when Topps dusted off the brand name and started issuing Bowman cards again. And Topps faced precious little competition in the baseball card field until 1981, when Fleer and Donruss won the right to produce cards.
That’s the story as I knew it. But there’s a lot more to the story, starting with the details of the purchase. In January 1956, Topps bought its once mighty rival for a mere $200,000. Normally a company sells for 10 times its annual revenue, and Bowman had sold $600,000 worth of baseball cards alone just two years before. The purchase price makes no sense, until you dig a bit deeper.
Sports Collectors Digest has a huge clue to the 1956 mystery: Bowman’s owner, Jacob Warren Bowman (who went by his middle name, Warren), had built a bubblegum and trading card empire, lost it once, regained it again through creativity and determination, but he’d been in one business or another since the start of World War I, so by 1952, he was at least 70 years old. He probably didn’t know all of the details of what Topps was up to in 1951 and 1952, but he knew Topps was going to be a fierce competitor, and he saw an opportunity to go out on top. So in April 1952, he sold his company to Haelan Laboratories, another Philadelphia-based company.
At the time of the deal, Haelan was buying the market leader in baseball cards. But by the end of 1952, Topps had overtaken them. In 1952 it was a close race. But in 1953, Topps outsold Bowman almost 3 to 1 in spite of Bowman issuing a landmark set that year.
Bowman and Topps spent the early 1950s entangled in legal battles over the contracts permitting players to appear on their cards. Both companies had habits of signing the same players to “exclusive” contracts, and it was better PR to sue each other than to sue the players. As a result, both companies spent about $100,000 a year fighting each other. Keep in mind that prior to 1954, no company had ever sold a million dollars’ worth of cards in a year. So the legal battle represented significant overhead.
On top of the cost of the legal battles, both companies were experimenting with expensive new printing technologies to try to win in the marketplace. This was great for consumers but terrible for profits.
One of the board members of Haelan Laboratories happened to be John Connelly, founder of a Philadelphia box company that survived until 1999. In 1955, Connelly arranged for Connelly Container to buy out Haelan Labs. Connelly Container saw both the gum and trading card business as a low-profit, low-margin drain on business and was interested only in divesting it as quickly and with as little legal trouble as possible. That was why Connelly Container sold Bowman Gum to Topps in 1956 for a mere $200,000. It even signed a five-year non-compete agreement.
At least two companies, Fleer and Leaf, would undoubtedly have been interested in buying Bowman. Either likely would have been willing to pay more than $200,000. Leaf had competed with Bowman in 1948-1949 and issued another set in 1960. Fleer issued some ill-fated sets from 1959-1963. A purchase of Bowman would have been either company’s best hope of securing enough contracts to compete successfully with Topps. Plus, in the mid 1950s, Topps would have been vulnerable. But in 1960, Leaf was only able to secure contracts for 144 players. Fleer’s 1963 set only had 63 cards. Neither of these diminuitive sets could compete with the much larger Topps sets, which featured more than 570 cards.
Connelly Container had the final say in the matter. Connelly was more interested in a walk-away deal. The risk that Topps might be able to drag Bowman’s former owner into court along with its new competitor was small. But Connelly wanted no part in it. This was the last of a series of events that led to Topps getting essentially a 25-year monopoly on the sale of baseball cards.
Fleer continued to try to secure the right to sell baseball cards off and on throughout various avenues. Finally it secured the rights to issue a large 660-card set featuring current players in 1981. Other companies followed. Leaf ended up merging with one of those companies, Donruss, in the mid-1980s.
As for Bowman, in 1989 the baseball card market was at its peak. Topps was competing with no fewer than four other companies. Topps was still the largest, but issuing a second set was one way to gain market share. The set was moderately successful. The baseball card market crashed spectacularly in the early 1990s, partly due to the 1994 baseball strike. During that timeframe, many of Topps’ competitors went bankrupt and merged with each other. The modern Bowman sets have survived, partly by issuing large quantities of rookie cards each year.
As for Connelly, John Connelly died in 1990 with the company still in his family’s control. Georgia Pacific acquired Connelly Container in 1999.