May 01, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #6. 1991 Bowman

Back before card manufacturers had (somewhat) strict rules about who and who was not eligible for a rookie card, anybody was pretty much fair game. And coupled with the vast hype focused by the media and collectors on the rookie bubble as part of the hobby explosion in the early Nineties, it was only a matter of time before a manufacturer capitalized on the situation. Enter 1991 Bowman.

More so than any set before it, Bowman’s 1991 release was all about rookie cards. Legitimate rookies, guys who would never set foot on a major league diamond—like I said before: everybody was fair game, and everybody was included.

It wasn’t a bad thing for a set like this to exist. For one thing, it set up a nice working model for 1992 Bowman (as classic and hobby-defining a set as there is). It also made a relatively strong rookie class and made it stronger, not by adding more quality rookies but adding more rookies and career minor leaguers in general. It’s a ‘phonebook’ set: if you made it to Spring Training, you probably had a Bowman card. It’s also a ‘sidelines’ set: a sea of faces, crouches, poses and the odd throwback painted card. Few and far between are actual cards that feature what could be considered ‘action’ shots: out of a 704-card checklist, I only found only 189 (the best being of Cal Ripken’s back, excuse me, I mean Junior Ortiz). That’s less than 30% of the set. Action shots comprise almost 100% of brand flagship sets today. It’s funny how trends die out and others take hold.

Anyway, this set reminds me of an essay I wrote last August that addressed the idea of why baseball cards exist. If my thesis has some merit—that cards exist to validate the hard work minor leaguers put in to make the big leagues—then 1991 Bowman exists so that guys like Pat Lennon can get a major league rookie card. Think of it this way: just because only seven of the 12 guys at the beginning of this article ever made it to the major leagues doesn’t mean the others didn’t try just as hard. More often than not, guys just don't get there, or they're the odd man out if and when they do make it (just ask Pat Lennon). Only Sean Cheetham failed to have any semblance of a baseball career: the other 11 combined to tally service in 3,365 minor and 185 major league games.

As I mentioned above, this set was blessed with a strong rookie class (beyond just those on their ways to long minor league careers), made stronger because with no insert sets to speak of, there was nowhere for them to hide but amongst their team set. Rookies of guys either destined for the Hall of Fame or the Veterans Committee ballot like Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Mussina, Javy Lopez, Kenny Lofton, Tim Salmon and Luis Gonzalez and other guys like Rondell White, Reggie Sanders, Ryan Klesko, Raul Mondesi (yeaahhh boy-eee!), Mike Lieberthal, Jeromy Burnitz, Roberto “Father Time” Hernandez, Bret Boone, Jeff Conine, a flameout like Todd Van Poppel and the colossal jerk Carl “Someday I’ll Head-butt an Umpire” Everett; all of them got their start in 1991 Bowman. This is not to say that other sets didn't feature one or most of these guys as well, but all of them together in a one-series regular set? Bowman was your only option.

Don’t get me wrong. There were problems with this set. The design was an afterthought, the backs made no sense, the photography was at best uninspired and at worst terrible and as I said, it was both a ‘sidelines’ and a ‘phonebook’ set. But so what? The checklist was incredible. And it had a purpose: to include not just everybody, not even just everybody who was anybody--but everybody who was everybody, everybody who was anybody and everybody who was never going to be anybody. And that’s the very reason baseball cards exist.

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