A History of 1st Bowmans
The first Bowman Chrome® cards debuted in 1997. Like its Topps Chrome® forerunner that debuted in 1996, Bowman Chrome was initially designed to be a smaller parallel to its flagship parent set. Pared down to 300 cards from the 441 boasted by 1997 Bowman, the initial Bowman Chrome set focused on 100 of the game’s biggest stars and 200 prospects and rookies.
By this point in the 1990s, players born outside the United States made up a significant portion of MLB rosters. Of the 1,123 players who played a Major League game in 1997, 247 (or 22%) were born outside the U.S. At the beginning of the decade in 1990, that number was just 13.7%.
In a nod to the changing demographics of baseball, both the base and Chrome versions of the 1997 Bowman sets had International parallels, with the latter set also containing an International Refractor parallel. These cards featured a flag from the player’s country of origin in the background on both the front and back of the card. These parallels continued until 1999 and foreshadowed international players’ impact on the Bowman Chrome product.
1997 Bowman Chrome International
Through The Years
While the 1997 product began as a partial parallel of its non-Chrome counterpart, the next three years would see its checklist mirror the Bowman release. In 2001, Bowman Chrome had base autographs for the first time, and some cards in the checklist were exclusive to the Chrome brand. This trend continued for some time, eventually branching into two distinct products with separate checklists.
Bowman Chrome has long been the middle child of the prospecting world, with its release date sandwiched between the earlier Bowman and later Bowman Draft products. This led to Bowman Chrome becoming the home for players who missed the cut for the Bowman product and a select few players who were held back on purpose.
2001 Bowman Chrome
“It’s always been a mixed bag on how to filter international prospects based on the MLB Draft and international free agency dates,” said Aaron Abrams, senior product manager for baseball at Topps.
Then came 2020.
An International Destination
For years, the international signing period for Major League Baseball began on July 15 and ran through June 15 of the following year. Since the biggest prospects typically signed immediately upon the window opening, most players would end up in Bowman the following year because July was too late for inclusion in Bowman Chrome and generally too late for Bowman Draft. For example, when Fernando Tatis Jr. signed with the White Sox in 2015, he received his 1st Bowman card in the 2016 Bowman set.
But the pandemic changed all that. Due to the cancellation of games, limited scouting ability, and other factors, the international free agency period was pushed out to January 15, running through December 15. Suddenly, some players signed early enough for inclusion in any Bowman products.
In 2021, Bowman Chrome started to focus more on international prospects through “a mixture of thoughtful planning and changes to conditions of how prospects come into the pipeline nowadays,” according to Abrams. “In 2021, we started to make an effort to focus on international prospects into Bowman Chrome.”
Abrams recalled that the thinking was, “If we couldn’t hold onto Bowman to get more international signers in, let’s start to put them into Bowman Chrome and give that product more of an identity.”
2021 Bowman Chrome 1st Bowmans
A Prospector’s Dream
Prospecting is a method of collecting that involves buying cards of young prospects, some of whom have never even played professional baseball, hoping they hit it big. With its heavy focus on international prospects, Bowman Chrome is a haven for collectors looking to invest in untested players. Like playing the stock market, prospectors seek out information about players to bet big on who might become the next Ronald Acuña Jr. or Julio Rodriguez.
The task is especially difficult, albeit rewarding, with international free agents. Because many of these players are signing at age 16, there is often limited video to base a scouting report on — unlike the biggest American prospects, who have cameras trained on them from the moment they start to play in a travel league. This leads to prospectors needing to do their own research, pouring over written scouting reports, or trusting established sources who have already identified the best prospects.
Rather than focusing on specific players, the past few years have seen Bowman Chrome build hype around entire international signing classes. Before 2021, Abrams divulged, the team at Topps was not holding over specific international prospects on purpose.
“It just happened,” Abrams points out, “but now the entire class has become something to focus on. They generate this hype and the new age of excitement around the Bowman Chrome brand.”
Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. The Godfather. Now, we can add Bowman to the list of famous trilogies.
According to Abrams, “Bowman, Bowman Chrome, and Bowman Draft each have a different part to play in the story, but they all come together to form the future of baseball.”
Bowman Chrome will continue to focus on international prospects and domestic prospects who didn’t make it into the Bowman product. Jasson Dominguez, the top Yankees prospect, had his 1st Bowman card in 2020 Bowman, Abrams noted, but under the new format, it would likely have been in Bowman Chrome.
This deliberate new approach to the Bowman brands ensures something for everyone and delivers value in every product. “No one product is any more top heavy than another,” Abrams pointed out, saying that “it gives collectors the ability to have different targets.”
For example, last year, a collector might have decided to focus on Jackson Holliday, in which case they may have saved money for the Bowman Draft product. This year, prospectors may be hunting cards of international signers like Ethan Salas, Felnin Celesten, Joendry Vargas, and Welbyn Francisca, in which case Bowman Chrome will be the product to buy.
Moving forward, Bowman Chrome has a clear identity and a well-earned reputation as the home for international prospects. While the product existed for many years as a parallel version of Bowman and some years after that as a run-off for players that don’t make it into Bowman, international prospects have created a renaissance for the Bowman Chrome brand.
2023 Bowman Chrome 1st Bowmans