Monday, April 18, 2011

Fleer History

From 1933 through the 1980s, baseball cards were widely associated with bubble gum.  For much of this time, cards of all types (sport and non-sport alike) were called "gum cards." The list of gum manufacturers who tried selling cards by the 1950s has been long: Goudey, Tattoo Orbit, National Chicle, Delong, Gum Inc. (later known as Bowman), Leaf, and Topps. One prominent gum maker had resisted getting into the card business but decided to give it a try in 1959. The company was Fleer.

Frank H. Fleer was born in 1860 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but the roots of his company go back to 1849 when his father in-law Otto Holstein started a business that produced flavoring extracts. After marrying into the family, Frank Fleer was running the company by 1885 and continued until selling it in 1909.  During this period, Fleer's company developed the first bubble gum. Premiering in 1906, it was called "Blibber Blubber" and wasn't a tremendous seller because it was known to stick to the chewer's face. Also during this period, Fleer's brother Henry invented "Chicklets," a gum that is still sold today.

The Frank H. Fleer Corporation was founded in 1914. Frank Fleer died in 1921 but his namesake company became an industry leader in 1928 when it started selling a new bubble gum called "Dubble Bubble." According to the story, Dubble Bubble was formulated when an employee with no chemistry training stumbled onto an effective mix of ingredients that kept the gum from sticking to the chewer's face. At the time that Dubble Bubble was first made, the only food coloring available in sufficient quantities at the Fleer plant was pink. Because of that, most bubble gum since -- by any number of companies -- has also been pink.

When Frank Fleer passed away, control of the company was passed to two brothers, "Bud" and Frank Mustin. The Fleer family was devoutly Quaker -- not uncommon in Philadelphia, where Quakers were among the leaders of most industries -- and their bedrock values and principles translated to a very conservative work ethic. They didn't like to take unnecessary gambles. By the dawn of the "gum card" era, Fleer very well may have been able to been a force in the market. With the success of Dubble Bubble, however, Fleer did not feel they needed to follow its competitors into the baseball card business when the first gum cards were issued in 1933. The company had flirted with cards in 1923 when it made a set of 120 "Famous Pictures" and distributed them along with five-cent packages of Bobs and Fruit Hearts. 60 of the cards featured baseball players, and the set has been catalogued as W515. In 1935, Fleer issued a non-sports card set called "Cops and Robbers" along with gum and sporadically issued non-sport sets afterward, but would not print another baseball card set until 1959.

W515 card of Bob Shawkey

During the 1950s, a significant change took place around the country. The second World War had virtually shut down the baseball card business and the gum business was affected by sugar rationing, but when the soldiers came home and began having children they were so productive that the nation saw its highest percentage of young people ever. The "baby boom" brought in a tremendous number of new customers that would benefit both the gum and card makers. As the 1950s progressed and Topps and Bowman -- both major competitors of Fleer -- publicly fought for dominance in the baseball card market, both companies gained a sizeable market share from Fleer. Topps was a formidable gum maker when it started selling Bazooka gum and only gained customers when it eventually bought Bowman. By the end of the decade, Fleer had lost its position as the top gum maker and was forced to fight Topps for its market share.

In 1959, Fleer signed Ted Williams away from Topps and issued an 80-card set chronicling his life and career. While the contract might have shocked Topps, it shouldn't have surprised them; in 1954, Topps began the downfall of Bowman by signing the same Ted Williams away. Fleer's deal with Williams didn't impact Topps nearly as badly, but Topps did object to the picture on card #68 of the '59 Fleer set. The picture showed Williams signing his 1959 Red Sox player contract while sitting next to Boston GM Bucky Harris, who was still under an exclusive Topps contract of his own. Fleer pulled the card from its set and created one of the scarcest cards of the 1950s.

This card was puled from the 1959 Fleer set. It's available, but costly.

Fleer wanted to directly compete with Topps, but was hamstrung by Topps' exclusive player contracts. For 1960, Fleer decided to try a new concept: "old-timer" cards. There were a few notable exceptions (some of the 1940 Play Ball cards, the Callahan Hall of Fame sets), but the idea of featuring some of baseball's past stars in a card set was one that had been seldom used. The 1960 Fleer set was a 79-card issue featuring most of the great past players of major league baseball and one who was still active (Ted Williams). It appears the set was meant to have 80 cards, as a #80 back of Pepper Martin has surfaced on a few of Joe Tinker and Lefty Grove's cards. 

Some of the players in the '60 set were familiar to the kids who bought the cards, since guys like Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, Marty Marion and Johnny Mize were still playing in the 1950s. Even non-fans recognize the names of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. When the cards arrived they weren't incredibly attractive, featured a lot of pictures of old men and even had a few in street clothes, and didn't appeal to kids at all. In 1960, cards of Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews were preferred over those of Mickey Cochrane and Eddie Walsh.

Here's an example of an "old man" card. Bender is obviously shown playing after he retired.

Despite the poor sales of the 1960 Baseball Greats cards, Fleer issued a new set of Greats in 1961. This time, there were more stars and a more elaborate design. According to hobby references, the '61 set was actually issued over a two-year period, with the cards numbered 89-154 issued in '62. The larger set and improved design didn't change the minds of collectors who had resisted collecting cards of players their fathers and grandfathers had followed. Despite the lack of success at the time, Fleer's use of retired stars on cards had pioneered a concept that is in wide use today.

The design was spruced up for 1961, even if the players weren't.

While Fleer was issuing its baseball sets, it was delving into other professional sports as well. Fleer issued football cards from 1960-'63, and focused primarily on the new AFL. In 1961, Fleer featured NFL players for the only time during that era (Topps also issued both AFL and NFL cards in its '61 set). Fleer issued a basketball set through the 1961/'62 NBA season and gave the hobby a lot of key rookie cards (Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor). The NBA set was significant because it was the third set of pro basketball players in as many different decades by as many different companies, and would be the last NBA set issued until 1969. 

Fleer may have decided to continue its '61 Baseball Greats set into '62 to devote its time toward signing active baseball players to non-exclusive contracts. Among the players Fleer signed early was Maury Wills, one of the few major leaguers who had not signed with Topps. According to the story, the Topps scouts who went to the Dodgers' 1958 spring training camp felt Wills didn't stand much of a chance of ever making the big leagues and offered a contract to all the minor leaguers there but him. Wills eventually made the Dodgers roster in 1959 and was an immediate base-stealing success. Wills felt that Topps had snubbed him and refused to appear on any of their cards. When Fleer approached Wills and asked him to be a player representative, he agreed. Another player who helped Fleer was Jimmy Piersall; eventually, Fleer had enough players signed to begin the first series of 1963 baseball cards.

1963 Fleer...A short-lived issue.

The '63 Fleer cards were not a huge success at first, but were nicely done. The player picture was nice and large, the photography was tasteful, and having Maury Wills (the '62 National League MVP) in the set was a major boost. Joining Wills in the 66-card set were stars like Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Brooks Robinson and Willie Mays. Attempting to get around Topps' claim of exclusive use of cards sold with confectionary products, Fleer placed a low-sugar cookie in each pack that was roundly drubbed as tasteless. 

Fleer planned to release more series, but was stopped when Topps sued Fleer for violation of its exclusive player contracts. The courts ruled in Topps' favor, stating that Fleer's cookie -- Topps' lawyers referred to it as a "dog biscuit" -- was still an infringement, even if it wasn't a confectionary item. After the ruling, Topps stood as the sole manufacturer of cards that could be released in inexpensive wrapped packages. 

As a result, the 66 cards released by Fleer in '63 would constitute a complete set. Towards the end of the printing run, Fleer would issue an unnumbered checklist to distribute in packs. To make room on the printing sheet, Fleer replaced the card of Joe Adcock. Both the checklist card and the Adcock card have higher values because of their relative scarcity.

(Discussion on this card was not allowed on PSA's message boards because the censor flagged the last name as offensive.)

After the '63 Fleer AFL football set, Topps gave Fleer another headache. When their rights to issue NFL cards were lost to the Philadelphia Gum Company, Topps secured the right to make cards of AFL players and left Fleer out in the cold as far as football cards went. Fleer missed out on printing the rookie cards of guys like Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Daryle Lamonica and Fred Biletnikoff. They got back into the football card market again in 1976 when they started a 13-year run of "Fleer Action" football cards that showed an entire team in both offensive and defensive formation. Despite being shut out of the card market, Fleer still issued non-sports sets through the 1960s, including "Gomer Pyle, USMC," "McHale's Navy" and "The Three Stooges."

Fleer also continued signing baseball players to nonexclusive contracts. Most of the players were minor leaguers, but Fleer's hope was to have those deals in place in the future if they could have the 1963 ruling overturned. In 1965, an examiner for the Federal Trade Commission found Topps in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act but had that ruling reversed by the full FTC. In 1966, Fleer gave up and sold its contracts (including Maury Wills') to Topps for $395 thousand.

Another event in 1966 was significant for the baseball card industry. The players formed a union called the Players' Association and named Marvin Miller as their executive director. One of Miller's first duties was to try and renegotiate the way Topps signed players. During the long, drawn-out process, Miller got frustrated with Topps and offered Fleer the rights to print cards after 1973 with a product besides gum. Fleer declined, saying that they were a gum company, and 1973 was too long to wait. Miller eventually reached a deal with Topps in 1968.

In 1971, Don Peck was named president of Fleer. He had joined the company in 1952 and was one of the designers of the 1960-'63 baseball sets. Peck regretted Fleer's refusal to accommodate Miller and hoped that his company could eventually get a foot in the card market. The Mustin brothers were still running the business and tried to dissuade Peck because they didn't see any way to get around Topps' monopoly. Peck wasn't discouraged, however. By then, Topps and the union had a deal running through 1981, and Peck tried to figure out how to get into the market by then.

1970 Fleer World Series card, featuring Babe Ruth before "The Curse"

Through the early to mid 1970s, Fleer issued some oddball baseball sets. Many of theses sets featured the artwork of Robert Laughlin rather than photos, and others were sized differently than the 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch standard. 1970 and '71 saw sets that showcased each year's World Series that emphasized the teams instead of individual players. In 1973 a set marked baseball's all-time feats. 1974 and '75 saw oversized sets of baseball and football legends (with photos instead of Laughlin artwork). By '75 the Mustin brothers were hoping to persuade Don Peck to give up the hope of selling baseball cards, but Peck insisted on one final try in the courtroom.

(An example of a Fleer card with Robert McLaughlin's artwork from 1972. The scan doesn't show it, but it's larger than a standard card.)

In July 1975, Fleer filed suit in the Federal Court of Philadelphia (its home city), claiming that Topps' monopolistic practices had violated sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the same claim that the FTC had dismissed ten years before. In that decade, the card business had changed; in 1965, cards were still regarded as promotional items to sell gum, but by '75 there was a growing secondary market (what is now called "The Hobby"). The suit took five years to wind its way through the court system, but nobody expected the result.

On June 30, 1980, Judge Clarence Newcomer ruled in favor of Fleer and allowed them to enter the market. In the years since the ruling was handed down, it has been noted as one of the few moments that permanently changed the hobby. The decision also gave Fleer enough time to start making a full set of baseball cards for Peck's 1981 target date. 

1981 was a great time to start releasing baseball cards. Throughout the 1970s the baseball card hobby began to shape when the Baby Boomers who had collected cards in the 1950s and 1960s began to spend some of their disposable income on cards again. Some had kept collecting all along, while others wanted to reacquire the cards that their mothers tossed out years before. Card shops began to open, publications started, and people had begun to see that "gum cards" weren't just for kids anymore. In the summer of '80, a 1952 Topps card of Mickey Mantle sold for three thousand dollars in an auction, and a lot of excitement was beginning to swell in the burgeoning hobby.

I'm going to stop the story at this point, since I don't usually go into territory beyond 1980. However, there is a blog called The Fleer Sticker Project that features a lot of the oddball Fleer cards mentioned here. It's well worth getting lost for a couple of hours.


  1. It's kind of funny to see Fleer doing the old-time greats in 1960 and '61. In hockey in 1960-61, (I don't have proper scans available or I'd do a post) Topps had a problem. They'd lost Detroit to Parkhurst (negotiations were at the team level), leaving them with just three teams (of about 15 regulars each) to fill a 66-card set.

    What was their response? They filled out the set with - you guessed it - old time greats.

    One issue was that a number of the old timers were for teams like Montreal and Toronto, neither of whom they had rights to. Their solution was to monkey with the colours of all the uniforms of old-timers, giving them plausible deniabality. (Montreal, for example, looked a lot more like the Rangers.)

  2. One thing I've never really understood about the Topps monopoly lawsuit was that they weren't the only gum manufacturer to produce cards. There were numerous others in the 30s and earlier. They were just the only active company at the time.

    How could they claim exclusivity when they weren't even first to market with the product?

    They couldn't have done that suit in Canada. Parkhurst had a three-year head start on them (the US operation, anyway) and was still a going concern in 1963. OPC, who handled the printing and distribution of Topps, had a 30-year track record.

  3. Excellent write-up! Like most, I'm most familiar with the history of Topps, but not with the other long standing companies. I found this post quite enlightening. So much so that I highlighted your post on my blog. Something I don't do that often.