No company worked harder to get into the baseball card market than Fleer. Baseball cards and bubble gum will always be linked, and yet, the inventor of bubble gum wasn’t able to get into the baseball card market for good until 1981. Sadly, Fleer went defunct in 2005 after being mostly an also-ran to Topps in value and interest. But here’s a look back at the most valuable Fleer baseball cards.
Fleer had a hard-luck existence in the baseball card market and it got worse after the baseball card bubble burst. But it had some great stories, especially in its early years. The stories behind the cards are often what makes the hobby fun.
First, here’s a surprise. The 1981 Fleer set wasn’t Fleer’s first, so Fleer has valuable cards from before 1981.
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
Ted Williams was a hard guy to keep under contract. Free agency was years away, but based on the way he treated Bowman and Topps, one has to wonder how many teams the Splendid Splinter would have played for if he’d played in the free agent era. Fleer couldn’t get any other players to sign a deal with them, but they outbid Topps for Williams to sign a deal in 1958, even if they paid a then-outrageous $5,000 for the privilege. So they issued an 80-card all-Williams set in 1959.
Given that this is a set featuring 80 cards of the same player, most 1959 Fleer Williams cards aren’t worth anywhere near a normal Ted Williams price. A dozen or so of the cards reach double-digit prices or even three digits in nice condition. Generally speaking, it’s cards that show Williams in uniform or feature him with someone famous.
But the most valuable card from the 1959 set doesn’t even look like a baseball card. Of course there’s a story there.
Ted signs for 1959
Even with Ted Williams under a very expensive contract, Fleer still ran into legal problems with its Ted Williams set. Fleer always had the worst of luck.
Card #68, titled “Ted Signs for 1959,” featured an image of Ted Williams and Red Sox GM Bucky Harris. Topps had a number of current and former managers and coaches under contract, including Bucky Harris. This bizarre circumstance gave Topps leverage to force Fleer to withdraw the card, even though Topps had no intention of issuing a card of the Red Sox general manager.
Jerk move. But that was the world of 1950s baseball cards.
Today that card is worth more than the other 79 cards combined. Low-grade examples are still worth hundreds of dollars. High-grade examples are worth well over $1,000.
This card is also one of the great early counterfeiting stories. In 1974, a guy showed up at a card show with 300 of the rare withdrawn “Ted signs” cards. Veteran dealer Irv Lerner determined they were fake, but they were indeed very close. It turned out the counterfeiter was (or had been) a Fleer employee, so he was able to get cardstock that closely matched the original. But the printing was off. On the fakes, the print is brown overwritten with black. Real examples have only black print.
Since there are high-quality counterfeits out there, get this one graded if you come across one.
In 1963, Fleer issued a 67-card set featuring current players, thanks mostly to the 1962 MVP holding a grudge. We’ll get to that story in a minute of how a jilted borderline prospect caused a lot of trouble for Topps over five bucks.
Fleer couldn’t sell the cards with bubble gum, and to avoid problems, they didn’t even use a candy product. They shipped the cards with a cherry cookie with so little sugar content its taste and texture reportedly resembled a dog biscuit. I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t speak to that, and no, if you find an unopened ’63 Fleer pack, I won’t volunteer for a taste test.
Topps sued anyway and managed to win, so Fleer stopped at 67 cards, putting an end to its baseball card ambitions for nearly two decades.
But the 1963 Fleer set, small as it was, includes some good cards. And they are scarcer than their Topps counterparts. Any 1963 Fleer card, when professionally graded in top condition, will reach the $100 mark.
1963 Fleer Maury Wills
The Maury Wills card isn’t the most valuable card in the set but it’s the reason the set existed, so we’ll lead off with the legendary Dodger leadoff man.
In 1959, Topps refused to offer Maury Wills a $5 contract to appear on baseball cards. The Topps representative, Turk Karam, didn’t think Wills would hit the majors, so he didn’t want to risk wasting five bucks.
Reportedly Wills didn’t appreciate the opinion of the employee of a bubble gum company and held a bit of a grudge. That might be understandable. This is a company that spent $5 to have Red Sox general manager Bucky Harris under contract, after all.
Later that season he finally cracked the majors at the age of 26. Not only did he sign with Fleer instead of Topps, he even lobbied other players to sign with Fleer. It’s rare for 26-year-old rookies to go on to greatness (see Pedrique, Al), but Wills was the rare exception, becoming the 1962 MVP. He played 14 seasons in the majors, which typically isn’t long enough for a speed guy like Wills to rack up Hall of Fame numbers. But he came surprisingly close. He led the league in stolen bases six times, and made seven All-Star teams. He had an incredible career for someone Topps wasn’t willing to offer five bucks.
Raw, ungraded and unauthenticated ’63 Wills cards are relatively affordable. When graded, this card can exceed $100 in nice shape. The 1963 Fleer card is his rookie card, so his rookie card holds the distinction of noting his status as the 1962 MVP.
To keep this situation from happening again, Topps changed its practice and started offering contracts to all minor leaguers.
Valuable non-obvious 1963 Fleer baseball cards
Card #1 is Steve Barber, a good pitcher but not a superstar. He didn’t get a single vote when he became eligible for Hall of Fame voting in 1980. In nice shape, though, his card is worth hundreds of dollars because it was always on the top of the stack and took more wear than the other cards. Number-ones in presentable condition are almost always valuable in pre-1970 sets.
Card #46, Joe Adcock, was a short print. Since cards are printed on 132-card sheets, a 67-card set has to drop one card in the second run to make room for card #67. Joe Adcock got the call.
Adcock was a two-time All-Star but not a Hall of Famer. But since his card is more scarce than the others, it’s worth at least double what it would otherwise be, regardless of condition.
Card #67 is the checklist. Unmarked and in mint condition, it’s worth $1,500. Unmarked and in nice shape, it’s still worth hundreds. The checklist is scarce anyway; unmarked examples even more so.
1963 Fleer Hall of Famers
Fleer got 11 future Hall of Famers under contract in 1963: Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Carl Yastrzemski, Ron Santo, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Gibson, and Orlando Cepeda. Mays, Clemente and Koufax are the most valuable of the lot, but any of the Hall of Famers can reach three-digit values in high grade when professionally graded. These cards prove 1960s Hall of Famers don’t have to be made by Topps to be valuable.
1981 Fleer “Craig” Nettles
Fleer wasn’t the first to mistake Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles’ name as “Craig,” but they were the first to put it on a baseball card. They got his name right on the front of the card. But the back of the 1981 Fleer Nettles card reads “Craig Nettles.”
The 1981 Fleer set contained a lot of error cards. Fleer didn’t correct all of its errors in 1981 but it did fix this one. Most of the other corrected errors were on relatively common players. Nettles wasn’t a superstar, but he was the biggest star to get a corrected card, so the Nettles error card is the most valuable card of the 1981 Fleer set. It’s not worth what it once was, but this card is still worth around $10, which is about 100 times more than any other 1980s Nettles card.
1982 Fleer John Littlefield
In 1982, Fleer reversed the negative on pitcher John Littlefield’s card, making him appear to be throwing left-handed. Fleer quickly corrected this one, so the error card is relatively rare. This little known and appreciated card is worth $75-$100, which is more than the entire 1981 set combined. Since Fleer made so many errors in its 1981 and 1982 sets and didn’t fix all of them, and Littlefield wasn’t a star, this one is easy to overlook.
1984 Fleer Update Roger Clemens
In 1984, Fleer decided to compete with Topps’ late-season traded/update set. Topps overlooked Roger Clemens, but Fleer didn’t. Clemens emerged in 1986 as the ace of the AL Champion Red Sox and pitched well into his 40s. The mid 1980s was loaded with new young talent, and Clemens had more staying power than most of it.
1989 was near the height of overproduction, so it seems odd there would be valuable cards this late. But Fleer cranked out two odd variations in 1989 that led to plenty of attention then–and valuable cards today.
1989 Fleer Randy Johnson
Yes, Randy Johnson is a Hall of Famer, but not all of his rookie cards are created equal. His 1989 Fleer rookie card had a Marlboro ad on a billboard behind his left shoulder. It was faint and you had to be paying attention to see it, but it’s there.
Tobacco and baseball have always gone together but that doesn’t mean it’s a happy relationship. Nobody wants to be accused of encouraging grade-school kids to smoke. There’s a famous story dating back to 1909 or 1910 involving baseball cards, a Hall of Famer, and tobacco that you may be familiar with.
So Fleer went back and tried to obscure the ad, leading to multiple variations. More variations means more scarcity and increased demand. A Johnson rookie with the Marlboro ad clearly visible in top graded conditions sells for $50 and up. It’s no Wagner, but it’s not bad for a card from the height of the overproduction era. Examples with the billboard obscured generally sell for a few dollars.
But it turned out there was an even bigger controversy in the 1989 Fleer set.
1989 Fleer Billy Ripken
Billy Ripken isn’t a Hall of Famer but his brother is. Billy Ripken is Cal Ripken’s younger brother and they played together for parts of six seasons, but he never approached Cal’s numbers. His 1989 Fleer card is his greatest claim to notoriety, as it had an obscenity written on his bat.
Obscene pranks on baseball cards were nothing new. The ever-classy Billy Martin flashed a one-finger salute on his 1972 Topps card. But unlike Topps in 1972, Fleer decided to do something about the card afterward and created numerous variations of it in the process. The controversy was probably greater than necessary, but it also probably led to more sales for Fleer. It definitely led to a lot of snickering among middle-school boys. I know that from experience.
Fleer tried blacking out the words with a scribble, then with a black box, and finally, by cutting a notch in the card. There is even variance in the size and position of the notch, although we cared a lot more about that in 1989 than we do now.
Ripken later admitted it was his bat and he wrote the obscenity on the knob to denote it as his batting-practice bat, but he claims he didn’t grab the bat deliberately when it came time to pose for the picture.
The obscene version of the card can fetch $100 in top condition when graded. An early censored version with a white box is worth more, due to its rarity. Completists will also chase the card with the scribbled bat, blacked out bat and the notch. The censored variants aren’t worth as much, but still command a premium over a common 1989 Fleer card.
1992 Fleer Update Mike Piazza and Jeff Kent
The 1992 Fleer Update set featured rookie cards of Mike Piazza and Jeff Kent. Piazza is a Hall of Famer. He was the best offensive catcher of all time, not just his generation. His defense wasn’t spectacular but he won games with his bat.
Jeff Kent has a tougher Hall of Fame case but he still seems like a potential late-bloomer candidate like Bert Blyleven or Tim Raines. Like Piazza, he won games with his power bat while playing somewhat acceptable defense at a defense-first position.
1993 Fleer Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter was the best shortshop of his generation and is probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer, given his postseason heroics while playing in baseball’s biggest market. His 1993 Fleer rookie card is worth seeking out.
1994 Fleer Update Alex Rodriguez
Jeter’s longtime teammate, Alex Rodriguez, made his debut in the 1994 Fleer Update set. He may not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer but keeping him out seems unlikely. He, along with Jeter, helped solidify the idea of a power-hitting shortstop. Rodriguez played more seasons at third base but actually played more games at short over the course of his long career.
1997 Fleer David Ortiz
The 1997 Fleer David Ortiz rookie card has his given name, David Arias, but Big Papi is recognizable under any name. Unlike some other Ortiz rookies, it does list him at a position he actually played in the big leagues. Under the name David Ortiz, he became perhaps the most impactful nontender pickup in history, signing with Boston after the Twins let him go following the 2002 season. Ortiz was the star of the 2004 postseason, helping Boston beat the Angels, then the Yankees, and then the Cardinals on the way to breaking the Curse of the Bambino.
2001 Fleer Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols
Fleer was running out of steam after the turn of the century, but in 2001 they issued two final great cards, rookie cards of future Hall of Famers Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols. Suzuki was already a star in Japan when he came to the Seattle Mariners at the age of 27. His 3,000-plus career hits and .300 career batting average virtually guarantee Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Albert Pujols wasn’t supposed to make the Cardinals out of spring training in 2001, but he gave every indication he was ready and slugged his way to a Rookie of the Year award, three MVP awards, and 10 All-Star appearances, among other accolades. At 37 he’s slowing down, but his Hall of Fame ticket was punched years ago.