Collector Jeff Shepherd’s goal for 2010? Publish the ultimate scrapbook about the 125-year history of the Fleer Corporation.
The name has all but disappeared from the roster of current sports card products, but Fleer had a major impact on the sports and non-sports trading card business. From its early success as a maker of gum to its various sports card and sticker sets, the company forged a strong brand name around the world.
2010 marks the 125th anniversary of Fleer and collector Jeff Shepherd has begun working on an illustrated history of the company and its various incarnations from 1885 to present. Shepherd’s plan is to interweave full-color photographs with company history to create a comprehensive picture of the confectionery giant. He hopes to have the book published sometime this year.
"Fleer is the one company who’s history essentially parallels that of card collecting, from the 1880’s to present," Shepherd told Sports Collectors Daily. "They were great at experimenting, trying out new products, often dabbling in the creation of various card sets before finally coming into their own in the early 1960’s. This gives collectors a vast catalog of issues to pursue, card and otherwise. Fleer was also the healthy competition Topps needed to stay abreast and innovative, each producing their own marquee of sets during those rival years."
Shepherd has been a collector of oddball Topps and Fleer confectionery items and ephemera for over twenty years, even making an appearance on CBS’ The Early Show during the 50th anniversary of Topps’ Bazooka Joe character.
“I’ve always had a fascination with packaging and the history of, in particular methods geared towards grabbing the attention of kids…and their pocket change,” Shepherd explained. “Bright colors, big displays, penny candy, wax packs, gum comics, monsters, humor, gross stuff – Fleer embraced it all and turned out some of the more memorable relics of the genre. This book is meant to be a celebration of those forgotten brands, the unsung artists and designers, and the history of a company that possesses undeniable appeal.”
Fleer’s long history began when a German immigrant, Frank Henry Fleer, became enamored with Philadelphia during the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Through various business ventures, Fleer was able to take over his father-in-law’s flavoring and extracts business in 1885, gradually introducing chewing gum to the catalog of goods shortly after. Fleer worked with several of his brothers to improve the business and the distribution methods that put gum into the hands of millions of people. The soon-to-be-famous Chiclets brand was introduced around 1900.
While he’s already secured a number of images to illustrate the book, Shepherd is also hoping collectors will help him by contributing their knowledge of the company as well as unique or noteworthy images from their own collections.
While vintage sports card collectors may know Fleer from their 1959 Ted Williams baseball set, the 1960s “All Time Greats” or the pro football sets of the same period, the first Fleer cards actually appeared much earlier.
“Fleer’s first sports set actually dates to 1923, when they released a series of 120 various sports, film, and western persons of notoriety," Shepherd stated. "Sixty of these cards feature baseball players and appear to share identical fronts to the more common W515 baseball strip card set of the same year." Shepherd said he plans to have photos of the 1923 set’s packaging published in the book.
Fleer’s big break came when the company created its wildly successful Dubble Bubble bubble gum. Launched in 1928, Dubble Bubble became a household name as the first commerciially successful bubble gum brand. Fleer was able to continue to grow thanks to its success and numerous imitators sprung up, including Goudey.
"Within a few years we find nearly all the great cards of the 1930’s packaged with slabs of the pink stuff. It really was the foundation of the product that all gum card collectors rest upon," Shepherd said of Dubble Bubble and its impact.
Fleer produced dozens of non-sports sets and sticker projects, from the 1930s Cops and Robbers set to the 1959 Three Stooges and many more obscure issues. As the company saw its bubble gum rival Topps become kind of the sports trading card industry in the mid-1950s, Fleer began pushing for an opportunity to share the stage.
While creating a variety of NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball team logo sticker/bubble gum products in the 1970s, Fleer was fighting hard in the courtroom, too. Finally, a judge ruled in the company’s favor, ending Topps’ virtual monopoly and Fleer and Donruss both began producing their own baseball card sets in 1981. It was a glorious victory for Fleer and one that brought fresh competition to the industry. Not long after, hundreds of card shops popped up across North America and the hobby went through a huge boom period. The court decision ultimately also opened the door for a plethora of baseball sets that eventually saturated the marketplace.
"It definitely carries some weight in regards to their entire history," Shepherd said of the landmark decision. "A diversity of product in the 1980’s mirrored the explosion in collecting interests, leading to a greater demand, higher prices, new found interest in earlier trading cards, and even higher prices. While Fleer may not have always garnered the respect it deserved during the card boom, dealers should at least tip their cap for their perseverance and the variety their actions helped introduce."
Fleer would create one of the most popular basketball sets of all-time when it entered into an exclusive contract to make NBA trading cards for 1986-87. The set produced the first widely available hoops cards in five years, resulting in rookie cards for Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and a host of other future Hall of Famers.
In 1989, Fleer gained national attention for the infamous Billy Ripken obscenity card that somehow slipped past proofreaders. The Baltiimore Orioles’ infielder was pictured holding a bat that carried a not-so-kid-friendly phrase. Kids, of course, flocked to card shops and drug stores trying to lasso the card or its "corrected" versions.
Fleer produced some much sought-after rookie cards throughout the 1980s and 90s, but its trading card division wound up going bankrupt after brief periods of ownership by Marvel Entertainment and another partnership. Its assets were liquidated and the brand name was sold to Upper Deck in 2005 for over $6 million, far less than what Upper Deck had offered for the company in 2004. Upper Deck produced a few Fleer-branded sets but the name has been invisible in the marketplace for the last three years.
"While the original company essentially stayed in the same family for over one hundred years, the last twenty saw it flipped on numerous occasions, creating an unstable environment," Shepherd said of the end of Fleer’s run as a prominent trading card maker. "The Fleer name still carries great weight as a brand. What the future holds for it we’ll have to see."
Shepherd has already received numerous contributions from collectors and historians as he creates the book but he’s still hoping to uncover more information and pictures to help tell the Fleer story. His goal is to create a tribute that will serve as part history lesson and part feast for the eyes.
"I envision this project as a colossal scrapbook of full-color imagery, interwoven with company history and anecdotes. The emphasis has always been about the images, beautifully representing the design and packaging that went into the various products of Fleer."
All images (c)2010 Jeff Shepherd.
Jeff Shepherd can be reached at PO Box 615, Brooklyn, NY 11206