By the early 1990s, the baseball card market landscape was changing. Really, the shift had begun a few years earlier. In 1988, new companies like Score were coming on board. In 1989, they were joined by Upper Deck and Topps’ resurrection of the Bowman brand.
Soon, it wasn’t enough to simply have one brand as a baseball card manufacturer. Upper Deck had proved with its $1 packs that there was a market for premium brands. So in 1991, Topps experimented with that by creating its Stadium Club brand — a glossy, upscale Topps branded product. And at the same time, Fleer threw its had into the premium card market, too.
Fleer had created premium cards to some degree with its glossy factory sets in prior years. But these were the first premium cards offered that were sold in packs and different from their regular set. The glossy Fleer cards were merely parallels of their regular cards, just with a shiny finish.
Fleer had been an established card manufacturer since 1981 when they, along with Donruss, became a licensed producer. And, to be fair, Fleer had done just fine in the 1980s running alongside Topps and Donruss. Their early cards, arguably, needed a bit of work from a design standpoint. But they soon became popular with their rookie cards of the likes of Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Don Mattingly, Roger Clemens, Kirby Puckett, and Wade Boggs, to name a few, were essentially as desirable as the Donruss counterparts. But by the early 1990s, more companies and brands were eating up market share. As a result, Fleer needed a response. So in 1991, they created the Ultra brand.
Ultra would ultimately give way to Fleer’s ‘super’ premium brand, Flair, a few years later. But the Ultra brand had a great run in the 1990s, becoming well known for a slew of insert sets. The set introduced Fleer into the premium market, even if they didn’t quite make the splash intended.
Now, to be fair, Ultra’s 1991 baseball card effort left a lot to be desired. The cards lacked gloss, which would become virtually essential for all 1990s cards. And, looking back at them now, the silver theme and somewhat mundane look made them appear more like a nicer standard brand than a premium one. The cards did come in foil wrappers but there was more sizzle on the outside than the inside, frankly. The cards just don’t look like premium cards by any real standards.
The cards were — fine? I’m not sure that a collector exists that will passionately defend this set. That is especially true as a premium set. But worse sets certainly exist (*cough* 1991 Fleer).
From an aesthetic appeal, the cards were middle of the road. They had a clean design with different-sized silver borders at the top and bottom combined with borderless left and right edges. The player’s name appeared in white font next to his team and position. And, dare I say, some of the pictures, including the Tom Gordon card, were fantastic.
Backs were equally clean with several images of the player, a card number, and statistics along with biographical information. The stats left a bit to be desired since the only numbers provided were cumulative totals and for the previous season. But overall, the card had a clean look on both sides. The cards ran circles around Fleer’s 1990 and 1991 regular sets. But unfortunately, it was just lacking as a premium product. And if it’s being compared to the likes of Stadium Club and Upper Deck, there really is no comparison.
Rookies, Subsets, and Inserts
From a checklisting standpoint, the set included all of the usual stars. The usual suspects are all here, including Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, Nolan Ryan, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Frank Thomas, and many more. Where it lacked was where some other 1991 sets lacked — in the rookies.
Ultra fixed that problem through its update set issued later in the year. There, they included key rookies such as National League Rookie of the Year Jeff Bagwell and Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. The base set did include American League Rookie of the Year Chuck Knoblauch as well as key prospects, including Mo Vaughn and Eric Karros. But otherwise, there were no special rookies in that base set.
The set included two subsets — Fleer Prospects and Great Performances. The Prospects set included Knoblauch, Karros, and Vaughn, but little else of note. The Great Performances subset has the likes of Barry Bonds and Nolan Ryan, but still lacks value. As you might expect, that subset focused on extraordinary performances by players. Ryan’s card, for example, mentions his 300th win and sixth no-hitter. All of the subset cards are not hard to find for $1 or less with many at the price of a common or minor star. Technically, a third subset included the checklists. Those had a nice touch with transparent images of players behind the checklist print.
What about inserts? Ultra would eventually get into the insert game but it took them a while. In 1991, they had only one insert set and, like the rest of the set, it was lacking.
Ultra’s lone 1991 insert set was dubbed Ultra Team and sought to build a team of stars. Many, like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Will Clark, Kirby Puckett, Bo Jackson, Rickey Henderson, and Ryne Sandberg made sense. But others, including Doug Drabek, Ramon Martinez, and Chris Sabo were head-scratchers to a degree.
Drabek was the 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner so his inclusion wasn’t the worst. But his career to that point had been largely pedestrian and that was the lone season he won more than 20 games. Martinez won 20 games that year but, realistically, more attractive pitchers could have been chosen. The easy one would have been Clemens or even Bob Welch who had a season for the ages, winning 27 games in 1990, winning the 1990 American League Cy Young Award.
Prices and Rarity
As a junk wax era set, you don’t need me to tell you that these cards are not rare. Fleer was said to have produced these cards in much smaller quantities than their regular 1991 Fleer set, but they are still very plentiful.
Few cards, if any, from the Ultra set cost much more than a or two. Even the keys to the Ultra Update set, the Bagwell and Mussina rookies, are easy finds at under $5. Bagwell and Mussina rookies in a PSA 10 grade are currently available for around $50 or less.