The history of sports cards in America would take on an entirely different look were it not for the presence of Fleer. At its height, Fleer sold approximately $300 million a year in various sports and entertainment cards. Its most productive years were from 1981 to 1995. Many still believe that collectors today are shortchanged by not having the additional choice Fleer gave to the sports card market.
Fleer had attempted to publish various sports card sets for years, entering the post-War card market with its 1959 Ted Williams set of 80 cards. Although Fleer had to sue Topps in 1975–and then wait five more years for the case to be settled, it finally won and introduced its first complete set of baseball cards in 1981.
Fleer was a welcome presence at a time when sports card collecting seemed to be taking off at a high rate of speed. It was a brand name that veteran collectors already knew. When Fleer was at its height in the 1980s and 90s, it produced some cards that still fascinate collectors today.
One of these was the now infamous 1989 Billy Ripken card. Fleer’s graphic artists turned the obscenity into more than a black box for its factory sets but in the meantime, other versions, which became highly collectable, were released. These included one where the inscription had been covered with Whiteout, one which had been airbrushed, and one which had the offensive words scribbled over with a black marker.
Some of these variations have sold for significant amounts of money, but “run of the mill” Billy Ripken obscenity cards can be had for a buck or two. For youngsters who grew up collecting cards in the era, the Ripken card was about the coolest thing you could own…if you could slip it past mom and dad.
In the 1980s, Fleer issued some rookie cards which became really big “must haves” for collectors. While fans at the time looked forward to the first Bonds card, today a 1987 Fleer Barry Bonds rookie sells for as little as $3 on eBay. The card market is still much friendlier for a 1984 Fleer Update Rookie Roger Clemens. This card regularly sells on Ebay for $50 and a PSA 9 goes for over $100.
1984 was the first year Fleer issued an update set and it included not only the first Clemens rookie card ever to be released but the first Kirby Puckett licensed baseball rookie card. A PSA 10 Puckett recently sold on Ebay for $290 while the non-graded card usually goes for between $30 and $50. The Beckett book value is $80.
You can’t talk about Fleer in the 80s and 90s without mentioning the popular 1986-87 basketball set which included the Michael Jordan rookie card. As if that wasn’t enough, thanks to a dearth of basketball cards in the years immediately prior to ’86, the set also included rookies for Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Joe Dumars, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and Dominique Wilkins. It’s no wonder that both the set and the rookie class for 1986 raised a lot of eyebrows among fans and collectors. The set was hot then and are still sought after today.
Another reason the set remains popular and the rookie cards retain value is that unlike other issues, Fleer did not overprint its first hoops cards. The Ken Griffey Jr. Fleer rookie card from 1989 is one that is just “too available.” You can often buy the non-graded card on eBay for 99-cents to $2.00. Premium graded and autographed cards will, of course, bring in much more money.
Fleer was not at all about generic, basic looking cards. In fact, they had some of the more classy cards of the times. Among collector favorites are the Flair sets which were glossy and printed on extra-thick card stock. Flair Showcase had many parallel sets plus it was the first card set to include a one of one insert. The popular Fleer Ultra sets began production in 1990.
Unfortunately, Fleer went bankrupt in 2005 and Upper Deck was able to claim the company for a mere $6.1 million. Just a year earlier Upper Deck had offered to buy Fleer for $25 million. This is a little less than the $286 million Marvel paid for the company in 1994. Marvel acquired Panini in 1995 for $158 million and Skybox for $150 million. That’s a lot of money revolving around bubble gum, stickers and sports cards.
There is no greater example of how quickly a company’s fortune can change than that of Fleer itself. Its history through the late twentieth century was a wild roller coaster ride for sports card collectors.