Back in my college days we used to go to a pizza/Italian place called V&T’s located on Amsterdam Avenue and about 111th St. in New York. And yes, the last time I checked, the place was still standing. There were several of us college kids there as well as some slightly older folks including Bill Shannon who would usually regale us with various tales about the sporting world. One night,during dinner Bill started talking about just how chaotic the tennis world was between 1967 and 1970 as it evolved from the old genteel “amateur” ways to the professional game we now totally accept as normal.
That memory came back when I saw a note on Facebook from an old contact of mine who mentioned it was ten years ago this month when Fleer Trading Cards closed its doors. I was working at Beckett at the time and kind of understood just how precarious the situation was. We were gathering information on what would be the last few products and much of it was haphazard. Even basic communication was difficult at times. Since they were 1500 or so miles away, we had sense the end was near but never knew until it actually happened.
Checklists became inconsistent and even Fleer didn’t seem to be able to tell us what had actually made it into products. It was obvious at that point that something was wrong in southern New Jersey. Whenever gathering information from the card producers themselves is difficult, it’s usually a sign of problems at the home office. We had a running joke at Beckett whenever something like would come up – I once said something like “better call the Fleers”, as if they were a family. We spent a lot of time those final months calling the Fleers, as it were. By July, they had declared bankruptcy.
When Pinnacle went through their death throes in 1998, we had the same understanding from the constant phone and in-person communications we were having with the employees. Their description of how chaotic their final days were is something I always remember. We would constantly have visitors from their office coming to chat and let us know just how wild it had gotten. Most of the employees understood what was going on but they were all hoping to somehow keep going.
I always thought it would have been interesting to to the offices and see what things looked like. Were there proofs and unreleased cards lying around?
As it developed, Fleer went out of business based sort of on natural selection. They were definitely on the bottom run of the major manufacturers and the sheer flow of issues had grown beyond any rational understanding. My counts may be slightly off but I recollect more than 90 baseball releases and more than 60 football releases came down the pike in the 2004 calendar year. That number, of course, does not even count basketball and hockey nor any non-sports of other issues. It was staggering.
The effects of the Fleer issue were very traumatic to anyone who worked there. There is no worse feeling than going to work and finding out your company will not survive the day. And yes, that has happened to me twice in my life in the 1980’s so I totally understand that part. But, for the hobby, other than some of the really pesky redemption issues which would not be solved to collector’s benefit, the end of Fleer was actually the first step towards the much more controlled sports card world we have today. There are still a lot of products, but not nearly the flood of ten years ago.
By the end of 2016, we will have only one trading card manufacturer for each major sport. While collectors fear complacency without competition, it has been inching this way for a while and it probably makes more business sense for the parties involved.
And for retailers, there is no doubt when you have a successful issue, the shelf life has truly increased instead of literally cycling from one issue to the next with no break. Those of us who started collecting cards before 1980, having one manufacturer per sport is closer to the really old school collecting model. I’m not saying the new world will be great but it will probably be less confusing to the masses.
So we appreciate the former Fleer employees for their very dedicated work in the 80s and 90s but also understand that, sad as it was for our friends who worked there, the demise helped evolve the trading card landscape into what it has become. It’s all part of the hobby’s very interesting history.