As 1960 dawned, the Frank H. Fleer Corp. of Philadelphia had just released their first-ever set of baseball trading cards and bubble gum. This set, an 80-card retrospective of the life and career of future Hall of Famer Ted Williams, came after years of indecision and reluctance to enter the competitive baseball card market against Leaf, Bowman, and an 800-pound gorilla known as the Topps Chewing Gum Company.
Fleer was the first company to sell bubble gum in 1909, although it took them until 1928 to make it palatable and add the now-famous pink color. Despite beating Topps to the punch by ten years, Fleer was content to sell their confection by itself under the "Dubble Bubble" and "Swell" brands for several decades.
Eventually though, Fleer succumbed to market pressure and entered the trading card market in 1959. While having Teddy Ballgame all to themselves that year was certainly a coup, what would Fleer do for Act II? Topps had a virtual monopoly on trading card contracts with major league players, while Fleer had - Williams, and that was all.
The answer was to produce a set of all-time "Baseball Greats," covering players from the late 1880s all the way to 1960, including Teddy You-Know-Who. By featuring retired players, Fleer wouldn't have to dance around Topps' contracts with active players, and they could include several well-known members of the Hall of Fame.
While this reasoning certainly seemed sound to the folks at Fleer, it was bewildering to young boys and girls who marched into candy stores, tossed a nickel or two on the counter, and grabbed a couple of packs of Baseball Greats. Who were these guys? OK, we'd heard of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. But who the heck was Heine Manush? Lefty Grove? Arky Vaughn? Branch Rickey? Rabbit Maranville? (And what mothers gave boys names like that, anyway?)
And what was the deal with all these old men in suits? Judge Landis' photo reminded me of our scowling elementary school principal who had just caught a bunch of us kids flipping baseball cards for small change during recess. Warren Giles laughed like he had just heard the funniest joke ever told, while Connie Mack's pose and clothing resembled an old photograph of some great-great-grand-whomever ancestor that hung in my uncle's house.
As seven- and eight-year-olds, we weren't privy to Fleer's marketing decisions, and so searched in vain for recognizable ballplayers amongst the faces of the past printed on these pieces of cardboard. Nope; no Mantles were to be found, nor any Mays, Aarons, Kalines, or Robinsons. Ted Williams was the only player we uncovered who was still swinging a bat, and even he was getting a big long in the tooth.
Talk about disappointment! So, we chewed up all of the gum (which was actually far superior in taste and durability to anything Topps manufactured) and left the Baseball Greats cards forgotten in drawers, shoeboxes, attics, dresser drawers, and other places where kids stash their "stuff." We wanted Topps cards - Baseball Greats were like getting socks and underwear for Christmas.
Looking back over time, 1960 Fleer cards were really like good red wines. Both the cards and us kids had to age quite a few years to really appreciate them. What irony - while Topps was inundating us with a 572-card collection of current players and "can't miss" rookie stars (many of whom we'd never heard of, either), Fleer had decided to give us a baseball history lesson along with some slabs of tasty, pink bubble gum.
As sets go, the basic 1960 Baseball Greats offering is pretty small at 79 cards. That means it isn't particularly difficult to complete, nor expensive. In the past five months, I've picked up two complete sets with many near mint cards for about the cost of a 1960 Topps Mickey Mantle in PSA 7 condition - a great deal in anyone's book.
If you are into collecting old-time Hall of Fame players and saving a few bucks while doing so, 1960 Fleer is a great set to put together. Key cards include #1 Napoleon "Larry" Lajoie (SMR $75 in PSA 8), #3 Babe Ruth (SMR $230 in PSA 8), #28 Lou Gehrig (SMR $175 in PSA 8), #42 Ty Cobb (SMR $120 in PSA 8), and #72 Ted Williams (SMR $275 in PSA 8).
But that's not all, as they say in TV commercials. You'll also find #6 Walter Johnson, #47 Cy Young, #5 Grover Cleveland Alexander (portrayed by Ronald Reagan in the 1952 movie The Winning Team), #62 Honus Wagner, and #26 "Bullet" Bob Feller, who had retired just four years earlier.
In the "Old Men Wearing Suits" department, Baseball Greats features # 15 Clark Griffith (whose adopted son Calvin moved the Washington Senators to Minneapolis in 1961), the aforementioned, scowling Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis - the embodiment of the phrase "confiscating your baseball cards" - on card #64, #55 Branch Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the immortal Connie Mack, #14.
Legendary New York Yankees general manager Ed Barrow, nearly as old as Mack (he was born three years after the Civil War ended), appeared in a more casual portrait with open collar and sport jacket on card #23. Barrow ran the front office from 1921 to 1945, signing Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio to Yankees contracts. Not only that, he managed Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox in 1918 and 1919! (You'd never learn stuff like that from Topps baseball cards…)
There were several players who were only a few years removed from playing major league ball. #16 Lou Boudreau, on of the youngest managers ever, had only retired in 1952, while #19 Marty Marion, long-time shortstop for the Cardinals, hung up his glove in 1953 and was president of the Houston American Association baseball club in 1960.
Cardinals, Giants, and Yankees great John Mize, featured on card 38, also called it a day in 1953, while the king of radio broadcast malapropisms, Ralph Kiner, put his bats in the rack for good in 1955. Although Ralph only played ten seasons, he led the National League in home runs his first seven seasons, hitting over 40 home runs five times. (More cool stats that a seven-year-old just couldn't appreciate!) Fleer rewarded him with the next-to-last card in the set (#79), but as things turned out, it became the last card.
Here's why. Although price guides show the basic 1960 Baseball Greats set as having 79 cards, there are some #80 "wild cards" floating around out there to tantalize those who want to complete a master set. Fleer had originally intended card #80 to feature John Leonard Roosevelt Martin, better known to baseball fans as "Pepper" Martin of the St. Louis Cardinals 1930s Gashouse Gang.
But contract problems intervened, and the card was never issued - or so everybody thought, until a #80 card surfaced, featuring Lefty Grove on the front and Pepper Martin's stats on the obverse. Grove, of course, had already appeared on card #60. Some of these "error" cards appeared to be hand cut from sheets, likely misprints. However, at least one sample graded by PSA appears to be machine cut and has a gum stain on its back from being in a wax pack.
Another variation on #80 surfaced, this time with #20 Eddie Collins' picture on the front and Pepper Martin's stats on the obverse. Both the Grove and Collins scarcities command big-time prices, if you can find them. Current SMR for either variation is $750 in PSA 5 condition, rising to $6,500 for a PSA 8 copy.
The scarcest variation of all features Joe Tinker from card #40 with (once again) Pepper Martin's stats on the obverse. This card is so rare it's not even listed in Sports Market Report databases, although the current population report shows exactly one graded at PSA 6. Another copy exists that has been authenticated by PSA, presumably because it was hand-cut.
The Collins/Martin variation is equally scarce in the population report with one copy graded PSA 6, and there is at least one other that has also been authenticated by PSA. Three copies of the Grove/Martin variation have been reviewed by PSA and the highest grade given was a PSA 7Q.
The only true "error" card in the set, one that was never corrected, is #49 Ed Walsh. The photo is actually of Ed Walsh Jr. but the card is not pricey as a result. It's considered a common card and valued at $22 in PSA 8 condition.
As far as the rest of the set goes, 496 Williams cards have been graded, with 158 PSA 8 grades awarded and 29 PSA 9s in circulation. Lou Gehrig's card is #2 in the order with 348 copies graded, resulting in 99 PSA 8s, 21 PSA 9s, and 1 PSA 10. Babe Ruth hits in the #3 spot with 288 copies graded (46 PSA 8s, 1 PSA 9s) and Ty Cobb bats cleanup with 283 grades issued (71 PSA 8s and 12 PSA 9s). In all, 6,377 1960 Fleer cards have been graded by PSA.
Market prices for 1960 Fleer card aren't as easy to track. An unopened NrMT pack of 1960 Fleer cards bought $542 at gavel this past November, while a PSA 9 Ruth sold at auction the same month for $687, including the buyer's premium. By anyone's standard, those prices are quite reasonable for 46-year-old cards of Hall of Fame players and certainly far less than comparable unopened packs and stars from the 1960 Topps set would fetch.
Compare the gavel price for the PSA 9 Ruth card to a comparably-graded 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth ($60,000 - $100,000) or 1948 Leaf Babe Ruth ($30,000) and you can quickly see the appeal of this set! 1960 Fleer cards are notorious for being miscut - I once had a Ty Cobb card with an hourglass shape - but if you could assemble a basic set in PSA 8 condition, SMR would peg its value at $2,750.
To sum up, Fleer's 1960 Baseball Greats set has it all - a small, affordable set, loaded with Hall of Famers, that isn't difficult to complete and provides a wealth of statistics and biographical information on players, managers, and executives from the golden days of baseball. And for those who live for wild goose chases, the elusive Grove, Collins, and Tinker variations are out there, just waiting to be discovered in a shoebox at a garage sale or flea market...