Shortly after Ted Williams' death in 2002, conservative pundit Steve Sailer said the Red Sox legend might have been "the most technically proficient American of the 20th century."
"Can you think of anybody else who was No. 1 in America in his main career (hitting a baseball), probably top 10 in his retirement hobby (fishing), and roughly top 1,000 in his weekend job (fighter pilot)?" said Sailer.
The journalist's tribute is a testament to Teddy Ballgame's zealous drive to be the best. Remember, this is the guy that said, "A man has to have goals – for a day, for a lifetime – and that was mine, to have people say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter that ever lived.'"
Well, mission accomplished. Today, more than 49 years since his last game and seven years since his death, Williams is widely acknowledged as the best hitter of all-time. And as Sailer attests, the Splendid Splinter's off-the-field ventures were Hall of Fame caliber as well.
Fleer must have recognized this a half century ago when they lured Williams away from Topps to appear in their first baseball set, an 80-card ode to the Bosox outfielder.
"I can't think of a player today that would warrant having a complete set depicting their life," writes Bill Szczepanek, on his baseball card website www.goldenagebaseballcards.com. "Most players' lives outside of their baseball career don't amount to much. But as most people know, Williams had a decorated military career that robbed him of five years of playing in the majors while still in his prime. He was a sport fisherman with his own television show and was inducted into the Fishing Hall of Fame."
Numbered chronologically, the 80 cards in the set offer a continuing biography of The Kid's life. With Williams' domineering personality, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have had input into the set.
"I would expect that while other people may have written the text, he certainly reviewed it," said Szczepanek.
Card fronts boast pictures, with a brief caption along the bottom, while the text on the backs explains the pictures.
These singles were distributed in six- and eight-card wax packs.
"The six-card packs are what usually come up, 95% of the time. The eight-card packs are rather rare. They can be found, but not nearly as often as the six-card packs," explained Steve Hart, owner of the Baseball Card Exchange in Lynwood, Illinois. "The eight-card packs do not have any gum."
Unheard of at the time, this type of tribute set was a trailblazer for the many player subsets that would follow.
"It was very popular at the time. A lot of the guys in my neighborhood collected these cards," said Bill O'Connell, who owns the Registry's No.10 Current Finest set and collected this issue while growing up in the Boston area.
Outside of Massachusetts, however, kids weren't as taken with this set.
"I think most kids who were collecting cards wanted to buy the regular Topps cards that were out, and wanted to collect cards of their favorite player and their favorite team," said Szczepanek. "If you really didn't have any interest in Ted Williams, you didn't buy these cards. When I was a kid, I didn't know anyone else who was buying them."
Fifty years later, however, the set's popularity has grown, along with our appreciation for the tempestuous Teddy Ballgame. The last major leaguer to hit .400 in a season, Thumping Theodore owns the highest career on-base percentage (.482) in big league history and the top batting average of any player who has clubbed 500 homers.
"To me, he's probably the greatest hitter of all-time," said Bob Moynihan, who owns the No. 3 Current Finest set on the PSA Set Registry.
Jason Schlossberg, owner of the No. 1 Registry set, shares similar sentiments.
"I grew up in Connecticut and was a huge Red Sox fan, so my guy was really Yastrzemski. If you loved Yastrzemski, you loved Ted Williams," he explained.
The set's size (80 cards) and relative affordability also make it appealing to collectors. Some singles, however, fetch lofty sums. The pasteboards picturing Williams with other athletes are particularly desirable.
Sam Snead is among the non-baseball stars featured. Showcased on card #67, Two Famous Fisherman, the Hall of Fame golfer was Williams' partner in a fishing venture in Florida. It's a card that attracts interest from more than just baseball fans, says Moynihan.
Multi-sport legend, Jim Thorpe, is featured on card #70. Thorpe and Williams appeared together at the 1952 Sportsmen's Show, while baseball immortal Jimmie Foxx is pictured with Williams on card #11.
The set's most popular guest, however, is Babe Ruth, who's showcased on two cards. Card #2, Ted's Idol – Babe Ruth, features Williams and Ruth holding a bat. While card #75, Williams' Value To Red Sox, flaunts Teddy Ballgame with The Bambino and Eddie Collins.
"A card with Babe Ruth and Ted Williams on it is a classic card," said Schlossberg.
The set's first card, The Early Years, which showcases kids gathering for a game is also popular.
"The first card is really hard to get in high grade," said Schlossberg.
Of the 421 examples graded, there's just one PSA GEM MT 10 and 12 PSA MINT 9s. The sole PSA 10 sold for $9,799.20 in a Mastro Auctions sale in December 2006.
Several cards also discuss Williams' military service. Cards #22 to 25 highlight his evolution into a premier pilot, while singles #46 and 47 illustrate his tenure in the Korean War. Also featured are cards showcasing the Splendid Splinter fishing (#54, 67 and 77) and hunting (#10), as well as singles offering batting tips (#71 to 73).
Moynihan and O'Connell point out that card #21, 1943 – Honors for Williams, is very difficult to uncover in flawless form. Just nine examples have graded as high as PSA 9. A PSA 9 copy sold for $405 on eBay in September 2008.
Card #28, July 14, 1946 – The Williams Shift, diagrams the revolutionary defense implemented against the Sox slugger by Cleveland Indians player/manager Lou Boudreau. The strategy entailed moving all of his fielders, with the exception of the left fielder, to the right side of the field.
Boasting a crisp facsimile autograph, card #63, Ted's All-Star Record, is also highly coveted.
"It's just an attractive portrait of him," noted Moynihan, when asked about the appeal of this card.
Of the 570 submitted, there has been one PSA 10 and 40 PSA 9s. A PSA 9 sold for $330 on eBay in June 2007.
But the most renowned card from this issue is #68, Jan. 23, 1959 – Ted Signs for 1959. This single depicts Williams with Red Sox GM Bucky Harris. Unfortunately, Harris was still under contract with Topps, so Fleer was forced to remove the card early in the production process.
"Topps threatened to sue Fleer," explained Irv Lerner, a longtime hobby dealer based in Philadelphia.
With 600 of these submitted for grading, the true rarity of this card is sometimes debated.
"I think it is rare, because you're not going to see a lot of raw cards. Whoever has that card, submits it, no matter what," said Schlossberg.
A PSA 9 fetched $2,400 in a Mastro Auctions sale in June 2008.
Collectors must also be wary of counterfeits of this card. Thanks to Lerner's efforts, however, many of these fakes have now been stamped accordingly. It was at a show in Troy, Mich., in the mid-'70s that Lerner was approached by a dealer offering him 300 of the #68 cards.
"I looked at them and right away, they didn't look right to me," recalled Lerner. "The printing didn't look right."
After consulting with other hobby experts, including Larry Fritsch, he concluded they were counterfeits. He advised the dealer not to sell them and warned others in the hobby. Unfortunately, some of the counterfeits were sold anyway.
Lerner later obtained a large quantity of the counterfeits and had them stamped as reproductions. He says collectors should look at the front of their #68 cards to determine if they're authentic.
"On the front, you have Ted Williams on the right and you have Bucky Harris on the left. Right between them, going across the top, you can see where the ink dots are broken down on the counterfeits," explained Lerner. "The other way you can tell is, where it says Jan. 23, 1959 – Ted Signs for 1959, that's printed in brown and with black on top of it on the counterfeits. The actual card is only printed in black."
Hobbyists seem to agree that the set's last card, Ted's Goals for 1959, is the most elusive in top condition.
"If you look at the Population Report, the most difficult card to get is the last card, #80," noted Moynihan. "There are only five PSA 9s in existence, and the Pop Report has been stuck at five PSA 9s for a couple of years now."
Common condition flaws with these cards include crimping on the corners, surface wrinkles, discoloration, poor centering and wax and gum stains.
"There are a lot of stain marks on the backs," said O'Connell, "more so than most sets."
But, despite this set's focus on baseball's greatest hitter, it remains relatively affordable. Some say that Williams' less than amiable relationship with the fans hurt him. Unable to comprehend the wavering loyalty of the Fenway faithful, Williams steadfastly refused to tip his hat to the crowd.
"If he'd just tip his cap once, he could be elected mayor of Boston in five minutes," Eddie Collins once lamented.
Some hobbyists simply dismiss this set as too much Ted.
"I've read things where people have said they haven't liked the set because there are too many cards. My point of view is that there weren't enough cards," said Szczepanek. "From beginning to end, everything about him was interesting. If you really liked him as a player and as an individual, then the cards just reinforce all of this."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Jason Schlossberg provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of press time.