Monday, September 12, 2011

Fleer's '90s wild ride

I received my cards from Colbey's "Fleer Matte Finish" break a week or two ago. I entered this break because I needed just one Dodger from the '97 Fleer set -- and you see it here -- and I needed a load of Dodgers from the '96 set.

You see those here.

The Fleer sets from 1996 and 1997 aren't very exciting. In fact, the base cards are the polar opposite of what was going on in the card world at the time.

But that's what makes these sets so interesting to me. What was Fleer thinking going in this direction? It's a common question among those who collect '90s cards. And when viewed from the angle of all of Fleer's base sets in the 1990s, it's just part of the strange route that Fleer took during this decade.

From the point that Fleer returned to card making, in 1981, I considered them as another Topps. Fleer seemed -- to me anyway -- like it wanted to be Topps. Donruss demonstrated right away that it was not Topps, and as the years went along, seemed content to make its cards appear as if they could be packaged with a Weeble in the toy aisle (think almost any Donruss set from the junk wax period). Score and Upper Deck came later and had agendas of their own.

But Fleer seemed like it aspired to be Topps -- rolling out 660-card sets from the start.

I respected Fleer for that. I didn't think they matched Topps very well during the '80s, but I would buy more Fleer cards than Donruss cards.

Then, early in the 1990s, Fleer got confused. Its sets seemed more like Donruss sets than Topps sets.

Those are cheap-looking items that are very kid friendly, but cannot be taken seriously if you're considering the foremost maker of cards in the land.

Fleer classed it up a little bit in 1992. A little. Even though many people don't like the look of '92 Fleer, I thought "good, at least they're trying again."

'93 Fleer was the same way. Again, not one of my favorites, but perfectly respectable and right in line with what was happening with cards then. You could see Fleer shooting for Topps status again -- even though that wasn't exactly the gold standard anymore, what with Upper Deck rising to the top by then.

And then ...

POW. ... 1994 Fleer arrived. This is the best-looking Fleer base set ever. I'm all for colorful and wild, but classy gets it done, too. And this ... is ... class-AY.

For one of the few times since '81, Fleer did a better job at the look of its base set than Topps did. And apparently, the folks at Fleer celebrated this accomplishment a lot -- with possible pharmaceuticals in the party mix -- because '94 degenerated into this:

1995 Fleer is a cry for help if I ever saw one.

This was rock bottom. Blackouts and ruined relationships and waking up in the street gutter. Detox and rehab. Painful stories about the loved ones you've wronged. Obviously, Fleer couldn't handle its success in 1994 and drove a million miles an hour in the opposite direction.

But I've discussed this before. It's only part of the story.

The story continues with Fleer's days immediately following rehab. Determined to make a fresh, new start, and staying far, far away from all of the triggers that caused it to spiral into '95 Fleer, it produced the following looks in 1996 and 1997.

The two sets are almost identical, and there is not a hint of gloss on either of them. Fleer became so fanatical in its new sobriety that it chucked everything that had to do with cards in the '90s. It's as if Fleer went into the mountains, far away from everyone, and printed cards in a cave. I wouldn't be surprised if it called its peers in the card industry and said, "you know, I'm just being your friend here. You really shouldn't use all that UV coating on your cards. It's a slippery slope. I've been there. I know."

Of course, Fleer didn't truly ditch everything about modern cards those two years. It still made glossy parallel versions of its '96 and '97 cards. And there were glossy inserts. Old habits die hard.

Which is why in 1998 we had this:

Fleer Tradition. This is what became the Fleer name from 1998 through 2002. "Fleer Tradition." There is no basic Fleer set during these years. Just "Fleer Tradition" and then later a legion of other Fleer brands like "Brilliants" and "Impact," etc.

I don't know the real reason why Fleer decided to go by "Fleer Tradition" during this time. It's not as if it was a new name for Fleer, because in 2002, Fleer came back, but it still had a Fleer Tradition set, too.

So between 1998 and 2002 it's as if Fleer -- the base set -- didn't exist at all. It walked away, and left the card industry for good. Too many demons. Too many memories of 1995 Fleer.

Today, Fleer actually doesn't exist in the card world anymore. It was bought out by Upper Deck. And we know how far Upper Deck has fallen.

Many collectors wish Fleer was back again. I wish Fleer was back again. But maybe Fleer just couldn't handle success. 1994 Fleer was the card company's one great rock album, before booze, groupies and pills took over.

Lighters up. For '94 Fleer.


  1. I never cared for the 94's; the names were too hard to read, and (for me) they stuck to each other more than others

  2. I loved the 1994s. I even had the Sunoco ones without the gold foil, which were in fact easier to read.

    As an autograph fan, 1996 and 1997 were great for me. Signatures stuck perfectly to them. I remember hearing something at the time that they went to the matte finish to encourage autograph collecting. Not sure how true that was, but it was an interesting theory.

  3. (To the tune of the Chorus for "We Are the World"):

    We miss you fleer
    We are collectors
    We are the ones who saw your brighter days
    And we were living
    There's no choice we're making
    Topps bought out all the rights
    It's true you'd make a better card
    For us to see

  4. '95 Fleer went off it's meds and scarred me. I still have nightmares about it. Thankfully, I'll be up all night anyway.

    Alas, I did like many Fleer issues and would love to see them come back and not in some bastardized upper deck (yea, I didn't capitalize upper deck, they don't deserve it) form.

  5. The 1998 design looks like Ultra. I get 'em confused when sifting through monster boxes.