Fleer’s Demise Was in the Cards

I am a baseball card nerd. Last night I spent a good portion of my evening reading up on the Fleer Corporation. The biggest thing I learned was that Fleer predated Topps with a baseball set way back in 1923. Unfortunately, Topps had exclusive contracts with most players in baseball. By 1966, Fleer gave up fighting Topps’ monopoly and sold off its few, remaining player contracts.

Where it gets good is 1975 when Fleer asked Topps permission to produce stamps, stickers, and other small items with current MLB players. Topps refused, which prompted Fleer to sue both the MLBPA and Topps. After several years, Fleer was able to break the monopoly in 1981, when a court allowed two other companies to enter the market. The other company? Donruss.

With the unlicensed cards I am seeing coming from Panini America and Leaf Trading Cards, plus the jaw-dropping custom cards from Tanman, there is a bright future for baseball card collectors. Topps’ license runs through 2020. I am a fan of Topps’ work but I am chomping at the bit to see a true, licensed competitor to Topps, especially because today’s printing technology is absolutely amazing.

What if the MLBPA grants Panini America a license to produce cards in 2021? Will we see the true, return of Donruss Baseball Cards? What about the Pinnacle Brands license? I’m not very sentimental and we already know there’s no crying in baseball but a fully-licensed, 2021 Pinnacle Baseball release is one of my biggest fantasies. Like I said before, I am a baseball card nerd.

If Topps is given yet another exclusive deal, well … I cannot complain much. My player, Jose Canseco, will likely continue to have cards produced by all the companies. I still would hope someone would have the balls (and resources) to take on Topps and the MLBPA the way Fleer did in the 70s. My only question would be: IS IT WORTH IT? In 1975 we didn’t have internet, gaming systems, or smart phones.

Do we really need more than one company producing, licensed trading cards? The magazine and newspaper industry has collapsed and kids sure as hell don’t need a baseball card to find stats. In fact, today’s popular stats don’t even fit on the back of cards. Seems like baseball cards now are part of a niche market and a company like Panini or Leaf would have to spend millions to fight Topps and MLBPA.

Jerry Meyer, the CEO of Pinnacle Brands, walked away from trading cards in 1997 because he was tired of burning money. In 1992, Marvel purchased Fleer for an insane $340 million only to sell it off in 1999 for $26 million. In 2006, Fleer was purchased by Upper Deck for $6 million. It seems like any company that would want to compete with Topps would have to lay out a lot of money it may never be able recoup.

Fleer’s old warehouse

Of course, this is all speculation from a baseball card lifer. For all we know, the MLBPA wants competition in the industry and/or is unhappy with Topps Company’s baseball releases. Or better yet, maybe there have been private meetings and Panini America and Leaf are just waiting out this exclusive contract. For all we know, 2021 will be the rebirth of our industry. Put away your pitchforks, not saying it’s dead.

All I want, as a collector for most of my life is to see fair, competition. Topps’ cards, especially Chrome and Finest, plus its Refractors are my all-time favorites. I don’t need to watch a single baseball game to enjoy bustin’ a box of Topps Finest. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see what Leaf can do WITH a license. Clearly, the work coming from this company is top notch.

I want to have choices when it comes to my baseball card spending. Ryan Cracknell of Beckett Media recently wrote what is perhaps the greatest, hobby-related article of all-time (no offense to the great, Ben Henry). In it, he asks why people can’t just collect what they love and leave out the negativity. Ryan, I love Topps cards. I love Upper Deck cards. I adore Pinnacle Brands cards. I love Donruss cards.

Unfortunately, we as collectors are getting the short end of the stick because all these companies are still around, in one way or another, but they are unable to bring their fans and collectors true, licensed products. My #1 favorite card is a Refractor but who knows what could have been if Pinnacle had perfected Dufex? What if Donruss creates the next, great card technology and it goes mostly ignored due to no logos?

Seems to me the problem is not over saturating the market by having too many companies producing cards but by the AMOUNT of products each licensed, company produces. I would imagine Topps has to keep pumping out products to help offset the costs of licensing fees. As a collector, I’d rather see 5, great products by 3 companies instead of 15 from just one.

I look at it like a restaurant’s menu selection. If I went somewhere that had ONLY burgers on their menu, I would probably go to a place that has OPTIONS. The restaurant is Major League Baseball. The customer is the baseball card collector. For the love of God, add a few sides to your menu otherwise I will continue to get my lunches from the roach coach around the block.

 

The Roach Coach of Cards
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