The Fleer Corporation, founded by Frank H. Fleer in 1885, was the first company to successfully manufacture bubblegum; it remained a family-owned enterprise until it was taken private in 1989. In 1992, Fleer was sold to the comic-book empire Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. for $265 million. Seven years later, Marvel sold Fleer-Skybox to a partnership formed by Alex Grass, the founder of Rite Aid Corp., and his son Roger at a significant loss—reportedly only $26 million. The Grass family retained ownership until 2005 when Upper Deck bought the rights to the name after it filed for bankruptcy.
Fleer originally developed a bubblegum formulation called Blibber-Blubber in 1906. Unfortunately, while this gum was capable of being blown into bubbles, in other respects it was vastly inferior to regular chewing gum, and Blibber-Blubber was never marketed to the public. In 1928, Fleer employee Walter Diemer improved the Blibber-Blubber formulation to produce the first commercially successful bubblegum, Dubble Bubble. Its pink color set a tradition for nearly all bubble gums to follow.
Fleer became known as a maker of sports cards, and has also produced some non-sports trading cards. In 1995, Fleer acquired the trading card company SkyBox International and, over Thanksgiving vacation, shuttered its Philadelphia plant (where Dubble Bubble was made for 67 years). In 1998, 70-year-old Dubble Bubble was acquired by Canadian company Concord Confections; Concord, in turn, was acquired by Chicago-based Tootsie Roll Industries in 2004.
In late May 2005, news circulated that Fleer was suspending its trading card operations immediately. By early July, in a move similar to declaring bankruptcy, the company began to liquidate its assets to repay creditors. The move included the auction of the Fleer trade name, as well as other holdings. Competitor Upper Deck won the Fleer name, as well as their die cast toy business, at a price of $6.1 million. Just one year earlier, Upper Deck tendered an offer of $25 million, which was rejected by Fleer based on hope that the softening sports card market would revive. One negative aspect associated with Fleer's Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors <ref>http://www.fleerabc.com</ref> is that many sports card collectors now own redemption cards for autographs and memorabilia that may not be able to be redeemed; those fears were somewhat quenched in early 2006 when random memorabilia cards were mailed to the aforementioned collectors.
Early attempts at sports cards
Well established as a gum and candy company, Fleer followed some of its competitors into the business of selling sports cards. It began by signing baseball star Ted Williams to a contract in 1959 and sold an 80-card set oriented around highlights of his career. Fleer was unable to include other players because another company, Topps, had signed most active baseball players to exclusive contracts.
Williams was nearing the end of his career and retired after the 1960 season. However, Fleer continued to produce baseball cards by featuring Williams with other mostly retired players in a Baseball Greats series. One set was produced in 1960 and a second in 1961. The company did not produce new cards the next year, but continued selling the 1961 set while it focused on signing enough players to produce a set featuring active players in 1963. This 67-card set included a number of stars, including 1962 National League MVP Maury Wills (then holder of the modern record for stolen bases in a season), who had elected to sign with Fleer instead of Topps. Wills and Jimmy Piersall served as player representatives for Fleer, helping to bring others on board. However, Topps still held onto the rights of most players and the set was not particularly successful.
Meanwhile, Fleer took advantage of the emergence of the American Football League in 1960 to begin producing football cards. Fleer produced a set for the AFL while Topps cards covered the established National Football League. In 1961, each company produced cards featuring players from both leagues. The next year reverted to the status quo, with Fleer covering the AFL and Topps the NFL. In 1964, however, Philadelphia Gum secured the rights for NFL cards and Topps took over the AFL.
This left Fleer with no product in either baseball or football. The company now turned its efforts to supporting an administrative complaint filed against Topps by the Federal Trade Commission. The complaint focused on the baseball card market, alleging that Topps was engaging in unfair competition through its aggregation of exclusive contracts. A hearing examiner ruled against Topps in 1965, but the Commission reversed this decision on appeal. The Commission concluded that because the contracts only covered the sale of cards with gum, competition was still possible by selling cards with other small, low-cost products. However, Fleer chose not to pursue such options and instead sold its remaining player contracts to Topps for $395,000 in 1966. The decision gave Topps an effective monopoly of the baseball card market.
In 1968, Fleer was approached by the Major League Baseball Players Association, a recently organized players' union, about obtaining a group license to produce cards. The MLBPA was in a dispute with Topps over player contracts, and offered Fleer the exclusive rights to market cards of most players starting in 1973, when many of Topps's contracts would expire. Since this was so far in the future, Fleer declined the proposal.
Fleer returned to the union in September 1974 with a proposal to sell 5-by-7-inch satin patches of players, somewhat larger than normal baseball cards. By now, the MLBPA had settled its differences with Topps and reached an agreement that gave Topps a right of first refusal on such offers. Topps passed on the opportunity, indicating that it did not think the product would be successful. The union, also fearing that it would cut into existing royalties from Topps sales, then rejected the proposal.
In April 1975, Fleer asked for Topps to waive its exclusive rights and allow Fleer to produce stickers, stamps, or other small items featuring active baseball players. Topps refused, and Fleer then sued both Topps and the MLBPA to break the Topps monopoly. After several years of litigation, the court ordered the union to offer group licenses for baseball cards to companies other than Topps. Fleer and another company, Donruss, were thus allowed to begin making cards in 1981. Fleer's legal victory was overturned after one season, but they continued to manufacture cards, substituting stickers with team logos for gum.
In 1989, Ripken's Fleer card showed him holding a bat with the expletive fuck face written in plain view on the knob of the bat. Fleer subsequently rushed to correct the error, and in their haste, released versions in which the text was scrawled over with a marker, whited out with correction fluid, and also airbrushed. On the final, corrected version, Fleer obscured the offensive words with a black box (this was the version included in all factory sets). Both the original card and many of the corrected versions have become collector's items as a result. There are at least ten different variations of this card. As of February 2009 the white out version has a book value of $120, but has been sold in mint condition on eBay for asking prices as high as $1,200.<ref>Baseball card variations, from billripken.com</ref>
Years later, Ripken admitted to having written the expletive on the bat; however, he claimed he did it to distinguish it as a batting practice bat, and did not intend to use it for the card.
Some collectors list the card as the "Rick Face" card. The script on the bat appears to make the word fuck look similar to Rick.
Key Trading Card sets
Fleer produced two benchmark trading cards in the 1980s. In 1984, Fleer was the only major trading card manufacturer to release a Roger Clemens card; they included the then-Boston Red Sox prospect in their 1984 Fleer Baseball Update Set. The 1984 update set also included the first licensed card of Hall Of Fame outfielder Kirby Puckett. Fleer also released factory sets of their baseball cards from 1986-92. Like the Topps factory sets, they came in colorful boxes for retail and plainer boxes for hobby dealers. The 1986 was not sealed, but the 1987-89 sets were sealed with a sticker and the 1990-92 sets were shrink-wrapped.
In 1986 Fleer helped resurrect the basketball card industry by releasing the 1986-87 Fleer Basketball set which included the Rookie Cards of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. This set is seen by many basketball card collectors as the "1952 Topps of basketball."
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the glossy parallel sets Fleer produced for their 1987-89 baseball sets (similar to the Topps Tiffany sets) became very popular in the hobby. However, that popularity wore off, and today, the sets are rarely seen on the secondary market.
1991 saw the first release of their Ultra set, which in some years was actually been released earlier than their regular Fleer (Tradition) set. The 1991 set had an announced production of 15% of regular Fleer and this set was produced on higher quality card stock and used silver ink, just like Donruss' Leaf set starting the previous year. The 1992 set used UV coating on both sides and gold foil stamping on the front, which was among the most beautiful sets of that year. 1994's Ultra and regular Fleer sets began another tradition of offering an insert card in every pack and the next year started another tradition called "hot packs" (where about 1:72 packs contained only insert cards. An assortment of the easier to find insert cards and not the rare 1:36 100% foil cards). Still another tradition that continues today is the Ultra Gold Medallion parallel insert set, which started in 1995 and also included all the insert sets for the first two years. These are inserted one per pack. In 1997, Ultra introduced the Platinum Medallion insert set which is traditionally serial numbered to 100. The following year, 1998, saw the introduction of the purple Ultra Masterpieces, which are one of ones. 1998 also started the tradition of including short printed cards in the regular/Gold/Platinum sets.
Fleer's super premium flagship set, called Flair, began production in 1993 with an announced production run as 15% of Ultra. Its trademark was that it was printed on very thick card stock (about twice the thickness of regular cards), used a unique glossy finish along with six color printing. The "packs" are done by shrink wrapping the cards (usually ten in a "pack") and then placing them in a shrink-wrapped "mini-box" instead of the usual mylar foil packs used on virtually all trading card products today. The 1997 Flair Showcase set included the first one-of-one cards for any major sport, a spate of masterpiece parallels to the more common Row 2, Row 1 and Row 0 parallel sets.
As an Upper Deck Company subsidiary
In early 2005, Fleer announced that it would cease all productions of trading cards and file an Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors, which is a State Court liquidation, similar to Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In July 2005, Upper Deck acquired the rights to the Fleer name and began producing Fleer-branded basketball, hockey, and football cards. The $6.1 million Upper Deck paid for the Fleer name was significantly less than the $25 million UD offered to buy out Fleer a year earlier.
In 2006, Upper Deck published baseball sets under the popular names Fleer, Ultra, Fleer Tradition, Flair, Skybox Autographics, and Greats of the Game -- although the last Fleer-branded baseball cards appeared in 2007.