When the Upper Deck Company launched its first series in 1989, it changed the baseball card industry. With a smiling face in rookie Ken Griffey Jr.—card #1 in the series—Upper Deck’s glossy finish, counterfeit-proof hologram logo, and superior design upped the ante for other baseball card manufacturers and monetized “bubble gum cards,” long a kids’ hobby. It would eventually spell the end for Philadelphia’s Fleer company, which had its roots in the 19th Century and closed its Olney factory in 1996, selling the last of what it owned in 2005. But Fleer also once changed the baseball card industry.
In 1980, Fleer scored a major victory over its longtime competitor, Brooklyn’s Topps Company, when it won an antitrust suit against Topps and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Breaking up Topps’ baseball card monopoly allowed Fleer to begin production on its first full baseball card set in 1981. It also finally earned Fleer a little revenge for Topps’ cut in the bubble gum market decades earlier.
Chiclets and Dubble Bubble: Philadelphia’s place in chewing gum and bubble gum history
German-born Frank Fleer married the daughter of flavor extract producer Otto Holstein in the 1880s, and by the end of the decade, Fleer had established Frank H. Fleer & Co. Along with his brother Henry, Fleer applied the flavoring techniques to chicle, a boiled-and-dried sap that fed the growing chewing gum industry, and had their first hit with a cola-flavored gum. Inspired by Henry’s love of candy-coated almonds, the Fleers in 1895 patented a candy-coated gum, Chiclets, which added a layer of crunch and kept the gum fresh. (Chicle: Chewing Gum of the Americas from Ancient Maya to William Wrigley, Jennifer Mathews, 2009.)
Chiclets made Fleer a national brand, and they operated a factory at 2343 Hamilton Street—where Eakins Oval is today—before construction of the Ben Franklin Parkway. With the novelty of Chiclets fueling his success, Frank Fleer sought to add more delight to chewing gum: blowing bubbles. In 1906, he produced his first run of Blibber-Blubber, a prototype of bubble gum. Blibber-Blubber proved a bit of a flop, however, as it was sticky and hard to chew.
In 1909, Sen-Sen Company, which later became the American Chicle Company, bought Fleer and the rights to Chiclets. (Chiclets are still manufactured today, by Cadbury Adams, a division of Mondelēz.) Frank Fleer initially served on the board, but in 1914 left and established a new Frank H. Fleer Company, producing candies and confectioneries while, with a Chiclets no-compete clause, still searching for a different kind of bubble gum.
Frank Fleer died in 1921 without ever seeing the two things that would carry his name through nearly another century. With his son-in-law Gilbert Mustin at the company helm, and production now at 10th and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia, Fleer in 1923 first dipped its toes into the trading card market by including cards of movie stars like Mary Pickford, historic heroes like Wild Bill Hickok, presidents, and sports stars like Babe Ruth in its packs of candy. But that endeavor likewise did not initially stick. The one five years later did. Or rather, it didn’t.
Fleer’s first attempt at bubble gum, Blibber-Blubber, failed because it was difficult to chew and, worse, it stuck to people’s faces after blowing a bubble. A young accountant remedied that. In 1928, 23-year-old Walter Diemer experimented after hours at Fleer with gum formulas until he produced a batch that was stretchy and less sticky. The batch was gray, so he added pink dye, the only color available at the time. Bubble gum was born. (Diemer obituary, New York Times, 1998.) Sold a penny a piece in wax wrappers, Dubble Bubble became a smash for Fleer.
With Dubble Bubble, Fleer outgrew its North Philly digs, and the company moved to a large industrial building at 5324 North 10th Street in the gray area where Olney and Logan blend together. Opened in 1930 by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, the long, narrow building lie adjacent to two of its lines (both now operated by SEPTA) and had most recently served as an industrial scale bakery.
Fleer effectively maintained a multimillion dollar monopoly on American bubble gum until after World War II. In 1947, a young company out of Brooklyn called Topps began production on Bazooka bubble gum, cutting into Fleer’s market with a patriotic red, white, and blue wrapper and a catchy comic strip in each piece. Then in 1952, the upstart company set the standard for the modern baseball card.
Birth of the Baseball Card Business
With a handsome design for the front and a set of stats and personal information on the back, the 1952 Topps series crafted the template still used today. Mickey Mantle’s card from that set is, after Honus Wagner’s 1909 American Tobacco Company card, the second-most valuable baseball card of all time. In 1956, Topps bought out its only real competitor, Philadelphia’s Bowman company, and developed exclusive contracts with a majority of active MLB players for use of their likeness on cards sold with gum. Those two distinctions would inform several lawsuits over the next three decades.
In 1959, with Gilbert Mustin Jr. now its president, Fleer took its first crack at Topps by signing an aging Ted Williams to an exclusive contract. In fact, the contract was so exclusive, the entire 80-card set was of Williams in various phases of his career and life. In 1960, they produced a “Baseball Greats” set, the first throwback series of its kind, featuring Williams and the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Connie Mack.
Over the next two years, Fleer continued to produce the “Baseball Greats,” short runs each of professional football and basketball, and non-sports cards such as the Three Stooges and Gomer Pyle, but after the Federal Trade Commission agreed with their 1962 allegation of a Topps monopoly, Fleer took the risk of creating its first baseball card set. In 1963, it signed reigning MVP Maury Wills and a handful of ballplayers like Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax to non-exclusive contracts and created its first run of 66 bubble gum cards. However, poor sales discouraged Fleer from continuing, and in 1965, the FTC overturned its decision on the basis that cards could be marketed with things other than gum, or nothing at all. For companies with identities rooted in gum, this mattered more than selling just cards. The following year, Fleer sold what contracts it had amassed back to Topps, which by this time was dealing with the nascent Major League Baseball Players Association and its boss Marvin Miller.
In 1975, Fleer ramped up its case again, filing a federal antitrust suit against Topps and the MLBPA in the US Court of Appeals’ Third Circuit, in Philadelphia. The case dragged on until 1980, when Justice Clarence Newcomer ruled that Topps “unlawfully restrained and monopolized trade,” opening the way for Fleer to begin printing baseball cards again. A third competitor, Memphis-based Donruss, rode the coattails of Fleer’s victory and also began production in 1981.
While the lawsuit played out, Fleer had to contend with another huge new competitor: soft bubble gum. With Life Savers’ debut of Bubble Yum in 1975, soft bubble gum made an immediate impact on the previous success of Fleer’s much-firmer Dubble Bubble and Topps’ Bazooka bubble gums. Chiclets’ parent company American Chicle answered the next year with Bubblicious, and with a product that brought together soft bubble gum, baseball, and novelty, Wrigley launched Big League Chew—shredded bubble gum in a pouch—in 1980. Fleer’s first foray into soft bubble gum was with Gatorgum, using Gatorade’s orange and lemon-lime flavors to “quench thirst” in a stick of gum. The tart and squishy gum was only moderately popular, and it was discontinued in 1989.
Baseball Cards’ 1980s Golden Years
Fleer baseball cards, meanwhile, were just taking off. Along with Dubble Bubble production, the Olney plant handled card cutting and packaging operations. (The card sheets were printed elsewhere and shipped to Olney.)
Packs of their first series in 1981 featured a stick of gum, the product Fleer had long been best known for. Topps appealed the 1980 antitrust ruling, though, and successfully made the case that they could maintain exclusive packaging of cards and gum together. The next year, Fleer replaced the sticks of gum with team stickers, which Topps then sued them for, calling the stickers a “sham” designed to bypass the exclusivity agreement. That suit settled out of court but made both companies recognize the value in the cards themselves as greater than the gum.
Still, Topps continued to lead the baseball card market through the early ’80s, and it wasn’t until 1984 that the field came closer to being level. The 1984 Donruss set, featuring the rookie cards of Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry, was a hit with collectors and remains popular today. Later in 1984, Fleer issued its first ‘Update’ set, with in-season additions and trades. With the first printed cards of Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, and Kirby Puckett, it proved Fleer’s seriousness in the baseball card business.
In 1986, Fleer scored a coup when it acquired a license for the NBA and produced its premier run of basketball cards. That set, featuring the rookie cards of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, is considered by collectors a masterpiece, and Jordan’s card alone fetches around $5,000 in good condition. (One “perfect” condition went for $100,000!)
Still, baseball drove the collectors’ market throughout the 1980s. From ’84 through ’87, the baseball cards put out by Topps, Fleer, and Donruss continued to battle one another in corner stores, card shops, and conventions, with Score joining the competition in ’88. Then it all changed.
Upper Deck’s inaugural series in 1989 was the first all-in brand of a designer baseball card. Based in Yorba Linda, California, Upper Deck intentionally went after the higher end of the market, and given Ken Griffey Jr.’s instant popularity that summer, Upper Deck’s profile soared alongside his, as it was the only company to feature Griffey in its regular season baseball card series. Fleer, Topps, Donruss, and Score all had to catch up in their update sets months later.
Incidentally, 1989 also witnessed Fleer’s greatest notoriety: the Billy Ripken card. Where his brother Cal is one of baseball’s all-time greats, a Hall of Famer who played every single game for 16 consecutive years, Billy Ripken was only an everyday player for five years, a career .247 hitter. But he’ll be forever remembered by baseball collectors. His 1989 Fleer card featured a posed Ripken slyly smiling, with “FUCK FACE” written clearly on the knob of his bat. Long blamed on some anonymous clubhouse prankster, Ripken finally fessed up in 2008 that that was his own autograph. In Fleer’s scramble to recall and print a “corrected” (censored) version of the card, they inadvertently fed the craze by actually creating several different versions, each one a collector’s item. There’s even a web site dedicated to the card and its variations.
After Upper Deck: Fleer’s final years
Forty years after his initial venture into sports cards, Gilbert Mustin Jr. saw 1989 as a good time to cash out. Mustin sold the company that bore his grandfather’s name to an equity firm led by a former Donruss executive for $75 million. The firm, called Charterhouse Equity Partners, took Fleer public the next year, and in 1991 they released its answer to Upper Deck, “Fleer Ultra.”
Marvel Entertainment bought the Fleer shares from Charterhouse in 1992 for $286 million. That year, Marvel moved Fleer’s administrative staff from Olney to Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Marvel then bought Skybox, another ’90s sports card newcomer, for $150 million, and merged the two to form Fleer/Skybox. In 1996, reporting losses of nearly half a billion dollars, Marvel filed for bankruptcy protection; the factory at 10th & Somerville closed, all card productions were contracted out, and Dubble Bubble production moved south to Mississippi. Fleer VP Ted Taylor contributed a collector’s column for the Daily News and penned a fond epitaph for the old factory when it closed, but he did not mention the parent comic book company.
Marvel sold Fleer/Skybox to the founder of Rite Aid in 1999 for $26 million, less than 10% of what it paid for Fleer only seven years earlier. In 2003, sensing a mistake, the new owners shopped Fleer around and received an offer of $25 million from Upper Deck. Fleer declined. By mid-2005, with $30 million in debt, Fleer ceased operations and an assignee ran an auction to sell off Fleer’s assets. The winning bid, for $6.1 million, came from Upper Deck.
Upper Deck still manufactures new cards, but has added high-end collectibles like autographs and game-worn jerseys to its repertoire. As the grandaddy of the bunch, Topps also still produces cards, but in its best 21st Century effort has added a mobile phone app which combines the historic look of baseball cards and the modern infatuation with fantasy sports. The app, called Topps Bunt, updates player cards and fantasy scores in real time.
Fleer’s final home in Philadelphia, at 10th & Somerville in Olney, now serves many uses, with a car wash and tire shop, an auto body shop, and a wholesale candy retailer all operating out of the building. SEPTA’s Fox Chase line trudges the train tracks on the south side of the building, while three other regional rail lines whiz by on the other side.
Marvel sold Dubble Bubble in 1998 to Concord Confections, which five years later was bought by Tootsie Roll. Tootsie Roll still produces Dubble Bubble; the “Fleer” text in the logo’s crown has been replaced by “America’s Original.”
The North Philly building where Fleer made Dubble Bubble was demolished 20 years ago. A new mixed-use residential-and-retail building now fronts 10th & Diamond and includes a hookah bar aimed at Temple students. It’s called Hubble Bubble.
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