Among the selection of jawbreakers, packs of gum and candy bars at some “five-and-dime” stores in the fall of 1960 were, no doubt on occasion, two brands of football cards from which to choose – Topps and Fleer.
For the fifth straight year, Topps was the sole maker of regular-issue NFL cards. With teams such as the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and the resurging Green Bay Packers all having found a growing fan base sparked especially by televised games, the league had reached amazing new levels of popularity in just the previous two seasons.
Fleer, meanwhile, the perfectors of bubble gum in the late 1920s, and a baseball card producer since 1959, was distributing its first football collection.
It featured the new American Football League with franchises like the Boston Patriots, Dallas Texans, New York Titans and Oakland Raiders. The Fleer set, like the AFL itself, gave football fans many new names and faces to get acquainted with.
Fleer’s first football offering featured photos with consistently eye-catching poses superimposed over solid-color backgrounds, a format that is a staple of the 1956 and 1957 Topps gridiron sets from the era.
Vintage Fleer football card backs blended biographical information with some career stats in an easy-to-read format.
Only a small handful of Hall of Famers in their playing days are included in the 132-card 1960 issue, chiefly George Blanda and the Ron Mix rookie.
The first-year card of quarterback and future politician Jack Kemp, the dominant thread weaving through each of the 1960s Fleer football sets, leads the offering at $250.
Also, this set is the last vintage collection with specific coaches cards, namely members of the Canton Plaque Club – Sammy Baugh, Sid Gillman and Hank Stram. The set lists for $750.
One extra 1960 Fleer fact: the packs contained team decal inserts to accompany a slab of bubble gum. The AFL squads (eight) and a league logo list for around $5 each, while many of the college teams (19) are $8 apiece. The Duke/Notre Dame combo decal ($20) leads the college insert issue.
Due mainly to the army of relative no-names plus being prone to centering problems, Fleer’s debut set generally elicits marginal collector interest.
Mike Thomas of Denver is an exception in two ways: he collects all of the 1960s Fleer football sets and the self-described “old AFL fan” has gathered uncommon tidbits of information involving the cards.
“Some of the 1960 Fleer cards are shortprinted, but that’s not noted in the price guides,” said Thomas.
The 1960 Fleer card of Oakland Raiders tackle Jim Woodard (No. 84) “is the toughest one, in my opinion,” he said. “I haven’t quite figured out the pattern, but those with numbers divisible by 12 appear to be the shortest printed.”
In addition to collecting, over the past few years Thomas created one of the best reference Web sites for vintage football cards – www.footballcardgallery.com. The extensive site contains thousands of pictures of seasoned pasteboards.
At 220 cards, the 1961 Fleer set is the card maker’s biggest football issue of the era and features both AFL and NFL players. Issued in two series, the regular star cards include an impressive lineup, headed by the shortprinted Kemp (valued at $230), Jim Brown ($130), Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Bobby Layne and Blanda. The rookies hold up well with Don Meredith ($140), John Brodie, Don Maynard and Jim Otto.
Collector Paul Howard likes the 1961-63 Fleer sets because of “the crisp photography and the clean, classic design of the cards and that Fleer was the only company to feature the American Football League players in their early years.”
Howard noted that collecting the 1961 Fleer set might bring a surprise to some.
“The first series is tougher to find in high grade than the second series,” he said. “It seems as though all the pricing guides list the second series as tougher, but it really isn’t. It’s a lot easier.”
The Bellingham, Wash., resident was a pioneer in locking in several of the Fleer football sets in the PSA registry.
One of the most popular football offerings of the decade, an unslabbed and near-mint 1961 Fleer set books for $1,600.
The bonuses for this issue are listed as the Magic Message Blue Inserts (40). Basically they’re trivia question cards where you had to wet one section to get the answer. “Star” cards from the batch include answers involving Red Grange, Jim Thorpe and The Four Horsemen – all about $5 each. These were the last of the vintage Fleer football inserts, and, like their first-year premiums, possess very limited appeal.
The 1962 football season is when the NFL started to grant only one card license per year. Because of that, Fleer reverted back to an AFL-only issue and Topps had just the NFL players.
With 88 cards, the 1962 Fleer set is a bit light on the scales in many respects. At $250, Kemp far outdistances the pack followed by Blanda, Maynard and Otto. The rookies are mid-range with Gino Cappelletti, Ernie Ladd and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson as the best of the bunch.
What the 1962 Fleer cards lack in numbers and star quality they make up for, according to Howard, in other ways.
“The 1962s seem to be the most difficult to find in high grade, then the 1963s,” he said.
The entire 1962 collection in top-notch shape lists for $900.
The 1963 Fleer set contains more variety in certain categories compared to their previous issues. Yes, it was an 88-card collection again and the Kemp card is big, of course, but so are the Len Dawson and Lance Alworth rookies, which are all $250 apiece. Other newbies on the radar include Nick Buonoconti, Cookie Gilchrist and Keith Lincoln. Established star cards of Blanda, Maynard and Otto also stand out.
Thomas said the 1963 Fleer set has a variation element not mentioned in the price guides he has seen.
“Every fourth card comes with and without the bottom red stripe on the back,” he said.
The other part of the 1963 Fleer football bigger picture boils down to three cards.
“The hardest-to-find Fleer card is the 1963 unnumbered checklist. It has a very narrow white border which makes it difficult to find one that isn’t miscut,” said Howard. “The card was alternated on the sheets with the (No. 6) Charles Long and (No. 64) Bob Dougherty cards.”
Near-mint samples of these shortprints list at $400 for the checklist and $180 and $230, respectively, for the Long and Dougherty pasteboards. The set books for $2,000.
Other hard-to-find, high-grade Fleer football cards, said Howard, are Rick Casares (No. 2) from 1961 and Billy Lott, the 1962 set starter.
“As for 1963 cards, No. 1 Larry Garron and No. 2 Babe Parilli always seem to have horrible centering,” he said.
Howard said the popularity of certain early Fleer cards has caught on.
“Back in 2002, I could pick up PSA 9 commons for well under $100. Now PSA 9 commons for the 1962 and 1963 sets regularly go for $300 plus (if their population numbers are low),” he said.
After 1963, Fleer disappeared from the regular sports card scene for many years. The company returned to producing regular baseball and football player cards in 1981 and 1990, respectively.
Starting in 1964, The Philadelphia Chewing Gum Co. secured the rights to produce NFL cards and Topps stayed in the game with AFL-only sets for a few seasons.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Fleer didn’t just walk away from football cards after 1963,” said Ted Taylor, the card hobby veteran with vast experience as a sports memorabilia collector, writer and show promoter. Taylor worked at the Philadelphia-based Fleer in hobby relations for several years in the 1990s.
“The guys who ran it when I was there were accountants and some of the people with the company had been there since the 1960s. Fleer had a real bean-counter mentality and if the football cards weren’t making much of a profit, they probably just dumped it.”
Of course, Taylor also emphasized, Topps gummed things up for Fleer with legal maneuvering early on in their card production battles.
Taylor said Fleer’s struggles with Topps, coupled with thin card profits, might have motivated Fleer to just reduce its hassles and move away from sports card production.
Howard has high hopes for the future of 1960s Fleer football cards.
“One reason is they’re such great sets to put together is because the set size is smaller when compared to the bulky baseball sets from the same era. That also means a higher percentage of stars per set,” he said. “Also, vintage football cards still seem underpriced compared to vintage baseball cards, so they’re a great value.”