By Doug Koztoski
When collector Larry Berlant “gets into” something, he is “all in.”
Shortly after retiring years ago from a career as a CPA and tax attorney, Berlant took up golf, and then played 44 rounds, yes 44, in a month. His back balked at that pace, so now in an average week the transplanted Long Island native plays golf once and competitive ping pong (for around three hours at a clip) several times near his California home. In the past few years, Berlant has also developed a strong taste for the 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats set. That is an understatement.
Berlant currently sits atop the PSA Set Registry with the issue, both Current Finest and All-Time in the Basic category. He possesses four of the top six sets on the Current Finest list, the best of which includes 44 PSA 10s, yes 44 – one, coincidentally, for each of those rounds of golf he played in a single month many years back.
What attracts him to the vintage Fleer issue so much, one that generally had a lukewarm reception in the hobby for years? “It is a nice-looking set, it presents well,” he said. “And they are all Hall of Famers and (other) superstars.” The collector added that the 79-card offering is “much more manageable” than many sets.
Who is on his 1960 BFF (Berlant’s Favorite Fleers) list? Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig take the “medal” spots for the weight they carry in the issue, but he also includes Nap Lajoie, partly because it is the set-starter and since “it is a hard card to find in high condition.”
Jay Swartz, ranked 18th for the vintage Fleer product on the PSA Set Registry, gives the collection more of a mixed “grade.” The California resident generally describes the issue’s images as subpar (“grainy,” “some are out of focus,” “very few players are shown in uniforms they are best known for…” comprise part of his review).
Even so, Swartz does have particular favorites within the issue: “The classic expression of Lou Gehrig; the seven or eight bats being swung over the shoulder by Johnny Mize;” the Luke Appling card, “because it shows when my home team Sox really wore all white socks and the shirts had the cool bat intersecting the Sox logo.”
Fleer makes a run for it
In 1959, the Frank H. Fleer Corp. jumped into the trading card battle with Topps with a pair of pasteboard sets: the Three Stooges collection and one featuring everything Ted Williams.
The 80 cards about Teddy Ballgame covered parts of his childhood, his two military tours, his hobbies and the various stages of his baseball career. The Red Sox slugger’s 1959 issue was the first part of a three-year exclusive card deal agreement with Fleer.
Williams played his last MLB season in 1960, and it was no surprise that Fleer included him in the Baseball Greats set that year, but maybe it was initially a surprise to some buying those nickel packs that he was the only current player of the time to appear with the likes of Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young and Walter Johnson. Of course, Topps did have exclusive “regular” trading card agreements with the other active players from 1960, but the average collector back then may not have known that.
Still, Berlant wonders on occasion about some of the other missing gems, which were retired and eligible for possible inclusion in the 1960 Fleer issue.
“There seems to be a certain amount of arbitrariness in the player selection of the set,” he said. “Joe DiMaggio should have been in there. He is the one player, without question, who should have been in there, but isn’t.” Jackie Robinson also ranks high on Berlant’s “What if?” list. Maybe it was a matter of cost for getting certain players in the set. Perhaps some just passed on the offer.
His turn at bat, once more
In the 1961 Fleer Baseball Greats set, a 154-card issue, Williams appears again, as does the same basic lineup in the 1960 Greats group, plus several other players of varying degrees of stardom.
The Williams 1961 Fleer, like in 1960, is a key of the issue. But, unlike in 1961, the 1960 version stands out for another reason, too. In the inaugural Fleer Greats set, most card fronts have regular borders. The Williams (No. 72), however, has generous side borders. This seems to focus the attention on the famous hitter even more. Maybe that was the goal.
Out of nearly 20,000 1960 Fleer Greats in PSA slabs, only 104 at press time have a PSA 10 grade. Berlant owns most of them, including “two of the four Williams cards” and “the only ones of Ruth and Gehrig.” Scores of PSA 7s-9s exist from throughout most of the issue, meantime, so if you can live with those solid grades, you have a good chance of getting cards from the set without emptying your wallet.
A curveball or two
For years when it came to the topic of variations and the ’60 Fleer set, the only item that came up revolved around card No. 80, a planned slot that was ultimately not regularly issued. Originally slated for “Pepper” Martin, there was some sort of dispute that kept Martin’s card from freely making the rounds.
Apparently some early test sheets were made, because a few No. 80 cards with Martin’s bio and stats on the back ultimately surfaced, but with pitcher Lefty Grove’s image on the front. Those Grove/Martin combos are truly rare, with 14 total slabbed by PSA and two by SGC thus far, a good indication how few float within the hobby seas.
The highest grade any Grove/Martin combo has received via PSA, without a qualifier, is a 4. A PSA 4 (MC) hand-cut Grove/Martin has been sitting on eBay for some time with an asking price a penny shy of $5,000 – OBO.
Dan McKee has owned that PSA 4 (MC) for about a decade. “I get a couple serious inquiries a month on it,” said McKee. A few additional “card back Martins” have come to light through PSA channels, as well, one with Eddie Collins and three with Joe Tinker.
Other “combos” not related to Martin have also entered the hobby pipeline in recent years. PSA, for instance, has only graded one each of 10 other “front/back” pairings with the Jimmie Foxx/Gehrig teaming likely carrying the biggest star power for most card enthusiasts.
While Swartz sees the set’s popularity limits in coming years, he does recognize several positives. “It has a simple design, nice clear backs, better visual appeal than the next issue by Fleer (the ’61 Baseball Greats),” he said. “It’s a great set for those who want to go vintage on a budget.”
Like many of his ping pong topspin smash returns, Berlant also notices good things going forward for the 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats collection. “Prices seem to be escalating,” he noted. “This is a set that is getting more and more popular.”
Doug Koztoski welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.