By Doug Koztoski
When discussing the “greatest teams” in MLB history, two New York Yankees ball clubs invariably make the shortlist: 1927 and 1961.
In 1961 fans and collectors lucked out with a bit of both of those legendary teams. For one, Yankees teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle battled to break Babe Ruth’s then single-season record of 60 home runs from 1927, a year the Yankees squad won 110 regular season games and swept the Fall Classic.
Mantle hit 54 homers in ’61; Maris blasted No. 61 on the last day of the schedule. New York, with 109 regular season victories, then gave the Cincinnati Reds the blues in the World Series.
While the “M & M Boys” made huge headlines for much of 1961, collectors could find those stars in the regular Topps issue and as cards on boxes of Post cereal, as well. Ruth and fellow slugger Lou Gehrig, teammates for many years, including 1927, not only appeared individually in the ‘61 Topps offering, in a “Baseball Thrills” subset, but also in the 1961-62 Fleer Baseball Greats issue.
The first ’61-’62 Fleer Greats series (#1-88) came out in 1961, while the second series (#89-154) hit store shelves in 1962. Both series start with a checklist card and the players, in each case, then appear alphabetically.
Essentially a sequel to their 79-card 1960 Baseball Greats issue, the 1961-62 Fleer Baseball set caught the eye of Tom High when they debuted while he attended middle school in Kokomo, Indiana.
“I bought packs of them on my lunch hour at a gas station across the road (from the school),” High said. “This was the last set I collected as a child.”
High’s original batch of ’61-’62 Fleer Greats got trashed in a move to Michigan in 2000; a raw set built a few years later was sold to help fund Christmas; and in the past handful of years he has assembled the 14th ranked example on the PSA Set Registry’s Current Finest list.
In addition to the personal nostalgia factor, High enjoys other elements of the offering, too.
“I like the simple but patriotic design (stars and stripes) of the front and the player history on the backs. I love the history of baseball,” he said.
Several members of his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, are sprinkled throughout the set including those with great nicknames like “Three Finger” (Brown), “Gabby” (Hartnett) and “Hack” (Wilson) and those known mainly by their last name, as in perhaps the most famous double-play combination of all-time: “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.”
Janis Curiskis is also quite familiar with the ’61-’62 Fleer product, which sports about 100 Hall of Famers. The Minnesota-based collector has the #12 set on the PSA Registry.
“I like the old ballplayers,” Curiskis said. “After (the year) 2000 I started picking up more and more of them.”
Curiskis characterized the set’s design as more of a foul tip than a line drive.
“The 1960 set looks better, a bit more nostalgic, it looked more like it belonged in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” he said. “The 1961s are a modern design with old ballplayers, it doesn’t seem quite right.”
When asked about his favorite members of the ’61-’62 Fleer collection Curiskis clicked off the likes of Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams.
Williams retired after the 1960 season. For years, however, the word was that Williams did not appear in Topps sets in 1959 and 1960, in particular, since he had signed an exclusive three-year card deal with Fleer.
That deal began with the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set: 80 cards all about the slugger. In 1960 he was the lone active player on the 1960 Fleer Greats roster, but in the 1961-62 Fleer Baseball Greats, Williams’ is card #152, coming out in 1962.
Did Fleer purposely hold The Splendid Splinter for its second series in hopes of enticing collectors to buy more packs? Did collectors have any inkling Williams wasn’t part of the set until 1962? That information seems lost to history. One would have expected Williams appearing in the 1961 Greats packs, rounding out that three-year agreement in three consecutive years.
Right up there with Williams in the top tier of popularity of ’61-’62 Fleer Greats is Babe Ruth (#75) with Gehrig (#31), who attracts strong interest, too.
“The Ruth is popular with a lot of people,” Curiskis said. “It is a nice card.”
From a PSA standpoint, Ruth and Gehrig appear the most in the Population Report, each with just over 600 samples without qualifiers; on the rarest end, Dale Alexander (#91) and Jim Bagby (#92) only show up about 47 times each.
Peering way down The Hobby Highway
The 1961-62 Fleer Baseball Greats set has a decent place in the hobby, especially for its era. In the next decade or so, High said the issue’s modest following should continue with “a limited number of collectors.” Yet, a love of the all-time greats, he added, might cause more collectors to gravitate toward the set.
Appreciating the legends and the more obscure players, in general, is always great. Cy Young would likely tip his dapper cap from the ’61-’62 Greats set to that one.
Doug Koztoski is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.