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'Teddy Ballgame' talks about Topps, Fleer ... and dough

As the world champion Boston Red Sox were extending their long streak of sellout games this season, the standing joke was that the only way you could get a seat at Fenway Park was to buy one.

Ever since Ted Williams turned up missing in the 1959 Topps set (and then again MIA in 1960), I have been fascinated with the historic details surrounding his dealings with Topps, Fleer and later, in retirement, with Upper Deck.

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In 1959, it was just bothersome at first, wondering where Williams’ card was as each series came out and he was nowhere to be found. By the time you got to the last series and realized he wasn’t going to be in the set, it was way too late.
I am a little vague on it, but I don’t think I bought many packs of the high series. I base that observation not necessarily on memory, but simply on the condition of the high numbers in my 1959 set. Like so many collectors, those final 66 cards aren’t quite as snappy as the first 506, presumably because, even when I upgraded many years later, I didn’t necessarily pay top dollar all the time.

Anyway, it was a real treat to get a call from Alan Machado of Fall River, Mass., several weeks ago. He explained he had won a number of audio tapes in an eBay auction, and found a tape apparently from 1963 where Ted Williams talked about his exclusive contract with Fleer that kept him out of the Topps issues during his final two years in the game (1959 and 1960).

The cardboard box that the reel-to-reel audio tape came in is dated 1963, with a notation that it was recorded at Williams’ baseball camp in Lakeville, Mass.

The tape, seemingly a rehearsal for radio spots, includes Ted reading scripts about baseball nicknames and a kind of lame joke about Lou Gehrig’s four-homer game in 1932. Much of it is also behind-the-scenes chatter (and a Williamsesque dose of profanity) that includes mention of the Jimmy Fund and Ted’s salty but clearly-in-jest grumblings about the machinations of recording numerous scripts.

“I don’t read too goddamned good, anyway,” he groused at one point. “Christ, if it’s going to be that difficult,” he moaned about the various maneuvers envisioned to get all the scripts done, never actually finishing the thought. It’s all done in a good-natured fashion, and none of the profanity seems like anything other than vintage Ted Williams talking in the rough-edged manner that was part of his trademark persona.

Most of this banter took place “off mike,” in instances where he would have assumed it would all end up on the cutting room floor. Ted’s musing about Fleer and Topps was likely given as a means of providing background to the others in the room helping with the production. Machado theorized the scripts could have been for radio segments for a show sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. There was no discernible context provided to explain why Ted suddenly launched into a dissertation about the two card companies.

“I am the greatest benefactor of a new company (Fleer) coming into the bubblegum business than any other athlete,” Williams said.

“Fleer and Topps are the ones that are arguing back and forth,” he continued. “One chewing gum company (Topps) has cornered all the ballplayers. They contact each individual player, who then signs an exclusive contract for $100, giving the company the right to feature the player.

“Fleer came to me first. This is the second year I haven’t played. They came to me in 1959 and said, ‘If you’ll sign with us, we’ll give you $500.’ In the meantime, I’d already signed with Topps for $400,” Williams recalled.
“They said, ‘We’ll give you $1,000 if you’ll sign with us for your last year.’ I told them I had signed with Topps, but I wasn’t an exclusive because it wasn’t very much money to start with,” he added.

Williams, who would occasionally refer to the company as “Flairs,” was more than a little animated about the topic, despite grousing about being put in the middle of the wrangling between the two companies.

“Topps didn’t tell me this, but they sure as hell didn’t want anybody else to get me, and I was one of the few ballplayers who hadn’t been signed up with Topps.

“And Topps said, ‘We’ll give you $1,000 for two years.’

“I went back to Fleer and told them Topps wanted to sign me up for two years, and they said they would give me $1,000 (per year) for three years.

“And it kept going back and forth until I finally ended up with Fleer, out of Philadelphia, for five years for $12,500 ... $2,500 a year. And I’m still getting that for three more years.”

Nothing on the audio tape conflicts with what I had ever learned about Ted’s defection from the Topps camp following the 1958 season. Sy Berger told me years ago that Ted simply came to them and explained about a substantial offer for an exclusive arrangement with Fleer, and Topps simply stepped away to allow Williams to get the windfall in the waning years of his career.

I know the money sounds like chump change now, but $12,500 was an extraordinary amount at a time when players, even the top players, got a couple of hundred or even less for the rights to use their likeness on a baseball card. Players could also select “lovely prizes” from the Topps catalog, often winding up with a new washer or dryer for their efforts. And we wonder nowadays why people look back at the 1950s and early 1960s with such unabashed nostalgia.

It was even more noteworthy since Fleer wasn’t producing a set with contemporary players. They made the “Life of Ted Williams” set in 1959, with the hand-colorized photos giving the issue a soft-focus feel that seems positively charming a half-century later but was merely mystifying for youngsters at the time.

Serious collectors are aware that the 80-card “set” includes one card that is extraordinarily difficult to find, and brutally expensive when you do. Card No. 68, “Ted Signs for ’59,” was withdrawn from production because the other guy in the picture, Boston GM Bucky Harris, was under exclusive contract with Topps. It’s also worth noting that, because of its scarcity, the No. 68 card has been counterfeited and is thus deserving of a certain amount of wariness from collectors.
Ted would appear in two more Fleer issues, old-timers sets as the hobby referred to them in the earliest days, in 1961 and 1962. By the time Fleer got around to trying a set with current players in 1963, Ted was long since retired, though, as he noted, still drawing a good chunk of cash from the Philadelphia-based card company.

Ironically, Ted would wind up in the middle of yet another tug of war over exclusivity with the card companies, almost three decades later. In 1994, Topps reprinted its classic 1954 set, but ran afoul of Upper Deck, which at the time had an exclusive deal with Williams.

Topps reprinted the set in 1994 without the two Williams cards (Nos. 1 and 250, the first and last cards in the set), creating immediate howls within the hobby. Admittedly, I was the one doing the most howling, driven even to the point of poetry.

Though I assume the impetus for the two rival card companies to huddle up and offer a unique resolution of the problem was something other than my ripoff of Franklin Adams’ “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” the result was an unprecedented collaboration between the card companies.

Upper Deck produced the two missing Williams cards, then added a “Card That Never Was,” a Mickey Mantle card that was designed in the style of 1954 Topps (Mantle did not have Topps cards in 1954-55).

All three were inserted in a rather austere, verging on unremarkable, “old timers” set that Upper Deck produced that year called “All-Time Heroes.” As I noted at the time, the three inserts were destined to be expensive on the secondary market, and now 14 years later, probably would run you $200 or more for all three, with the Mantle card easily the most expensive of the group.

Still, I kind of like the irony of Upper Deck producing cards needed for the completion of a Topps set. Seems like we’d be looking at a serious interval before that kind of thing happens again.

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