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Fleer World Series Cards Worth a Laugh

In 1970-71, Fleer introduced sets that brought the World Series to life - in cartoons. Two series were offered, with the 1971 version adding more realistic images and information to the cards.

It was late spring in 1970, and for a dedicated young baseball card collector, the pickings were slim. At the tender age of 15, I was already interested in picking up any oddball issues that I could – which set me apart from most of my contemporaries, who had already given up on cards. Yes, it was the era before anyone over the age of 12 collected cards – except for a few serious geeks like yours truly.

Not that there was all that much to collect. Topps was it, pretty much. Of course, with the baseball card set being issued in series, a new one every three to four weeks, that would keep a collector busy from March to the end of summer – from St. Patrick’s Day to Labor Day, more or less. But I had gotten hold of card dealer catalogs from pioneers like Bruce Yeko (Wholesale Cards) and Woody Gelman (Card Collectors Co.), so I knew there could be more out there.

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So, I haunted the supermarkets, since most regional and minor card issues seemed to come with food of one type or another. Would Bazooka issue another set, printed on the backs of boxes of their bulk bubble gum? Maybe. I still cherished fond memories of the Post Cereal issues of 1961-63. Would they try another one? The season started promisingly, with Kellogg’s beginning a 10-year run of “3D” baseball cards, 75 to a set, one card per box of breakfast cereal. I didn’t think I could possibly eat that many Frosted Flakes. Little did I know that Kellogg’s would eventually offer full sets through the mail.

Anyway, my search for regional issues was consistently unsuccessful, because, for some reason, New York (where I lived then and now) has always been largely unproductive when it came to non-national issues. The Midwest has a long and glorious history of local sets devoted to one or two teams, with countless issues devoted to the Braves of Milwaukee and the Cubs of Chicago dotting the collecting landscape of the 1950s. But New York? Aside from a few team-issued postcards, nothing.

But back to the late spring of 1970. Around May, the 1970 Topps set was in its third or fourth series, and the school year was drifting to its inevitable end. A visit to the local candy store (no such thing as a card shop then) showed a box of baseball cards I hadn’t seen before – World Series cards, manufactured by Fleer! I was old enough to remember the Fleer All-Time Greats sets of 1960 and 1961, as well as the abortive and mysterious set of 66 current players that appeared briefly in 1963. What new treasure awaited me?

Well, after opening the first 5-cent wax pack, I saw that the set was made up of cartoons, a pretty sure turnoff for most kids my age. I was tempted to turn up my nose at the cards, but upon inspection, they turned out to be informative and fun. And it’s not as though there was a whole lot else going on.

The set was the work of Robert L. Laughlin, who, unbeknown to me, had issued a similar set by himself in monochrome a couple of years earlier. Laughlin turned out to be a prolific and unique contributor to the world of baseball card sets over the next 15 years or so – although I couldn’t know it at the time.

The 1970 Fleer set consisted of 66 cards with blue printing on the back, one card for each World Series held between 1903 and 1969 (with no card for 1904, the year no Series was played). That number worked out very well for the set, since 66 cards added up to precisely one-half of a standard sheet of 132 conventionally-sized cards. Fleer could paste up two sets per master sheet, and we can be reasonably certain that there are no single-printed rarities in this set.

The cards themselves were drawn in a broad, comic style, with only an occasional effort made to depict a real person such as Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson or other big names. The teams involved were often depicted by cartoons of their mascots – cards showing a Series that involved the Cardinals or the Orioles would have players from that team shown with the appropriate bird’s head, for example. Detroit players would have a tiger’s head, and so on.

Each card displayed a drawing showing a key moment or key accomplishment from that series, and the text on the back would give a one-paragraph summary of what went on. All in all, this was a very educational set for young collectors such as myself.
For example, the very first card in the set, dramatizing the 1903 Series that pitted the Pirates against the upstart American League Red Sox, shows a cartoon pitcher meant to depict Pirates hurler Deacon Phillippe, who pitched five complete games and won three for Pittsburgh in a losing cause (the Series was best-of-nine that year). The pitcher is shown bearing up under the weight of a giant baseball, Atlas-like.

The cartoons range from dramatic to historic to whimsical in style, and proved to be a terrific resource for the trivia-minded and the history buffs. Without the Internet, there was just no simple way to look a lot of this information up. There were books out there that would tell you all about the World Series of the past, but to someone my age, the same information was available for just pennies.

Since there were no short-prints in the set, it was easy to complete. Since the set was issued by Fleer, I felt that it counted as a “real” set. Collectors since then have been divided on that point. I can’t blame them, though; the whole cartoon thing is tough to get past. I felt then, as I feel now, that since this was a national set distributed with bubble gum, it counted as real and collectible.
A bit further into the summer of 1970, Topps unveiled its first “Super” set, giant-sized cards with beautiful photos, printed on extra-heavy cardboard stock. At three cards for a nickel, they were pricey, but everyone agreed they were worth the extra cost. That took a lot of attention away from the World Series cards. And that was that – until the following summer.

Sure enough, a year later, at about the same point of the 1971 collecting season, those Fleer World Series cartoon cards showed up again. When I first spied the packs sitting on the candy store counter, I was genuinely puzzled. Hadn’t they covered the same ground the year before? Were these even a new set at all? What could possibly be left to say, to fill up an entire set?

Of course, I bought a few packs to investigate. What I found was that, yes, Laughlin was mining the same ground more or less, but the set was different in style in subtle ways. First off, the set consisted of 68 cards rather than 66, in spite of covering only one additional World Series. Laughlin managed this by producing a card covering the 1904 season, when John McGraw and the Giants refused to play the upstart Red Sox after the end of the season.

More importantly, the text on the back of the cards, printed in black this time, was entirely new, often showcasing different aspects of each series. Additionally, the cartoons on the front of each card were entirely new, and had a different look. While Laughlin had a distinct style that remained consistent between the two sets, the 1971 cards are in many minor ways more “realistic,” less cartoony than their predecessors. More players are represented by drawings attempting to show their actual features, with fewer cards showing lumps on a player’s head surrounded by tweeting birds, and more cards reproducing famous photos of the given scenes.

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Also notable is the MLB logo, appearing on the front of each card. While this had the intended effect of stressing that the cards were in fact authorized by Major League Baseball, the appearance of the logo was something of a novelty in 1971, since it had been created only a year or two before. The 1970 set was officially licensed, too; both sets carry no less than three forms of authorship attribution. Both carry a 1968 copyright date for the Major League Baseball Promotion Corp., as well as credit for R.G. Laughlin and Fleer. The 1968 date continues to confuse collectors to this day, since the sets lack any designation for 1970 or 1971. The only way to date the sets is by the color of the print on the back.

A side-by-side comparison of the two sets illustrates the differences. Take that 1903 card, for example. Whereas the 1970 set shows a generic ballplayer representing Deacon Phillippe, the 1971 version shows a reasonable facsimile of Cy Young. Whereas the 1970 card describes the series thusly: The first modern World Series was arranged by the presidents of the Pittsburgh and Boston clubs, marking the end of the warfare between the leagues. It was to be best five out of nine, and Boston won it with one of the greatest comebacks of all World Series–down three games to one, they took four in a row.

The 1971 version offers this account: A five-out-of-nine series was arranged by the presidents of the Boston and Pittsburgh clubs, ending the warfare between the leagues and launching the modern World Series. The Pirates took a 3-1 game lead, only to see Boston come back with four triumphs in a row.

Well, I guess there are only so many ways of saying the same thing. The only other major difference between the sets is that the 1971 version includes a list of individual game scores on the back.

The math on the set’s size is a little different for the 1971 set. At 68 cards, the set’s layout on a 132-card sheet would have required one complete set plus 64 additional cards. In other words, four of the cards would have been short-printed. I have not been able to determine which four cards are comparatively rare. I was able to complete the set in 1971, which argues that Fleer’s pack distribution must have been decent enough, or else I had a bit of good luck at the time.

Again, because these were cartoon sets, you would think that a certain portion of the collecting public would have shied away from them, but I’m not so sure. These cards must have sold very, very well. They turn up regularly at shows and on eBay, and for the most part, they’re very affordably priced. Considering the fact that they’re almost 40 years old, they’re a bargain at a dollar or two per card. You can find them for less than that much of the time but expect to pay a little more for cards showing Babe Ruth on the front, or for local favorites. How much are they paying in Pittsburgh for the 1960 card in each set?

After 1971, Laughlin spent the next 10 years or so issuing sets himself on a variety of historical baseball subjects. The sets, often issued in odd sizes, commemorated such topics as famous firsts in baseball, the All-Star Game, great hitters and a variety of colorful topics. These issues were available by mail to the growing collecting public. While they were inexpensive and not highly regarded at the time, they’ve proven to be highly collectible, and complete sets command a respectable price these days, when they can be found at all.

Laughlin continued his association with Fleer, as well. Many of the 1971 cards were reprinted with team logo sticker backs in the 1980s, and were used as inserts in Fleer’s wax packs and in their complete set packages. If you have a World Series card in this format, it dates from the ’80s – the 1970 and 1971 sets should have text on the back. Other Laughlin sets got the same treatment, as well, such as the All-Star cards.

Robert Laughlin died in 2007, and it’s a fair bet that most contemporary collectors had no idea who he was and what he meant to the hobby in its early days. But to those collectors who remember a time when there wasn’t as great a variety of sets available as there is today, Laughlin was the man who provided collectors with something that was just a little bit different.

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