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Ted Talk: 1950s style

The 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set gave collectors a Hall of Fame issue

Many consider Ted Williams if not at the top, at least among the Top 5 hitters in MLB history. From his debut in a Topps set in 1954 through 1958 the booming-voiced Boston player with the bountiful bat appeared among the Top 5 card slots in each main Topps baseball offering. In 1954, Williams comprised the issue’s bookends.

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By 1959, Topps collectors likely figured “The Splendid Splinter” would soon pop up in one of those circle frames on the current card fronts. But the student of hitting never appeared in the set. Instead, that season the Fleer Company delivered an entire 80-card collection all about the legendary hitter, the first leg of Williams’ exclusive three-year deal with the card maker.

While this scenario might have presented a pain in the neck for some Topps collectors, it was not as likely as painful as the stiff neck “The Kid” endured during the season, one resulting in his career-worst batting average (.254), about 95 points below his lifetime batting mark at the time.

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The Red Sox outfielder’s experience in 1959 motivated the mercurial master of the batter’s box to come back in 1960, attempting a career conclusion with a more satisfying sign off. He delivered: a .316 average and 29 homers, the last in his final big league at-bat, one of MLB’s most historic home runs. Williams, at least when healthy: a pain in the neck to pitchers until the very end.

Unlike the perennial All-Star’s singular appearance in the 1960 and 1961 Fleer “Baseball Greats” sets, the company’s 1959 collection covers his baseball career from growing up in San Diego through early ‘59, as well as other chapters in his storied life. Some might characterize the issue’s size and comprehensiveness as more the exploits of “The Topflight Two-By-Four” than “The Splendid Splinter.”

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That blend partially fuels Charlie Peters to collect the issue to a high degree, #11 on the offering’s Current Finest list on the PSA Set Registry. “The variety of the cards, the history of the man, is just fascinating to me,” Peters noted. “He flew 39 combat missions over Korea (#47), he was business partners with golfer Sam Snead (#67), he caught a 1,200-pound black marlin (#54), it’s a really well put-together set, you really get a feel for what the real Ted Williams was like.” And those are just three of his favorites in the issue.

Collecting the set for over a decade, Peters owns mostly a PSA 9 version, with some “compromises,” for now. “The big-money cards, numbers 1, 2 (with Babe Ruth), 3, 68 and 80 are either PSA 8s or 8.5.” He added that while PSA 8 prices have noticeably dipped as of late from at least $40 per card to $22-$28 each on average, “PSA 9s have been steadily climbing over the last year” with most “actually going for $105-$155” apiece.

Jason Schlossberg, meantime, first worked on raw versions of the set in the 1990s and early 2000s then bought a high-end graded example of the issue while adding some of his top-graded cards to the mix. Soon after the result was the #1 slot on the Set Registry, with most of the cards now in PSA 10, owning the slot since 2005.

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A self-proclaimed “diehard Red Sox fan,” Schlossberg enjoys the team connection and general tapestry of Williams’ life the offering depicts, but other elements attract him, too. “It’s simple to collect, it’s a set of one guy in 1959, it’s 80 cards, anyone can collect it, it’s not just baseball, it’s Americana.”

Schlossberg said the set’s bookends, two of his top choices, were “brutal” to get in top grades.

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At least most high-grade samples of the set are easier to find these days than in years past. Some credit the surge in available graded ’59 Williams cards, around 46,000 total just with PSA, for instance, stemming partially from the relatively recent opening of previously fresh versions of the six- and eight-card nickel packs—with many submitted for slabbing. Nearly 4,900 cards from the issue live in PSA 9 holders; 217 in PSA 10.

Additional set favorites for many collectors include Williams with other famous athletes: Jimmy (sic) Foxx, Jim Thorpe, two with former Red Sox General Manager and Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, a.k.a. Williams’ “discoverer,” and a second one with Babe Ruth. Also high on several want lists: the Boston great hitting .400 and some All-Star and career milestones.

Ted signs, Topps threatens

Similar to the Red Sox slugger whipping his wrists and quickly getting his bat in the hitting zone, the ’59 Fleer Williams set discussion often swiftly arrives at card #68: captioned “Jan. 23, 1959—Ted Signs for 1959.” For years, many in the hobby touted that card’s rarity; certain numbers indicate otherwise.

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First, a brief backstory on that pasteboard: Red Sox General Manager Bucky Harris accompanies Williams on the card. Some of the #68 cards had probably arrived in packs early in the ’59 season and then Topps pounced. Topps had the exclusive use of Harris’ image under contract, and the card giant threatened Fleer with a lawsuit. Fleer acquiesced, removing the card from general circulation whenever possible. Yet, on the set’s PSA’s Population Report that card comprises the most examples in the issue, about 1,000! Of those, the PSA 8-10 slash line: 277/ 44/1. All the set’s cards via PSA appear at least 460 times, a few 700 or more.

A letter from August 1959, posted on the site TheToppsArchives.com, shows how collector Charles Barker wrote to Fleer about the tough-to-find card. Fleer’s response mentions possible “legal overtones” related to card #68, but that samples of it were being sent, at no charge, to those who wrote in asking about the pesky pasteboard. An excerpt: “As we are new in the card business we certainly do not want to have any ill feelings among card collectors. Therefore, I am forwarding you a number of our card #68.”

So likely hundreds of those crisp freebie samples eventually ended up encapsulated.

The Count is in the Hitter’s Favor

Years from now Peters and Schlossberg see the set meeting the mark like the Boston slugger making contact on a good pitch for him that he guessed correctly on—right on the sweet spot.

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“It’s always going to maintain a level of popularity just because of who it is and the notoriety of Ted Williams,” Peters noted. “And, it’s relatively affordable—that makes it very collectible, it’s a self-motivating set.”

“I really think it’s Americana because Ted Williams is such a hero,” Schlossberg emphasized, “and I think as time goes on this set will become more important and more iconic.”

Doug Koztoski is a frequent SCD contributor. He can be reached at dkoz3000@gmail.com.

Auction of the Week

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