Before there was Bowman, Topps, and Goudey, there was … Fleer?

Quick – what’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Fleer?

Its first real ‘modern’ set back in 1981? The infamous Billy Ripken 1989 Fleer obscenity bat card?

When collectors are asked about the origins of Fleer baseball cards, many will cite that 1981 set, which was the result of hard work and litigation against Topps in the 1970s. Some more knowledgeable fans may mention the 1959 Ted Williams set. But what many collectors don’t know is that Fleer baseball cards hit the street long before those. In fact, Fleer even beat Bowman, Goudey, and Topps to the punch, too.

Fleer Background

The roots of the Fleer empire actually trace back to 1849. It was then that a predecessor company began under Otto Holstein, a German Quaker, per this article. Frank Fleer, born in 1860, later joined the company when he married the owner’s daughter back in the 1880s. They manufactured a variety of products under his watch, including gum. Fleer later sold the company and began the Fleer company that collectors came to know, the Frank H. Fleer Corporation, in 1913.

Fleer’s sale of his former company prohibited him from making the same kind of gum products. But he manufactured other types of sweets and the company kept growing. Fleer retired and died in only 1921. His son-in-law, Gilbert Mustin, took over and in 1923, the first Fleer cards were born.

First Fleer Cards

1923 W515 Fleer Backw515-1In 1923, a strip card set was produced known to us now as W515, as designated in the American Card Catalog. Like virtually all of the older strip issues that used color artwork instead of the later ones that had real black and white images, the pictures on them were pretty ugly. Most of the players were not recognizable and the sloppy pictures are one of the reasons strip cards are often passed over.

But that set, for all of its inadequacies, is something of a landmark. That’s because it can stake the claim to having the first true Fleer baseball cards. Fleer used these same cards, slapped its advertisement on the blank backs and, voila, you’ve got yourself a Fleer baseball card set, boys and girls. The cards are exactly the same as the regular W515 strip cards with the exception of the backs.

Those W515 cards, as mentioned, are not real attractive and as a result, neither is the Fleer set since it used the same pictures. They have color images of players along with his name, position, team, and a card number printed at the bottom. These are also printed on a thinner paper stock, making them susceptible to damage. It should also be noted that only half of the set is made up of baseball cards. Others in the set are other famous people as the back indicates.

Packaging and ProductW515 Boxing.png

Fleer had moved on for the time being from producing gum so these weren’t technically gum cards. Instead, Fleer used these cards in order to promote its candy. More specifically, its ‘Bobs and Fruit Hearts’ candy.

Not much is know about this product today. The back states it was sold for five-cents per pack, but that’s about all we know. Every five-cent package was said to have contained one of the 1923 Fleer cards. Considering that other products offered the chance to get similar strip cards for as little as one-cent, I’m not sure how popular or pursued these would have been. In addition, the survival rate of these cards makes it seem that either not many were printed or not many made it beyond the pre-war era.

An Incomplete Issue

Backs of the cards state that there are a total of 120 cards in the entire set. But because not every card in the W515 set has been found with the Fleer back, it hasn’t been fully confirmed that is the case. Other issues, after all, advertised a set number of cards and subsequently issued less or sometimes, even more than that amount. Per the W515 checklist, though, it is believed that there are 60 baseball cards and 60 cards of other famous people.

1923 Fleer cards pop up from time to time and, surprisingly, are not all that expensive given their rarity. Even Babe Ruth, king of the set, isn’t too pricey. This SGC Authentic example sold for only $200 in 2009. There are only a few graded copies in general and the cards are difficult to find. Approximately 1,000 regular W515 cards have been graded by PSA but they have only slabbed a handful of 1923 Fleer cards.

Barring some sort of large find, the full checklist may never be completely finalized. But while a mystery and largely unknown to newer collectors, there’s no doubt that the 1923 Fleer set was a revolutionary one.

1923 Fleer Checklist

This checklist currently represents only baseball players in the set.

Also note that it is assumed these cards can be found with a Fleer back. However, not all such cards have been discovered to date.

  1. Bill Cunningham
  2. Al Mamaux
  3. Babe Ruth
  4. Dave Bancroft
  5. Ed Rommell
  6. Babe Adams
  7. Clarence Walker
  8. Waite Hoyt
  9. Bob Shawkey
  10. Ty Cobb
  11. George Sisler
  12. Jack Bentley
  13. Jim O’Connell
  14. Frankie Frisch
  15. Frank Baker
  16. Burleigh Grimes
  17. Wally Schang
  18. Harry Heilmann
  19. Aaron Ward
  20. Carl Mays
  21. Bob/Emil Meusel
  22. Art Nehf
  23. Lee Meadows
  24. Casey Stengel
  25. Jack Scott
  26. Kenneth Williams
  27. Joe Bush
  28. Tris Speaker
  29. Ross Youngs
  30. Joe Dugan
  31. Barnes Brothesr
  32. George Kelly
  33. Hugh McQuillan
  34. Hughie Jennings
  35. Tom Griffith
  36. Miller Huggings
  37. Whitey Witt
  38. Walter Johnson
  39. Wally Pipp
  40. Dutch Reuther
  41. Jim Johnston
  42. Willie Kamm
  43. Sam Jones
  44. Frank Snyder
  45. John McGraw
  46. Everett Scott
  47. Babe Ruth
  48. Urban Shocker
  49. Grover Alexander
  50. Rabbit Maranville
  51. Ray Schalk
  52. Heinie Groh
  53. Wilbert Robinson
  54. George Burns
  55. Rogers Hornsby
  56. Zack Wheat
  57. Edd Roush
  58. Eddie Collins
  59. Charlie Hollocher
  60. Red Faber

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