It’s no secret I’m a big fan of vintage Baseball cards!!
I’ve a number of favourite sets including 1957 Topps, 1962 Topps, 1954 Topps, 1963 Topps… The list goes on!
You’ll notice that those few examples have a bit of a ‘Topps’ theme running through them, but one particular set that I didn’t include is 1963 Fleer.
I always get the impression that 1963 Fleer Baseball is something of a ‘forgotten’ set from that era, yet for it’s ridiculously short checklist there are a number of great players in the set, including eight Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson.
Cardboard Connection has the best summary I’ve found so far regarding the history and make up of the 1963 Fleer set, so rather than attempting to put the whole story into my own words I’ll hand things over to the late Chris Stufflestreet, who does an infinitely better job than I ever could –
“Fleer finally threw down the gauntlet in 1963. After trying for four years to get into the gum card market without directly competing with Topps, they released a set of current baseball players. That spring, they released a series of 66 cards, with each of the 20 teams then in existence represented. In a move designed to circumvent Topps’ claim of exclusivity with gum and confectionary products, Fleer packs included a cookie that was so low in sugar content it was compared to a dog biscuit.
Predictably, Topps took Fleer to court. They won the case and Fleer stopped their set before a second series could be issued. Fleer was out of the baseball card business, but they still released products related to baseball over the years, such as team stickers, patches, and cards featuring retired legends. Most importantly, they kept challenging Topps’ monopoly until 1980, when they were finally allowed to compete with them.
The fronts featured a large player photo. Below that is a yellow-colored diamond with a drawn player inside it. The player’s name, team and position appear beside that. In a way, it’s not too far off from the design Topps used for its own ’63 set (with a second picture in place of the diamond), but the backs could not be more different. In a vertical format, they featured an extensive write-up with stats at the bottom. The card number appears right in the middle, inside a graphic baseball and two bats.”
I first became aware of this set in the early 2000s when the design of the 1963 Fleer set was used as an insert set in Fleer Tradition. A couple of years later Fleer went the whole hog and based a complete base set on the same design.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the 1963 Fleer Baseball set is that it includes the only Rookie Card of Dodgers’ shortstop, Maury Wills!
Despite making his Major League debut in 1959 Wills didn’t appear on a baseball card until this Fleer set four years later, and for me the story behind the reason for this belongs up there with a load of 1952 Topps being dumped in the Hudson River in terms of its anecdotal significance, becoming something of a Baseball ‘Urban Legend’ in its own right!
Basically, as the story goes, Topps felt that Wills was so far off the Major Leagues when he was a Prospect that they didn’t think it worthwhile to sign him to a $5 Baseball card contract.
Despite being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 at the age of 18, Wills spent the majority of the 1950’s having one unexceptional season after another playing Single-A ball, along with a single, woeful season at Double-A in 1955. He was drafted by the Reds in 1957, only to return to the Dodgers the following year after another unimpressive year, this time in the Cincinnati minor league system.
In 1959 Wills had his first shot at trying out for a Major League roster (the Detroit Tigers) and it was there that Topps employee Turk Karam was signing new players to Topps contracts.
Wills didn’t get his contract and Sy Berger, the Topps executive in charge of player relations, questioned Karam as to why he did not sign Wills. Karam explained that the members of the Tigers organisation that he spoke to were clear in their belief that Wills was not a Major Leaguer, despite the fact that all the Tigers seemed to do for Wills in his “try-out” was have him run some sprints.
“Imagine hearing from a bubble gum man that you are not going to realize your dream of being a big leaguer!”, Berger later said when considering what the impact would be on young players who weren’t offered that $5 contract!!
Despite this disappointment Wills returned to the Dodgers and began working with the new Triple-A manager, Bobby Bragan. Bragan helped Wills develop his switch-hitting game at which point he saw a dramatic improvement in his batting. He began getting on base more and started stealing more bases. In June of 1959 the Dodgers then incumbent shortstop Don Zimmer broke his toe, and because Zimmer’s backup Bob Lillis was having a poor season this opened the door for the 26 year old rookie to get his first Major League start.
By the end of the 1959 season Maury Wills was the Dodgers regular shortstop and even started in the World Series.
Topps wanted to sign Wills now but by this point he had already committed to an exclusive contract with Fleer.
Maury Wills was a seven time All-Star during his 14 year career, winning two Gold Gloves, a NL MVP award and three World Series along the way.
He’s credited with helping to ‘revive’ the art of base stealing as a key aspect in Baseball strategy, inspiring speedsters such as Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman!
Despite the recognition he has received for the way in which he used his speed to change games, he has never been elected into the Hall of Fame.
He didn’t appear on a Topps Baseball card until 1967.