June 19, 2006

Best Set Countdown: #4 – 1987 Fleer

Sometimes, when I was a kid, I would try helping myself fall asleep by reciting my personal all-star team (by league). Then I would recite all-time teams, usually falling asleep when I came to figuring out who the back-up catcher should be (I naturally chose Fisk as my all-time catcher, though for the record this was before I knew who Josh Gibson was, and really, how can you deny Gibson? I think Fisk would be proud to be the back-up for him and if not proud, then willing to go twelve rounds with him in a bare-knuckle fisticuffs or Greco-roman wrestling for the starters’ job). Anyway, when it came time to reciting the National League team (and we’re talking 1987 through 1990) I always started with Will Clark at first and I always thought of two cards of him immediately: his puke purple 1988 Score card and his ’87 Fleer rookie (the gleaming white teeth, that pose that makes you want to smack him—he knows he’s hot shit).

It was that card more than any other that typified the 1987 Fleer set to me, that lifted it to the upper echelons of card-dom. And when I’d read those early Becketts (I think I still have the one with Andre Dawson as a Cub on the front; and not to sidetrack here, but remember when Beckett had artist’s drawings of players on the inside front and back covers? And remember how they were nearly always of some hot-shit rookie like Todd Zeile? I never really bought the magazine on a regular basis, but I distinctly remember one issue, from 1990 I think, with a beached Robin Yount on the cover and a ridiculous hero-worship charcoal drawing of Todd Zeile on the inside. Really, all that was missing from the artwork was a wolf on a mountaintop howling at the moon or a solemn Native American warrior and it would’ve been complete), it would be the Clark card that was worth $35, not the Bonds, because really nobody gave two shits about Bonds until later.

$35. Do you know what this means for a kid with no income? It means you’re never going to have that much money until you’re an adult. That’s pretty goddamned depressing. But it’s also a revelation: not only would I never have enough to pay for that card on its own, but I would never have enough to buy more than one pack of these cards every 3 months. So really I don’t have very many of these cards. Sure, I bought a lot of the star cards at shows and occasionally I still find one or two of them in the ten-cent bins (I have a deep-seated love for ten-cent bins), but the biggest stars I ever got in packs were George Bell and Lou Whitaker. And yet I love this set. I loved it when it came out, and I love it today. I just fuckin’ love this set. But, like everything else about this countdown, my own personal love for it didn’t influence its standing. In other words, I have my reasons for putting it this far to the top. Here are a few of them.

The baby blue border. For some reason, this is the set where I thought Fleer finally got it right. And really, how many times can you say that Fleer got the design right? If we only look at the Eighties, we can count the instances of a good Fleer design on less than one hand (1981, 1983, 1987 and maybe 1988, but only because we were still drunk on the baby blue gradient from ’87). It just is so smooth, and is it just me or does this set feel smooth too? Combine it with the holier-than-thou factory set tin and you can kiss the competition goodbye.

The Factory Set Tin. Seriously, I would have to rank the 1987 Fleer Factory Set tin the most intimidating item in the hobby at the time it was released. I remember the shop down the street had a few of them and that to open it you had to pop it open, because the metal was tapered in such a way as to mimic poorly-made generic Tupperware, the kind where you could only open it with one swift jerk, resulting in a face and lap full of egg salad (I ate a lot of egg salad sandwiches as a kid). You ended up launching the contents of the set all over your room, ruining the corners of the cards and jumbling up their order. And this was the mother of all sets, so God forbid you actually touched any of the cards with your hands and ruin their prestige. You had to know how to pop it open just so, to make it look like you did that sort of thing all the time (like unhooking a bra or unscrewing the can of snakes at just the right time). The tin (and proper use thereof) was the salad fork of sophistication to the baseball card world. Needless to say, it scared the shit out of me. But that baby blue border—man, that was something else.

The Kirby Puckett card. There’s something about the mid-1980s Twins uniform that really jelled with baseball card designs across the board there for a few years. Or maybe it was just the fact that Kirby Puckett was just a little guy, so the photographer and card designer didn’t have a hard time getting his whole body in the frame with space to spare. Whatever the reason, Puckett’s regular card was usually a highlight of any set. Even cards where it was just a headshot, he was just so photogenic that you could say he possessed Muppet tendencies. He always looked like he was having a good time. Seriously, has there ever been a more lovable and intimidating baseball player? It’s like the guy in Chinatown sold Gizmo to Tom Kelly instead of Billy’s father.

The SuperStar Specials. I’ve written about the Dr. K/Super K card before, but it remains one of the best cards of this set (or any of the decade). It was the icing on the cake, because it came at just the right time to signal the end of an era. I’ve always felt that 1987 was the SuperStar Specials’ last hurrah. From 1983 to 1987, each year Fleer did something new, had interesting arrangements of stars. By 1988 it was old, predictable, and, inevitably, lame. Because how do you follow Dr. K/Super K? How do you top AL Pitcher’s Nightmare? You don’t. And really the best way they could’ve followed it up would have been to not even bother.

The insert sets. I’ve also written how if you wanted to point fingers at who energized the insert movement and decline of the hobby, you could either start with Topps in the Sixties or with Fleer and Donruss in the late 1980s. But I have to admit, the insert sets from this set are fucking sweet. Headliners was nice (kind of like the kind of stupid yearly 56-card set from Donruss called Highlights) but it was really the All Stars that kicked ass (especially thanks to the Star Wars text). I remember saving up to buy a pack when they came out and getting this Roger Clemens All Star. To this day I can’t stand Roger Clemens, but can’t get over my undying love for this card.

I’ll admit it: that last sentence sounds kind of fucked up, especially to someone who’s not or never was a baseball card collector (or just a collector in general). But it’s at the root of what makes a set great. People can love a card or a set (with the same intensity usually reserved for a childhood pet), for any number of different reasons. They will agree that something just clicks when they see the set or card, and they feel better about themselves when they have it near them. Actually, maybe nobody will admit that last part (even if it is true).

So here's to you, Will Clark. May your teeth gleam forever more.


Anonymous said...

Good insight, but the repeated swearing is annoying, juvenile and takes away from what you're trying to do.

Anonymous said...

I love those cards that 'click.' I have a few of them, but one that sticks out is the '89 Topps Puckett. What a great card. I grew up in Minnesota, so it goes without saying that Kirby was my undeniable hero. I even had a school folder that was just a huge 1989 Topps Kirby Puckett. I never even used it I loved it so much. I still have that folder somewhere.

Jonathan said...

I just read this, 2 years to the day after you wrote it, bored at work and all. Anyway...
I was a huge Will Clark fan and didn't really start collection till 89-90, when I was 11 years old. I was always buying the 87 Dunress packs because they were only a buck or 2 looking for Clark's. One day after leaving my local card shop I decided to go back in and spend the 5 bucks on the 87 Fleer pack. Right before I opened the pack, the owner tells me, "chances are if you see a Clark card, you'll see a Bonds card." And sure enough, BAM, there's Clark, a few cards later, BAM, there's Bonds. Couldn't believe it! Like you said, that Clark card was $35 and Bonds was right there with it. Still to this day the only pack of 87 Fleer I've bought and my best baseball card memory.