What says ‘premium’ to you? A) Super-glossed, full-bleed photography, B) Snazzy graphics, foil stamping and serial numbers, or C) Gradients and metallic ink? If you answered ‘C’, then welcome to Fleer HQ, circa 1991.
As the second company to go premium (Donruss was first with 1990’s Leaf), and soon to be overshadowed by far superior Topps Stadium Club, Fleer’s inaugural Ultra set wasn’t bad. In fact, for a set that seems in hindsight like a calculated risk, you could say that it was better than you’d expect, especially when you consider the kind of crap Fleer was producing in the three years leading up to it. It’s almost as if they sequestered their best and brightest designers and asked the others not to speak to them until Ultra was ready to ship.
I say ‘calculated risk’ because there had been very few ‘premium’ sets made before Ultra. Upper Deck in 1989 and Leaf in 1990 proved that there was a market for a better card, and it was really only a matter of time before the other companies would follow suit with their own higher quality sets (Topps would debut Stadium Club that same year, with Score releasing Pinnacle in 1992). No matter what, it was imperative that Fleer release some sort of premium, before they found themselves lagging too far behind the rest of the pack. And Ultra wasn’t just a pre-emptive strike against the competition: it wasn’t a big secret that a premium brand would also mean perennial premium dollars for Fleer. But there was risk involved. What if it was a bad set? Had a weak checklist? Got approved with an ugly design? And what if collectors refused to pay the suggested pack price?
Lucky for Fleer, their best and brightest came through with a nice design, complete with a crowd-pleasing coat of silver ink, and a price that collectors accepted as justifiable given the quality of the card and set.
Ultra wasn’t the first set to incorporate metallic ink, but it was the first set to practically dip its design in it. Where other sets used black, Ultra used silver, and the design wasn’t necessarily the worse for that decision. The fronts were clean, featuring what is probably the best photography ever seen on Fleer cardboard. Take this image of Old Man Dave Winfield: you can see that he’s looking for the Eephus pitch. In previous years, the photography was sometimes so muddled that you could barely make out his face.
The backs forwent with a traditional player-in-background action shot and silhouetted him twice (once in the field, once at the plate) and as a large headshot outlined in an elemental shape that lords over both. It makes for a bizarre design—the headshot brings General Zod trapped in his hologram to mind, flipping through space forever. In fact, the backs would’ve worked much better had the Fleer photographer slipped each player a twenty and asked him to bug his eyes out and do his best ‘Mime-Trapped-In-A-Box.’
Who knows how much Fleer banked on the success of Ultra, but had it failed, the decadent years that followed would have played out very differently.