August 18, 2008
1948 - 1979 Countdown:
#34. 1959 Fleer Ted WIlliams
Before Topps' institutionalized exaltation of players like Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Mickey Mantle, and Upper Deck's lavishly illustrated Baseball Heroes, hero worship was one of the many options in composing a baseball card set. Witness Fro Joy's 1928 Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig's face and facsimile signature on every card in the 1934 Goudey set. But most of all, feast your eyes on the big wet sloppy kiss on the lips that is Fleer's 80-card set from 1959: Baseball's Greatest, Ted Williams.
Six cards of a guy I can live with (that's about the length of a standard subset). And even 250 cards with Gehrig's little smirking face in the corner isn't bad (Gehrig is just part of the design, not the subject of each card). But 80 cards of the same player? You'd think that would be overkill. Of course, you'd be right. It turns out that you can form a pretty good picture of who Ted Williams was as a ballplayer with just five or six cards, not 80. And you really only need one card to form a solid image of who Ted Williams was as a human being: card #54, "Dec. 1954, Fisherman Ted Hooks a Big One."
From the back:
"Ted is an avid and expert fisherman. He devotes more time to fishing than anything else, except baseball. His status in the fishing world is as renowned as his status in the baseball world. Williams is particularly interested in game fish, such as marlin, tarpon or sailfish. On December 10, 1954 at Cabo Blanco in Peru, Ted caught the 8th largest black marlin ever landed with rod and reel. It weighed 1,235 lbs. Ted calls this 'my greatest fishing thrill.'
(The Best of the Set is Ted Signs for 1959 (card #68). It's by far and away the most valuable card in the set, and the most important for set collectors.)
Fleer made a big splash by signing Williams away from Topps in 1959, and they planned on getting their money's worth out of the deal. The set from 1959 was just the start of Teddy's cardboard coronation as he approached retirement. 1960 saw the first of two Baseball Greats sets of retired players, which lauded Williams as the brightest star among stars.
So then why, if 80 cards is overkill, does this set pull rank on a number of full-bodied sets made up of a season's worth of players? For a number of reasons, not the least being that it was the first post-war set of unabashed hero worship.
Fleer wasn't the first rival of Topps to sign away one of its major stars, but it was the first to do it after Topps swallowed Bowman in 1955. Also, it wasn't just a small-time regional star Fleer built around. It was Ted Williams, The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. I don't know if this is a fair assessment, but if Fleer doesn't land Williams in '59, does it release baseball cards in 1960, 1961, and the aborted series in 1963? I'm not sure those other sets happen without Williams on board. Heck, the whole reason the Baseball Greats sets exist at all was to include cards of Williams as part of his contract.
Also, if this set didn't exist, I'd argue that subsequent hero worship would've looked a lot different. Remember, Topps' Babe Ruth Story subset in the 1962 set came on the heels of Williams' defection to Fleer (and Maris' record-breaking 61 home runs in 1961). Before the BRS subset, Topps had limited experience in the way of hero worship: they gave Ted Williams card #1 three times (1954, 1957, 1958) and within the first five in 1955 and 1956. The only other instance I can think of is Roy Campanella's post-accident 'Symbol of Courage' card (#550) in the 1959 set.
Following the BRS, hero worship was part of the Topps repertoire, to be used in 1974 with Hank Aaron, 1985 and 1986 with Pete Rose, 1990 with Nolan Ryan, and in the recent abyss composed of every Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds insert set the company has felt compelled to produce. All of these go back to the Babe Ruth Story subset in 1962 Topps, which in turns goes back to Fleer's 1959 set, Baseball's Greatest, Ted Williams.