February 15, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown:
#39. 1994 Flair

By 1994 the novelty had worn off. It was inevitable. The thick cards, the crisp photography, the glossy stock, the delicate gold lettering, the four-color backs—Fleer either had to build on the laurels of its 1993 debut or it had to write the brand off as a one shot deal. Since that wasn’t really an option—Flair was Fleer’s mega-ultra high-end product line, after all—Fleer infused it with all the trappings of a major, mid-Nineties issue: it was released in two series of 225 cards (1993’s set was 300 cards total), had a few rookies* within the base set, and was complemented by a boatload of insert sets. In fact, if you went for the master set (base set plus all the inserts), we’re talking about 510 cards (that’s 60 inserts, for those of you bad at math). And at $4 a pack, that was not exactly a cheap proposition.

But that’s not to suggest $4 a pack wasn’t justified. Prestige. Privilege. That’s what this set came to represent, which was no small feat considering 1994’s crowded hobby landscape. The cards stood out because they were chunky, understated in their design, and totally different from anything Fleer Labs had coughed out before. I mean, it’s still hard to believe that Fleer was only five years removed from ‘Fuck Face,’ you know?

In terms of design, the clean, almost atmospheric photography of 1993 gave way to a busier front: a more elaborate gold foil bookplate frontispiece for name and team, plus two distinct photos (headshot/close-up to the left and action shot to the right). After a while it got to be monotonous, which is why I have only one piece of Flair in my collection (Eddie Murray) and have chose not to add more.

If we carry this critique to its end, can we qualify this set as Flair’s ‘sophomore slump’? I’m going to say ‘no.’ This isn’t ’94 Topps Finest we’re talking about. If anything, 1994 Flair should be remembered as ‘Flair Hits Puberty.’ Not exactly grown-up yet, but not exactly cherubic either.

*Everyone knows that Alex Rodriguez was one of the ‘few rookies.’ But can you name the other four? Overall, it’s here where sets from 1994 falter: the year’s rookie crop just wasn’t that great. In hindsight it’s a real shame, because 1994 was the sophomore effort for the ‘premium’ brands like Topps Finest, Fleer Flair and Upper Deck’s SP, and the premiere issue for Leaf Limited (reviewed previously at #43), sets that would be remembered in a better light if only their rookie crop had been more promising.

(The other four Flair rookies are Brian Anderson, Kurt Abbott, Chan Ho Park, and William Van Landingham. Quick: Can you name their teams?)

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