March 14, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #18. 1993 Flair

If anything, it takes guts to recognize and react positively to change. Considering that baseball cards were relatively stable in their manufacture and presentation (two-color back, no gloss, cheap cardboard stock) for the 100 years leading up to 1986, it only took the big three companies at the time (Donruss, Fleer and Topps) between four and five years to change at least one of their products to more along the lines of what we expect from cards today: foil-stamping, bleed photos, full-color backs and varying degrees of coated stock. In the grand scheme, that’s no time at all.

1991 Fleer Ultra deserves all the credit for giving the company a significant presence in the then-new world of ‘premium’ cards. Collectors responded to the classy look and feel of the cards and felt privileged to be able to buy them, like they were making an investment. Ultra laid the groundwork not only for other premiums that followed, but for the maturation of Fleer’s flagship for the rest of the decade.

The only problem was that Ultra, despite its quality (no whiteout scribbles on these!) and marbleized grandeur, was kind of ugly. Sure, the cards briefy had value, and I salivated over them as much as the next kid, but I always felt like something was missing, design-wise.

Someone at Fleer must have agreed, because not two years later Flair debuted as the company’s ultra—no pun intended—premium card set. And ultra it was. Each card was a little piece of art and each pack resembled an Art Deco cigarette case. Buying a pack of Flair for $3 netted you a stack of shrink-wrapped cards, thicker than any kind of card I’d ever seen (even thicker than Sportflics) that were, in a word, beautiful. Delicate gold leaf names on glossy stock and a mix of veterans on a simple checklist. Looming action close-up ghosted in a Field of Dreams, Riders on the Storm kind of way behind a studious action shot. A great first step in building a reliable brand.

Growing up outside Boston, I always thought that when the guy down at my local card shop said 'Fleer Flair' real fast he sounded kind of dumb (Flee-ah Flay-yahh). Despite the regional patois faux pas of name choice by Fleer, Flair seemed more like an actual set than its competitor, Topps Finest. Finest felt more like it was for high rollers, like you needed a key to the Playboy Club before you could buy a pack. It was certainly not for a pimply high school freshman like me.

But Flair… though I didn’t quite see the point of paying so much for a pack of cards, at least I had the money to do it. It was within my reach. In the end, I bought only one pack of this set, no matter how many times that card store guy tried to push it on me.

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