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A Brief History of Fleer

By Patrick Mondout

Some histories of the Fleer company - including the one on their Web site - state that the gum company was founded by Frank H. Fleer in 1849. I assure you that is quite impossible since he had yet to be conceived! To even suggest that the modern Fleer company has its roots in the 19th Century at all is a fallacy. What follows is a "brief history" of Fleer.

See also: You can also read our Brief History of Baseball cards, Brief History of Donruss, and Brief History of Topps pages.

1849

Otto Holstein, Frank H. Fleer's future father-in-law, founded a company that produced flavoring extracts.

1856

Frank H. Fleer was born in 1856.

1885

Frank H. Fleer took over his father in-law's company, renaming it Fleer & Company and changing its focus to gum. Note: It was the "Frank H. Fleer Corporation" of 1914, and not Fleer & Company (which was sold in 1909), that led to the company that was liquidated in 2005. 1

1899

Tragedy struck at the Fleer gum factory in Philadelphia on April 25, 1899 when 75 gallons of flammable Benzoline in storage exploded killing two, injuring close to 100, and causing damage to many buildings in the area. According to a contemporary news account, "The explosion was a terrific one, and for a time caused the wildest excitement. Not less than 100 buildings in the vicinity, most of them small dwellings, were damaged." Monetary damages were estimated at $100,000.2

On June 12, 1899, the American Chicle Company is formed by merging six of the largest gum companies, White & Son, J.P. Primley, Adams & Sons (originators of packaged gum in the U.S.), Beeman Chemical Company, S.T. Britten, and the Kis-Me. It was still possible to build a virtual monopoly this way as Teddy 'Trust Buster' Roosevelt was not yet in the Oval Office.

1906

A first sticky attempt at a bubble gum is made by Frank Fleer in 1906. It was called Blibber-Blubber gum, but did not catch on (except to the chewers face) and the product was abandoned. (You could blow bubbles with it, but it took turpentine to get the gum off your skin. As Dr. Seuss wrote 60 years later, "I can't blab such blibber blubber! My tongue isn't made of rubber.")3

The first Chiclets (candy-coated gum) are introduced by Fleer. Frank's brother and partner Henry Fleer invents them.4

1909

Fleer & Company is sold to the Sen Sen Chiclet Company, along with four other companies. Frank H. Fleer is named to the Board of Directors but essentially retires. This is the end of the "Fleer" company that had its roots in the 1849 company formed by Otto Holstein.

1914

In August the American Chicle Company inherits the original Fleer Chiclet patent by purchasing the Sen Sen Chiclet Company.

Frank H. Fleer, apparently bored with being on the Sen Sen board, starts the Frank H. Fleer Corporation. This is the actual company that the modern-day Fleer (1914-2005) could trace its roots to.

1920

Gilbert Mustin, a former insurance salesman, is hired by Fleer for a sales position. He marries Frank Fleer's daughter Alice on December 2nd.5

1921

Frank Fleer dies at age 65

1922

His son-in-law Gilbert Mustin takes over as president of the company by 1925.

1923 Fleer

1923

At the urging of Mustin, Fleer markets sports cards - including at least two Babe Ruth's - with Fleer's "Bobs & Fruit Hearts" candy. These cards are quite scarce, so much so that we will probably never know the true size (in the number different cards produced - estimated at 120) of the set.6

1928

An accountant at Fleer named Walter E. Diemer (see a picture of him here) picks up in 1928 were Frank left off and, after nearly a year of work, creates the first batch of worthwhile bubblegum (gum that could be blown into bubbles and not stick) in December. Adding pink food coloring to it, he sets a standard that will last into the next century.7

Diemer has the gum packaged and, on December 26, 1928, has 100 pieces of the 1 bubblegum sent to a local candy store in Philadelphia. Mustin calls the invention "Double Bubble" - the first bubblegum. It is wildly successful and new factories are built just to produce the gum.

1931

Henry Fleer dies of a heart attack at his home in Narberth, PA on March 31, 1931 at age 68.

1937

Frank and Henry's brother Robert Fleer dies on January 7, 1937.

1938

Fleer produces its first set of cards since 1923 with the Cops and Robbers Gum set (featuring Double Bubble in sticks). The cards feature fictitious bad guys with descriptions of their exploits on the back as well as the made-up cops who were chasing them.

1948

Gilbert Mustin Sr., president of Fleer, dies. On November 28, Norman Paddock Hutson is elected by the board to take his place while Gilbert Mustin Jr., the grandson of Frank H. Fleer and son of the former president, is named secretary. Fleer's other grandson, Frank H. Mustin, is named treasurer.

1959

Fleer president Norman Hutson dies on March 20, 1959.  Gilbert Mustin Jr. rises to president of the company on April 17, 1959. Mustin will remain in charge of the company until it is sold to Marvel Entertainment in 1989.

Fleer signs Ted Williams to an exclusive contract for baseball cards for $5,000.8 A set of 80 cards is distributed in six and eight card wax-packs. The cards feature Ted as a child, Ted in the military, Ted with his daughter, Ted signing a contract for 1959, etc. The latter card got Fleer in trouble as it also features former manager Bucky Harris, who was still technically under an exclusive contract with Topps. The card was withdrawn and is quite valuable today.

1960

Fleer produces the first of four American Football League (AFL) card sets. Fleer also distributes a set of 79 cards of retired stars (and, of course, Ted Williams). This is actually the first national set to feature old timers.

1961

Fleer produces its first basketball card set as well as a second set of old timers baseball cards.

1962

An antitrust lawsuit is filed against Topps by the Federal Trade Commission alleging the monopolization of the gum card market. We have briefly covered the history of this important case here.

1963

1963 Fleer

Embolden by the FTC complaint, Fleer decides to go ahead and print cards featuring current major leaguers. In a real coup for the company, Fleer is able to print the first and only card of current NL MVP Maury Wills.

In an attempt to not violate the "confectionary" clause of the Topps contracts, Fleer produces a very low sugar cherry cookie to distribute with the packs. A Topps executive later told the FTC that cookies tasted like "a dog biscuit." This begs the question as to how he would have known what either tasted like.9

Fleer apparently gives up due to poor sales after producing a first series of 66 cards.10

1966

Unable to print baseball cards with its famous gum after the FTC case is dismissed, Fleer sells the contracts it has with baseball players to Topps for $395,000. Most observers conclude they will never see another Fleer baseball card.

1969

Fleer prints the first of several yearly sets of baseball cards, stickers and patches that feature cartoons, team hats, stadiums - anything but current baseball players. They are not popular with collectors and probably were purchased by kids mostly for the gum.

1975

In June, Fleer files a suit in the Federal District Court of Philadelphia seeking damages due to Topps alleged "illegal restraint of trade" as a result of its exclusive deal with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

1976

Fleer produces the first of 13 yearly "Team Action" sets of football cards. The cards feature action photography from NFL games and team statistics, but do not mention any players by name as they are not licensed by the NFL Players Association. The cards were never popular and most veteran collectors barely remember them.

1978

Topps' attempts to get the 1975 suit thrown out on the grounds that the FTC had settled the issue in 1965 fail when the Supreme Court refuses to overturn a lower-court decision which found that the company had to stand trial. The Third Circuit appeals court had ruled that Fleer was never actually a party to the FTC action nor had they appealed it, so they still had a legal right to pursue the matter through the Federal Courts.11

1980

In the case Fleer brought to court five years earlier, Judge Clarence Newcomer rules that Topps, "unlawfully restrained and monopolized trade" in the baseball card market. This opens the door for Fleer to sign players and produce a set in 1981. We have covered this case, which was later overturned, in more detail here.

1981

Fleer produces its first current-player baseball cards since 1963 with a well-received 660 card set that is distributed in wax packs featuring gum.

Topps wins a reversal in the case originally decided in 1980. Fleer and Donruss are no longer allowed to ship gum with their cards.

1982

Fleer decides to get around the 1981 ruling by distributing their '82 cards with logo stickers. Topps calls the stickers a "sham" product designed to get around their exclusive contracts and sues Fleer.

1983

Fleer produces its third set of 660 baseball cards.

1984

Fleer produces its first "Update" set of baseball cards near the end of the season. It features the first major league cards of Roger Clemens and Kirby Puckett - among the most valuable of all baseball cards printed in the Awesome80s.

1985

Fleer announced a settlement with Topps where each company agreed that Fleer had the right to distribute cards with logo stickers.

1986

Fleer produces its first basketball card set in decades. It is also the first set of basketball cards properly distributed in wax packs since the 1981-82 Topps set. It features what will become one of the most popular cards of all-time, the Michael Jordan rookie.

1988

Fleer produces its last set of unpopular "Team Action" football cards.

1989

Fleer is sold to Charterhouse Group - a group that specialized in that great Wall Street fad of the Awesome80s called the leveraged buyout. Gilbert Mustin Jr., president of the company for over 40 years and grandson of founder Frank H. Fleer, retires after the deal is completed. Former Leaf general manager Paul Mullan is chosen to lead Charterhouse Confectionaries, as the new holding company was to be named.

1990

Fleer produces its first set of current-player football cards since the 1963.

Fleer successfully completes an IPO in June at $15 a share. Less than six months later in November, the Charterhouse investors (including Paul Mullan) were able to pull off a secondary offering allowing them to get back their original 1989 investment plus a nearly 500% profit, and still maintain control a majority of the company's shares!12

1992

Marvel Entertainment buys Fleer's outstanding shares for $286 million.

1994

Marvel acquires Panini (the Italian firm that printed Topps baseball stickers in the Awesome80s) for $158 million.

1995

Marvel Entertainment purchases basketball card competitor Skybox for approximately $150 million. It merges company the company with its Fleer subsidiary and renames it Fleer/Skybox. Marvel announces losses of $48 million for fiscal 1995, which will be dwarfed by the coming year.

1996

In December Marvel files for bankruptcy protection from its creditors (why it didn't just call in Spiderman is beyond me). It also reports losses of $464 million. Corporate raider Carl Icahn swoops in like a vulture and snaps up Marvel's debt. Having Icahn in your rear view mirror is like being down three runs in the ninth with Dennis Eckersley, circa 1990, coming in from the bullpen to shut you down.

1997

Carl Icahn uses legal maneuvering to gain controlling interest in Marvel, takes over the board and installs himself as chairman. (Somebody was reading his copy of The Art of War!) Icahn's specialty had changed from hostile takeovers in the early Awesome80s to leveraged buyouts and he now seemed content to buy wounded companies and sell their parts off and fire the employees. By August, Icahn's lawyers said they would seek to liquidate the company if it was unable to come up with agreeable terms to emerge from bankruptcy.

Icahn will spend the next year or so fighting old CEO Ronald Perelman's backers at Toybiz in court for control of the company. A federal judge will unceremoniously kick Icahn out and put a trustee in charge of Marvel while the competing plans merits are argued in court.

1998

Federal Judge Roderick McKelvie sides with the Perelman/Toybiz plan for reorganization. To pick up on our baseball analogy: If Icahn was Eckersley, coming in from the bullpen to finish off Marvel as we knew it, then Perelman was Kirk Gibson, stepping up to the plate - wounded - and hitting the ball out of the park. Icahn's attempted pillaging of Marvel was over. If his past was anything to go on, he probably laughed all the way to the bank by selling off his Marvel investment to wide-eyed investors who dreamed of a Marvel comeback.

1999

As Marvel Enterprises paid over $430 million for the various parts of the subsidiary known as Fleer/Skybox, the $26 million Rite Aid founder Alex Grass and his son Roger paid in January to purchase Fleer/Skybox in 1999 must have seemed like a really good deal to them.

2001

Fleer/Skybox forms a new entity calls Fleer Collectibles to purchase the die-cast company White Rose Collectibles.13

2003

Fleer retains investment bankers Legg Mason to peddle the company to potential buyers. Court documents released in 2005 show that Upper Deck offered to buy Fleer/Skybox outright for $25 million. Nascar die-cast car manufacturer RC-2 offered $17 million while Donruss offered $9 for the card business alone (without the die-cast entity).14

2004

Alex and Roger Grass, encouraged by first quarter results that were above 2003 levels, decided to stay in both the die-cast and sports card businesses and reject the offers.14

2005

As the company falls deeper into debt, father and son Grass realize they've made a huge mistake by not selling the company a year earlier. In late January, they ask their CFO Christopher Tobia to contact Topps, Donruss and Upper Deck to see if there is still any interest in buying the company.

On May 6th, Upper Deck verbally offered $10 million plus potentially $5 million more (depending upon subsequent Fleer product performance) but the negotiations over how that addition $5M could be earned lead to an impasse.

Upper Deck wants to buy an operating entity and to keep it going, but owner Alex Grass does not want to commit another $2 million to keep the Fleer running. He orders that the company shut down to stop his losses and to focus on getting the deal with Upper Deck finished. Upper Deck walks away from the deal. (Ooops!)

Friday, May 13th 2005 was unlucky day for Fleer and its employees. The company, some $30 million in debt, announced it was laying off most of its employees. Among all that debt was a loan to Fleer for $6M personally secured by Alex Grass. He will have to pay it off without the benefit of the $10M+ Upper Deck was willing to pay a month earlier. The die-cast business (Fleer Collectibles) continued operating until May 31st.

An auction is held by assignee Warren Martin for the Fleer assets on July 15. Upper Deck purchased the intellectual property and die-cast toy division of the company for a reported $6.1 million after a grueling 12 hours of bidding that started at $2M - still a fraction of what it offered in 2003. Upper Deck spokesman Don Williams told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The Fleer trademarks and brand names will add tremendous heritage to the Upper Deck lineup of trading cards."

Even with the possibility that "Fleer" cards will be produced in the future, the company founded in 1914 by Frank H. Fleer is no more. This leaves Upper Deck, the reborn Donruss, and venerable Topps as the major producers of cards.

 

Notes:
1: For Frank Fleer's age, check his obituary printed in the Washington Post on November 1, 1921, which properly mentions his age as 65.
2: New York Times, April 26, 1899 - page 2. According to rough estimates based on the Consumer Price Index, that would be about $2.25M in 2005 dollars.
3: Chewing Gum: An Unofficial History, by Michael Redclift.
4: Long time gum executive Louis W. Mahle, who once stumped the panel on What's My Line?, is often credited with inventing the Chiclet. The only problem with the story is his date of birth, which was 1897 (he died in early 1998 at 101). That would make him 9 years of age when the first Chiclets were marketed and 11 years old when the patent was sold to the American Chicle Company in 1909. You can find ads for Frank H. Fleer's Chiclets in 1906 issues of Cosmopolitan. Mahle may have done many wonderful things, but he did not invent the Chiclet.
5: Philadelphia: A Story of Progress by the Lewis Historical Publishing Company; 1941; page 309. A special thanks to Alan Hollins for providing a digital copy of the Gilbert Mustin entry.
6: The blank-backed cards, which were not particularly attractive - are commonly referred to by the Burdick catalog designation "W515."
7: CBSD.org's "Pennsylvania People" biographies: Link. Diemer is often credited with discovering bubblegum by accident - he even said as much in a 1996 interview - but as Thomas Edison would tell you (if he were still alive), a year's worth of careful experiments leading to a successful product is no accident.
8: SABR Nine; "Interview with Sy Berger"
9: New York Times; January 30, 1964; "Bubble-Gum Suit Fills 3,000 Pages" by McLandish Phillips; page 21.
10: It has been claimed elsewhere that Topps sued Fleer over the first series, but I can find no evidence of this. Furthermore, Fleer did give testimony claiming that the ability for them to market cards with their gum was essential for the company to compete in the bubblegum business. It also makes no sense in light of the fact that Topps lawyer Earl Kintner used the Fleer "cookie" set as an example of how the other companies were free to market cards - just not with gum. I also am unable to find contemporary articles which reference a '63 lawsuit by Topps over the Fleer set. Please correct me via the Contact Us link at the top of this page if you have verifiable evidence of this alleged case.
11: New York Times; April 23, 1978; "High Court on Taxes and Bubble Gum"; page F19.
12: New York Times, November 20, 1990 - page D8.
13: This actually created a problem when the company was liquidated as it was difficult to split the company up. If one company bought the card business and the name "Fleer" and another company bought the die-cast business, the latter would have to get a license from the former for the "Fleer" name in order to market the existing cars. Upper Deck solved this problem by buying both.
14: Transcript of Proceedings. Docket number P-2005-1394, Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part. July 8, 2005.

 
 
 

FLEER


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