A Ted Williams mini-mystery…solved?

The hobby is full of secrets, mysteries, and a lore often built on hearsay, self-interest, imperfect memory, and conjecture. Of course sometimes there is actual evidence.

Today’s baseball card mystery is the mythical “Ted Signs for 1959” card #68 that has prompted many a collector to declare 79/80 good enough on the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set.

About the card

Before plunging into the unknown, here is what’s known.

  • The card is significantly rarer than the other 79 cards in the set.
  • The card was pulled from production due to the exclusive contract Topps held with Bucky Harris. (Random aside: The first ever Topps card of Bucky Harris was in 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1991!)
  • The card was sent to collectors who contacted Fleer about its absence from the set.
  • And of course the card was and still is frequently counterfeited.

What remains a mystery, or at least lacking consensus, some 60 years later is just how early the card was pulled from production. Specifically, did card 68 ever make it into packs?

Ask the experts

Here is a fairly extensive literature review on the subject. While all sources agree the card was pulled early, none offer any specificity as to just how early “early” really was.

  • According to the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards (5th Ed.), “card #68 was withdrawn from the set early in production and is scarce.”
  • The PSA Card Facts for the set note only that “The set’s most scarce and therefore prized piece is Card #68 (“Ted Signs for 1959”), which Fleer withdrew from the collection early in production.”
  • A more detailed PSA write-up on the card itself notes only that the “card was pulled from production early due to an alleged contract dispute with Buck [sic] Harris (the other man depicted on the card), resulting in a higher degree of scarcity.”
  • An article on Cardboard Connection is equally mum: “As a result, the card had to be pulled from production, pushing values up.”
  • A listing at Dean’s cards indicates that “Fleer was forced to remove the #68 card from distribution, due to the legal issues of using Harris’ image without his permission.”
  • An article on the set from Sports Collectors Digest refers to card 68 as “a single card that ended up being pulled off the presses…”. 
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2012): “During the production process, the card was yanked from the set, creating a rarity that has driven set builders crazy for years.”
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2016): “Fewer copies exist of that one compared to the other cards in the set because printing of it ceased early when the set was being created. It seems Red Sox GM Bucky Harris was under contract to Topps and thus, couldn’t appear in a Fleer set.  Fleer stopped the presses and pulled #68 but not before some of them had already been printed.”
  • From Tuff Stuff: “Fleer was forced to pull the card early from production.”
  • From Robert Edward Auctions: “This card was withdrawn from production due to legal issues relating to Fleer’s unauthorized use of Harris’ image.”
  • From Heritage Auctions: “[The card] is known for being difficult due to being pulled from circulation since Bucky Harris (who appears on this card) was under contract with Topps.”
  • From Leland’s: “The key to the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams Set. The Ted Signs for 1959 card #68 was pulled from production early making it a bit scarcer than the rest of the set. “
  • From KeyMan Collectibles: “Topps had Bucky Harris under exclusive contract and Fleer had to stop production of card 68 ‘Ted Signs for 1959’ making it a rare short print. Only a few made it out to the public.”

Equivocating on the issue one final time is this Heritage listing for an unopened box, which suggests the card shouldn’t be in the packs but might be.

“We can only speculate if card #68 ‘Jan 23, 1959 – Ted Signs for 1959’ can be found within. History says it should not as the card was not supposed to be sold.”

Heritage Auctions listing #80171

If it were well known or provable that card 68 did in fact make it into at least some packs, I have to imagine the Heritage catalog would have played up that fact in its listing. As it is, my read of the listing is much more a “probably not” than a “maybe.”

Primary sources

Of course, if I learned anything at all from my History teacher, primary sources are always best. As such, let’s see what the Frank H. Fleer Corporation had to say about the card back in August 1959.

A full transcript of the letter is here, but the key lines are these:

Due to the possibility of legal overtones, card #68 of the Ted Williams series was not put on the market for sale.  However, it was made and we have been able to send several to people such as you who have inquired.

So there you have it, right? Straight from Art Wolfe at Fleer, we see that card 68 was not put on the market for sale, i.e., did not make it into packs.

The ultimate primary source

However, where baseball cards are concerned, there are sources even more reliable than the Assistant Promotion Managers of the companies that make them. The best authority on card 68 and the only source truly worthy of the label “primary” is of course card 68 itself!

As luck would have it, I finally picked one of after all these years. I think you’ll agree it’s not a bad looking “2.”

I have to imagine the grade was based more on the card’s reverse, which has a prominent wax stain and a crease that shows up the right lighting makes evident.

Wait a minute! Did somebody say wax stain?!?! Let’s crack that card out of its plastic prison and get a better look.

Sure enough, it’s a wax stain. MYSTERY SOLVED! And lest you think this one card managed to sneak through quality control, here’s another…

And another…

This is also a good spot to thank reader “athomeatfenway” for the tip to check out page 212 of the Ted Williams bio “In Pursuit of Perfection” by Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime. Here, dealer Irv Lerner recounts an incredible story of the 1959 Fleer set along with his recollection of card 68 specifically.

“The initial run did have the number 68s in it. Two or three months afterward, they damaged that part of the plate so they could pull it out.”

Estimating rarity

Incidentally, the wax stains do more than confirm that card 68 made it into wax packs, albeit very early ones. The stains may also provide a rough means of estimating how many of these cards were issued in packs versus through direct correspondence with Fleer.

Imagine that one had access to front/back scans of a large sample of the card, for example, all 1200 or so PSA/SGC graded examples of card 68. Now assume 30 of the cards exhibited wax stains. Since the cards were issued in packs of 6 or 8 cards apiece, we might infer from the 30 stained cards that between 30 x 6 = 180 and 30 x 8 = 240 of the 1200 cards (about 15-20%) came from packs.

Postscript

One of our readers, Derek, provided this information via email.

Most sure these [wax-stained “Ted Signs” cards] came from 8-card packs as those were the first production line. They did not make 8-card packs after they pulled #68. That is another reason they are extremely rare to find.

Bonus info

In doing my research for this piece, I ran across some information outside the main storyline that nonetheless felt worth sharing.

First up, here is a 1958 photograph of Art Wolfe, the Fleer employee who signed letters to collectors in 1959. Source: October 12, 1958, Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY).

By March 1959, Mr. Wolfe had joined Fleer and was in Clearwater, Florida, doing his best to sign ballplayers. Source: March 21, 1959, News Journal (Wilmington, DE).

The following week the Fort Lauderdale News (March 25, 1959) covered the signing of Ted Williams by Fleer as an early sign of the cardboard apocalypse.

And a week after that, the April 2 (subscription required) Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY) covered Mr. Wolfe from Fleer in the middle of his “Just say no to Topps” campaign.

You might be surprised to see all this coverage of the baseball cards wars long before the financial side of the hobby exploded. Still, this stuff really did matter to kids back then! Here is the May 22, 1961, edition of the Miami News.

Fleer took a break from the baseball card business between 1963 and 1968, so it’s not surprising that Art Wolfe would return to his sportscasting roots, eventually becoming sports director for WPEN, known today as “97.5 The Fanatic.” Here is an ad from the July 13, 1965, Philadelphia Daily News.

Following his tenure with WPEN, Wolfe went on to become a sports reporter and anchor for Philadelphia’s KYW. This letter from a young reader in June 1986 stands as proof not only that Philly sports fans are the worst but that they start young! 😄

Clare R. “Art” Wolfe passed away in 2008, having spent most of his life a radio and TV man doing sports. However unappreciated his work may have been by an eighth grade Gregory Popowski, many of us—but not quite all of us—with complete 1959 Fleer Ted Williams sets owe Mr. Wolfe a debt of gratitude for putting those cards in the mail.

Committee note: Tomorrow the SABR Baseball Cards blog will be celebrating 400 posts with a specially themed article revolving around the number 400. Any guesses? Fitting though it might have been, you can probably already rule out Ted Williams!

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

14 thoughts on “A Ted Williams mini-mystery…solved?”

  1. Good post.

    When I went to card shows in NYC in the ’70’s, it was more a hobbyist convention than a cash machine. I got a complete set back then. The guy had a poster that showed the counterfeit vs. the real.

    I’ll look and see if there’s a wax stain on mine too.

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  2. Terrific research, Jason. The ’59 Fleer set was the first one to tried to assemble as an adult, starting with cards I had bought as a 10-year-old that year at the corner drug store. I had ’em all, except of course, #68. I sold the ungraded ones back around 2000. By then, I was trying to put together a graded set of PSA 8s and 9s. Again, I just couldn’t see paying $500+ for even a PSA 5. I ended up buying a clearly identified copy for about $10, but eventually I sold them all — which was quite easy with such strong demand to help pay for sets I can complete. Being a Senators fan and because I share a birthday with Bucky Harris, the card has always intrigued me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another gem. Love the wax stain detective work. Were Topps contracts in perpetuity? Why was Harris still under contract? In case he managed again?

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    1. I think the typical contract was 5 years. Though Topps did not produce cards of Harris, I have to imagine they must have signed him in 1955 or 1956 when he was managing Detroit. I can’t say for certain though.

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  4. This is great research but not conclusive. Fleer could have easily packaged the cards and then removed them when Topps interjected before shipping. There should be a record at topps of a cease and desist. Find the date of their correspondence and the date fleer shipped cards to get a better idea of the timeline.

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    1. Yes, I had thought about some other possibilities. For example, we can at least imagine poor Art Wolfe working weekends ripping and re-sealing wax packs to remove any Bucky Harris cards already packed…and then saving them for several months to mail them to collectors complaining about their 79/80 sets.

      At the same time, I wonder how Topps would even know there was a Bucky Harris in the set unless cards had already made it out to the public. I wouldn’t imagine Fleer offering up the information on their own.

      Yes, though, if someone is able to get a copy of a cease/desist that would be fantastic. I would love to see such a thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great column. So the mystery will continue. Here’s another nugget to evaluate, though it sheds no light on the wax pack copies of #68: In Ted Williams, In Pursuit of Perfection, by Bill Nowlin & Jim Prime, page 212, card dealer Irv Lerner details his recollection of a box car discovered in 1979 that had mint boxes of 1959F with the Ted/Bucky card in them. These cards were not in packs. It says the find produced far more supply than the card market could handle at that time. Philly newspapers published ads offering cases. Lerner bought multiple boxes to resell. He had trouble moving them even though he offered sets (including #68) “for around $10”. You can find this on Google Books.

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    1. Thanks, Mark. The biggest barrier to this set is probably having “half a set of pristine cards.” In my case, my first 79 cards were probably in the raw equivalent of PSA 2-3 range, which made it easy to pull the trigger on “Ted Signs for 1959.” I actually same super close last year to upgrading my 79/80 with a different 79/80 in NM. Now I’m glad I didn’t since I would have felt like I needed a much nicer card 68.

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