Before jumping in let’s set the stage a little. It’s June 12, 1939, and baseball royalty has gathered in upstate New York.
Eleven of the game’s greatest are in Cooperstown for the first ever Hall of Fame induction ceremony, honoring the classes of 1936-39.
Not coincidentally, at least in my opinion, the next year’s Play Ball set did something that was at the time most unusual if not unprecedented. More than an eighth of the cards, 31 out of 240, on the 1940 Play Ball checklist featured retired all-time greats.
As the Hall of Fame had only 26 members to this point, the set necessarily included several players not yet (or ever?) enshrined in Cooperstown, most notably Shoeless Joe Jackson.
The chart below shows the Hall of Fame status of the 31 retired greats in the set, as well as two other pre-1940 Hall of Famers (orange rows) who were included in the Play Ball set outside the retired greats subset.
There were also several pre-1940 Hall of Famers not included in the set at all. Most had pioneer or executive status, but I’m sure you will recognize at least a few very, very good players on this list.
The 1940 Play Ball set, therefore, was not a perfect reflection of baseball’s Hall of Fame to this point, but it still gave young gum chewers their best chance to own a decent piece of Cooperstown in their card collections.
Ten years later another set came along that scored a direct hit on the Baseball Hall. In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set that consisted all 60 Hall of Famers to that point (plus two cards of the building itself). According to the Standard Catalog, the box set and supplemental cards were sold at the Hall of Fame itself and major league ballparks.
The set was updated annually to remain current through 1956, providing collectors with cards of baseball’s first 80 Hall of Famers.
The next major set rich in retired baseball greats, short of the Hall of Fame postcards themselves, once again came ten years later, this time with the release of Fleer’s 1960 Baseball Greats set.
The set included 79 players (80 if you count the unreleased Pepper Martin backs), all retired with the exception of Ted Williams. By my count, 47 of the cards, including the first ten on the checklist, portrayed subjects who were already Hall of Famers. (As of 2020, the total is up to 74.) Here are the five cards in the set that do not have corresponding busts in Cooperstown.
Fleer’s 1960 set was (perhaps surprisingly) successful enough not just to warrant a repeat but a near doubling of the set in 1961. The 1961 Baseball Greats set boasted 154 cards, including two checklists, making it by far the largest all-time greats set to date, a distinction it would retain (subjectively) for 20 years. That said, a closer look at the set’s checklist raises valid questions as to just how many of the “Baseball Greats” were actual…baseball greats. Had baseball even had 150+ greats to this point?
The series one checklist largely reprises the 1960 offering, with 57 of the 88 cards having counterparts the year before. Another 18 subjects from 1960 would crack the series two checklist. That left only 4 cards from the 1960 set with no sequel in 1961.
Excluding the two checklist cards and the 75 repeated subjects from 1960, Fleer had 77 slots to fill with all new cardboard. Naturally, some number would go to true greats who didn’t quite make it the first time around (i.e., 1960), but our focus here will be on players that make you say “Huh?”
Cards 80 and 82 feature two very much better than average twirlers who combined to post a 317-239 win-loss record. I recognized but couldn’t place the names when I first saw their cards.
As it turns out the two starters had squared off in one of baseball history’s greatest pitching duels, combining for 19 innings of no-hit ball.
Another unexpected entrant to a set of “Baseball Greats” was Nick Altrock. Though he posted a couple very nice seasons with the 1905-06 White Sox, his card back suggests it was his clown status that made him a Fleer immortal.
Dennis Galehouse and Bump Hadley were two other pitchers I can’t say I knew well.
Their card backs indicate that their postseason success was responsible for placing them on the same checklist as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. That said, the two won a combined three World Series games in 31 seasons.
My favorite card in the set, however, belongs to Joe Hauser, a respectable but hardly standout hitter for the Philadelphia A’s teams of the 1920s, certainly overshadowed by the Hall of Fame roster surrounding him.
Of course, some readers will recognize Hauser’s place in baseball history has less to do with his major league record as what he accomplished after his big league days were through: an unthinkable 132 home runs in two seasons!
Besides introducing young collectors in 1961 (and guys like me in 2020) to some lost greats, the 1961 Fleer set (and to some extent its 1960 predecessor) was also a bit maverick in its choice of photos. Many of the top stars in the set are depicted with teams you’d hardly expect. (For what it’s worth the cities starting with “C” seemed to gain the most players.)
The more I got to know this set the more it reminded me of the baseball books I used to read as a kid. Yes, there were chapters on the true immortals, but there were also stories about baseball’s greatest personalities, baseball’s most unusual games, the little guys who came up big when it counted, and the big guys who came up big when it didn’t count. It took all these players to tell the story of baseball in a way that fused history, drama, and comedy into one grand game rich not only in tradition but personality.
The 1961 Fleer set is not so much a study in putting the Hall of Fame into packs but a blueprint for a different Hall altogether, one where a great story or great moment is as good as a great career…and for the guys with great careers, one where we at least give them a funny hat!
I know some readers would be aghast to even consider such a Hall, so it’s to them I ask this question: what’s the point of reading a plaque if you already know who the guy was!
Extra for Experts
A few odds and ends related to the 1960-61 Fleer Baseball Greats sets that didn’t quite fit the article.
The 1960 checklist (1-79) is in more or less random order. However, there is a simple pattern to the color schemes used. Cards 1-20 use blue with white lettering, cards 21-40 use yellow with red lettering, cards 41-60 use green with yellow lettering, and cards 61-79 use red with white lettering.
The 1961 checklist is alphabetical by series, but the background colors (red, orange, yellow, green, and blue) appear more or less random.
Both sets include a card of Ed Walsh. However, the 1960 set erroneously uses a photo of Ed Walsh, Jr. Perhaps to clear up any confusion the following year Fleer made darn sure collectors knew they were looking at Big Ed Walsh this time around.
Photos on the 1960 cards are credited to World Wide Photo. No similar credits are noted on the back of the 1961 cards.