The Ted Williams code

Three of my great loves in the Hobby—Fleer, Ted Williams, and crazy number patterns—all come together in the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set, 80 cards that chronicle the life and times of the Splendid Splinter, both on and off the field.

The set’s cards are refreshingly affordable with the exception of card 68 in the set, “Ted Signs for 1959,” which was pulled due to its inclusion of Bucky Harris, for whom Fleer did not have rights. Because this single card (in like condition) is typically priced higher than the rest of the set combined, many collectors opt to settle for a “79/80” set and call it a day.

Something I’d wondered about but never researched was how Fleer’s production process changed once it became necessary to pull card 68. There seemed to be two strategies available:

  • Continue printing all 80 cards but remove card 68 prior to collation into packs.
  • Omit card 68 from all subsequent printing

The first of these approaches seemed bulky, though perhaps not unprecedented. (Goudey may have done similar in 1934 with its Lajoie card.)

1934 Goudey series four uncut sheet

The second of these approaches seemed much easier. Fleer could simply replace card 68 on its printing sheet with any other card from the set. While this would create a “double-print,” a card twice as numerous as others due to its dual placement on printing sheets, it would also, at least presumably, save Fleer all kinds of work.

Again, there was precedent in an older Goudey set, though it’s unknown to collectors whether Goudey doubled up on its Ruth 144 (second row, third and sixth cards) in 1933 to replace another card or simply to print more Ruth cards. (I’m probably in the minority who would vote for the former.)

1933 Goudey series six uncut sheet

I hoped to settle the question by finding an uncut sheet with a double-print. Instead, I stumbled upon this sheet that recently sold on eBay. No double-prints, but right there in the lower left corner was card 68!

The presence of card 68 on the sheet suggested one of two possibilities:

  • Fleer continued to print card 68, even if it meant having to pull it over and over before collating cards into packs.
  • The sheet pre-dated Fleer’s decision to pull card 68.

I won’t settle that question in this article, partly because I don’t think the answer is knowable but mostly because I’m so easily distracted by oddball numbering patterns.

Here are the card numbers from the back of the sheet.

One simple pattern and two less simple ones are evident.

  • The numbers decrease by two in going from the first to the second column.
  • The numbers increase by 13 or 15 in going from the second to the third column.
  • The numbers increase by 15 or 17 in going from one row to the next.

The first of these patterns suggested a way to extend the table to the left and right, stopping once a new column would generate repeated numbers. Here was the result.

Two small changes I’ll now introduce are the letters A-P to label the table’s sixteen columns and a vertical divider line between column H and column I to mark the break in the pattern. If nothing else, this table suggests a nomenclature for the original sheet: GHI.

In truth, all columns except GHI are hypothetical at this point, but you can imagine I’d hardly be writing this up if there wasn’t something more happening.

For example, here is another sheet, which corresponds exactly to columns KLM in the table.

And here are two 20-card sheets, corresponding exactly to ABCD and DEFG.

In other words, the hypothetical extension of the numbering scheme does reflect something real. Having now seen ABCD, DEFG, GHI, and KLM, can we find sheets with that include J, N, O, and P to complete our set?

Definitely! Here are two different sheets, HIJ and JKL, that include column J.

Finally, here is NOP to round things out.

You might wonder if all sheets from the Ted Williams set match the table as nicely as the ones I’ve shown. From what I can tell the answer is yes. You may also be familiar with the occasional 6-card panel that appears from time to time. Sure enough, even these panels have a home in the table.

Recognizing the wide, if not universal, applicability of the numbering scheme to the set, it’s fair to wonder where such a scheme could have come from. I won’t pretend that the information below reflects any intentional thinking from Fleer or their printing house, but I’ll nonetheless offer a simple three-step algorithm that generates the entire table and demystifies it in so doing.

STEP ONE: Start with the numbers from 1-80, arranged in a 16 x 5 table.

STEP TWO: Subdivide each row into its odd and even components.

STEP THREE: Rebuild the 16 x 5 table by adding the rows from the above table in a serpentine pattern.

In other words, however complicated the “Ted Williams code” might look, it is simply the result of arranging eight straightforward “strips” of cards in a relatively straightforward manner.

HOW WERE THE CARDS PRINTED?

When I first stumbled upon the sheet of 15 cards I was surprised not only by the presence of card 68 but also the number of cards on the sheet. After all, the only ways to get to 80 cards, fifteen at a time, seemed to involve excessive double-prints. For example, six sheets of 15 will get you the set but introduce 10 double-prints along the way.

It was comforting then to discover a 20-card sheet since it opened the door to two seemingly more likely possibilities.

  • The set was produced in four sheets of 20 cards, with any 15-card sheets (or smaller panels) being trimmed afterward from larger sheets.
  • The set was produced using four sheets of 15 and one sheet of 20.

Let’s start with the first of these. Taking a look at the top edge of KLM from earlier, it feels safe to conclude that this sheet used to be at least a little larger. What’s inconclusive is whether only the border was cut off or if there used to be a fourth row of cards. In other words, we don’t know if we are looking at 99% of KLM or three-fourths of KLMN.

These next two 15-card sheets, both NOP, don’t show any evident trimming through each has thin enough edge that it’s fair to wonder if they simply reflect a much cleaner cutting job than in the previous example. If trimmed from 20-card sheets, the first would have come from MNOP, but the second presents a challenge to my numbering scheme, which doesn’t anticipate any columns after “P.”

Still, let’s assume all 15-card sheets in existence came from 20-card sheets. The simplest configuration would be ABCD, EFGH, IJKL, and MNOP shown below. Any departure would either require more than four sheets (and introduce significant double-printing) or conflict with the numbering scheme that has so far been consistent with all known examples.

Yet having already seen sheet DEFG, we know this was not how the cards were printed! Therefore, at least based on the sheets known to exist, I think we’re back to schemes involving combinations of 15 and 20 card sheets.

Assuming the cards were printed as four sheets of 15 and one sheet of 20, there are only five ways to do this that don’t leave stray remnants of 5 or 10 cards.

Here are the five solutions, represented in list form.

  • ABCD-EFG-HIJ-KLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEFG-HIJ-KLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEF-GHIJ-KLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEF-GHI-JKLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEF-GHI-JKL-MNOP

While the typical question to ask would be which one did Fleer use, the existence of ABCD and DEFG tell us the answer would have to be at least the first two solutions. Additionally, the existence of JKL, unique to the final entry on the list, adds a third solution to our solution set.

Okay, but isn’t this a rather crazy way to produce the cards? YES! But when I compare the known data (shown in red) with the sheets predicted by such a scheme, I have to admit the coverage is pretty strong: 9 out of 13.

  • ABCD-EFG-HIJKLMNOP
  • ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP
  • ABCDEF-GHIJ-KLMNOP
  • ABCDEFGHIJKLM-NOP
  • ABCDEFGHIJKL-MNOP

Just as compelling to me are the sheets such an approach predicts would not exist:

  • Impossible 15 card sheets: BCD, CDE, FGH, IJK, LMN, MNO
  • Impossible 20 card sheets: BCDE, CDEF, EFGH, FGHI, HIJK, IJKL, KLMN, LMNO

Sure enough, none of these fourteen sheets are currently known.

My takeaway, therefore, is that Fleer most likely used combinations of 15 and 20-card sheets to produce the set and hardly adopted the simplest possible approach. Rather, of the five sensible solutions available, Fleer at various times or locations used at least three and potentially all five of them!

Admittedly, my entire chain of reasoning draws from a rather small sample size: eleven different sheets (and some duplicates) in all. A CDEF discovered in the wild is all it would take to derail half this article, and a CDEG in the wild would derail the entire article. Meanwhile, EFG, GHIJ, JKLM, or MNOP would lend even greater support to my hypothesis. As such, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments if you’re aware of sheets I’ve overlooked in my research.

Either way, can we at least agree that Ted Williams was the best &@#%! hitter who ever lived? Great! Now can anyone help me crack the code to find out what &@#%! means?

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.

7 thoughts on “The Ted Williams code”

  1. This was first set I tried to complete. Got ’em out wax pack back in ’59. Never got a real #68, but there is another weak option: decent reprints of it can be had for a few bucks. Somewhat unrelated, I can’t under stand why Fleer didn’t use the nice “Ted’s All-Star Record” image for his card in its 1960 Baseball Greats set instead of a badly colored photo that doesn’t crop to the card size. Ugly is being charitable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you on that awful 1960. So many pics of Ted to choose from and that’s what they go with?? Even a different crop of same image would have been infinitely better. I do like 1961 Fleer Ted though.

      Like

    1. Of all the player bio sets (1948 Babe Ruth Story, 1962 Topps Ruth subset, and lots of 1980s issues), I think this is the best one by far. Would love to see Upper Deck reuse this design to do more player bio sets.

      Like

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