Blast From the Packs: An ode to Fleer Flair

If you’ve been reading my posts about sports cards lately, you’ll know that I keep harping on photography as the thing that draws me to certain cards. A great photo, even if it’s of a player I’m not crazy about, will make a card much more desirable in my eyes. So when a set gives out nothing but top-notch photography, I’m going to be a fan.

And of course, it helps if the design is attractive, but in my experience, I’ve found that generally sets that feature great photos are also very pretty from a design perspective. I can’t recall any cards that made me think “what a fantastic shot of that guy, too bad the design is a turd.”

When Fleer started producing its premium Flair sets in 1993, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Here were cards that were double the thickness of an average sports card, were super glossy with embossed foil accents, featured photo-perfect color printing, and some of the most beautiful photos on any cards to that point. Then, to top it off, the cards were shrink-wrapped in cellophane and dropped into little cardboard boxes instead of wrapped in foil packs. They were also smaller sets than most, featuring 250 or 300 cards total where so many other sets of the day were tipping the scales at 500 to 700 or more. I definitely remember them being more expensive than most cards, but they must not have been prohibitively expensive, because I ended up with several Flair cards in my collection over the following few seasons.

Any resemblance to packs of fancy cigarettes is coincidental, I’m sure.

The very first year, 1993, Fleer produced a Flair set for baseball only. Its design was simple and elegant.

The card fronts all featured a main photo with a second photo superimposed. The player’s name was featured in gold foil at the bottom, the word “Flair” (not even the year) in gold foil at the top, and nothing else but photo all the way to those edges. The back featured yet another full-frame photo, plus some stats and a quick factoid about the player. Like I said, simple and elegant. When I started collecting these, I knew I would want more.

In 1994, Fleer expanded its offerings to basketball and hockey as well as baseball (football wouldn’t come on the scene until 1995). The sets this year seemed to follow the old dictum “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” keeping the design simple, but adding a few more insert cards (hey, it was the ’90s) to each set.

Again you see the superimposed double photo on the front (or on opposing sides of the card for the Infield Power subset), and rather than putting high school or college stats on the back of rookie cards as many sets did, you can see the back of the Alex Rodriguez card just has a photo with a little narrative about the player. That became a popular trend in card design as the ’90s wore on, even for established players.

Between the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons, Fleer designers decided to really go all-in on the flashiness and made the backgrounds of the cards a sort of shimmery holographic foil for 1995 (a change that affected all the Flair sports for that season). You can compare the 1994-95 and 1995-96 Flair Michael Jordan cards below to see what I mean.

The design overall stayed relatively true to the original Flair formula, so the addition of the foil backgrounds somehow managed to not feel like TOO MUCH. It was subtly glitzy, if that makes any sense. They also started to get a bit more creative with the designs of the subsets and inserts.

That Clyde Drexler “Perimeter Power” card is more typical of subset design during this era: It’s a bit busy, a bit gauche. The Penny Hardaway “Style” card fits the Flair aesthetic much better, in my opinion.

Speaking of aesthetic, though, I don’t think I can write about Flair without mentioning an odd little detour on my card collecting journey: Comic book cards. Last week, I was digging through my sports card collection and uncovered a small pile of comic book cards that I had from the mid-’90s. I had remembered that Fleer Ultra made some actually very cool Spider-Man and Marvel cards, but I had forgotten that in 1994, Fleer had also released a Flair Marvel set. I must have only purchased a pack or two of it, but I still have a few of the cards, and they’re worth seeing:

How fun, right? It’s all there: The thick card stock, the subtle foil imprints, the glossy finish. And then there are these original works of comic book art, with some description of the heroes, villains, or groups featured on the back.

In later years, it seems Fleer started playing around with the overall look and feel of the Flair sets, so it’s really only the mid-90s sets that represent the Flair I grew to love. If I can get my hands on a few packs (or a box?) of some of these originals, I’ll be glad to share the experience here.

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