When I think of early Fleer, usually the 1981 and ’82 sets come to mind. They are awash in awfulness, afros, moustaches and the like - and while they weren’t quite bizzaro baseball cards, they did seem to be from an alternate dimension. A dimension of Jheri Curl and caps too tight to hold in said curls. I clearly remember when Gambino’s Deli was out of Topps, I’d settle for a pack of Fleer and still enjoy it. At least I could rip a pack. The wrappers were dollar-store quality and for some reason there was entirely too much sugar powder that came with the gum. After opening a few packs, it looked like you spent the afternoon with Tony Montana and Dwight Gooden. The photos on the cards appear to be taken through the bushes by a questionable looking fellow who had just smeared butter from his popcorn across the lens of his Minolta. They were the baseball card equivalent of 1960s Godzilla movies.
Mind you, Fleer was causing trouble way before 1981. In 1960, Topps had exclusive rights to feature baseball players on their cards. Fleer sleazed their way into the baseball card game but couldn’t use photos of active players. Luckily for Fleer, there were decades worth of retired legends that didn’t have exclusive rights with anyone. Hell, the fact they were still breathing was incredible enough. Fleer said, “Fuck this, Topps can have their Hector Lopez and Granny Hamner cards, we’re coming at these little bastard kids with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth! And Zack Wheat too!”
Zack Wheat was the card that caught my attention here, and for damned good reason…
The set itself is really neat. Each card features a full shot of a player that has been painted by Ms. Daley’s third grade watercolor class. They’re accented in all four corners with tiny construction paper triangles by the same weirdo art class and the identifying name is printed in small, plain text on the bottom. Babe Ruth is swinging away nonchalantly, Ty Cobb is making a throw to no one and Rube Waddell is inexplicably participating in a relaxing game of lawn bowling. All fantastic. Even the posed photos are great: Eddie Collins is smiling at me and Red Ruffing is looking into my soul. Sexy time.
Then there’s Zack Wheat. Zack Wheat is drunk!
The disgusting Fleer image features a super old Zack Wheat, which is in and of itself odd. Babe Ruth is pictured young as is Ty Cobb. Lou Gehrig looks like Alec Baldwin in his photo. They’re all dashing players in their prime, except Wheat. Wheat looks like he licked a live electrical wire and just ain’t right in the head anymore. Al Simmons is pictured as an old man too, but at least he’s jovial. Wheat is caught in the middle of either talking or burping and has no upper teeth to speak of. Even his bottom teeth appear to be somewhat lacking. He’s a knockoff Barney Fife. He’s wrinkled and beaten, and his eyes are not focused anywhere; the most obvious sign that he’s had too much moonshine at Bedford Nest while wearing his crooked hat. Come on Zack, get your shit together for this. His crooked hat is almost Fernando Rodney-level and is also pushed back to where you can’t see the top of the B.
But maybe Wheat wasn’t hammered after all. On his Baseball Reference page, Wheat is pictured as a handsome young man with his Brooklyn Superbas hat tilted back and to the side. This is an interesting development. Wheat was one of the best players in the game during his time, so he was featured on plenty of baseball cards during the Dead Ball Era. Look at that! Mostly all of them feature Wheat’s hat tilted to the side. In 1912, Wheat appears to have rosacea and looks like a schoolchild, but his hat is tilted back and to the side. In 1911, his T205 is a painted portrait of Wheat with his blue Superbas hat kinked back. Even going back to the 1909 T206 rookie, there’s the familiar tilt. I guess that was Ol’ Zack’s thing. Still like Fernando Rodney.
The 1911 Zack Wheat
Zack Wheat is one of those forgotten Hall of Famers. He’s not a headliner by any means, but he’s also not one of those guys that fans scream about his inclusion in Cooperstown. Wheat was inducted in 1959 and has just been eating biscuits in the corner with Ted Lyons and Harry Hooper ever since; missed parts of four seasons and missed reaching 3,000 hits by just 116 knocks. So, what’s the deal with his 1960 Fleer card? It will likely remain a secret lost in the renegade universe of Fleer baseball cards forever more.