Fleer/SkyBox International

Fleer/SkyBox International

In 1849, a German Quaker named Otto P. Holstein built a flavoring extract factory on South Water Street in Philadelphia. In 1885, his daughter Josephine married Franz Heinrich Fleer and the Frank H. Fleer & Co. Inc. was established as a confectionary company. In 1895, Frank and his younger brother Robert patented the formula for a candy-coated gum called Chiclets. The crunchy peppermint combination was a nationwide success and Fleer expanded operations in Philadelphia. On the morning of April 25, 1899, a benzol explosion destroyed the Fleer laboratory on Callowhill Street, killing the engineer and assistant superintendent.

Fleer Explosion - Philadelphia - April 25, 1899

In 1906, Fleer marketed the first commercial bubble gum called Blibber-Blubber, but the sticky and brittle concoction was shelved. In 1909, the Chiclets brand was sold to Sen-Sen Company, later known as the American Chicle Company. Frank left the board in 1914 to form the Frank H. Fleer Corporation. Frank Fleer died of stroke on October 31, 1921, and his son-law Gilbert Mustin took over the company.

Frank H. Fleer Co. - Oven Room - December 1918 Frank H. Fleer Co. - Pan Room - December 1918

In 1928, Fleer accountant Walter E. Diemer refined the bubble gum formula with latex and pink food coloring in a taffy machine. Pink was the only abundant color available and Diemer did not patent the recipe. According to Diemer, ''I was doing something else and ended up with something with bubbles.'' Market testing for the pink bubble gum began on December 26, 1928. Dubble Bubble debuted in 1930 and sales for the one-cent chew exceeded $1.5 million in the first year.
Dubble Bubble - Frank H. Fleer Co., 1930
Fleer first packaged trading cards with chewing gum in 1923 with a series 60 baseball players and 60 celebrities. One card was inserted into five-cent packs of peppermint "Bobs" and "Fruit Hearts". Cops and Robbers Gum and other non-sport sets were released after 1934. During World War II, latex supplies were diverted to the defense effort, sugar was being rationed to households, and paper scrap drives were held to salvage pulp. Confectionary ingredients, paper, and ink supplies were irregular until 1948.

Bobs - Frank H. Fleer Co., 1915

Bazooka was introduced by Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. in 1947. An aggressive completion arose over the image rights for professional athletes. In 1952, Topps released a revolutionary baseball series that included the Mickey Mantle rookie card. In 1956, Topps acquired rival gum and card producer Bowman for $200,000.

In 1959, Fleer released an 80-card series for Ted Williams in an exclusive deal that removed the slugger from Topps sets. Fleer followed with an Indian series and a 96-card licensing agreement with The Three Stooges. In 1960, Fleer released cards for the American Football League and a throwback Baseball Greats series. At the time, Topps held exclusive rights to the National Football League and about 400 Major League Baseball players. In order to compete, Fleer offered athletes $125 or 5% of the profits for a non-exclusive license.

1959 Fleer - The 3 Stooges 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats

The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) was created in 1966 and Topps contracted nearly every active player in the union. In April of 1975, Fleer asked Topps to license a series of baseball stickers. Topps refused and Fleer brought antitrust charges to court. On June 30, 1980, U.S. District Judge Clarence Newcomer ruled that Topps unfairly restrained trade in the baseball card market. Fleer was awarded $1 million in damages, which was tripled to $3 million under antitrust laws.

The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the decision in August 1981. The Topps contracts contained exclusive rights to baseball cards sold with gum or candy, so Fleer simply packaged cards with team logo stickers. Donruss released a 1981 set that included a cardboard puzzle of Babe Ruth. Topps filed unsuccessful lawsuits against Fleer in 1982 and 1986 before capitulating. The end of the two-decade baseball monopoly allowed companies such as Score and Upper Deck to enter the market. Topps stopped including gum with baseball cards after the 1991 series.

1986 Fleer - 57 - Michael Jordan

Initially a sales flop, the 1986-87 NBA Basketball series from Fleer is now sought after for containing the Michael Jordan rookie card and other hall of fame inductees. In 1989, Fleer was sold to Charterhouse Equity Partners for $75 million. The Charterhouse deal was led by former Donruss executive Paul Mullan.
Impel Marketing Inc
Impel Marketing Inc. was formed on June 21, 1990, as a subsidiary of Brooke Group Ltd. In October 1990, Impel released the first Marvel Universe trading cards, a popular series of comic book characters featuring hologram chase inserts. A similar set was released for DC Comics in February 1992 with the Inaugural Edition of DC Cosmic Cards. Impel issued various non-sport sets including A Nightmare on Elm StreetG.I. Joe, Star Trek, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The first sports release was from Impel was the 1990-91 Inaugural Edition of SkyBox NBA Basketball Cards.

1990-91 SkyBox NBA Basketball Cards

Impel CEO Frank O'Connell was the former president of Reebok and CEO of HBO Video. In an interview with Wizard, O'Connell stated that the name Impel was not relevant to sports or entertainment. Testing favored "skybox" as a recognizable term for the best seats in the house. On April 15, 1992, Impel Marketing rebranded as SkyBox International Inc. Basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson was signed as the first celebrity spokesperson for the company.

SkyBox International Inc

On July 24, 1992, Marvel Entertainment Group purchased Fleer from Charterhouse for $265 million. In 1994, Fleer sold $38 million in gum and $245 million of trading cards. Combined sales from all retail trading card companies in 1994 was more than $2 billion. Marvel also acquired the Figurine Panini company in order to expand European operations. On March 9, 1995, Marvel purchased SkyBox for $150 million. The deal was finalized on May 1 and the companies were merged to form Fleer/SkyBox International. Fleer/SkyBox held major licenses with the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, and NASCAR.

Fleer/SkyBox International Inc

The Dubble Bubble factory in Olney, North Philadelphia, was closed on January 26, 1996. The factory was also used to cut and collate Fleer cards. Ted Taylor, Vice President of the Hobby Division, reported that cards commonly "walked out the doors" with employees. Entire cases had been stolen from the plant. Although Fleer did not distribute to hobby dealers, complete sets from the Olney factory would appear in local shops before the official release dates. In 1998, the Dubble Bubble brand was purchased by Concord Confections in Canada. Concord was acquired by Tootsie Roll Industries in 2003 and the original Dubble Bubble recipe was changed.

By 1999, the trading card and comic book industry had crashed. Marvel sold Fleer/Skybox for $26 million to a partnership formed by Alex Grass, founder of Rite Aid, and his son Roger Grass. The SkyBox branding stopped after 2000. Upper Deck made an offer of $25 million in 2003, but the Grass family declined. The last set released by Fleer/Skybox in 2005 was for American Idol Season 4, notable for featuring Carrie Underwood. On July 15, 2005, the Fleer/Skybox brand was purchased at auction by Upper Deck for only $6.1 million. 

Fleer/SkyBox held a bankruptcy auction on September 9, 2005, at the Radisson Hotel in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. Millions of cards and other memorabilia from the Fleer and SkyBox archives were sold to the public. The massive sale included autographs, errors, test proofs, uncut sheets, and unstamped parallels. A PDF catalog of items listed for auction by the Continental Auction Group, Inc. can be viewed here.

1994 SkyBox DC Master Series - DS3 - Superman & Doomsday Test Proof1994 SkyBox DC Master Series - DS3 - Superman & Doomsday Test Proof
Since the auction, multiple examples of aftermarket serial number alterations and counterfeits of rare sports cards have been identified. Collectors are advised to conduct proper research on products produced by Fleer and SkyBox from 1986 to 2005. Hobby experts at the Blowout Cards Forums have experience detecting alterations and forgeries. 

The last baseball series featuring the Fleer branding was issued in 2007. The 2013-14 Fleer Retro basketball series revived the SkyBox name. Fleer and SkyBox cards for modern NBA, NHL, and Marvel sets have been produced by the Upper Deck Company since July 2005. 

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