COMPLETED SET – 1994 Fleer Ultra

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted. The holidays, a 4 year old, and work has kept me pretty busy over the past few months.

I attended a local card show last weekend and was able to pick up the last remaining cards of the 1994 Fleer Ultra set. I had actually decided to complete this set on a whim. A few years ago I picked a $5 retail box of cards from my local Walgreens. Inside the retail boxes is one pack and 100 loose singles. All of which are complete junk.

I love them though.

In this one particular box was Tom Glavine’s 1994 card. I loved the high quality card stock, the near full-bleed horizontal photo and the gold inlay fonts. Because of this card, I decided to knock out the whole set. Comprised of 2 series with 300 cards each, the Fleer Ultra brand had come a long way from it’s drab 1991 debut. I’ve checked online to see if there might be any interesting information regarding this set and came up empty. 1994 Fleer Ultra seems to be one of those sets that no one cares about. Not even the sports card database Cardboard Connection makes a mention of the set. That’s a shame.

1994 should have been one of the greatest baseball seasons of all time. Sadly, the collective greed of the owners and players resulted in a work stoppage that brought the dream season to an abrupt halt on August 11. Attendance was booming as fans packed brand new stadiums to see stars such as Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Barry Bonds. With the season canceled, it would be the first time since 1904 that players and fans would not be witness a World Series.

San Francisco Slugger Matt Williams was on pace to hit nearly 61 home runs. The Montreal Expos played most of the season with best record in baseball. Despite finishing with 74 wins/40 losses and a 6 game lead in the National League East, it would be the last year for baseball in Montreal. Tony Gwynn was on his way to baseball immortality, finishing just shy of .400. He ended his season with a .394 batting average, the highest of any player since Ted Williams in 1941. The strike would also bring to a close the careers of Bo Jackson and Goose Gossage. Neither of which even made any formal announcement. They simply went home.

The abbreviated 1994 season would see Dodger phenom Raul Mondesi and surprise Kansas City standout Bob “Hammer” Hamelin take home Rookie of the Year awards. Mondesi would finish 1994 with a .306 average, 133 hits, 16 home runs and 56 RBIs. Today, Mondesi is enjoying an eight year “stay-cation” in the Domican Republic prison system after being convicted of corruption and mishandling of public funds while serving as mayor of his hometown of San Cristobal. Hamelin would hit .282 with 24 home runs, 65 RBIs and a .987 OPS in 101 games. A mere five years later, while playing for the Toledo Mud Hens in 1999, Hamelin would find himself getting jammed on an inside fastball. After running out a weak infield grounder, Hamelin would walk back to the dugout, grab his glove and tell the manager he was quitting. “For tonight?” the manager said.

“No. For good.” Hamelin replied as he headed for the locker room to collect his things.

The 1994 Cy Young Award would go to Royal pitcher and five-time all star David Cone and Atlanta hurler and future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

Here are few of my favorite cards from the set. We have Manny Ramirez in his second year with the Indians. He would become a major league regular in 1994 and finish second in Rookie of the Year voting. We also see one of Bo Jackon’s last baseball cards. Finishing 1994 with 141 career home runs, the two sport superstar would quietly walk away from professional sports as the season came to an end. Once the most sought after prospects in baseball, the Atlanta Braves decided that they were going to pick Todd Van Poppel as their first round draft pick in 1990. After hearing that Van Poppel explicitly said he would not sign with Atlanta, they opted for future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones instead. Van Poppel’s career record was 40-52 and he never won more than seven games in a season. We also see a pretty cool shot of Padre second baseman Bip Roberts turning two. In 1994, Roberts recorded an MLB best 24-game hitting streak for the Padres. The strike-shortened season compromised his season as he was hitting .320 with over 20 steals yet again. He was also second in the NL in singles, and broke up Pedro Martínez’s extra inning perfect game in the 10th inning with a double.

Here are four more favorites from the set. Jim Abbott has always been one of my favorites. He was of course, able to overcome the adversity of only having one hand and become a phenomenal major league pitcher. I always appreciate cards that showcase his uniqueness. He would put his glove over his handless arm during windup and delivery and immediately upon releasing the ball would quickly slide it onto his pitching hand. He pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. We also see a nice horizontal shot of Indians first baseman Paul Konerko with a cameo of base-thief Rickey Henderson. If I were a betting man, I would bet that Henderson was safe. Fleer also chose a great shot of Giants shortstop Royce Clayton diving back to first. After retiring from baseball, Clayton would go on to play small roles in films “Moneyball” and “The Rookie”. We also have a great shot of Ranger first baseman Will Clark attempting to chase down a fly ball on a sunny day.

Fleer Ultra did a great job with the cards of Dennis Eckersley and Rickey Henderson. I always love to see the A’s white and green uniforms shining bright in the California sun. If you notice, it looks like Fleer had original intentions of making the Eckersley card a horizontal photo. They positioned the “Ultra” logo sideways despite the upright photo.

Houston’s Jeff Bagwell and Chicago’s Frank Thomas would both take MVP honors for 1994. As 1994 was Bagwell’s best year, no player was hurt more by the 1994 Major League Baseball strike than Bagwell. In just 110 games, he would hit .368 with 39 home runs and 116 RBI’s. Had the strike not shortened his season, he would likely have hit 57 or more home runs. The strike also cost slugger Frank Thomas a shot at topping Mickey Mantle on the career home run list. He finished his career in a three way tie at 18th with 521. Had the 1994 season allowed him to continue his home run pace, he would have finished with at least 20 more which would have pushed him up to 16th on the all time home run list.

Despite being one game behind the Chicago White Sox when the strike hit, the Cleveland Indians were having their best season since winning the pennant 40 years earlier. In addition to the performance of the team’s three future Hall of Famers, Jim Thome, Jack Morris, and Eddie Murray, Albert Belle was also having a standout season. Belle was hitting .357 and was only two points behind Paul O’Neill in the chase for the AL batting crown. He was leading the league in total bases, tied for the lead in extra-base hits, and among the top three in OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, doubles, home runs, and RBI.

Wade Boggs is featured here crouched in position, ready to scoop up anything hit his way. The Yankees were finally playing great baseball in 1994 and were well on their way to the World Series if the winning continued. Boggs and Mattingly served as the elder statesmen of the young team and despite back injuries sapping Mattingly’s power, Boggs provided support with 11 home runs, the second highest total of his career to date.

Barry Larkin had a solid 1994 season and would win another Gold Glove. Here we see him turning two with a cameo from Barry Bonds.

The Dodgers were a disappointing 58-56 at the close of the 1994 season, but would be the only team in the four-team NL West with a winning mark. Fleer chose this photo of a play at the plate during a day game at Wrigley Field. We can’t say for sure if the runner was out or safe. The Cub’s player looks to be outfielder Derrick May. He wore Nike high top cleats around that time. 1994 would be Mike Piazza’s sophomore season and he would hit 24 home runs and knock in 92 RBI’s.

The set also features four future Hall of Famers from the Baltimore Orioles. With 63 wins, the Orioles would finish the 1994 season second in the AL east due to a last minute collapse resulting in the O’s losing 7 of their last 9 games.

The Orioles most recent Hall of Fame inductee is Mike Mussina. He pitched in 18 big-league seasons for the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, winning a total of 270 games. He was also first American League pitcher to win 10 or more games in 17 consecutive seasons. He would retire in 2008 as a New York Yankee. After winning his last start of the 2008 season, he would retire making him the oldest player to win 20 games in a season for the first time in his career.

I’ll close out this blog post with this special insert of Greg Maddux. In 1994, Maddux posted an ERA of 1.56, the second lowest since Bob Gibson’s historic 1.12 in 1968. Along with a .222 batting average, Maddux also led the National League in wins (with 16) and innings pitched (202) in his third Cy Young-winning year. Maddux also finished 5th in National League Most Valuable Player voting in 1994.