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Gilbert Mustin, Dubble Bubble Bubble Gum, and Fleer Baseball Cards

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Needless to say, the summer is the best time of the year. There’s no better feeling than completely forgetting about the rigors of college for three months and getting to enjoy doing whatever you want. While summer is great, it means different things to different people. Some people choose to spend their summers traveling the world, fishing, working, reading books, or watching Netflix in the comfort of their home. For me, after I finished up my internship at the Department of Recreation and Parks in the City of Los Angeles, I picked up a hobby I once spent all summer doing when I was a kid – collecting baseball cards.

As far as I know, I’m the only person at Swat that seriously partakes in the hobby (reach out to me sometime if you do too). As such, it never dawned on me that Swat could have any connection to the baseball card world. Apparently, I must have had too much free time over the summer, as any busy person would not have had time to Google this. I searched “Swarthmore baseball cards”, thinking that the athletics website would be the first listing. I found something unexpected. It turns out Swarthmore’s ties to the baseball card industry were closer than I could have imagined.

Frank Fleer founded the Fleer Corporation in Philadelphia in 1885 with the intention of manufacturing bubble gum. Fleer himself struggled to create a successful product. Blibber-Blubber was his first attempt, but the product never hit the shelves. Fleer died in 1921 and never got to see his company come to fruition. The next year, Gilbert Mustin, husband of Fleer’s daughter Alice Fleer, took over as head of the company. In the late 1920s, Mustin’s accountant Walter Diemer began experimenting with different formulas himself.

Diemer was an accountant, not a chemist. Thus, it is reported that he spent countless hours testing random formulas before finding success. He referred to his finding as an “accident.” The gum was named Dubble Bubble, the first ever bubble gum with a name that still stands today.  The only coloring available in the building at the time was pink, thus Diemer was forced to add a pink food coloring to his formula, which is why bubble gum is still pink today. Unlike Fleer, Diemer was able to successfully create a bubble gum that was blow-able, tasty, and easy to chew.

Although the corporation had already produced a set of trading cards in 1923, they began packaging the cards with sticks of Dubble Bubble bubble gum in 1938. Gilbert Mustin died in 1948. However, his sons, Frank and Gil Barclay Mustin Jr., were named treasurer and secretary. By 1959, Mustin Jr. had risen to the top of the company.

Frank and Gil Mustin Jr. have strong ties to Swarthmore College, with a classroom and professor positions named after them. Gil Mustin Jr. graduated from Swarthmore in 1942 and later came back to teach in the Engineering department. After college, he worked for DeLevall Corporation, a company building turbo superchargers for the Navy. Frank Mustin graduated from Swarthmore in 1944. Together, they are one of eighteen endowed chairs at Swarthmore, meaning that the Gil and Frank Mustin Professorships have been permanently endowed for positions across all departments.  

By the time Mustin Jr. inherited the company, the Fleer Corporation was competing with Topps in providing collectors with trading cards and chewing gum. Topps was signing players to exclusive contracts, preventing other companies such as Fleer from printing trading cards of those players. Fleer stole the idea and signed Hall of Famer Ted Williams, among others, to an exclusive contract.

The Federal Trade Commission felt that Topps had unfair control over the market and took it to court. It was ruled that Topps’ contracts, which allowed them to produce cards with players, were only valid when the trading cards were specifically sold in packs of gum. Thus, Fleer could produce trading cards of current baseball players but only with other items that weren’t gum. Instead of trying to sell their cards without gum, Fleer chose to sell their contracts to Topps in 1966. After years of legal fights, Fleer finally received authorization to print and sell baseball cards with gum for the 1981 season.

However, this was quickly reversed. By then, people weren’t buying the gum, they were buying the cards.  Topps and Fleer settled in 1982.

The 1980s could not have been a better time for Topps and Fleer to settle. The baseball card industry hit a huge boom in the 1980s as kids and adults alike couldn’t wait to collect their favorite teams and players. Under the guidance of Swarthmore grad Gil Mustin Jr., Fleer Trading Cards became one of the most successful trading cards businesses in the ’80s.

Unfortunately, trading card companies such as Fleer and Topps met high demand with equally high supply. With absurd demand for baseball cards in the ’80s, these companies produced millions of copies of each individual card. The exact print runs are unknown even to this day. What was once thought of as a better investment than stocks became virtually worthless. When the bubble popped, baseball cards from the late ’80s became absolutely worthless and are still worthless today. The late ’80s is known to card collectors as the Junk Wax Era.  

In the middle of the Junk Wax Era, Mustin Jr. sold his grandfather’s company in 1989 for around $70 million. Fleer Trading Cards was absorbed by Upper Deck Trading Cards in 2005. Its final set of cards was printed in 2007.

I began collecting baseball cards in 2007. Funnily enough, my first ever pack was a value pack of 2007 Fleer cards from Target. As a 10-year-old, little did I know that one day I would attend the same school as the man who put together that pack of cards.

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