I absolutely love baseball card photography. I can completely and without realizing, gloss over autographs, memorabilia relics, even Refractors and get lost in photographs. One of my pet peeves when it comes to baseball card photography is when manufacturers repeat the same photograph for different releases and/or years. Although it happens often, it usually only occurs once in a blue moon due to the massive amount of different players. For example, I have well over 1,000 different Jose Canseco cards but only two instances where a company used the exact same photo (Fleer) prior to the year 2000.
Who knew in 1996, years after the investor card craze of the early-90s, Panini was even still around? Not only were they still doing putting out nice-looking stickers, they put together a pretty nifty set and card of Jose Canseco (below), likely about to check his swing while playing part-time for the Boston Red Sox that year. The sticker cards were mostly available in Europe and Latin American countries but eventually made their way to the states thanks to distribution by Fleer Trading Cards.
Speaking of Fleer, they somehow came up with the wacky idea of incorporating comic book-like elements into their baseball cards. Despite being fairly thin and easily damaged due to the all-foil fronts, the new Metal Universe brand was extremely fun to bust and had some pretty great inserts at the time. By 1997, they were producing some of the biggest and most valuable “90s style” inserts ever seen. Just look at this Michael Jordan parallel which sold for an astonishing $10,000+ dollars.
So let’s see just who came out on top. Panini Stickers or Metal Universe?
Price: In the price department, you can’t beat Panini’s stickers. They usually came with 6-8 per pack and almost always for under a dollar. However, they weren’t baseball cards … they were extremely thin stickers. Metal Universe were real cards with serious flash and some nice design work put into it. The card backs also looked great, which was a nice bonus and easily puts Metal Universe on top. Winner: Metal
Design: This one all depends on your preference. The Panini stickers are small but put it in a sleeve and Top Loader and they look pretty damn nice. The Metal Universe cards look good and the colors pop but much like Topps Finest’s first effort in 1993, still needed some work. Now, once you add the inserts Metal Universe put out that year, it becomes clear which was the better brand, design-wise. Winner: Metal
Impact: This one is also somewhat tricky. As I wrote earlier, Metal Universe kicked major ass with their sophomore effort in 1997 and their inserts and parallels remain incredibly hot items on the secondary market almost 20 years after its release, However, it’s now a dead brand, at least in baseball. Sure, Upper Deck owns the Fleer name but that’s like being married to a 95 year-old with a bad ticker and stage 4 Cancer. It’s only a matter of time.
Panini on the other hand all but disappeared after this release before making their comeback a few years ago. While they now own the Donruss name, they still have a long way to go seeing as their non-licensed cards have turned off many collectors. That being said, Panini’s future is much, much brighter than Fleer’s so … Winner: Panini
Overall: So there you have it. David vs. Goliath? Not quite. In 1996, Panini Stickers could never compete against a still innovative Fleer, owned by Marvel Comics. While inserts and parallels produced by Metal Universe will live on forever thanks to player collectors and eBay, Fleer as a baseball brand is long-deceased. On the other hand, Panini America has come back from the dead, resurrected an historic brand among collectors (Donruss) and pumped some life into it.
To put it into perspective, in 2015 we will see a Panini-produced baseball release.
Fleer on the other hand will remain dormant, at least until someone rescues it from Upper Deck’s cold, dead hands.