Time To Turn Out The Lights At Old Fleer Factory

Posted: January 25, 1996

They'll be locking up the doors and turning out the lights for the last time tomorrow at the old Frank H. Fleer Co. factory in Olney. The closing comes two months after the announcement that the old-line Philadelphia business was relocating its gum division south and contracting out all card-related activities.

I spent the first couple of weeks of December telling people I wasn't moving to Mississippi and Fleer was not going out of business. It looked that way, I must admit, when one local TV station announced ``the Fleer baseball card company was closing its doors forever'' and area newspapers made much about the company leaving the area for good.

The beginning of the end of the factory at 10th and Somerville streets came in February 1992, when the administrative staff moved to Mount Laurel, N.J. That office complex is a scant nine miles from Philadelphia and it's hard to image anyone considering that a move out of the area.

The Mississippi plant where Dubble Bubble, Razzles and all the other Fleer bubble gum lines will be produced has been a Fleer-owned operation for several years. The move of the entire operation to that locale was long anticipated.

It's sad when an old building is buttoned up for the last time, sadder still when people, some close friends, lose their jobs because of the reallocation of work. But in this era of downsizing, it is a fact of life.

I spent only two months of my working career at the old plant. The place was old and tired even then and office space was at a premium. The president's office was just slightly bigger than a phone booth and the CEO's was not much larger. My office was not unlike the one newscaster Les Nesman (of ``WKRP in Cincinnati'') had. I was bounded on one side by a drawing table, on another by a large pillar and on the third by a pile of boxes.

There was an executive parking area near the front entrance of the fenced-in complex. The parking area had a roof. Why? A security guard explained to me the the roof was to protect the vehicles from the rocks youngsters tossed over the fence.

The first time I was allowed into the plant itself, I was given a white lab coat and white hat and told to follow close behind my tour guide. The security was surprising. I wondered if they thought someone would swipe Walter Deimer's formula for bubble gum. The first thing I noticed as I entered the plant were rows and rows of white boxes with the words Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company stamped on the side. My guide told me the rubber in the boxes was the base ingredient of bubble gum. Now I know why my mom told me never to swallow the stuff.

That plant wasn't the original Fleer factory, but became the operations base after a move from 10th and Diamond streets in the World War II era. I'm told the factory was old even then, but a lot of improvements were made and, at one point, according to some old press clippings I discovered recently, it was considered state-of-the-art for the gum business.

Cards were never printed at the plant, but all the cutting and packaging was done there - and a lot of cards walked out the doors in lunch pails, briefcases and other such carriers. When cards were simply a vehicle to sell gum, no one seemed to mind if employees helped themselves occasionally, but as the card value exceeded that of the gum, it became serious business. To compound the problem, Fleer didn't sell directly to hobby dealers and a black market sprung up, with complete sets available in area shops weeks ahead of the release date.

The thefts were done in a number of ways. I'm told entire cases of cards were tossed out with the trash, carried away by a cooperative trash hauler, then divided among several people. One night, a would-be thief tossed a couple of cases out of the factory window, planning to pick them up later. He never did, though. The plant was adjacent to a rail line and a train smashed the cases and almost derailed itself. Seems the robber tossed the cases in the rail bed.

With the advent of high-tech printing and packing methods, the equipment even for packing cards became obsolete. And despite Fleer's reputation among collectors for excellent collation, it seemed as if whenever there was a collation problem, the source was always work done at the plant.

I've been asked many times over the years if we gave guided tours of the plant, and, to my knowledge, Fleer never permitted those. Now that the lights are about to go out for the last time, there will obviously be no tours in the future.

Ted Taylor has been a lifelong collector of baseball cards and sports memorabilia. He has run memorabilia shows in the area and written for various publications. Taylor is vice president of the Hobby Division for Fleer/ SkyBox International.

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