Insert Card Craze: Fleer Ultra Home Run Kings of the 1990s
In the days before serial numbers, relic cards, certified autographs and countless parallels, simple base insert cards ruled the hobby.
The first modern insert cards arrived on the market in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the insert card craze truly swept the hobby, aided in part by rising young superstars Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas.
In the coming weeks, we will be taking a look back at some of the more memorable insert sets from that era and their progression over the years.
Up next, we look at the Ultra Home Run Kings inserts, which first appeared in 1993 and had a five-year run highlighting the top sluggers in the game. The Ultra line first launched in 1991 as Fleer’s premium line meant to compete with Leaf and Upper Deck, but it didn’t find its footing until a few years later when the focal point became a wide array of insert sets.
1993 Ultra Home Run Kings
Hall of Famers: 0
After featuring just one insert set in 1991, and two insert sets each for Series 1 and Series 2 in 1992, Ultra began to expand their insert card selection in 1993 with four unique insert sets along with Dennis Eckersley autograph chase cards.
The Home Run Kings inserts are found in 1:18 Series 1 packs, making them a tougher pull than the Award Winners inserts (1:6) that are also found in Series 1.
The space background gives the cards a memorable design, and while there were no Hall of Famers on the 1993 checklist, superstars Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire did make the cut and are the most valuable cards in the set.
1994 Ultra Home Run Kings
Hall of Famers: 3
By 1994, insert sets had fully taken over the Ultra product line, with 14 different insert sets and an autographed parallel to the Phillies Finest set.
The Home Run Kings cards were once again exclusive to Series 1 packs, and they were a tougher pull this time around at 1:36 packs.
Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas both appear for the first time in the 1994 set, and they are joined by Mike Piazza as the three Hall of Famers in the set. It was a good year for Braves fans, as Fred McGriff, Ron Gant and David Justice were all included on the 12-card checklist.
1995 Ultra Home Run Kings
Hall of Famers: 3
Along with the 13 different insert sets found in Series 1 and Series 2 packs of 1995 Ultra, there was a Gold Medallion parallel for each insert that was 10 times tougher to pull. The Home Run Kings inserts were found in 1:8 Series 1 packs, while the Gold Medallion parallel was a 1:80 packs pull.
For comparison, the Ken Griffey Jr. base insert ($10) has a book value of half as much as the Gold Medallion parallel ($20), and they are the most valuable cards in those two sets.
Frank Thomas is back for the second straight year, and he’s joined by fellow first baseman Jeff Bagwell to round out the Hall of Fame contingent. Along with Bagwell, the only other newcomers on the checklist were Jose Canseco and Andres Galarraga.
1996 Ultra Home Run Kings
Hall of Famers: 2
Things went off the rails a bit in 1996.
The Home Run Kings inserts were the toughest pull among Series 1 inserts at 1:75 packs for the base insert and 1:750 packs for the Gold Medallion parallel. But the cards were not ready in time for the product release.
The design features a textured wood-grain background. Fleer was apparently unhappy with how the foil-stamped lettering looked on the cards when the product was originally printed.
They decided to include the “defective” cards in Series 1 packs as a redemption card that expired on Dec. 1, 1996. The redemption features an identical design with the foil-stamping issue sorted out and a complete back rather than redemption instructions.
That essentially created four different versions of the Home Run Kings inserts that year with a base and Gold Medallion redemption card and the accompanying cards that were received when the redemption was fulfilled. The redeemed cards are much harder to find thanks to the expiration date for redemption, and the Ken Griffey Jr. base ($50) and Gold Medallion ($300) both still have significant book value.
1997 Ultra Home Run Kings
Hall of Famers: 3
The Gold Medallion parallels and new Platinum Medallion parallels were limited to just the base cards for the 1997 Ultra release, which meant there was only one version of the Home Run Kings insert this time around.
As usual, they were found exclusively in Series 1 packs, this time with a 1:36 packs pull rate. Fleer stuck to the 12-card checklist format once again as well.
The acetate design gives the 1997 set an ultra-premium feel, and writing the player bios on the back of the photo silhouette is a clever approach to fitting as much as possible onto the card.
While the Home Run Kings inserts were abandoned for the 1998 Ultra release, the set would resurface again in 2002 Fleer Triple Crown, 2004 Ultra, 2005 Ultra and 2006 Ultra.