Twenty years ago, Kevin Maas was topping want lists, card shops seemed to be springing up on every corner and a premium debut from Upper Deck had just revolutionized the industry.
Donruss was the first major card company to counter Upper Deck, opting to reintroduce its Leaf brand as a high quality, glossy product in 1990. Their formula proved to be a hit. With its regal design and limited print run, the 1990 Leaf Baseball set was one of the most anticipated releases of the past two decades.
“I remember the first show I set up at that I had 1990 Leaf. Everybody sold out of it very quickly,” recalled Jim Kramer, owner of Southpaw Cards in Roseville, Minnesota.
George Kruk, owner of Kruk Sports Cards in Rochester Hills, Mich., also remembers the clamor for this product.
“The ’90 Leaf set was really well received. It was hot from the beginning,” he said.
Showcasing color photos on the fronts and backs, the simple, classy design of these cards appealed to collectors.
“I like the style of the card. I think it’s very elegant with the silver backs and the color picture on the back of each player,” said Allan King, who owns the entire set in PSA 10 grade.
Dick Weigle, who is one card short (#115 Eric Show) of completing two PSA 10 sets, agrees.
“The cards had glossy fronts and the pictures were really good. The whole design of the cards was a quantum leap forward for baseball cards,” he said.
Distributed in two, 264-card series, the set focused on stars and veterans in the first series, while the second series, released approximately six weeks later, was dominated by rookies. These cards were available exclusively in 15-card foil packs.
“Everything came together with the ’90 Leaf set: great players everywhere, interest in the hobby, great quality control, great composition and color (and) high quality stock. I believe it’s the best set of the era,” said Steve Fought, who owns two sets on the PSA Set Registry.
Many collectors shared Fought’s feelings upon this set’s release.
“I remember people wanted Greg Maddux’s and Randy Johnson’s ’90 Leaf cards over their rookie cards for awhile,” said Kramer.
Though it no longer rivals Ken Griffey’s 1989 Upper Deck single in value, the Frank Thomas rookie (#300) continues to be the most coveted 1990 Leaf card. PSA 10s were selling for between $36 and $51 on eBay in February.
Steroid allegations have had a dramatic impact on the value of Sammy Sosa’s rookie (#220). Mint examples were trading at around $100 10 years ago, but now PSA 10 copies can be purchased for under $40.
Other prominent rookies in this set include Marquis Grissom (#107), John Olerud (#237), Dave Justice (#297) and Larry Walker (#325). The two Nolan Ryan cards (#21 and #265) and the second-year Griffey Jr. single (#245) also continue to command interest.
Another single that fetches a premium is the set’s first card. This single showcases “The Leaf Set” on the front and a history of the Leaf brand on the back. Because it doesn’t have a number on it, many hobbyists threw it out, thinking it was a promotional card. Its gray borders are also susceptible to chipping, especially when pressed against the front of the box in sets.
The set’s value is about a third of what it was 10 years ago. Unfortunately, the set is a victim of a trend it helped pioneer. So many premium quality sets exist today that the wow factor of the 1990 Leaf set has been diminished.
That said, there’s still considerable interest in this set. Thirty sets have been registered on the PSA Set Registry, including sets built by passionate collectors like King and Weigle, who have tracked down all 528 cards in PSA 10 grade. The set has also inspired several insert cards that have been included in other Donruss/Leaf products in more recent years.
“The 1990 Leaf set was a just a higher quality product for the time. It led the market towards higher quality cards, with thicker stock versus the same typical, mundane products that Topps used to release,” explained Kruk.
Mike Payne, product brand manager at Panini America, Inc. (formerly Donruss), agrees.
“It’s certainly one of the most important baseball releases the company has ever produced, and that’s saying a lot, since under the Donruss/Playoff name, the company produced several high-end and significant baseball releases. Calling 1990 Leaf Baseball one of the key releases in the storied history of Donruss is certainly accurate,” he said.
And Weigle believes the prices for 1990 Leaf cards will rebound.
“I believe that the quality of the set will ultimately win the day,” he said. “I think it’s going to be more popular in the future.”