The Leaf brand has been part of collecting since the late 1940s and even though it’s stay was a brief one, it became home to a few key early rookie cards such as the iconic 1948-49 Jackie Robinson, among others. After a long, multi-decade hiatus, the brand was marketed as a Canadian version of Donruss baseball cards for much of the 1980s. (Remember the green leafy logo? Then the bright yellow one? Then the bland one?) They weren’t exactly mainstream and are considered more of an oddity and an afterthought that much of the general hobby population quickly dismissed.
Donruss’ release of 1990 Leaf baseball completely changed the narrative. Instead of a reboot of an existing product, the standalone 1990 offering placed Leaf right at the forefront of premium baseball card sets, challenging the landmark 1989 Upper Deck product released just a year earlier.
Sometimes less is more and the set leaned on that narrative. Leaf had a nice card finish, a sturdier card stock and the year’s strongest rookie lineup out of all the products released that season. The card front design is very simple, offering a bright, crisp color photo surrounded by a relatively thick white border which includes the player’s name and position at the bottom. The lower left-hand corner has a few rays of silver accompanied by the team logo. The iconic Leaf logo is found in one of the upper corners in the same classic gray coloring.
As an added touch, the card backs are in full color offering the expected career stats, a small square photo of the player’s face at the top and some biographical information.
The premium set was released in two separate series. The first series includes card numbers one through 264 and series two offers card numbers 265 through 528. The set was available through hobby dealers and in select retail outlets mostly along the west coast and in the Great Lakes Region. There was a definite perceived scarcity and this was a product that collectors had to find. It wasn’t one that found them at every turn.
Each of the two series could be found in 36 pack hobby boxes featuring 15 cards and three puzzle pieces per pack. Even the box artwork and quality as well as the pack wrappers offered a premium feel. For what its worth, Leaf had a pretty cool foil wrapper and upscale box design that also offered a heck of a lot of that silver design found on the cards.
The key rookie and the set is the legendary Frank Thomas offering. The classic image of the Chicago White Sox slugger finishing up one of his powerful swings is an image that’s burned into the brains of countless card collectors around my age.
Back in the day this great rookie card, much like the set, rivaled the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. RC. I was in the middle of some heated trades at Brent Leitzel’s house when I was 12 that hinged on whether the 1989 Upper Deck Griffey and the 1990 Leaf Thomas were part of the mega deal. If those two cards were involved in any transaction, it was instantly a big one back in the day.
You will also find rookie cards of Sammy Sosa (the irony of a man with over 600 career home runs bunting on his rookie card is not lost on us), Colorado Rockies Hall of Famer Larry Walker, a man who was super popular at the time Atlanta Braves slugger (and Halle Berry’s former significant other) Dave Justice as well as Indians All Star second baseman Carlos Baerga and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman and rookie sensation John Olerud. Atlanta Braves young prospect Steve Avery’s rookie card even hit double dollar digits when the Braves were on their early 1990’s Playoff and World Series runs. The aforementioned Sosa rookie card went absolutely bonkers during the great home run race of 1998 as he and Mark McGwire attempted to save baseball with the long ball, as it was bringing over $100 in raw form at its height.
This is such a strong set that even some of the second year players and superstar veterans cards still sell to this day. Look no further than the beautiful Ken Griffey, Jr. cardboard, the classic Roger Clemens image as well as Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Nolan Ryan and a plethora of other icons.
Each pack included a few puzzle pieces that fit with others to make a semi flattering tribute puzzle to all-time Yankees great catcher Yogi Berra in the form of the classic Diamond Kings artwork.
An interesting factoid about this premium offering is the fact that there is no real card number one, as it’s a Leaf introductory card that gives a brief history of Leaf’s footprint in baseball cards and the hobby. The first player card in the set honors go to Detroit Tigers picture Mike Henneman at card number two. Congratulations, Mike.
Another interesting fact is that there are no insert sets in this super premium Leaf offering. There was a 12 card preview set released to try and get the ball rolling and stir up some excitement for the product prior to it release. These cards have the words ‘Special Preview Card’ written across the card backs. The checklist includes Griffey Jr., and still retain collector interest today.
As far as current standards and measurables, a quick glance at the PSA population report shows nearly 20,000 Big Hurt RCs graded with nearly 4,000 PSA 10s. Slammin’ Sammy is even more insane, as over 26,000 copies have been graded by PSA but only 1,800 copies scored a gem mint 10 grade. The Thomas RC has been graded by BGS over 6,000 times with over 1,000 BGS 9.5s and just under 40 Pristine examples with zero Black Labels. The Sosa has been graded more than 9,000 times with 800 Gem Mint copies.
The Leaf Company really outdid themselves with the new and improved 1990 baseball product. Quite simply, 1990 Leaf baseball didn’t look or feel like any set ever produced before it and I mean that in the best possible way. This set is firmly entrenched in the Hall of Fame of 1990’s sports card releases and still has a level of desirability more than three decades after its release.
About Tony Reid
From the time he was a little kid, Tony has been a huge sports fan. If he could play sports, watch sports and talk about sports it was a great day. From as early as he was drawn to sports, Tony was drawn to collecting sports cards. Not much has changed over the years. He collects RCs of star players in baseball, basketball and football. He also has a soft spot for first autographs of MMA stars. If you want to talk to Tony about the greatness of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson or Ken Griffey, Jr. you can reach him at @reidrattlecage on all social media platforms.