1991 Leaf Studio Launched Series That Brought Players Up Close and Personal

The all new 1991 Studio baseball product was issued by Donruss/Leaf just one year after they offered the landmark 1990 Leaf baseball set. The company decided to do what every card maker did in the 1990s– expand the line and produce more sets and more cards. The 264-card base set was the first card set in 40 years to feature all black and white photography from start to finish. It was old school B&W studio session stuff and considering how many posed portraits had to be shot to get it done, the whole thing must have been quite an undertaking.

In an era that was just starting to explode with a variety of different products, there had never quite been anything like 1991 Leaf Studio. 

In the first of a series on what became a staple in the company’s baseball product calendar, we’re looking back at the inaugural set.

The Studio hobby box artwork features a gold Studio logo with a batter at the tail end of his swing, smack dab in the center of the black box with the words ’91 Puzzle & Cards featuring Rod Carew Puzzle’ listed below and the well known Leaf logo in the lower right hand corner. Leaf logoed shrink wrap originally surrounded the box.

There are an astounding 48 packs per box with 10 cards per pack in each hobby box. That’s 480 (?!?) glamorous up close and personal photos of the game’s top players. The pack art itself offers a design in line with the box art, with the same Studio logo, text and information. The product boasted and featured new “fire sealed” foil packaging, an irony not lost on us today.

For all the laughs and jokes they endure in the modern era, it’s hard to deny that Studio did offer some of the most crisp, memorable posed headshots and portraits we’ve ever seen on baseball cards. The black and white images are surrounded by a thin maroon border with a yellow Studio ’91 logo in the upper left or right hand corner. The player’s name and position fall in a very simple text in the lower right hand corner of the card and a very small team logo appears in the lower left hand corner. Its a pretty simple design but sometimes less is more. 

The card front images range from iconic Hall of Fame imagery to Middle School cafeteria food fight and everything in between, which is the real draw to the set. The cards feature pure personality on the front and on the back.  

There’s Dave Winfield holding about five baseballs in his big paw.  John Smoltz flipping a resin bag.  Bobby Witt (I guess we have to call him Bobby Witt Sr. now) cracking up at some unknown moment of levity.

Ken Griffey Jr. appears to have just been arrested for something (his ’92 Leaf card was much more Junior-like).

Mark McGwire looking like he’s about 15 years old and Texas Rangers infielder Jeff Kunkel trying to challenge Kurt Bevacqua’s bubble blowing record.

You can also find many players hugging their bats, doing the thinking man pose, offering their best version of Blue Steel and, like New York Yankees slugger Don Mattingly, looking like he just rolled out of bed or woke up from a nap. 

Among the more memorable cards: St. Louis Cardinals iconic shortstop Ozzie Smith nearly covering his face with his glove, which was such an instrumental part of his longevity and greatness.

Most, though, are sort of along the lines of 1990s high school graduation pictures.

The card backs could be a story unto themselves as they feature very few real, tangible stats but instead offer a number of (at least for me, personally) incredibly interesting sections and tidbits of information. We find a “Personal” section that features information about a player’s place of birth, schooling and family details.

The backs have a “Career” section that offers some info about a player’s debut, transactions, key career accomplishments and moments. The next section found is my personal favorite a “Hobbies and Interests” section where you can find out about a player’s musical tastes, favorite T.V. shows, movies, favorite sports teams and even more obscure stuff. Those sections are followed by a “Heroes” section that gives us insight on the player’s own personal heroes. These priceless card backs have offered more than their fair share of interview questions and outside the box subject matter for me during my Card Back Q&As.

The checklist backs feature images of some of the most legendary managers of the era. It’s really saying something when the checklists are aesthetically pleasing.

There’s not a single insert card in the product, so it’s middle aged lady glamor shots and Sunday morning church pictures from start to finish. Either that or pet parrots named Ruffles, as seen on Philadelphia Phillies Catcher Steve Lake’s card. 

The closest thing to a special insert is the Rod Carew puzzle, which was a staple in the Donruss products of that era. If you got cards, you got a puzzle, or at least a panel of 1/21 of a puzzle.

The set lacked any inserts or parallels but there was an 18 card Studio preview set of 1991 Donruss Baseball. Four preview cards were inserted into each 1991 Donruss factory set. It featured 17 actual player cards and one header/title card. The previews depicted what the set would look like but some images were changed in the actual 1991 Studio product. 

The rookie crop is rather light with only Houston Astros Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell being a name most kids would recognize today. 

Working in the photography and print industry in a prior life, I truly appreciate the pictures found on the cards. Even going back years later, I find many memorable images from childhood but I also discover new shots that I didn’t appreciate the first time around. 

As a side note, with signed and slabbed cards being a popular option in the current card market, the Studio cards offer some nice opportunities for autographs.  With the wide open, nearly full frontal photo, the crisp black and white imagery, that really sets the stage for a nice signature to adorn the card.

If you’ve got some of these at home and are wondering what it’s worth the answer is…not much.  eBay sellers are begging for buyers at $5-10 per complete set.  A sealed hobby box can still be had for around $15-$20 plus shipping or you can snag packs or boxes at your LCS for a few bucks. I’m sure they would be happy to sell them to you. These aren’t going to skyrocket in value anytime soon, but it’s a cheap way to enjoy a long walk down memory lane.   

Although they were produced smack dab right in the middle of the junk era, the 1991 Leaf Studio set was something that hadn’t really been done before, offering some very non-baseball card-like imagery and offering a glimpse into the players’ personal lives, much like the cartoons on the backs of some vintage cards in the 1960s and 70s.  It was all about finding a niche with a unique product back then and Leaf was just getting started with Studio.  We’ll profile their other sets in the days to come.   

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.

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