Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Turning over a new Leaf

An epiphany is a special thing.

I know I've had quite a few when it comes to the wonderful world of baseball cards. I remember my sudden realization of "bat barreled" awesomeness like it was yesterday.

A while ago, I found myself reveling in yet another rare cardboard epiphany. Trouble is, I hadn't gotten around to writing about it until now.

By and large, I've noticed that the Leaf brand doesn't get a whole lot of recognition in this hobby. For a long time, I thought that was probably for the better. I never thought it was a brand that deserved to be recognized all that much.

But, in recent months, I've shifted my feelings on that topic.

In my mind, Leaf is most certainly a brand that warrants our appreciation. While it may not have ever been at the top of the collecting universe, the folks at Leaf managed to continuously fly under most collectors' radar.

While the brand's beginnings can be traced to a little-known 1948-49 checklist, the oldest Leaf card in my collection is the above Felipe Alou, one that hails from their largely inauspicious 1960 release.

While I'm glad to have picked it up a card show last year (along with a Hoyt Wilhelm that another blogger graciously sent me), it's not a particularly standout piece in my vintage collection.

Still, like most brands, it took a while for Leaf to hit their stride.

For a long time, the brand merely served as a Canadian "stunt double" of sorts to their Donruss compatriots.

From 1985 to '88, Leaf's checklists consisted of basically the exact same cards as each year's Donruss release. All that separated the two was the special Leaf logo on the fronts and a bit of French text on the backs.

The few Donruss/Leaf combos I own certainly look nice in binders, but it wasn't a particularly Earth-shattering time for the Leaf brand.

Thankfully, Leaf finally had a checklist all to themselves in 1990.

For the first time since the '60s, the brand wasn't merely an offshoot of whatever Donruss was up to that year. And, compared to the awfulness that is 1990 Donruss, Leaf absolutely kicked the tar out of their counterparts with their first real checklist.

From what I know, '90 Leaf was one of the first sets to be classified as "high-end". Although they don't look like anything special these days, I'm sure they were quite the rage back then.

Interestingly, I had to do quite a bit of digging through my binders to find an example of a 1990 Leaf card. This Orosco is one of probably only four or five I own at the moment.

Nevertheless, the nice clean borders and good photography are certainly easy on the eyes.

Still, Leaf was just getting started.

After a couple of fairly subpar releases in '91 and '92, Leaf unleashed what would become their most memorable release onto the market in 1993.

This Candy Maldonado is a personal favorite of mine for a few reasons.

For one thing, it's currently the only card of his in my collection that features him as a Chicago Cub.

But, getting back to the point of this post, I enjoy this piece because of the affinity I've always had for '93 Leaf.

The little "Leaf ribbon" on each card is a nice touch. Plus, color-coordination, as we have with the bottom-right corners of '93 Leaf, is always a huge plus for me.

Still, the things that make this set so particularly legendary...

...are the backs.

Each individual card back features a skyline shot of the particular team's hometown. In this case, it's the skyscraper-lined city of Chicago, one that I know all too well. I can't help but think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off every time I see it.

Most collectors I've talked to seem to enjoy the skyline feature, and for good reason.

To me, it remains one of the more innovative card designs ever unleashed upon the cardboard universe.

Leaf gave us another stellar set the following year in '94.

By this time, Leaf had established itself as an entirely separate entity from Donruss. And, in most years since their initial "break" in 1990, they'd outperformed Donruss with their checklists.

That trend continued in 1994.

That year, Leaf used another nice design and more clean photography, factors that contributed to yet another terrific set in '94.

Trouble is, I hardly see it get any love around most collecting circles.

Oddly, I've never been that big on Leaf's 1995 release.

Other collectors seem to like it a bit more than I do.

Nevertheless, I can certainly see the charm that many others see in it. While intrusive, the neat foil-based team name on the left sides was yet another daring concept that Leaf presented to the hobby.

And, although the design isn't one of my favorites, the handful of '95 Leaf issues in my binders all feature splendid photography.

As you probably know, I'll forever be a sucker for Wrigley shots on cardboard.

After a couple more decent releases in '96 and '97, Leaf transitioned into (what was then) their swan song in 1998.

Much like their past efforts, I almost never see these get any recognition. Yet, aside from the distracting Leaf banner near the bottom, it's a perfectly nice set.

I rather like the whole "picture frame" theme that they pulled off in '98. It gives each individual card a rather fancy feel.

After that, though, Donruss mysteriously left the baseball card market. Which, unfortunately, also meant that Leaf was on the outs as well.

That is...

...until 2002 came around.

Donruss reentered the cardboard market early in the decade, bringing the Leaf brand back with it.

Still, I can't help but think that they would've been better off letting the glorious mid-'90s Leaf releases serve as the final chapters in the brand's history.

Had that indeed happened, Leaf certainly would've gone out with a bang. Instead, however, the brand trudged on for another four uninspiring years.

Now, I don't have any huge problems with their latter releases, mind you. More fairly clean designs, and more nice photography. The cornerstones of past Leaf greatness was still intact.

Still, from 2002 to 2005, every single set...



...the same.

With the possible exception of 2005, I often get confused in distinguishing the last years of Leaf cards apart from one another.

While unlicensed Leaf sets still pop up from time to time today, '05 was the last we'd see of the real thing.

Neat Carlos Lee throwback aside, it's a shame that they had to go out in such an otherwise unspectacular way.

Unfortunately, I think this is the Leaf that a lot of collectors tend to remember. The boring, uninspiring 2000's Leaf.

Trouble is, that wasn't the real Leaf. At least not in my mind, anyways.

Their run in the mid-1990's was better than some of the premier brands of the day. Donruss, Score, maybe Upper Deck. And, dare I say, perhaps even Topps.

I'm not saying Leaf should be considered the greatest brand ever or anything. Let's be realistic here.

Still, while Leaf produced a number of nice sets, they're pretty much forgotten in the present day. All I'm saying is that maybe we should start giving the brand a little credit.

Leaf deserves our respect.


Michael Chase said...

I love Leaf, especially 93!!!!

Backstop Cards said...

93 Leaf = The Best Leaf ever.

Even though I'm not a fan of the '91 set, one of my favorite Gwynn cards is a '91 Leaf "Preview" card. Not a WHOLE lot special about it, but I just really like it, for whatever reason.

hiflew said...

That 1990 Leaf set was both amazing during the time and a harbinger of things to come. The one memorable thing about that set was the way the Frank Thomas rookie shot up in value immediately. It was going for around $500 at its peak, which is really crazy considering how much of this product was made. And yet the value of it stayed high for quite a while. A fun set and a cautionary tale all in one.

TTG said...

'94 Leaf is one of my favorite sets ever. I might try to build it next.

Fuji said...

The past few years, I've slowly started picking up all of the Donruss "stunt doubles"... especially the key rookies like Puckett and Maddux.