Why are baseball cards made? I know I keep asking that question, but it’s important. I’ve been batting around different ideas, but the most realistic answer I’ve come up with is “Because it’s big business.” Name me another product that is tied to childhood, nostalgia and bonding with family and friends more than Topps Baseball Cards. I can think of only four: Coca-Cola, firecrackers, TV and Playboy Magazine. All are timeless products that have helped shape the American identity. “The first time I…” with each is a venerable rite of passage.
One side of business is branding, so obvious and important in the baseball card business (especially during a period such as the early Nineties, when there were scores of different products competing for dealers’ shelf space and collectors’ attention).
Another side is competing in the marketplace. For all intents and purposes, there was one manufacturer from 1956 to 1980. In 1981 that figure tripled to three and by 1989, with the introduction of giant killer Upper Deck, there were six. And though for those thirty-some-odd years it may have seemed like there was Topps and then there was everyone else in terms of market share, Topps’ response to competition (or lack thereof) helped the company slip in the standings. It got so bad for the company that it took them two years to respond to the biggest threat the company had yet to face: Upper Deck. In Topps’ defense, it was the worth the wait, as the inaugural 1991 Stadium Club release was a fantastic set, and Topps wasn’t alone in its delayed reaction. It also took Fleer two years to lob its response (1991 Ultra).
But by waiting two years to respond to the higher-quality standards of Upper Deck, Topps and Fleer were no longer responding to just one company, they were jumping on the bandwagon of a hobby trend: premium cards.
Born out of 1989’s Upper Deck (and possibly even 1988’s Score set), premium cards were printed on higher-quality stock, with better photography, brighter colors and more bells and whistles, most noticeably the heavy use of metallic ink. To ensure their desirability, manufacturers released them in a more limited quantity (or that was the idea). As such, they could charge dealers more per case, dealers would pass on the price increase to the collector and the value of individual cards would skyrocket. Add in the big ball of hype surrounding the hobby at the time and it was a recipe for success.
The company that didn’t wait to see if premium would survive more than a year was Donruss. By repositioning their Leaf brand as a premium set, they ensured not only that theirs was the first Big Three (Topps, Fleer, Donruss) response to Upper Deck, but that the set would garner more attention within the hobby.
All this preparation could’ve backfired had the set been terrible. Luckily for Donruss (and collectors) it wasn’t. Far from it. If we pull back for a moment and look at the long-term values of the set and individual cards, the Sosa rookie is still within the $15 to $20 range, which is remarkable considering all the bad press he’s accumulated over the past five years. Unopened boxes still go for $30 - $60 each and it’s safe to say that the cards remain in demand.
Long-term card value is not the reason why I’ve ranked this set so high. Premium or no, this was a great set. The design wasn’t bad: there was a subtle futurism thing going on that included more than a healthy dollop of metallic ink. The photography was excellent. The cards were printed on clean, smooth white stock. And the checklist was stellar.
With big-name rookies (Thomas, Sosa, Olerud, Justice, Walker) and strong second-year guys (Griffey, Belle and Randy Johnson), Leaf was suddenly the coolest kid on the block. The Thomas rookie was at one point as big as Griffey’s iconic Upper Deck rookie from the year before and when Sammy Sosa became a household name in 1998, there was no bigger card of him than his Leaf rookie.
It wasn’t just the rookies and young guys that made this set desirable. Like with any popular card set, what’s old was suddenly new. Cards of veteran stars and other established players were desirable.
But perhaps the most telling statistic for the popularity of a given set is the price for individual commons. For context, you can probably get a common from 1990 Topps for two or three cents. For Leaf, expect to pay a dime per common. That’s five times the average rate for a Topps common from the same year. That difference is, in a word, sick. I think you have to go back to 1984 Donruss before you see a common price that’s even remotely in the same league. Seems like the initial decision to limit the quantity paid off.
Was it a good decision for Donruss to jump the gun on their response to Upper Deck? I think so. It was a strong set that whet collectors’ appetites not just for more Leaf, but more premium cards in general. And though our opinions differ of if it was good for long-term card quality, we all can agree it was good for business.