Showing posts with label Leaf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leaf. Show all posts

September 18, 2013

Studio Series: Jim Abbott

Jim Abbott, 1992 Leaf Studio Series

Today for our Leaf Studio series, we welcome Jim Abbott. Jim, c'mon in buddy ... whoa, that hat is mad high on your head, son! Just playing, please sit down while we use a projector to broadcast black and white footage of your pitching highlights. Now, tell us a little bit more about yourself ...

Jim: Welp, my full name is James Anthony Abbott and I bat left and throw left.

Emm hmm, emm hmm. A lefty, huh? How interesting.

Jim: My wife's name is Dana.

Is SHE a lefty? That would be crazy.

Jim: She's a Capricorn.


Jim: I majored in communications at the University of Michigan.

GO STATE! Just playing, Jim - I have no affiliation with Michigan and don't understand why anyone would live there or go there. And I can tell by the way you're communicating with me now that you've studied this art extensively. Tell me about baseball ...

Jim: Gee, well ... I was the No. 1 draft pick of the Angels in '88, and I actually never played in the minors.

Interesting. Why is that?

Jim: (shrugs shoulders) Dunno.

Great stuff, great stuff. Who do you like to face as a pitcher?

Jim: Welp, no offense to Pat - great guy - but probably Pat Tabler. He just doesn't seem to see the ball coming out of my hand too well. Everybody's different, I guess.

You're right, he sucks. Who really sticks in your craw?

Jim: Dave Henderson. That mother ****** has hit five *****n' home runs off me and he's hitting something like five *****n' twenty-nine against me. ****** ***hole.

Whoa. Did I mention the Studio series is a family program?

Jim: **** off.

What else, Jim? What's interesting about you?

Jim: Well, as you probably know - the elephant in the room if you will - my favorite singer is Neil Young. I just think he's the best. Favorite actor is Willem Dafoe. Loved him in Wild at Heart.


Jim: Favorite movie is The Godfather.


Jim: My only regret is that Willem Dafoe wasn't Michael. He should have been Michael. Or at least Sonny, ya' know?

Ya' think? I feel like maybe they casted that movie appropriately, no?

Jim: Whatever. My favorite book is Lincoln.

Oh neat, I like biog-

Jim: NOT a biography. The one by Gore Vidal. It's a novel, you simpleton. He presents a panorama of the American political and imperial experience as interpreted by both fictional and historical characters, m'kay?

Got it. So I have to ask: favorite talk show host?

Jim: Letterman, duh. Richard Bey is a close second though.

Who's your bffbb - best friend forever in baseball?

Jim: Kirk McCaskill. I just trust him.

You'd most like to meet ... ?

Jim: Neil Young. I want him to sing me an acoustic version of "Southern Man" while Dana feeds me grapes in a grassy field.

Alrighty. Is there anything else interesting about you, Jim Abbott? Something that sets you apart from everyone else?

Jim: Nope.

Thanks for coming by. (stands up, moves in to shake Jim's hand) What the ...

April 26, 2012

The Lost Awkwardness of the Combo Card

1964 Topps "Bill's Got It"

The combo card just ain't what it used to be. Used to be, a group of players would stand around on the sidelines either before a game (most often the All-Star Game or during spring training) or during practice, and awkwardly pose with members of their own or another team. Included in every Topps set from 1957 through 1969 (with the exception of 1965), nearly every Fleer set from 1982 on, Upper Deck sets from 1990 to 1993, and random other sets (including 1960 Leaf), combo cards were exciting to receive in a pack, pushing collectors to further idolize players on their favorite teams. The photos were posed, and the titles were usually clumsy alliterations or hackneyed exposition — to entice the collector to flip the card and read the description on the back (see "Bill's Got It," 1964 Topps). The writing was usually terrible, and the connection between the players weak or nonexistent (many writers have highlighted this with great success, including Mike Kenny, our talented and hilarious contributor here at The Baseball Card Blog).

Still, it was something to get a combo card. It showed the manufacturer — and the players themselves — had a playful side, that baseball wasn't all business. We wanted our heroes to take the game as seriously as we did, but we also wanted to know they knew how to joke around. It's this idea — separation of business and pleasure — that made the combo card important to their respective sets.

2007 Topps "Classic Combo"
For Topps, the sets that included combo cards were mostly endless oceans of faces. And once the regular player photo moved off the sidelines and the action shot became de rigueur (around 1970–1972), the posed-combo-card playfulness disappeared. What makes this interesting is that when Topps re-introduced the combo card in its flagship sets beginning in 2006, the manufacturer brought it back as another vehicle for its action photography. The new Topps "Classic Combos" lack the very essence of what made those earlier examples so exciting: the inherent awkwardness of posing for a photograph as a couple or a group.

Collectors' brains are now tuned to action shots—action is all we see on sports cards. But awkwardly posed groups of players, often together for only that one photograph? You rarely see that these days. It seems like everything's scripted; that when not playing, players are ushered from one place to another by people with clipboards and headsets.

1963 Topps (left); 2012 Topps Heritage (right)

This last bit is important for how the combo-card concept has been approached in Topps Heritage sets. The Heritage brand emulates the original vintage Topps sets of the 1950s and 1960s. For combo cards, that means the awkwardness of the posed sideline group. Because of tight schedules or whatever other reason, however, players are hardly ever photographed together for Heritage sets. Instead, their images are layered over each other during production to create the illusion that they posed together. Or—and here it is again—an in-game action shot is used.

2007 Topps Heritage "World Series Batting Foes" - layered images

So to celebrate the lost awkwardness of the combo card, see below for some of my favorites. And make sure to check out The Baseball Card Blog's Facebook page for another combo card I'd like to see.

February 12, 2010

Keeper: 1960 Leaf "Baseball's Two Hal Smiths"

Consolidation has never felt so good. Big trade with Blake Meyer of, not to mention selling off stacks and stacks of cards on eBay have left me focused. More is going up later this week, including vintage basketball cards.

Over the past week I've received a lot of recommendations for Keepers, so I thought I'd kick things off by talking about one of my favorite cards: 1960 Leaf "Baseball's Two Hal Smiths". It's on my Keeper List, and is a card I don't own.

It's a Keeper because it isn't clear what the two Hal Smiths are doing in their photo. Are they negotiating over the bill? Are they diapering a baby? Because the background has been removed, context is missing (and desperately, desperately needed). These guys could be anywhere – a bus stop... a locker room...

It's no secret, my love for 1960 Leaf (read my set review here). The photos are mug-shot bad, the cards themselves came packaged with marbles, and the design has a style aesthetic with as much pizzazz as checkerboard kitchen linoleum. But what it's lacking in visual appeal, it more than makes up for in awkwardness. Awkward halos behind each head. Awkward checklist including immortal baseball gods Stover McIlwain (out of the league since 1958), Marshall Renfroe (career = 1 game in 1959), and baseball's two Hal Smiths (one a journeyman, the other an All Star). And did I mention that the cards were awkwardly packaged with marbles? I understand that Topps had cornered the market on the cards and gum thing, but seriously, who came up with marbles?

There's something about Hal Smith... both of him. I can't think of another time when two players shared the same name. (Wait a minute... Steve Ontiveros? Weren't there two of that guy?) I've mentioned this already, but one Hal was a journeyman and the other Hal was an All Star. The All Star had a knack for showing up on his baseball cards in full catcher regalia; that is, toothily smiling through his mask in a creepy crouching position. I can think of at least two cards (1958 Topps and 1960 Topps) of him photographed like that. The journeyman was just ugly: pursed lips, narrowed eyes... it was as if he was a street-corner criminal scouting for the next fence.

This one is also a Keeper for me because it's a combo card. But instead of Hal and Hal hamming it up under a corny line like "Backstop Buddies" or something, as Topps was wont to do throughout the Sixties, Sports Novelties kept it obvious, in a Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not informative kind of way. It's "Baseball's Two Hal Smiths" because that's who they are. In the end it matters not what they're doing, just that they appear together. 

That's why this one's a Keeper.

May 05, 2008

1990 – 1994 Countdown: #4. 1990 Leaf

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.

April 29, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #8. 1990 Donruss

By 1990, Donruss and the other baseball card companies were beginning to understand that their industry was in a very different place from as little as three years before. Following the initial across-the-board quality of Upper Deck, the others suddenly found their market shares smaller. In order to stay competitive, they had to find the intersection between maintaining a traditional set and adapting to the competition with bells and whistles.

From what I can tell, Donruss’ idea of “bells and whistles” was to go red. Eye-catching, hellfire, mid-life crisis, love-it-or-hate-it red. That’s not to say their strategy didn’t work. I, for one, was both shocked and pleased to see them shake their black and blue funk (every year’s design from 1985 to 1989 had either been black or blue). The new color, coupled with the risk-taking cursive signature player name on the front, helped the set stand out in the crowd.

They made two other significant changes from the previous year. First, they put together a fantastic checklist with Diamond Kings you wanted, an intriguing “insert set” (MVPs), kick-ass ‘King of Kings’ and ‘5,000 Ks’ Nolan Ryan cards and one of the strongest Rated Rookie classes in years. Second, they let the presses fly without bothering to hire proofreaders.

Obviously that claim isn’t true, but consider the circumstances: just a year before, one of their competitors (Fleer) grabbed endless headlines after one of its cards (Billy Ripken) featured an obscenity. In order to prolong the news (or simply because they didn’t know how best to handle the situation), Fleer corrected the card not once but four different times throughout the season, resulting in five available versions of the card and guaranteeing a hard-to-find, highly collectible product.

Granted, it’s hard to monitor quality on every single card of a set, but 1990 Donruss featured eight error cards, with two of those being high-profile Nolan Ryan cards and one coming in the insert set (Glavine for Smoltz). Makes you wonder about motive.

Like other strong Donruss sets, in order for it to be truly great there had to be rookie balance over the entire checklist. This was certainly the case for 1990. Donruss had a track record of including great Rated Rookies since Bill Madden put together the first on-card-denoted subset back in 1984, but ran into trouble sometimes when it came to seeding rookies into the rest of the checklist. No such problem in 1990. With eleven desirable Rated Rookies (the most since 1987), the set found balance with rookies of Sosa, Larry Walker, Bernie Williams, John Olerud, David Justice, John Wetteland and flameouts like Junior Felix, Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton.

Yes, the base set lacked a Frank Thomas rookie (and so did the boxed Best of AL and end of year Rookies sets), but in this instance (unlike with 1990 Bowman or Fleer) it didn’t matter. Bowman nor Fleer had Rated Rookies to divert the attention away from the glaring Thomas omission.

Regardless, despite its overall quality and the changes the company made for 1990, this set finds Donruss at a crossroads. Yes, it has a checklist with more than a few highlights. Yes, it has the company’s third foray into insert cards. And yes, it was done with an eye-catching palette. But with the introduction of Leaf as a premium brand, created to compete and out-do Upper Deck on its own level, 1990 was the first year Donruss was the other brand for the company.

You know, it’s funny, but some companies seem to be able to cope year to year; their releases make sense as a cohesive whole. On the surface, this seems to be the case with Donruss (at least in terms of design). But if we dig a little deeper and examine the sets they released from 1990 through 1992—the first three in their role as secondary brand—the company seemed to go a few steps forward in 1990 (clearly their best set of the early Nineties, and their best since 1987) and then two or three giant leaps backward the next two years (crap in ’91 and more of the same for ’92).

It’s as if Donruss simply didn’t know what to do with the brand now that it was number two. Two series? Full color fronts and backs? Save rookies for an insert set? Did anybody even notice? Or care? Despite creating a great set for 1990, it was the beginning of a sad period for the brand.

February 21, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #26. 1992 Leaf

If we remove the overt references to astrology, 1992 Leaf is the baseball card equivalent to the premise of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Struggling brand/team that nobody wants? Check. Hare-brained schemes crazy enough they just might work? Check.

All right, the comparison is a bit of a stretch, but let’s step back for a moment and take stock of where Leaf was heading into 1992.

With its spectacular mix of winning design, hot-ticket rookies and limited availability, Leaf’s re-birth from Canadian Donruss to full-bodied super-premium set was the talk of the hobby in 1990. On the heels of that unbridled success, something happened that should have been avoided, but also probably expected: 1991 Leaf was a bloated, ugly mess, not only devoid of rookies within the base set, but released in such mass quantities that it pushed the brand from thoroughbred to laughingstock overnight.

Faced with the harsh reality that nobody really looked to their product for hobby gold anymore, the company did something interesting. While other brands added scores of new bells and whistles to make their products stand out, Leaf managed to give their set relevance again by adding only one: the Gold Edition parallel. By simply seeding one gorgeous gold-foil-on-black-border card per pack, Leaf was back. Oh sure, it helped that 1992’s design was cleaner than the hideous cards from the previous year, but a parallel set was something entirely new at the time*, and no set had done black borders since 1987 Donruss, a design motif that added a certain emotional weight to the card.

Was 1992 Leaf a great set? Not really (it wasn’t ever really a powerhouse set). But what it lacked in pizzazz it more than made up for with a clean design and simple, forward-thinking inserts.

*1992 also saw the introduction of Topps Gold, though those were harder to find than Leaf’s one per pack. Leaf’s 1992 Gold Edition would be the brand's only base set parallel until 1996’s Press Proofs set.

February 19, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #35 - 33

35. 1993 Leaf
I’m sorry, but even white boys have to shout: Even though this marked Leaf’s first foray into full-bleed photography, foil stamping and shiny hologram printing, the night skylines on the back outshined whatever bells and whistles they could throw in. It should have been the front design. With all apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot, 1993 Leaf is the ‘Baby-Got-Back’ set of the early Nineties.

The checklist? A snooze, with no major rookies to speak of (unless you count Curtis Leskanic as a major rookie), and Ben McDonald slated on card #1. Also: 106 inserts seeded over three series, including possibly the first cross-brand cards: Frank Thomas Hero Worship. I remember these cards in 1993 Studio; they were in Leaf as well.

34. 1992 Stadium Club
It is for this set (and 1991 Leaf) that ‘sophomore slump’ applies the best. Oh sure, I’ve thrown the term around quite freely over the course of this Countdown, but it is the very definition of 1992 Stadium Club.

Coming on the heels of one of the most iconic sets of the early decade, Topps tried to make this edition even better than the previous one. Because we’re talking about 1992, that meant adding inserts and send-away offers, not to mention opening up the checklist to seemingly include every major leaguer, and everyone they went to high school with–a whopping 900 cards in all (up from 600 in 1991). And yet even with all these base cards, and in one of the best rookie crop years to boot, there are few (if any) major rookies in the whole base checklist.

Instead, they were lumped into the special ‘SkyDome’ box set, along with the other subsets that Topps should have included in the base set: All Stars, Draft Picks and World Series Highlights. Maybe these cards weren’t included in the regular set because of timing. I don’t know. What I do know is that this special 200-card set is more exciting than the 900-card behemoth it followed, and had Topps cut out 200 cards from the base to include these SkyDome cards, 1992 Stadium Club would have been a more logical follow-up to 1991.

33. 1994 Studio
It was hard not to like Donruss’ Studio brand: the photography was amazingly sharp, the checklist wasn’t bloated, the overall base design was attractive and for the most part, it seemed like the set had little if anything to do with baseball. Of course, it had everything to do with the game, but since its inception in 1991 with those hideous charcoal-background portraits, Studio was all about infusing the stars of the game and the game itself with an artistic sensibility, like Diamond Kings come to life.

And like every other brand in the early Nineties, Studio was not immune to the insert craze. But because the base design was so classy, naturally it rubbed off on the inserts (actually, I shouldn’t say ‘naturally,’ because even some sets with the best base designs had some terribly-designed inserts; 1993 and 1994 Donruss come to mind). Studio debuted the tiered Silver and Gold Stars sets, as well as the filmstrip ‘Editor’s Choice’ (the film strip design motif seemed to be a big deal in the early Nineties, probably because of the heightened emphasis on quality photography). 1994 also saw the continuation of the ‘Heritage’ insert (contemporary stars dressed in historic uniforms), a personal favorite.

So if this set is so great, why does it rank somewhere in the middle of the pack? Simply put: it’s fluff. 220 base cards hardly constituted a major issue, and if it was real statistics you were after, Studio was not the place to look. But if it was senior superlative, yearbook-type body copy and old-timey boardwalk dress-up you wanted, Studio was your set.

January 26, 2008

The 1990 – 1994 Countdown: 45 - 43

Say this in your best Christopher Walken voice: "Guess what? I gotta fever... and the only prescription is more countdown!"

45. 1994 Pinnacle
There are two ways a set or a year could be deemed a Hobby Turning Point. The first is in content, ie rookies, subsets, corrected/uncorrected errors, major stars included, and perhaps the last cards of retiring stars. The second is in the medium and the technology in its presentation. For example, 1981 was a hobby turning point in medium: the hobby went from one manufacturer to three. 1987 provided a hobby turning point in content: it was one of the strongest rookie classes of that particular decade, squarely focusing future hobby attention on the seemingly endless waves of strong young stars.

I bring this up because I’ve been trying to figure out just where 1994 fits in. The year saw Upper Deck’s and Score’s first parallel sets and the first Bowman’s Best set, all of which clearly expanded the hobby landscape in a technical sense (I’m not counting UD’s gold hologram set from 1993, as that was released in factory-set form only). But it also saw the introduction of one of the decade’s defining rookies in Alex Rodriguez, a player who has become so important that all rankings, lists and analysis of sets from his rookie year must be made with his inclusion in mind.

This point sort of contradicts one of the pillars of my thoughts on how to rank a set. One great card does not a great set make; the set should be judged on its entire checklist. A great example of this is between 1986 Topps and 1986 Fleer. That year’s Topps set was iconic, even though it didn’t include a card of Jose Canseco. Fleer, on the other hand, could be best described as Canseco and a pile of commons. In other words, a given set shouldn’t be punished if it doesn’t have the big rookie from a given year.

I’m thinking I might need to amend this rule, simply because in 1986 it didn’t matter quite so much that Topps didn’t have Canseco, because there were so few sets (and Topps had subsets and other cards that Fleer, Donruss, and Sportflics didn’t). But because by 1994 there was so much parity in a hobby landscape of literally scores of sets, it certainly did matter if a given set didn’t include Rodriguez. Accordingly, in a countdown like this, sets without Rodriguez should be given a demerit.

That’s why it pains me that 1994 Pinnacle doesn’t rate higher. This was one of my favorite sets that I couldn’t really afford to collect: Clean, crisp photography on a full-bleed glossy stock, minimal front-of-card graphics and understated black backs. Just a great looking card, not to mention what has quite possibly become my favorite parallel set of all time (narrowly beating out the run of Silver Signatures sets from mid-Nineties Collector’s Choice): The Museum Collection. By championing the use of Dufex, Pinnacle created a gorgeous, shimmering card, and an excellent, poor-man’s stand-in for Topps’ refractors.

Unfortunately, that’s where the niceties end. The checklist seems stale in hindsight (especially without a Rodriguez rookie), with no real deviations for subsets within the base set, complemented by a smattering of boring inserts. All of it seems a little fishy, too, because 1993 Pinnacle had great subsets and massive, fun-to-covet insert sets (like Team 2001 and Then & Now), which seemingly disappeared from one year to the next. It’s too bad, because 1994 Pinnacle had its shit together in a big way in terms of its design. And that’s no small feat.

44. 1994 Bowman
No, this set didn’t have an Alex Rodriguez rookie, either. In fact, only eight sets had him on one of their checklists in 1994. Still, by 1994 Bowman had firmly established itself as a major player, if not the player in the rookie game. It didn’t really need Rodriguez to prove its position, even though many 1994 rookies weren’t surrounded by as much hype, nor made an immediate impact.

It took guys like Derrek Lee, Trot Nixon, Torii Hunter, and Billy Wagner a few years to get things going. And, like earlier Bowman sets, many rookies never got it going. Guys like Cleveland Lavell, Arquimedez Pozo, Gar Finnvold, Duff Brumley and the immortal Ruben ‘Derek Jeter Wanted Me To Steal These” Rivera. But the thing that brought attention to Bowman—even to a weak set like 1994—was that there were so many rookies. First came the flameouts, then guys like LoDuca, Renteria, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Wagner. Then a third wave of Lee, Hunter, Posada, Nixon, and others. By no stretch of the imagination can we compare this set to 1992 (or even to a lesser extent 1993) Bowman, but three waves of rookie interest does give your set some staying power.

Rookies aside, the rest of the checklist never struck me as exciting, fun, or even interesting. At just under 700 cards, I have always approached this issue as ‘just another set with all the same guys.’

The mantra of producing a set in the Nineties was that to compete you had to give collectors what they wanted: presumably a thousand versions of their favorite players, be it from the base set, as part of a subset, and/or in a mixture of inserts. But because every manufacturer was following this rule, you also had to be sure that your product stood out from the rest. So what did Bowman do? They slapped some shiny foil on the some of the cards. They gave every card hideous strips of metallic gold. But most of all they made it about the base set, meaning no inserts. Collectors might have come for the rookies, but why should they have stayed for the rest? I’m still trying to figure that one out.

43. 1994 Leaf/Limited & Leaf/Limited Rookies
I think I can explain the logic behind these sets. Obviously they are ‘These Go to Eleven’ sets from the Donruss and Leaf executives. Let’s start in 1990. Leaf comes out, trumping Upper Deck’s mind-blowing inaugural 1989 triumph. Then in 1991 Fleer chisels out the Ultra line, and Topps debuts Stadium Club, teaming with Kodak to melt some faces with full-bleed photography and full-color backs. (Donruss replies with unintentional comedic gem that is Studio.) 1992 sees the introduction of Pinnacle from Score, a beautiful card with crisp photography, black gradient borders and a thin gloss. 1993 raises the stakes even higher, with Topps’ Finest throwdown, Upper Deck’s stylish SP, and Fleer’s cigarette-cased Flair. Oh sure, Donruss still had the Leaf line chugging away since the 1990 bow, and a few of the sets were relatively decent (1992, 1993), but the manufacturer didn’t have an answer to Finest, Flair, or SP. Then in 1994 they released Leaf/Limited and L/L Rookies, super-premiums that accelerated the arms race for the deep-pocketed, new-card collector.

And truthfully, even though I considered the appearance of sets like these as a sign of the hobby apocalypse, they aren’t bad looking. The base card looks like a cross between a playing card and the cardboard back to a new razor, with squares and dark lines harking back to those heady old-school Donruss days of 1985 and 1986 (albeit L/L is a little classier).

The base checklists are tight: L/L is at 160 cards; L/L/R at 80. And yet no one stands out. That’s because the star of this show is not in one of the base sets. It’s in the L/L/R insert set ‘Rookie Phenoms.’ I’m speaking, of course, about the Alex Rodriguez rookie, gold-foiled up the wazoo and serial-numbered to 5,000. Talk about summing up the future of the hobby in one card.

But let’s get back to the actual base sets for a moment. Were they even collectable? I’m not sure. Besides being wowed by the super-premium-ness of it all, what were collectors after? Without the inclusion of the Rodriguez rookie, these would rank lower than late-run Triple Play.

It’s 1986 Fleer Syndrome all over again. Too bad Leaf threw their Canseco stand-in in as a hard-to-find insert, leaving almost everyone with the pile of commons.

June 20, 2007

Countdown #57 to #54

57. 1994 Leaf
Oh man, it’s been a long day. And here I am, staring down 1994 Leaf and I can’t even remember the damn thing. Nothing—and I’m scanning that old Beckett I told you about before, and yet still nothing. According to my mid-Nineties price guide, there were eight insert sets and it looks like Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas dominated just about all of them. That brings up a funny point: remember when you’d scan the latest Beckett or Tuff Stuff and notice that they’d list every single insert card from a set except for one and then also note what a common from that insert set went for? I hated that. It’s obvious that they had the page space to list every card (plus I collected Fred McGriff, and more often than not he’d be the one they’d leave out).

So coming back to this Leaf set for a minute, I feel like a dunce for ranking it towards the middle of the pack (granted, the high end of the middle) and then not remembering one thing about it that may have made it special, or horrendous. So let’s try to forget this ever came up.

#56. 1993 Fleer Ultra & #55. 1994 Fleer Ultra
1991 is generally recognized as the Year of the Boom in the hobby, though perhaps a more apt name would be the Year of the Great Crescendo, as it was not so much the beginning of the present day landscape—1993 was. No, 1991 was truly the last year of the Topps Dynasty. (Yes, I know I’m on record as having said that 1989 was truly the last year of the Topps Dynasty, but generally unwritten history’s designed to be a little fuzzy, so cut me some slack). So with three important products coming on the scene in 1993 (Fleer’s Flair, Topps Finest and Upper Deck’s SP), not to mention that scallywag Score Select, it became more important than ever that the premium products already out there were strong enough to deflect the new competition.

1993 Fleer Ultra survived the influx, but not without boring us all to tears in the process. Ultra’s marbleized design ruled across all four major sports (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) in 1992, and instead of mixing it up and trying on something new, the Fleer execs pulled a Donruss on us and gave Ultra the subtlest of facelifts for ’93. Granted, the cards were good looking and the inserts somewhat desirable, so no big deal, right? Well, I would argue that precisely because they didn’t even try to raise the bar for 1993, Ultra put the onus on 1994’s product to perform in an ever-expanding marketplace. And while 1994 Ultra at least had a major design overhaul, a boatload of inserts, autographs of Daulton and Kruk and draft picks, it was no prize pig.

54. 1991 Fleer
I have been moved to tears over matters of the baseball card encrusted heart only twice: upon seeing the beautiful T206 Wagner framed, matted and on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the first time I ripped open a pack of 1991 Fleer.

From the moment my hands touched yellow cardboard, I knew that this was the worst set ever made. If all the card companies had attended the same high school, 1991 Fleer’s face would’ve been plastered all over the senior superlatives pages: ugliest, most worthless, most useless. Not even pimple-faced, greasy-haired Donruss would’ve been seen hanging out with this one.

So then why the hell is it ranked here and not at the bottom of the pile? Because. That’s why. Back in the day I would have characterized this set as Ugly with a capital ‘U’. But I’ve mellowed out, and some may even say I’ve matured just a little bit. I’ve grown to appreciate the inner beauty in ugly things, so now it’s only ugly with a regular lowercase ‘u’.

To be fair, there are positives (they’re just few and far between). Take the Pro-Visions and All Stars insert sets. Those PV’s really knocked my socks off, mostly because it was completely obvious to me that if Fleer had only made the whole regular set with kick-ass black borders, I would’ve collected this set by choice, instead of by necessity, as it was still one of the only sets I could afford.

The checklist on this set was pretty drab. Granted, Fleer had all the big names, and even a great card of Bonds and Griffey billed as ‘Second Generation Stars’, but what it had in stars it lacked in rookies. To illustrate this point, let’s briefly compare Fleer’s 1991 (meaningful) rookie class with that from 1991 Score.

1991 Score
Phil Plantier
Brian McRae
Mike Mussina
Carl Everett
Jeff Conine
Todd Van Poppel
Rondell White
Chipper Jones
Ivan Rodriguez RT
Luis Gonzalez RT
Jeff Bagwell RT
Pete Schourek RT

1991 Fleer
Phil Plantier
Luis Gonzalez
Jeff Conine
Brian McRae
Ivan Rodriguez U
Jeff Bagwell U
Pete Schourek U
Mo Vaughn U
Chuck Knoblauch U

Fleer loses this one easily, for two reasons. First, Fleer did not include cards of draft picks so therefore didn’t have rookies of Mussina, Everett, Jones, White and Van Poppel. Because they didn’t include draft picks in the 1990 set either, they had to wait on Vaughn and Knoblauch for almost two full years later; both debuted in 1991’s Update set.

Granted, both the Fleer and Score rookie crops pale when compared with Bowman. In addition to everyone named above, Bowman had perennial Blue Jay Pat Hentgen, Jim Thome, Tim Salmon, Bret Boone, Roberto Hernandez, Wil Cordero, Kenny Lofton, Javy Lopez, Ryan ‘The Forgotten Superstar’ Klesko, Eric Karros and that unforgettable hobby monster, Raul Mondesi. Bowman was all about the long-term, the rookie that would mature into the superstar. Score was all about having close to a thousand cards in the base set. And Fleer, sadly, was all about neither of the two. For Fleer to have had an impact, it needed immediate rookie sensations to carry the set (the company even acknowledged as much the next year with their ‘Rookie Sensations’ insert set).

When I approach this set today, I save my tears. Sure, I still feel bad about this set; upon close inspection it represents the idea of ‘wasted opportunity’ surprisingly well. It had the potential to contribute more than it ultimately did. But 1991 Fleer does not break my heart anymore. Today my heart is tired from much bigger things than a pile of lousy yellow cardboard.

June 03, 2007

Early Nineties Countdown: #77 to #70

The checklist is complete. The sets have been ranked. And while I originally thought there were 76 sets from 1990 to 1994, I recounted and found there to be 77, so that’s the figure I’m sticking to.

A few more notes before we begin. Like the Eighties countdown, the worth of an individual card or set will not be considered when ranking these sets, but may be mentioned anecdotally in describing a set. Also, I am going to say that my personal favorites of the years in question will not get preferential treatment, but we all know that that’s a very tall order to fill and I may stray from that rule. Also, I recently came across an old Beckett from November 1995, and will be referring to the stuff in it on more than one occasion. For starters, let me say that I forgot how big a deal Kenny Lofton was; his 1992 Fleer Update card is high column listed at $32.00! Are you kidding?

Finally, what makes a countdown like this so great to me is that thinking back on all these sets, I was able to come up with good things and bad things about almost all of them. There were only a handful that I had no recollection of collecting, and almost none where I couldn’t think of anything to say. I’ve decided that the sets that fall into this category, those that are so boring and non-descript that even I can’t think of one good or bad thing about them, were boring because they simply had no reason to exist. I’ve put these sets at the bottom of the list, but really they shouldn’t even be in the countdown.

In no particular order…

#77 1994 OPC
#76 1993 OPC
#75 1993 OPC Premier
#74 1994 Triple Play
#73 1994 Sportflics

Now, let the countdown begin.

#72. 1991 Leaf
Let’s start with some easy multiple choice. Let’s say that you’re in charge of Leaf, it’s 1991, and you’ve just come out with one of the great sets of 1990: a set with a perceived limited production run, chock full of rookies, plus a great design and loads of star cards that everyone, young and old, want to get their mitts on. How would you follow this great success? Would you a) put out another great set following the same principles, b) take in a ton of advance orders and then split for the border with the cash, or c) over-produce, strip the base set of important rookies, stuff them in an insert set that no one will ever be able to complete, commission and greenlight a shitty design and then laugh all the way to the bank? If you answered ‘c’…congratulations, you’re correct.

Seriously, how did Donruss and Leaf screw this up? A company simply doesn’t abandon a winning formula, especially at a time when there are a thousand competitors in—let’s face it—a niche marketplace. Why, why, why didn’t they include important rookies in this set? Why did they only include them in the Gold Leaf Rookies insert set? If Leaf had included a Jeff Bagwell rookie in the base set, this would have been a monster in the early Nineties. Instead, it was the hobby’s biggest joke; one from which Leaf would never recover.

#71. 1990 Fleer
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past few days: Were it not for the colossal let-down that was 1991 Leaf, 1990 Fleer would be the worst set of the first five years of the Nineties, and for a variety of reasons, none so prevalent as it simply had nothing to offer. You’d think that 1990 would’ve been a stellar year across the board for baseball cards, as 1989 had so much going for it and the hobby was experiencing a boom larger than it had ever seen. That was simply not the case. While other sets figured out a way to capitalize on the hype, a few didn’t (Fleer chief among them).

This is not to say that they didn’t try new things with this set; they did. In addition to the requisite combos and doubleheaded rookies, they included 'Players of the Decade,' a new subset of stars of the 1980s. Fleer also led the way with three insert sets: All-Stars, League Standouts and Soaring Stars (after a 1991 hiatus, this insert set was renamed Rookie Sensations for 1992).

But they took more than a few bad turns. For some reason their design team (which was in the middle of putting together an unprecedented four straight years of bad design, 1989 to 1992) approved a bland white border and bland red, white and blue back—virtually guaranteeing that collectors would confuse them with novelty deck-of-cards sets you could buy at Circle K, Kmart and other fine drugstore and discount department store chains. They then proceeded to miss out on the key rookie of 1990, Frank Thomas. Oh, and like most of all the other manufacturers that year, they printed 1 billion cards.

It’s not so much that they printed so many cards. It’s that they printed so many cards and none of those cards was of Frank Thomas. Taking nothing away from Juan Gonzalez, David Justice, Marquis Grissom, Ben McDonald, Larry Walker, John Olerud, Delino DeShields or even Sammy Sosa, Thomas was hands-down the best of the bunch. So to come out with a set that doesn’t have a card of him? What’s the point of that? Exactly. There is no point. You’re just killing time until you have a chance to show the world you realize you screwed up and pray that collectors are completist enough to hold out and buy your lousy Update set at the end of the season, where not only will there be Thomas, but Olerud, Carlos Baerga (was there ever anyone bigger than Carlos Baerga was in 1993?) and Travis Fryman too.

Too bad by the time the Update set came, nobody really cared about it, either.

#70. 1990 Bowman
OK, so I didn’t mean to set up Frank Thomas as the savior of baseball cards. In reality, he was a standout from the many that made up the great, overlooked rookie class of 1990. And while it’s a good thing that Thomas is in this Bowman set, it’s also true that this set is not a classic simply because it has a card of Thomas in it. Far from it.

1990 Bowman must be viewed as a transition set between the 1989 and 1991 Bowman sets. 1990 was the first year to use the modern card size (1989 was the same size as the 1950s issues, just slightly taller than what is considered the ‘modern’ card size that began with 1957 Topps) and really the first Bowman attempt to fashion itself as the ‘Home of the Rookie Card,’ something it would achieve with the 1991 set. So where does that leave this set? Well, it’s got a lot of rookies; all the big names are here, all in the one series, which is nice. Plus the front was one big color photo with a tiny white border along the bottom with team and player names (also nice). But that’s where the niceties stop.

Those minimal fronts became a big sea of boring faces as the set progressed. Also, what was with the backs? Who was it at Bowman/Topps that decided a grid-like breakdown of the past year’s stats would be a good thing? Granted, it was something that set Bowman apart, but for the worse. I could never make heads nor tails of the stats on the back of a Bowman card from 1989 to 1991.

There nothing really that bad about 1990 Bowman, it’s just boring. Minimal design is one thing, but boring? 'Boring' is never going to cut it in baseball cards. C'mon Bowman, you know that.

#69 to #65 Coming Soon

January 15, 2007

Countdown #45: 1960 Leaf

In a brilliant move, Leaf sold these—in the same wrapper—with marbles. It’s a miracle any of these cards survived even the first trip from the factory to the drugstore. Packaging aside, this is a neat little set, with overly candid black and white photos probably taken by a high school yearbook photographer on his lunchbreak. I’m serious—if one of the players included in this set ever ended up on the lam, post offices around the country could just tack that player’s card from this set to their wall. This set is an open textbook on the art of proper mug shot photography.

It’s as if Leaf was a decrepit scientist in a faraway castle tower, surrounded by stacks upon teetering stacks of media guides, flipping through each one until deciding upon the 144 ugliest ballplayers in the majors. What other possible explanation is there for the inclusion of this particular group of players? Were they all on the same prison bus? It’s amazing that Don Mossi and Wally Moon weren’t invited to this dance.

Of course, the photography is what makes this set memorable. Because it sure as hell ain’t the checklist. The checklist is weak, and understandably so. You don’t just go up against Topps and get away with it so easily. Leaf was lucky to get Brooks Robinson and Duke Snider, Orlando Cepeda, Curt Flood, Jim Bunning and the ten or so second and third-tier guys. And at 144 that translates into a pretty decent success rate (it’s just the quality of the success rate that is questionable).

So, despite the fun fotos (which almost look like they could’ve been early Polaroids), this set finds itself way the hell down at #45 for a number of reasons. First, as I mentioned, despite the heroics associated with the act of going up against the Topps monopoly, the checklist suffers from lack of star power.

Second, the design stinks. It was an obvious rip-off/update of the classic 1949 design (one of the best-looking sets ever, post-war or pre-, and one of the most universal in its design (look at Japanese cards through the Twentieth Century and you’ll see what I mean)), but it lacks the necessary oomph to make it work. Say what you will about thin black lettering and kitchen linoleum white backgrounds, but when you combine those with creepy, In-Cold-Blood-mugshot photography, the design really doesn’t do it. Then again, I might be alone in this opinion. Wasn’t there a gigantic tribute set in the Seventies made by Renata Gallasso in a sort of homage to this design? I think there was. But if memory serves me correct, they didn’t use stark, straight-on headshots. If I remember correctly, there were a lot of posed action shots.

Lastly, this set didn’t exactly inspire collectors, entice players to sign with Leaf for 1961 and beyond or intimidate Topps to buy them out. It was the only baseball set Leaf put out in the Sixties, and the last baseball set they’d put out until 1985, when Leaf was re-introduced as the Canadian Donruss imprint. Still, it’s a fun little set…as long as your idea of fun includes Steve Korcheck.