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.
Todd Van Poppel
Ivan Rodriguez RT
Luis Gonzalez RT
Jeff Bagwell RT
Pete Schourek RT
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.