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.

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