1949 Leaf Set Confounded Collectors

It’s a vintage set full of superstars, Hall of Famers and short prints–but 60 years after they came out of wax packs, the 1949 Leaf baseball cards are still a little confusing.

Leaf put color back in baseball cards when its first baseball card set hit store shelves in the summer of ’49, but kid collectors had to be confused.

Where was card #2? And #7 and #9 and #12 and 15 and 16?

Leaf Candy Company, a long-time Chicago institution jumped into the post-War love affair with baseball by producing a 98-card set but it was hard for kids to get a handle on which cards they didn’t have.

The first color card set since before World War II, the Leaf set wasn’t complicated in design, but the decision to skip-number it meant plenty of questions. That may have been the intent–to keep kids buying more gum.

Series one appeared in the spring of 1949, even though some of the copyright dates on the back read “1948”. The first series packed a wallop: #1 was Joe DiMaggio. #2 Babe Ruth and #3 Stan Musial. One established star, one recently deceased icon and one young star in the making.

The Ruth cards are not especially hard to find in relatively good shape. The Babe had passed away from cancer just months earlier and most kids seemed to treat the card with some degree of reverence. Ruth’s career had ended 14 years earlier and the card was apparently issued as a tribute.

Before the Leaf set was complete, it would include some of the most iconic players ever to wear cleats. In addition to Ruth, DiMaggio and Musial, the set featured Ted Williams, Larry Doby’s rookie card, one of the first mainstream cards produced of Jackie Robinson and even Honus Wagner, dipping into a pack of chewing tobacco. The latter is a scene that flies in the face of Wagner’s supposed aversion to tobacco products that played out in the scarcity of his ultra-rare and popular T206 card.

The set includes 20 Hall of Famers, but more challenging for collectors are the short prints. Issued in much smaller amounts than the other cards in the set, the short-printed cards are rare–and expensive. Perhaps the most notorious short print is the Satchel Paige rookie card. High grade examples sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the few occasions when they’re made available at auction. In 2007, a Paige in PSA 8 grade brought $89,087.

Bob Feller (#93) is also a short print. High grade Feller cards have been known to flirt with the $10,000 mark. What’s more, they seem to have been issued on a regional basis. Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Massachusetts finds have yielded more short prints than 1949 Leaf cards found elsewhere. Single-printed common cards from the elusive second series sell for hundreds of dollars even in mid-grade.

The set also includes a card of Johnny Vander Meer, the only man in Major League Baseball history to throw back-to-back no-hitters, even though the card portrays his last name as all one word.

The last card in the set is #168 Phil Cavaretta, but rest assured only 98 cards exist in the 1949 Leaf set. It’s a steep challenge for set collectors, but a great set to consider if you’re looking for famous names.

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