The early 1990’s were not only a boom time for the sports collecting hobby but also a time in which the major card manufacturers really started improving their production techniques. The old expression “it’s only cardboard” started to fade away as the cards produced showcased more modern printing technologies. Instead of incremental improvements, the cards stock started getting better and the photo were also better.
While Upper Deck promoted its hologram feature on its first baseball issue in 1989, the first real “premium” issue was the 1990 Leaf set which was released that summer, with two series and the suddenly popular foil-style wrapper covering a glossy set with a simple design.
Leaf simply did not feel or seem like any cards ever previously released. In addition, the print run was significantly smaller than the other major companies. You couldn’t find them at every corner store. Collectors put a lot of miles on their vehicles seeking out every possible outlet, from gas/convenience stops to drug stores to hobby shops.
A shorter print run, a classic design, and some important rookie cards made for an immediate hit among collectors. While today the key rookie card is Frank Thomas, who appeared in Series 2, other cards which were popular at various times included the Dave Justice rookie which exploded in August 1990 and the second year Steve Avery card which became a $15 card after the 1991 post-season.
Then a few years later, during the midst of the famed 1998 home run record chase, 1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa rookie cards from Series 1 were actually selling for more than $100. While today, collectors may find it difficult to believe any card from that set could ever have sold for that amount, in 1998 any price truly seemed possible for the Sosa.
Today, the Thomas card can be found on eBay for a very small investment.
Even though the stars of Justice, Avery and even Sammy have faded, the 1990 Leaf set still has a hold on those who grew up chasing what was once a high end product.
The complete set consisted of 528 cards. An all-PSA 10 graded set sold in 2010 for $5,280 but you can often find ungraded, NM/MT complete sets of both series I and II on eBay for less than you’ll pay for most current boxes. As for those Leaf boxes that drove collectors wild nearly 30 years ago, you can pick them up today for $50-$75.
A 12-card preview set that included Ken Griffey Jr. and Ozzie Smith is rare and usually sells for over $200 to collectors who specialize in 1990’s material. PSA 10 examples of Griffey’s Preview card have sold for over $1,500 in recent years.