This post is part of an ongoing feature The Great Griffey Base Card Project.
Leaf was around before Griffey in the same way that O-Pee-Chee was around. By that I mean for a kid in the American south, it wasn't. Before that I understood them to be a regional brand. I don't really count them as a set until they introduced their first mass-market product in 1990. Touted as Donruss' premium set, people went nuts for it when it hit the market. The photography wasn't out of this world, but it was solid enough. They had a few hits design-wise in the 90's, but like many once-popular brands it stopped turning a profit and was shut down....twice.
When I collected in the mid-90's, Leaf were some of my favorite packs to rip. They felt rich, like a poor man's Flair. Sure, they were three bucks a pack which was a lot, but the inserts and subsets were great and the base cards were fancy. At least they were in the 20th century - not so much in the 21st. They still have a few of my favorite designs of the 90's and one in particular that's arguably my all-time favorite.
Here is every Leaf design in order from their first major set in 1990 to their final set of 2005:
That fade on either side, man. I think the reason behind it is to create focus on the action in the middle, and in the first series of this set those fades were a nice silvery-gray color (like me saw in those first three Leaf sets). It looked pretty good. So what happened? I'm not sure if someone made a conscious decision to do this or if they flipped a switch and screwed up the whole printing process of Series 2, turning the gray fade to a white one, but yikes. What before was a subtle, attractive effect now looks like a washed-out eyesore. I'm willing to bet that someone really liked the glow effect the white creates behind the name that wasn't there before, but that person needs to be hit in the head with a hammer. Their worst design of the '90's - this card gives me a headache.
I really loved Leaf in my collecting heyday as you can probably tell from my enthusiasm about the earlier sets. It remains one of the few brands I was genuinely excited about cracking packs of year after year, but after seeing what was done with the brand I'm glad I was no longer collecting when these last few sets went down.
Should we be glad the brand was allowed to come back for a few years, or would it have been better to let it go back in '98? Stephen King taught us in his novel Pet Sematary that it's best to let the dead be dead; otherwise they become evil undead monsters who slice into your Achilles' tendon with a scapel. Then again, in the film National Lampoon's Chritmas Vacation Uncle Louis burns the Griswold family Christmas tree with his stogie and says "At least it's out of its misery." Between these two I'm siding with Uncle Louis. He had a sweet rug.
Here is the complete Leaf design timeline from 1990 to their final set in 2005: