Monday, July 5, 2021

1993 Upper Deck and the Pronunciation of Iooss

Doing a write-up of this set today, in 2021, is like doing a write-up of Abbey Road today, in 2021. This is a set that everybody loves and that has gracefully stood the test of time. One wrong move and I’m sure I’m going to hear about it from its many fans, so I’ll tread carefully (relax, I love it, too).

1993 Upper Deck came at an interesting time. We were approaching the end of the junk wax overproduction era as was heralded by the sudden appearance of foil in most base sets. Ultra and Leaf were already doing it, and pretty much every other set was already poised to make the leap to foil even on common base cards.

In the interest of clarity, “Overproduction Era” is that period from 1985-1995 (those dates are as debatable as the birthdays of Gen-X vs. Millennials – everyone has a slightly different take, so don’t hold me to this) during which card companies churned out what should have been an illegal quantity of cardboard. When a buddy tells me, “Hey - I have a bunch of baseball cards – can you tell me what they’re worth?” my first question is always “When did you get them?” If the answer is within this period (it always is), I have to tell them, “Probably not much.”

That said, it’s hard to lump this set in with the rest of the cards in that category. They’re just too nice.

The introduction of befoiled base cards was the beginning of the end of overproduction, or at the very least the beginnings of attempted scarcity. By the following year every base card from nearly every major brand would have foil (Topps was the big holdout in ’94 but would come around the following year).

Upper Deck would come hard with the foil in their '94 set, but in '93 player names were printed in a shiny gold near-foil that suggests Upper Deck knew exactly where things were heading. They just weren’t quite ready to commit to full-foil. Of course foil still made a number of appearances in the inserts, not to mention holograms which Upper Deck pretty much pioneered on cardboard.

Now with sets like this one where the base set photography is so good, I usually show off a bunch of different base cards, but I assume anyone that reads this blog already knows how good ’93 Upper Deck was and probably even has a few favorite cards in it already. We have a lot of Griffeys to go over, so today we’re just going to get right to 'em.

1993 Upper Deck #355

Upper Deck’s design was pretty homogenous (and sometimes even a little boring) from 1989 through 1992, but like many of the big brands they took a major leap forward in ’93. We got a nice cursive nameplate in matte gold – it’s not foil yet but again you can recognize the progression here – printed over a single bar in team coloring. It’s an extremely simple design but also light years ahead of simply printing the name in the border which had been UD’s standard up to this point.

Speaking of borders, there won't be many when we get to the inserts. And as for the base design it's not hard to imagine this set without them. Universal full-bleed was right around the corner. That said, I like the clean, white borders here.

For the first time we got a brand name banner across the top of the card in lieu of Upper Deck’s signature green diamond logo. They even took care to superimpose the player over the lettering in the interest of noninterference with the photography.

As for the Griffey card itself, I see a young player who’s still amazed at his own talent. This is the expression of a guy who was aiming to put the ball in a certain place in the field, and it worked even better than he expected. The bat is out of sight, probably already a few steps behind him, so I assume we’re seeing the beginning strut after a left-field dinger. He’s several steps into his trip around the bases and he’s still looking - it must have been a big one. Man this guy is good. I imagine he’s thinking about the millions he’s going to make being able to push a baseball so well. That’s what I would be thinking about, at least.

This photo is pretty famous by now, and you’ve probably seen it on a few cards and/or baseball magazines by now. I’m partial to his checklist card from 1995 Select which shows the whole Griffey-in-repose where this is just a cropped version. Upper Deck’s devotion to photography is made even more apparent by the layout here: a massive photo over an itty-bitty stat box, player info, and the tiniest blurb you ever did see. Oh, and there’s the green diamond logo. I knew this was you, UD. As base cards go, particularly in 1993, this one is a solid 10 on any side.

1993 Upper Deck #355 Gold Hologram

You will know a card guy by how he flips through a dime box. Good card guys can fly through a box of cards in mere minutes in search of the best cards. The REALLY good card guys take the time to check the backs and find the real gems.

The Gold Holograms of 1993 Upper Deck can cost you, especially in comparison with the regular silver holograms which remain dirt cheap. These were released only via sealed factory sets. These sets were sold 15 to a case, and only one set per case had the gold holograms, assuming the buyer even bothered to unseal his set. 

In terms of numbers, none of the millions of Hobby/Retail 93UD cards had gold holograms, and only 1 in 15 of the factory cards did. Given what we know about production figures in general from this era, there are probably thousands of gold holo's out there; but the overall ratio of golds to the many millions of silvers is tiny. Expect a fully-justifiable premium on these.

1993 Upper Deck #525 Checklist

Having shown the regular base card I usually try and take the remaining base cards in order by card number; but we’re going to make an exception today and get this one out of the way early.

This card hurts my feelings, guys. It’s two fabulous photos (front and back) utterly obscured by other guys’ names and washed-out colors (so you can better reads those other guys’ names, I assume). The worst part is that unlike many of the photos used across the 1993 UD Griffey checklist, this is one I’ve never seen anywhere else. And it’s a great photo! There even appears to be a cameo standing back there – is that Jay Buhner? I can’t tell! Could this be a Buhner Buddy card? I collect those, and I need to know!

Seriously - do any of my Griffeyphile brethren recognize this photo as having appeared anywhere else? Who is the other guy?

I have definitely seen this backwards cap portrait in sports magazines before. I seem to remember it having graced a Beckett cover, or it might have been Sports Illustrated. Either way it deserves better than this. I feel like Upper Deck is making fun of us Griffey fans. This card is them saying “There are so many great Griffey photos out there we’re just gonna splooge ‘em all over the place with zero regard for your ability to enjoy them.”

1993 Upper Deck #525 Checklist Gold

And of course, there’s the expensive version.

1993 Upper Deck #55 Teammates (w/
Jay Buhner & Kevin Mitchell)

There is so much going on with this one, I doubt we’ll even get to it all. First and foremost, it’s a gum bubble card. I know several of you guys who collect those. Second it’s a Buhner bromance card which is a sub-collection of my own. Third, it's a subset called "Teammates," but that is nowhere on the front of the card. Instead it just says "Pacific Sock Exchange" like it's a term we're all supposed to recognize. It's even got its own logo and everything. Don't get me wrong - I am beyond curious as to the origins of that term, but at face value it sounds kind of nasty.

And finally, it’s a story card. I wasn’t following baseball when Kevin Mitchell played with the M’s – frankly this was news to me. His time there was short-lived, and he was traded to the Reds where he would continue to be productive when healthy. This card is more a telling of what might have been, but I see why they sprung for this great group photo.

1993 Upper Deck #55 Teammates (w/ Jay
Buhner & Kevin Mitchell) Gold Hologram


1993 Upper Deck Jay Buhner #224 (cameo)

Now this – THIS – is a base card. All you other brands take note – this is how it’s done. They don’t all have to be swing-away shots or base slides or any of that common baseball stuff we get from nearly every brand. It can be just two dudes hanging out, sideways-cappin’ it, chompin’ some seeds and pallin’ around. This card is awesome.

I guess I’ll show it, but only because I also have to show this one:

1993 Upper Deck Jay Buhner #224 (cameo)
Gold Hologram

Okay then.

So 1993 Upper Deck had a whole lot of inserts as well as a ton of retail oddities in varying sizes, but it was only a hint of the complication still to come in the mid-to-late ‘90’s. Let’s start with the inserts:

1993 Upper Deck Five-Year Anniversary
1989 Reprint #A1

This thing is enjoying a newfound appreciation given the sudden performance of the original card in the market. The card looks great in black, all done up in gold foil. Collectors have caught on to the fact that it is both condition-sensitive and has black borders, a combo that grants high slab grades a massive premium.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t on the lookout for a condition upgrade for mine, but at this point I would expect to have to pay out the ear for it, so it’s not as high on the priority list as it used to be. Also at 1:9 hobby packs there are plenty of these things out there. I expect I’ll track down a better copy someday.

Check out Upper Deck tooting their own horn here. Three words in and they’re all, “Check us out.” I mean, they’re not wrong. Good lookin’ out, guys. You called it.

These 5x7 versions showed up in retail repacks and were numbered out of only 10,000, a tiny run for any card in the overproduction era. The fronts are identical, so I'm only showing the back which includes the serial-numbering. 

1993 Upper Deck Five-Year Anniversary 1989 Reprint
#A1 Super Jumbo #/5000

This monster came with its own case (thank goodness) and was serial-numbered out of only 5000. I think the white borders on either side affect the value a bit as I’ve seen these go for less than the regular jumbo of which there were twice as many produced.

These were sold directly by Upper Deck years later via their Authenticated Memorabilia program, but I'm including it here with the '93 set because where else would I put it? There's also one for the Future Heroes insert numbered out of 1500 that I try not to think about.

1993 Upper Deck Future Heroes #59

Ever the pioneer, Upper Deck began Heroes which would become one of the first multi-year inserts. With each base series they devoted a 10-card chunk of the continuous checklist to one player beginning in 1990 with a 10-card Reggie Jackson Heroes insert. 1993 Series 1 featured 10-cards devoted to Willie Mays, but for Series 2 they pivoted that insert to include multiple players who were destined to become heroes. This was probably a smart move in terms of attracting young collectors to the brand which did appear to be a focus of Upper Deck around this time (see: Fun Pack).

The design was a huge leap forward: full-bleed, full-gloss, and sporting a wicked-cool foil signature that would become a hallmark of Upper Deck, particularly in the forthcoming Collector’s Choice brand. The cards were not even very rare, falling at an average of four per hobby box. Everybody got a taste.

1993 Upper Deck Future Heroes #63 Checklist (w/ Thomas,
Alomar, Bonds, Puckett, Gonzalez, Clemens, McGwire)

They seem to have been proud of the change as they also included this amazing, hand-drawn multi-player checklist card. So having seen all the “Future Heroes” at once, were they right? Personally, I spot a handful of anti-heroes on this card.

1993 Upper Deck Home Run Heroes #HR9

They also expounded on the Heroes idea with this Home Run Heroes insert. They featured a very simple but extremely cool bat barrel nameplate and a serious knockout of a photo (on Griffey’s, at least). And the back is another example of a great photo intentionally made less visible, albeit by text describing how awesome Griffey is. Bittersweet.

These were seeded one per jumbo pack, so if you didn’t buy those you might have not even been aware they existed. I remember these going for a pretty penny at some point, but they’re solid dollar cards now, and a heck of a value at that. An excellent early insert.

1993 Upper Deck On Deck With... #D13

There’s that foil autograph again. This is the kind of insert you might expect from Studio in that we get an intimate portrait as well as a little bit of personal advice from our favorite players. The teal script over the dark blue boxes on the back test your eyesight a bit, but the advice is sound and the card is a real gem. This is the kind of insert I would have built were I not so focused on Griffeys.

1993 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson’s Clutch
Performers #R11

Remember in the late-90’s when everybody referred to just about anything good or worthwhile as “clutch?” It was a whole thing that came and went at roughly the same time as Big Johnson shirts and Creed fans. Anyway, it turns out that it’s a real word.

One neat characteristic of this one is that they let Reggie pick the checklist (allegedly), and as Junior was a huge fan of the guy I’m willing to bet he was excited to be among the chosen. Then again, of course he was chosen. He’s Ken Griffey freakin' Junior. I mean, come on. Who else is Reggie gonna pick? Ron Kittle?

The card itself sports yet another foil signature, but this time it’s Reggie’s, and it’s on every card. We finally got a fielding shot on the front, but the photo on the back was just a peek at the backwards-cap Junior that would dominate several upcoming Home Run Derbies. Get ready, America.

Also the space after the opening quotes is only on Junior's card, and it always bothered me. I think it's there to keep them from smooshing together with the sub-quotes around "The Kid," but I've done the quotes/sub-quotes combo numerous times. "'The Kid' is the brightest star..." See? That's not so bad.

1993 Upper Deck Season Highlights #HI9

I don’t see many of these out in the wild, and I’ve always wondered why. How rare could they be? Let's go to BBCP:

“This 20-card insert set captures great moments of the 1992 Major League Baseball season. The cards were exclusively distributed in specially marked Series Two packs that were available only to dealers who set up at Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball Card Shows. Each dealer was entitled to purchase a maximum of two, 20-box cases. The odds of finding a Season Highlight card is 1:9 packs.”

So if your local dealer was one of those that met the requirements to buy said specially-marked cases, you would have to buy a minimum of five of his boxes to pull a full set, thereby guaranteeing a Griffey pull. One in nine doesn't sound bad, but it seems the opportunity to buy the packs is what was scarce. That explains the price tags on these.

The card is fully deserving of its price, too. It’s a great write-up of Junior’s ASG MVP honors with a blurb-specific photo to match. And I love the simple, gold foil UD logo on the front. It’s the little things.

1993 Upper Deck Triple Crown
Contenders #TC4

Nobody had won the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967, and someone at Upper Deck (you know, the one that called Junior’s impending stardom) decided to go out on a limb and predict one of the rarest feats in baseball. Don’t get me wrong – this is a great checklist. It’s maybe even a little surprising that none of them did it.

Junior came closest in 1997 when he led the AL in home runs and both leagues in RBI, but his .304 average just didn’t cut it. I like to think had everybody not been chasing the Maris record around that time his focus might have shifted more to simply getting on base. Which suggests that had all these guys not been juicing to get to 61, Junior may not have felt compelled to also get to 61, thus sacrificing average for power while still maintaining a home run lead naturally. You heard it here first: were it not for the widespread juicing in the majors in the late-90's Griffey would have won the Triple Crown.

Maybe it's a stretch, but is it really?

I’m delighted to see Will Clark in this checklist, btw.

We would finally get a Triple Crown winner in 2012 with Miguel Cabrera who was 9 years old when this card came out. If you had to make this insert today, who would you include in the checklist? I hope it’s someone whose rookie cards I’ve been hoarding…

1993 Upper Deck Walter Iooss Collection #WI13

UD took the we-are-super-all-about-photography thing to the next level by giving an entire insert to their photographer-in-residence Walter Iooss whose name I have grown to accept I will never know how to pronounce. I mean, is it eyeousse? Yousse? Ee-ouse? It’s an unpronounceable word, like xkcd.

I really should write about the card at some point here, but I’ve wondered about this for going on 25 years, and I’m keen to get to the bottom of it. Is Upper Deck even spelling it right because those letters do not make sense to me in that order. Maybe there’s a hint in his signature.

His signature appears to read “Skete Loo58h.” That would be one heck of a password, but it’s no help here. Also that really looks like an “h” at the end. Could it be “Yoosh?”

You know what? I’m just going to Google it. Someone else must have asked this question before. Fingers crossed:

Oh my God. A tremendous burden has been lifted from my brain. Who’d have guessed that it was YOSE? Say, I was actually pretty close. Hey, that rhymed.

So anyway, the card is very pretty. I love his quote about working with Griffey – it’s exactly what a fan likes to hear. The guy really is as fun as he seems.

1993 Upper Deck Walter Iooss Collection
#WI13 Jumbo #/10000

This slightly bigger (3.5 x 5") version was one of the final three cards I needed to finish off the 1996 Beckett Ken Griffey Jr. Tribute Checklist, a project that took me 21 years to complete. So while it is a beautiful card that translates well to a jumbo, I still have some mixed emotions about it.

Speaking of the 1996 Beckett Tribute Checklist project, ALL THREE of the final gets were Skete Loosh Wally Yose Walter Iooss jumbos. Just sayin’.

So that’s actually it for cards you could pull from 1993 Upper Deck packs and repacks. There is still one more Griffer to talk about, though:

1993 Upper Deck Diamond Gallery Box Set #13 /123,600

There are 123,600 of these. I’m going to take a page out of the Allen & Ginter book and spell this mother out to put this gigantic number into perspective: There are *one hundred and twenty-three *thousand* six hundred* of these things. My God that is just. so. many.

Upper Deck made all those amazing Grand Slam hologram cards for Denny’s, so it makes perfect sense that they would also put out a product like this. I am a big fan of the colorful angles they used along the top and bottom.

The back gives us another taste of those angles as well as a blurb that only young, healthy eyes can read. 

And that's all she wrote. Somehow I've been able to track down every Griffey from 1993 Upper Deck, so there's nothing more I need here apart from a condition upgrade for my 5th Anniversary insert. Here for your reference is the complete 1993 Upper Deck Griffey checklist:

1993 Upper Deck #355
1993 Upper Deck #355 Gold Hologram
1993 Upper Deck #55 Teammates (w/ Jay Buhner & Kevin Mitchell)
1993 Upper Deck #55 Teammates Gold Hologram (w/ Jay Buhner & Kevin Mitchell)
1993 Upper Deck #525 Checklist
1993 Upper Deck #525 Checklist Gold Hologram
1993 Upper Deck #224 Jay Buhner (cameo)
1993 Upper Deck #224 Jay Buhner Gold Hologram (cameo)
1993 Upper Deck Diamond Gallery Box Set #13 /123,600
1993 Upper Deck Five-Year Anniversary #A1
1993 Upper Deck Five-Year Anniversary Jumbo #A1 #/10000
1993 Upper Deck Five-Year Anniversary Super Jumbo 8x10 #A1 #/5000
1993 Upper Deck Future Heroes #59
1993 Upper Deck Future Heroes #63 Checklist (w/ Thomas, Alomar, Bonds, Puckett, Gonzalez, Clemens, McGwire)
1993 Upper Deck Home Run Heroes #HR9
1993 Upper Deck On Deck With #D13
1993 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson Clutch Performers #R11
1993 Upper Deck Season Highlights #HI9
1993 Upper Deck Triple Crown Contenders #TC4
1993 Upper Deck Walter Iooss Collection #WI13
1993 Upper Deck Walter Iooss Collection #WI13 Jumbo #/10000

There's a 5x7 jumbo of the vanilla base card that was released in 1999, too, that is worth getting but not enough to warrant including it here. Also that 5th Anniversary super jumbo was another one that was released years later, but while it's not strictly a 1993 release, I feel like it belongs on the list. Oh, and I threw the Diamond Gallery Box Set card in there as it's dirt cheap, probably because there are 123,600 of them.

I don't know about you guys, but I have exactly one takeaway from putting this post together. I keep picturing a situation at the Upper Deck offices in the early '90's wherein a baseball photographer is needed, like, STAT, and a nervous mustachioed man in a tie and rolled up sleeves who is standing at his desk leans down towards an intercom, presses a button, and says, "Get me Iooss!" And it's YOSE he says. YOSE. Because I know that now! Man, this Google thing is really going to catch on.

Monday, June 28, 2021

1998 Leaf Rookies and Stars: the Cohesiv-est

I used to watch Project Runway religiously with my wife and sister. Feel free to give me shit about it. We got pretty into it, too, drafting designers serpentine, fantasy football style, keeping track of winners and losers on a big board, and even picking up a little fashion knowledge here and there. My own biggest takeaway is that I don’t understand fashion because what won was usually ugly and/or scary to me.

My second-biggest takeaway is a basic understanding what it is that makes a “collection,” namely a certain cohesion among all the pieces so they all go together for different applications. There were times when one collection would seem superior, but lose to another that simply had more collective cohesion.

Tim Gunn would love 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars. It's one of the most cohesive sets I’ve ever come across. That aspect is even more impressive given the sheer quantity of cards we are dealing with. As a result it is usually easy to tell you have a 1998 Rookies & Stars card even before you check the brand.

The aesthetic, while mutable, is pretty much the same across the brand: generally dark colors with plenty of blue (regardless of team), creative use of foil, and bold text as a major design element. Every insert meets all or most of these design criteria.

I’m happy to report that I have at least one version of every 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Griffey. The only ones I’m missing are parallels #/500 or less, but at least you get to see what the cards look like.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars #26

The base design is nothing to write home about, but I do like the showcasing of the player’s uniform number and the team-colored fade behind the name plate. The photo is unmistakably a home run shot (#focustongue). Also is that an A-Rod cameo I spot in the background?

Again pretty standard stuff here, but kudos for the super-legible full-career stats and backward cap shot. He looks a little peeved here. That’s a lot rarer than a smile when it comes to Griffey cards (and quite the norm when it comes to Marquis Grissom cards).

I have been assured he is an absolute delight to be around, but he always looks annoyed.

PC, BTW...

There are two base parallels to contend with: True Blue and Longevity.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars #26 True
Blue /500 (courtesy of Jeremy Strauss)

The True Blue parallel, the hallmark of which is blue foil where the regular cards are silver, is numbered out of 500. I like things that are blue, so I’m a fan of this one.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars #131 Power Tools

This is a bold design for a subset with the vast majority of the card surface being taken up by that rusty iron stuff. A manly card indeed. Please note the very literal interpretation of the theme here as a design element.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars #131 Power
Tools True Blue #/500
(courtesy of Jeremy Strauss)

The rust makes that blue explode on this card. Definitely my favorite of the True Blue lot.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars #170
Mariners Team Lineup Card

This is one of the cooler checklist concepts I’ve seen. It’s every Mariners card, including all base and inserts. That said, no Dan Wilson cards? Boooooo.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars #170 Mariners
Team Lineup Card True Blue /500 (miscut)

When it comes to True Blue I have only this one, and wildly miscut it is. I’m not foaming at the mouth for an upgrade, but I wouldn’t turn it down at a reasonable price.

I've got to show you the back to drive home the mis-cuttedness. Given it happened to a #/500 '90's parallel, this one hurts.

The big parallel is Longevity. The cards are foilboard with gold foil text and team logos printed across the card surface. As these are limited to only 50 they tend to carry a big premium in terms of price, but at least they look the part.

As for the inserts, given Leaf's bankruptcy not long after this set came out there are myriad unnumbered versions that made it out into circulation as well sample versions of a few of them (unrelated to the bankruptcy). I have none of these as their sellers are all unrealistically proud of them for some reason, but I do have one of each in the significantly more affordable vanilla versions.

These things are all design and very little substance, and they can be summed up as offensive on the front, defensive on the back. It's a pretty bold design for any brand. The gold foil around the serial number is a great touch.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Crosstraining #2 #/1000

As most '90’s collectors know Donruss/Leaf was super all-about the partial-parallel. This was usually a die-cut version of the first X number of cards in a given numbered set and usually about 10% of the total run. This wasn’t necessarily the rule every time as you will see, but it was more or less the standard.

I’m mentioning that because the first 100 serial-numbered cards were die-cut. The Griffey looks like this:

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Extreme Measures #/1000
Die-Cut #/100 (courtesy of Jeremy Strauss)

And as you can imagine with the way the market is right now, these bad boys are pricey. 

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Great American Heroes #3 #/2500

Design-wise this one is hard to top. The America’s Pastime vibe is heavy with the big star/banner combo over the sepia image of baseball stuff in the dirt. And that stately Times New Roman insert title is classy yet unpretentious. One of my favorites from this set.

Mike Piazza has three distinct cards in this insert given he was a Dodger for 37 games, a Marlin for 5, and a Met for 109, all in the same year. That gives Mike a total of 7500 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Great American Hero cards, three of which are all mine. Leaf didn't have to be this complete here, but they did. And as you will see a few inserts from now, Leaf was extraordinarily selective with said completeness.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Greatest Hits #1 #/2500

I really love the design of this thing. Going heavy on the text isn’t always a safe bet, but here they outlined the letters in thin strips of holofoil that appear even holofoilier against the black lettering and dark blue background. Also given the date on the front we know we’re getting something here that I just cannot get enough of: blurb context. Let’s take a look:

There you go: they went-full literal with the insert title and simply describe a significant hit from Junior’s career that happened to be pretty darn great. You can’t really fault them for giving us exactly what was promised.

Now far be it from me (but not that far) to poo-poo a perfectly good insert, but there is a part of me that is a little disappointed. Obviously “Greatest Hits” is a music term; and if you’re going to go music-themed, you’re going to have a hard time topping 1996 Leaf Hit Parade or even 2001 Ultra’s carefully-named “The Greatest Hits Of…” both of which feature die-cutting that emulates popular music media formats, namely a vinyl record for the former and a compact disc for the latter. Being a bit of a hobbyist audiophile myself I have a huge appreciation for these inserts, especially the CD one as that is my format of choice despite the fact that many listeners have left it by the wayside for streaming services. I could talk for a very long time about CD’s versus vinyl versus streaming, but I’ll just say CD’s are way underappreciated and leave it at that.

So I do feel like this was a bit of a wasted opportunity in that Leaf could have skewed fun & cheesy with the design of this thing like Ultra would in 2001. They were no strangers to die-cutting as evidenced in this very set. And the round photo on the back is certainly reminiscent of a CD or a record, so it appears to have been on someone’s mind. How was this one not a die-cut partial-parallel in what is already one of the most prolific die-cut partial-parallel sets of the ‘90’s? And one that has already shown us just how literal they could get with a theme in the Power Tools subset?

Even with all that complaining I still really love this insert and consider it one of the best in the set. As is the case with many of these inserts apparently some unnumbered specimens made it out the back door following the bankruptcy, but the only ones I’ve seen they are incredibly overpriced.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Homerun
Derby #19 #/2500

This is one of the better designs in all of 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars, but as it is foilboard scans will never do it justice. It always comes across too dark, and the fact that this whole set is bathed in blues and browns only darken it further.

The back is perfect with elements from the front that carry over nicely. It’s a little strange that this set came out in December of 1998, just shy of six months after Griffey WON the Derby that year, and yet his blurb references only his 1994 win and his massive 451 ft. shot from the previous year (which Tino Martinez won). It’s even stranger that Junior’s 1998 win made him the first player ever to win multiple derbies (two other guys have done this since him), and Griffey remains the only player to have won three, so you would think his being the first multiple derby winner is significant enough to mention.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Major League
Hard Drives #4 #/2500

Once again we see design pertaining to a theme: “Hard Drive” being both a computer term (this was just pre-tech boom) and baseballs being hit very hard, I guess. The little Star of Bethlehem at the bottom may be my favorite bit of holofoil in the whole set. Check out the background (in the field of blue at the bottom) made up of microchips and circuit boards – you know, computer stuff.

The back is my favorite, though, just for that lovely diagram of hits. I’m a sucker for creative stat visuals in lieu of simple boxes of numbers. And the circuit board background is a lot more prevalent here. Whattaya know? Leaf DOES know how to stick to a theme.

I want my CD die-cut!

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars MVP #7 #/5000

See the red banners on the right? Those are blue for the National League players and purple for the "Pennant Edition" which was comprised of the first 500 serial numbers.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars MVP #7 #/5000
Pennant Edition #/500 (courtesy of
Jeremy Strauss)

As you can see they were very careful to put a tiny “Leaf” above the words “MVP” so as not to confuse anyone that these guys may or may not be the actual MVP’s (the Football version of 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars had an insert called “MVP Contenders” which makes a little more sense to me).

Now it just so happens Griffey really was the MVP of the American League in 1997, and Larry Walker was MVP of the NL. It might have been fun if they left the little “Leaf” qualifier off of just their cards. Or at least it may have been if Larry had gotten a card in this set. That’s right, the previous year’s NL MVP did not get a card in this MVP insert. What? I’m not a massive Larry Walker fan, but he appears in other inserts here and even started the 1998 MLB All-Star Game for the NL – what gives?

Honestly it’s not that weird. This set came out in December of ’98 which means these checklists were based on 1998 stats, and Larry just didn’t have as good a year in ‘98 as he did when he won the MVP. Maybe I’m too used to sets coming out in the first few months of the year when the previous MVP’s still have their titles.

I love the All-Star lineup on the back here. Bear in mind these are the LEAF MVP’s, not necessarily the real ones. That said, sometimes it IS the real ones, at least in the case of Juan Gonzalez who was the real AL MVP In 1998.

However, Sammy Sosa, the 1998 NL MVP by a wide margin, did not get a card in this insert. In fact, NL MVP Sammy didn’t make it into ANY inserts in 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars. None. Leaf did put him on a couple of “Sultans of Swat” checklist subset cards (along with Mark McGwire) for his iMpResSiVe***** home* run* production**, but everything outside of the base set is utterly Sosa-less. Sammy’s place in the RF slot on the NL cards was given instead to Tony Gwynn who got 11 MVP votes to Sammy’s 438. Also Tony led the NL in zero categories where Sammy led both the AL and NL in four**** (which is something even Griffey never did).

To recap: the 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars MVP insert is weird as neither the real 1997 nor 1998 NL MVP’s make an appearance in the checklist. Apparently being a LEAF MVP is an entirely different set of requirements. 

And let me remind you that this is the set that gave Mike Piazza THREE Great American Heroes insert cards.

There is a story here, and I want to know it. What did Sammy do? Or I guess I should say, what did he do that we were not yet aware of in 1998?

*yeah, you know what the asterisks mean.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars
StandingOvations#3 #/5000

This is the Leafiest design in the set and features a big chunk of holofoil in the same spot as that on the Hard Drives card. It also has more literal theme interpretation with the applauding crowd in the background. Check out the bowling reference in the text at the bottom.

It’s the same topic as Junior’s Greatest Hits card, complete with Jimmie Foxx reference. It’s maybe a little less impactful given we know he would eventually double up this number, but at the time it was almost certainly more exciting. There is no die-cut partial parallel for this one, but there should be. A real spiky one, too.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Ticket Masters
#1 #/2500 (w/ Alex Rodriguez)

There’s no real content here apart from a little basic player data and the photos themselves, but this still seems to be the most popular card from this particular set. It’s probably the attractive, clever design in concert with the relative scarcity (2500 is a small but not impossible print run) that has made these so popular. The player info hidden in the seat/row numbers of the ticket stub are friggin' adorable.

1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars Ticket Masters #3
#/2500 Die-Cut #/250 (w/ Alex Rodriguez)
(courtesy of Jeremy Strauss)

The first 250 of these were die-cut to look even more like two tickets, but that variation has gotten to be a little pricey for this Junkie.

Also if it’s a neat ticket design you want, once again Leaf was bested by Ultra. Their ticket insert from this same year, Ticket Studs, is designed to look exactly like a real ticket complete with accurate dimensions and little hologram and everything. Highly recommended.

Here are the Griffeys I need from 1998 Leaf Rookies & Stars:

#26 True Blue /500
#26 Longevity #/50
#131 Power Tools True Blue /500
#131 Power Tools Longevity #/50
#170 Team Lineup Longevity #/50
Extreme Measures #1 Die-Cut #/56
Great American Heroes #3 Sample
Leaf MVP’s #7 Pennant Edition Die-Cut #/5000 /500
Major League Hard Drives #4 Sample
Standing Ovations #3 Sample
Ticket Masters #1 Die-Cut #/2500 /250 (w/ Alex Rodriguez)

So pretty much all the rare stuff and samples.

The inserts here, bold and numerous as they were, defined this one-and-done set, and I'd have loved to see what they'd have given us in '99. Unfortunately there wouldn’t be a 1999 Leaf Rookies & Stars, or at least not a baseball one. In fact there wouldn’t be a 1999 Leaf baseball anything. There wouldn’t even be a 1999 Donruss until 2001 (lol – seriously, look it up).