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).