Diamonds in the Junk – 1991 Leaf Series 1 Baseball

For collectors of a certain age there is something oddly comforting about junk wax cards. Far too many were printed, they’re littered with quasi-errors and print issues, and “rare” chase cards are numbered in the thousands. However, they are also full of players who are now in their respective halls of fame, the cards are necessary parts of many PSA Set Registries and a $5 or $10 investment can still bring hours of enjoyment. Not a bad deal. Here is the latest installment in the PSA Blog series called Diamonds in the Junk, where we crack some junk wax, review the results, relate them to the hobby today and have fun along the way. Today I review 1991 Leaf Series I baseball cards.

THE SET

Oh man, do I remember the fervor surrounding the release of the 1991 Leaf baseball cards. After many years in the role of Donruss’s Canadian twin, Leaf came out with what was then considered a premium set of 528 baseball cards in 1990. It was considered the set of the year by many collectors, and the Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey, Jr. cards were incredibly popular.

There was a lot of anticipation regarding Leaf’s follow-up issue in 1991, and when the cards were released a dash ensued to see who could actually find cards at retail prices before they went nuts on the secondary market. I found two boxes of Series I cards in a liquor store in Incline Village, Nevada, when my family was on vacation, and thought I had won the lottery. It was a few years later that the hobby began to realize that 1991 Leaf cards had been produced in much greater quantity than cards of the year before, and thus their value did not hold up.

Like they had the year before, Leaf released a 528-card set in 1991, that was broken up into two 264-card series. The card design is reminiscent of a framed photo with multiple layers of matting and features a large color photo on the front. Card backs are standard fare with annual and career statistics, biographical information and player head shot. There were no documented error cards in this set, which is something of a rarity for cards of this era. Similar to their Donruss brethren, Leaf cards inserted a card containing three perforated puzzle pieces into each pack. Twins HOF slugger Harmon Killebrew was the subject of the 1991 puzzle.

Lastly, and somewhat interestingly, a scan of the 1991 Leaf set in an annual card guide shows no rookie cards in the base set. Instead, Leaf issued a 24-card Gold Rookie set, with cards randomly inserted into packs. The passing of time shows that a number of the players featured didn’t end up having impressive careers (Todd Van Poppell, Scott Leius, Wade Taylor), but some of the subjects went on to make significant contributions to the game (Luis Gonzalez, Mo Vaughn, Mike Mussina, Jeff Bagwell, Ryan Klesko).

THE BREAK

I went big time on a box of 1991 Leaf Series I and plunked down a whole $12 for this premium junk wax. The box still had its factory cellophane wrapping and the shiny foil packs looked pretty cool when I opened it up. Something that I did not remember from back then is that the walls of the box were essentially double-lined in cardboard, making the box much sturdier than others and adding to the overall presentation of the packs. Pretty insignificant overall, but a nice touch.

Anyway, I jumped in and ripped with gusto. The foil packs gave way easily and though sturdier than wax packs, I was able to open them without any damage to the cards. The cards themselves brought back a lot of memories as I had assembled several of these sets nearly 30 years ago, and I enjoyed the experience.

As for the contents of the box… Well, collation was kind of all over the place. There are 540 cards that come out of a standard box (15 cards per pack X 36 packs). A complete Series I set contains just 264 cards, so I figured that I should be able to complete the task with one box. That, however, did not happen and I ended up 31 cards short of my goal. There are no guarantees on this kind of thing, but in some instances, I got up to four of the same card in this box. That might have been cool if it were someone noteworthy, but instead it was guys like Mike Scioscia, Dave Magadan, Lonnie Smith and Mark Davis. Solid ballplayers, but cards that were ultimately destined for the commons box.

I ended up pulling nine of the Gold Rookies from my box for a rate of 1 card:4 packs. Some were duds, but I did get two Mike Mussina cards and a Luis Gonzalez. These cards are plagued by gold foil that chips away very easily, but my group looked to be quite intact and would likely hold up well under the grader’s keen eye.

SUMMARY

These are cool cards for a project such as this because for a minimal amount of money you get something interesting to chase and the very real possibility of completing a set with a single box. I did decently with the Gold Rookies, but failed pretty badly in my quest for a set. Surprisingly, I fell two cards short of completing the Harmon Killebrew puzzle as well. One thing that I had forgotten about the Donruss and Leaf cards were how those little shavings from the puzzle cards got all over the place when the cards came out of the packs. After 36 packs I had those things all over my legs and the floor. Memories, yes, but not necessarily great ones.

One gripe I feel the need to register about these cards is the placement of the card number on the backs. It has been placed about 1/3 of the way down the card on the right-hand side. I’m right-handed, and when I am sorting cards the spot where the number sits is exactly where my right thumb naturally sits atop the stack as I’m sorting. It’s not your typical card-related complaint, but if I’m dropping the equivalent of a solid carnitas plate on a box of junk wax, I don’t feel that my sorting thumb should be the least bit inconvenienced. Yes, I am again showing my inner card diva, but such is life.

The Hall of Famer crop was pretty solid in this series, and I got at least two of each with the exception of Harold Baines and Rickey Henderson, who failed to make an appearance at all. In all this box was kind of a dud from a set builder’s perspective, but it would be pretty solid if I were attempting to build an autographed set of these cards. A blue Sharpie signature presents beautifully on these silver-bordered cards, and the abundance of duplicates would be beneficial when attempting to get cards signed through the mail. In fact, that might be the best possible use of 1991 Leaf cards, and a completely-signed set would be a fantastic tribute to the era.

THE DIAMOND IN THE JUNK: #77 David Justice

I looked over all of the cards that I got in this box and I am picking the David Justice card as my Diamond in the Junk. Just a couple of years into his career at this point, DJ’s laser-like focus and textbook lefty swing are just so sweet. The horizontal format is totally appropriate for the image. Leaf nailed it with this one.

OVERALL RIP GRADE: B

Posted by Todd Tobias

Todd Tobias is a longtime hobbyist and PSA staff member who is constantly on the hunt for vintage lacrosse issues and autographed cards for his American Football League (1960-1969) collection.

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