Lightning Never Strikes (Donruss) Twice

1995 must have been a tough year for baseball card manufacturers. For starters, a baseball strike cut short a historic home run chase between Ken Griffey Jr. & Matt Williams and canceled the World Series. Fans were furious and attendance would suffer for years to come. I can’t imagine there was much anticipation for new releases that year and from the research I’ve done, it appears several companies produced much less product than usual due to what many believed would be a downturn for business.

One company, which was owned by Pinnacle Brands, would go on to release perhaps one of the most peculiar and flat-out strangest designs we’ve ever seen, with baseball cards that resembled debit/credit cards. In hindsight, Donruss Studio was way ahead of the times. In 1990, there were 300 million transactions made with debit cards, just 14 years after 1995 Studio, there were 39 billion transactions, which leads me to believe Studio likely deserves some credit for that growth.

As usual with Pinnacle Brands, collectors weren’t ready to think outside the box and the product tanked. It probably wasn’t the best idea to release cards of millionaire ball players on literal credit cards during a baseball strike that caused fans to turn on the players for they perceived as greed. For me personally, I loved 1995 Studio and it’s easily one of my favorite designs of the 90s. The set featured no certified autographs or serial numbered cards, which were still new-ish concepts in 1995 but it got collectors talking.

What I didn’t know was that in 2002, Donruss went back to the well to recreate their infamous 1995 design. Just as it failed in 1995, it repeated the performance in 2002. By then, Donruss was a company on its last legs. Pinnacle Brands had long filed for bankruptcy and Upper Deck had been the King of Baseball Cards for nearly a decade. What no one knew was that in just a few years, Topps Company would introduce the 1/1 Superfractor, which mixed with their Bowman lines, would make every other card manufacturer obsolete.

Also, what a contrast between the player on both images. In 1995, Griffey Jr. was destined to be the new Home Run King, easily on pace to surpass Hank Aaron’s immortal spot in baseball. By the time he appeared in 2002 Donruss Studio, Junior had become injury prone and had lost his smile. The shine was off the apple, the records were no longer in sight, and he had been surpassed in popularity by a new crop of superstars, not to mention a behemoth named Barry Bonds.

My only experience with Kenny was after a Marlins game in which several of Cincinatti’s squad signed and posed for pictures with the Florida Marlins fans but Griffey Jr. walked out in a business suit and a smug look on his face and ignored every kid who begged for his attention. Luckily, Austin Kearns and Bucky Dent, who was a coach at the time, spent nearly 20 minutes with the rival team’s fans signing away until they were practically dragged to their bus. I’ll never forget how miserable Ken Griffey Jr. looked.

Am I A Joke To You?

Twenty-one years ago, Jose Canseco was pushed out of Major League Baseball. Topps Company, who was still years away from their monopoly reign, followed suit and stopped producing cards of Jose not long after, in the same way that they stopped the presses on Pete Rose. As a Canseco Super Collector, the pickings were slim but something amazing happened in 2014, Jose was back in the good graces of the now official MLB trading card company, Topps. The first few issues featured some wonderful, never before seen photographs. I couldn’t have been happier as a collector.

Unfortunately, a lot can happen in 8 years. For starters, Topps massively overproduced Canseco autographs. Where once upon a time, Canseco certified autographs (non-numbered) sold in the range of $70-$80, these days you can find them dirty cheap for well under $20 thanks to a never-ending wave of new signatures in nearly every Topps release. Worst of all, since 2014, Topps has used Getty Images for their photographs and for one reason or another, keep going back to the same 4-5 images for essentially, over 500 different Jose Canseco baseball cards.

Below is 2022 Topps Gypsy Queen, one of my least favorite Topps products ever. This year’s design is neat, although I’m not sure the world needs another Jose Canseco certified autograph ever again. As for the image, it’s one Topps has used over and over again in products such as Stadium Club, Five Star, and others. It’s been used to death, and you’ll be surprised to know Getty Images has had over 400 new images of Jose Canseco uploaded to their hub since 2014. So, either Topps has an unlimited license for a small amount of images they paid for … or they just do not care.

This is why I have stopped supporting Topps with my money or anything else for the matter. I understand it is a luxury to be able to pull ANY Jose Canseco card in 2022 considering he’s been retired for over two decades and is a complete fool even in his old age … but for the premium price tag of new product, there should be some attention paid to design and photography selection. The way things are going with Fanatics, specifically the decisions being made by Josh Luber, it’s not going to be a good decade of collecting for me and other super collector of retired players.

Further reading: Photograph Recycling: Sign of the Times or Financial Ruin?

A Lost Friendship & Massive Oversight

During this blog’s infancy, a friendship was forged through the love of Jose Canseco. As far as Super Collectors of Jose go, most aren’t overly friendly. If anything, they take on certain characteristics of Jose which aren’t the greatest. Most are arrogant, desperate for the hobby limelight, and love to throw around money like it’s going out of style. This fella, however, was different. His name was Bryan and for a long time, he was “THE MAN” when it came to Canseco collections.

For a year or so, we spent countless hours talking by phone or email about Jose and his various baseball cards, which I know without doubt, Bryan had them all. I never got into talking money or even making a trade with Bryan because at the time, I was unemployed and lacked funds and there was nothing I had in my collection worth trading for. I was just happy to be a friend and to have an opportunity to check out the scans of his collection he’d occasionally send me.

One day, out of the blue, Bryan called me to tell me he was getting a divorce and was going to sell off his collection. I was devastated because I knew our friendship would likely take a hit but also because I knew if I could somehow come up with $5,000-$7,000, I could probably get the greatest discount on part or all of the most amazing collection of Jose Canseco cards known to man (at the time). Unfortunately, due to my financial situation, it wasn’t even an option and I never even brought it up.

As expected, Bryan and I lost touch and it was around that same time that my own marriage fell apart and I was forced to shut down the blog at the height of its popularity to pack my things and move (minus my computer). It was a hard time but on my last day at home, a package from Bryan came in the mail, which contained over 500 Jose Canseco cards. I was shook. I called to thank him but he didn’t pick up. Over the next few weeks I made several attempts to reach out but ultimately, I never spoke to Bryan again.

That brings us to today. One of those cards Bryan sent was a 2008 Newark Bears Jose Canseco. There’s nothing special about the card, really. It’s a bad photograph on a colorless, independent league issue. Quite honestly, considering Jose’s career status when he played with Newark, it’s actually a bit depressing. Thanks to it’s incredibly limited run, however, it’s easily a $100 card today. It’s actually so rare that a copy of the card has not hit eBay in all of 2022. That’s actually quite impressive.

Having spoken about the card previously, a reader and fellow collector sent an email asking if by chance I had the 2002 Newark Bears Lance Johnson. Unfortunately, I did not but it got me thinking … when was the last time I saw a Lance Johnson pack-inserted, certified autograph. Turns out, I did not remember because believe it or not, one does not exist! Today, there are hundreds of autographs of players who will never make the Big League in every Topps & Panini product, but not a single Lance Johnson.

Hell, Santa Claus, Topps’ creepy ‘Rip Master’, and even this ridiculous Bowman Scout has an autograph but not Lance Johnson. Okay, Johnson was no Rickey Henderson but the man led the league in Triples five times and in back to back seasons led the league in hits. How is it that this forgotten star has not been included at the very least, in Topps Archives Signature Series Retired Player Edition? Dan Uggla has over 500 certified autographs and Lance Johnson has none?!?

So I began to do some research and even asked Hobby Twitter who was the best modern era player to never have an autograph released by Topps/Panini & Leaf/Upper Deck. Shockingly, no one could come up with a bigger name than Lance Johnson. Is this the biggest oversight in baseball cards ever? Can anyone name a more established, well-rounded, and flat out better player to have never signed? Does anyone know why? One Dog, as he was known, has no social media. Is he a recluse? The collecting world wants to know …

The Yankees Prospect Curse Continues

I’m not your typical New York Yankees hater. While I’ve never jumped on any Yankees bandwagon, good or bad, my second favorite New York baseball team sure seems to have prospects falling over themselves trying to ruin their careers. It started with Brien Taylor, the #1 overall draft pick of 1992, who signed for a then unheard of $1.5 million dollars but never made it to The Show due to an injury sustained in a fight.

For those unaware of just how big of a deal Brien was, Topps Company chose Taylor as the first player included as a certified autograph in a Topps brand. Yes, Topps chose Taylor as their inaugural autograph despite guys like Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle being readily available. For context, Upper Deck beat Topps to the punch two years prior and chose Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson, as their first autograph.

Not long after Brien’s sad fate we had the Yankees’ Ruben Rivera, who was being touted everywhere as the “Next Mickey Mantle” by publications like Beckett Baseball. By 1996, the word was out and everyone was expecting big things from Rivera, who hit 33 bombs and drove in 101 runners, while also managing to steal 48 bases in the Minors in 1994. The future looked bright for Ruben and the Yankees.

Ruben was eventually released after stealing a glove from fellow teammate, Derek Jeter. Rivera played less than 100 games for the Yankees and through parts of 9 MLB seasons, never put up numbers anywhere close to his amazing 1994 season. As of 2019, 46-year-old Rivera was hitting bombs in Mexico, where he had become somewhat of a baseball legend. Between MiLB, MLB, and Independent/Mexican leagues, Ruben hit 504 home runs.

That brings us to 2022 and the story of Jake Sanford, a 24-year-old, 3rd round draft pick from 2019, who followed closely in Rivera’s footsteps by stealing his teammates’ equipment. Sanford, not to be outdone, also made several online deals through social media and decided to rip people off by not sending over the goods after receiving payment, which is one level worse than Ruben Rivera.

Having no shame, the Ottawa Titans, an independent league team, immediately signed Sanford to a contract after the Yankees washed their hands clean of Jake. As of May 19th, Sanford has deactivated both his Twitter and Instagram accounts but you can still get to see your former, favorite Yankees prospects if you’re in Canada and certain U.S states by checking out the Titans’ schedule HERE.

Leaf is Just Existing

As a lifelong baseball card collector (and opinionated blogger), I believe I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve spent 31 of my 42 years on Earth engulfed in this hobby. As a writer, I’ve studied the trading card industry for fifteen years and have written over 3,000 articles on the subject. During that time, I’ve addressed industry scandals, new product previews/reviews, and covered the secondary market extensively. I cover the hobby fairly and right down the middle. If anything, Panini America has perhaps the worst coverage on my website because quite honestly, they are the biggest cardboard criminals around, but it’s always Leaf or more specifically, their C.E.O., Brian Gray, who I have the most interaction with.

For those who aren’t familiar, Brian Gray once paid a hell of a lot of money to sign 42 MLB draftees to exclusive trading card deals for the debut of 2008 Razor Signature Series. This move was a big deal, as Brian was looking to take on the establishment, AKA Topps Company & Upper Deck and for a while, there was quite a bit of hype thanks in part to a popular forum shilling Razor products on overtime. As it turns out, not even Freedom Cardboard could help as 2008 wasn’t the best draft class and what ultimately would be that year’s most accomplished player, Buster Posey, didn’t sign an exclusive deal and appeared in Topps’ dominant Bowman products.

Unfortunately for Brian, through no fault of his own, Razor failed miserably. Upper Deck’s debut may have toppled (see what I did there?) Topps in 1989 but in 2008 the card market was a different beast and there was no way a newcomer would be able to survive without logos or an elite design team and Razor had neither. By the end of 2009, Razor as a baseball card company had been lapped by Topps & Upper Deck and was somehow even worse off than Tristar. Something had to be done to wash the bad taste Razor left in the mouths of collectors, so Brian went and purchased the Leaf Trading Card brands and that brings us to modern day, as in 2022.

If baseball cards with pictures of jerseys are your thing, you are probably a diehard Leaf collector. If sticker dumps with dying legends barely able to sign legibly and disgraced gambling degenerates are your thing, you probably LOVE Leaf. If baseball cards that look like they were designed on Microsoft Paint by a 40-year-old who still listens to Korn & Limp Bizkit in 2022, Leaf is your go-to company and you will defend them as if your paycheck depended on it. I believe Brian had an amazing opportunity to put his company in a place to be able to compete with the establishment but instead decided to live off the hard work of a brand he had absolutely no involvement with.

Twelve years after Razor became Leaf (in name only), I still see only one great thing the company has done in its time and that is Leaf Memories, which gave us buyback rookies not available anywhere else of players such as Frank Thomas. Again, the only credit I can give to Brian here is the booking of talent to sign and the small Memories stamp all the cards carry because the design and photography belong to the original Leaf company and even the signature placement was the player’s decision. It reminds me of a new record company releasing and re-releasing a legacy band’s greatest hits over and over again. It’s special but only thanks to the hard work produced prior to the money grab.

Years ago, I was optimistic that Brian’s version of Leaf Trading Cards would one day become something special, maybe even battle for MLB licensing but after seeing over a decade of bland, forgettable products, I’ve come to the realization that Leaf (in name only!) will always be a poor man’s baseball card company. If Topps is compared to Target, Razor/Leaf would be the equivalent of the Dollar General outside of the ghetto that has all the stock in boxes down the aisle and just one employee running the entire store. Yes, there will be customers, but collectors aren’t exactly picky and, in this climate, at least for another 3-6 months, everything will sell out, even this trash.