Something spectacular and unexpected happened in 1996 that flew completely under the radar. That was the year Pinnacle Brands purchased Donruss and Leaf Trading Cards. At the time, Pinnacle was just five years removed from their debut but now were clearly on the fast path to becoming the premier baseball card manufacturer. Collectors were in for one hell of a roller coaster ride, though. First, Pinnacle gave us the “pack per auto” gimmick with Leaf Signature Series in 1996. The following year, we were introduced to the first printing plate & “one of one” (New Pinnacle), as well as a high-end line where every single card was serial numbered, as was the actual box (Totally Certified). In 1998, we were blessed with what is arguably the greatest insert set of all-time (Donruss Crusade) and a few short months later, the ride was over and Pinnacle filed for bankruptcy protection.
With ’96 Leaf Signature, Pinnacle gave collectors the ultimate cheat code. No longer were the odds 1:1,000,000 to find a certified autograph in a pack of cards. All you needed was a $20 bill and you were rewarded with a guaranteed pack that included a signature. For many collectors, ’96 Leaf Signature was the autograph cherry popper. If you began collecting between 2000 to 2019, you will never truly understand how difficult and rare it was for a collector to find a certified autograph in a pack of cards. Not only was it almost a once in a lifetime experience, we were completely fine with it. This was a time when it was obvious that card companies were focused on a supreme design and excellent photography selection. Autographs were a bonus to collectors and since companies didn’t need to fill a set with 20k or more, budgets were spent on aesthetics.
Leaf Signature Series was far from perfect in 1996, which is probably why it didn’t return the next year. Instead, Pinnacle introduced a better-designed, parallel-fueled brand. Donruss Signature Series will go down in history as one of the best products of all-time and perhaps the true beginning of the pack-inserted, certified autograph craze that is still running rampant over two decades since it’s debut. The checklist alone makes this one of the single greatest releases ever but when you also add the fact that every card was hard signed, you have something truly amazing that sadly, will never be replicated. Donruss Signature Series, under the helm of Pinnacle Brands, released over 400 autographed cards without a single redemption and not one fucking sticker. That is a fact that should blow every single collector’s mind. It’s expensive but entirely possible to do in 2019.
*edit – apparently, Sandy Koufax was the lone redemption
**edit – also, Cal Ripken Jr. only signed 375 of his 1,000 cards (SSP!)
I could write an entire book alone on the historic checklist of ’97 Donruss Signature Series. It featured superstars of the time, like Juan Gonzalez and Mike Piazza, as well as older stars such as Will Clark and Wade Boggs. Donruss Signature also included plenty of promising young players such as Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones, and Manny Ramirez. Somehow, the checklist is seemingly as full of semistars as it is Hall of Famers and sadly, many players who are no longer with us. This is a must-buy if you’re in the market for on-card, not cut signature of Tony Gwynn, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, and several others. It may truly be the most perfect autograph checklist this hobby has ever seen or will ever come close to seeing again. Oh, and of course, there are some duds but even those can be forgiven considering many of those lesser-known players never had any other certified autograph cards in their careers. This was long before Topps Archives.
Pinnacle Brand’s shocking demise in 1998 is tragic because not only did some truly memorable brands of their own go down with the ship but their bankruptcy also took down Donruss, Leaf, and Score all during periods when these brands were on fire. Eventually, Panini America resurrected Donruss and Brian Gray, Leaf, but these companies today are shells of their former self. The magic of brands like Donruss and Leaf died with Pinnacle in 1998 and today, these licenses are abused on shoddy and embarrassing products year after year. One could only imagine what could have been had Pinnacle Brands stayed in business into the 2000s. Perhaps we wouldn’t be here in the middle of another baseball card monopoly. No one can be certain but one thing is for sure; Pinnacle’s death would start a domino effect in #TheHobby that didn’t end until Pacific, Fleer, and Upper Deck were all victims and there was only one company left to rule.