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.

The Best Investment of 2022

Right before the New Year’s, Bob Saget’s 2004 Leaf’s Fan of the Game autographs were regularly selling for under $30. It was safe to say that the iconic comedian and actor’s best days were behind him, as far as mainstream success was concerned. Saget, 65, had recently embarked on a stand-up comedy tour and even dealt with a case of Covid-19 but had just performed a great show in Jacksonville when Death came knocking on his door.

For most of us 80s kids, Bob Saget was a fixture in our homes. At one point, you couldn’t escape his goofy smile, especially if you were a fan of America’s Funniest Home Videos (YouTube before the Internet) or Full House … in my case, it was both. I grew up on Bob Saget but admittedly forgot he existed after maybe 2001. I knew he was still around, occasionally showing up on TV shows and podcasts but for the most part, I steered clear.

His untimely death has dealt a blow that I did not expect, kind of like that Uncle you loved as a kid and then forget all about when you became an adult. A week prior to Saget’s death, legendary actress Betty White passed away. The story made national headlines but was forgotten days later. Saget, however, to my surprise, has hit a note with friends, family, and fans. I’ve not seen an outpouring of tributes for a death like this since Robin Williams.

This brings us back to 2004 Leaf’s Fans of the Game. Prior to his death, you couldn’t give these things away. Now, you can’t buy one for less than $200, which is a 600% increase and one hell of an investment if you got in on the ground floor. In all seriousness, Fans of the Game continues to be one of the most important celebrity-themed insert sets of our lifetime. The set already included a James Gandolfini autograph.

For those unfamiliar with 2004’s Fans of the Game, the insert set includes many important signatures from the late, great Stan Lee, Olympic legends, Michael Phelps and Caitlyn Jenner (pre-transition, Bruce), Tony Hawk, Charlie Sheen, and a bevy of other celebrities. These cards were part of a multi-brand promotion and could be found in 2004’s Absolute Memorabilia, Donruss Elite, Leather & Lumber, Throwback Threads, and Studio.

6ix9ine Set to Trigger Many Boomers in The Hobby

I give Leaf Trading Cards’ Brian Gray a lot of grief. To me, Leaf’s run in the mid to late-90s was as good as it could get. When I heard Brian had purchased the licensing rights to the defunct Leaf, I was terrified and rightly so. Previously, Brian was known for Razor Collectibles, a start-up card manufacturer that signed 42 MLB draftees to exclusive contracts for 2008. Unfortunately for fans of Razor, the two biggest draft picks that year, Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton, both signed cards for Topps’ Bowman line.

When it comes to baseball cards, I am just not a fan of much of Leaf’s offerings due to lack of MLB logos and what in my opinion, are subpar designs. There is however, one area where Brian Grey has consistently delivered great content. When it comes to non-sports trading cards, Leaf hands down is at the top of the mountain and no one has yet to come close. For example, compare any year Allen & Ginter’s celebrity autograph checklist and it is quickly toppled by 1/3 of any of Pop Century’s checklist.

This year is set to be Pop Century’s most successful year with the release of 2021 Leaf Metal Pop Century. Brian has accumulated a who’s who of Hollywood but it’s one specific inclusion that is set to cause some serious commotion in the hobby. Brian has managed to get controversial rapper, ‘6ix9ine’, to sign stickers for what will be his trading card debut. For those unaware, 69 is a rapper who is under protection 24 hours a day as a result of “snitching” on several associates of his who were planning on murdering him.

Don’t get me wrong, 69 is an obnoxious personality, a convicted felon, and creates what is maybe the worst music on the planet. The fact that Brian Grey was able to get ahold of 69’s people and even have stickers delivered to his location, which changes from week to week, is a miracle. That these cards actually made it into production is an even bigger miracle and when they hit the secondary market, you can expect to see some hefty figures rolling in, especially with the more colorful parallels.

The genius in releasing this card to the masses is simple: 6ix9ine is living on borrowed time. This Leaf Metal Pop Century is 69’s rookie card (with an autograph) and odds are there won’t be any second year cards. If there are, the rookie will be where its at and guys like 69 don’t live long, anyway. Just yesterday, on the date Leaf Metal Pop Century was released, a 36 year-old rapper named Young Dolph was murdered. If 69 meets that same fate tomorrow or even years from now, this card will become an instant classic.

You can find boxes of 2021 Leaf Metal Pop Century on sale now ranging anywhere between $250-$300 per box. Considering there are just 4 cards in the box, most collectors will likely run to eBay to pick up their desired singles. The checklist is immense and there are several celebrities, much more renowned than a guy named after a sexual position, who have never signed cards prior to Leaf Metal Pop Century. You can view a checklist from the Cardboard Connection HERE.

The Revenge of Frankenstein

In my younger days as a collector and blogger, I was a bit of an elitist snob. If a product didn’t originate from a major manufacturer, I would turn my nose up. If the certified autograph came on a sticker rather than on-card, I’d spend my time bashing it on forums like I was being paid to do so. I accepted only Topps & Upper Deck for my modern collecting and spent hours reminiscing about the good old days of Pinnacle, Fleer, and Donruss. Maybe it was age (I’m 41 now) or maybe just flat out acceptance that the old days are dead but I’ve finally given in. Today, I spend money on unlicensed baseball cards with sticker autographs like it’s no one’s business and I’m perfectly okay with it.

There is however one last hill for me to lay down on and die and it is something that even Father Time has not been able to soothe for me. That sin is Leaf baseball cards with jerseys as photographs instead of athletes. In my eyes, a baseball card has stats or authentication information on the back and a photo of the athlete on the front. Go ahead and add 45 different Refractor patterns, and unlimited pieces of chipped bats, gloves, jerseys. Slap a sticker or two or four on it and whatever else you’d like. At the end of the day, as long as I see a player on the front and stats or authentication notes on the back, I am happy. What is coming out of 2021 Leaf Ultimate Sports, however, is a crime against collectors.

The card you see below, titled “Ocho”, which means 8 in case you didn’t take Spanish in Middle School, features 8 pieces of game-used memorabilia. The theme of the card is to show 8 great players from a single franchise, this one being the San Francisco Giants. What is startling to me is that Leaf couldn’t even keep a single theme in place as there are 5 patches and 3 bats. Worst of all, some of the patches aren’t even from the Giants, which completely defeats the entire purpose of the card. What makes matters worse, as you can probably imagine, is there are no photos of athletes just generic jerseys. The asking price on this failed aborted piece of cardboard is $500 on eBay.

If I were to spend $500 on a baseball card, anything from Leaf Ultimate Sports would be at the very bottom of my list. I’d much rather own an on-card Willie Mays autograph, which believe it or not does exist. The 1996 Topps 1964 Retro (see below) on-card autographs sell between $200-$250 on average when they pop-up. It sure beats owning a tiny chip of Mays’ bat with a jersey as the photo. As for Bonds, a notorious hard autograph to obtain, he’s appeared on Topps and Fleer products in the past and all on-card. You can find his autographs on eBay between $125-$200 all day long. There are much fancier copies available, sure, but if you want on-card and Hall of Fame (plus Bonds) , these specific two can’t be beat.

As for the other players on the ‘Ocho’ card, they have their accolades and their fan base I’m sure but none of them are really worthy of being on the same card as Bonds and Mays. I certainly would find myself frustrated after pulling a Gaylord Perry or Jeff Kent game-used memorabilia card out of a nearly $500 per box, 3-card product like 2021 Leaf Ultimate Sports. I’ve never been a gambler so to me that is a scary prospect but I guess they all can’t be Mike Trout and Ohtani autographs. I also forgot to mention earlier, this exact card numbered to 30 sold for less than $60. If pulling a $60 card from a $500 box doesn’t scare you away from collecting, nothing ever will.

My advice to everyone reading is to not spend money on these Leaf Frankenstein memorabilia cards but instead look into late-90s, early-2000s certified autographs from Topps, Upper Deck, & Fleer. Hell, anything pre-2007 is still dirt cheap compared to autographs from today that have 30 different parallels all that go up in price as the serial number gets lower. Look into the past if you want to save some money and add to your collection but don’t wait too long because just like unopened boxes from the 90s have dried up and skyrocketed in price, so too will these forgotten, on-card certified autographs from the glory days of collecting.

See, there I go again …dreaming of the past like 2022 isn’t right around the corner.

Flashback: The Hobby Death of Stan Musial (and Leaf’s Response)

Originally published April 13th, 2015 at Wax Heaven 2.0

Not long ago, I wrote about Stan “The Man” Musial signing cards way too late into his life and tarnishing his hobby legacy, not to mention the value of his autograph. You can imagine my shock when I discovered 2015 Heroes of Baseball, featuring a Stan Musial sticker autograph per box for around $30-$40. The problem is that if you think you’ve seen some lousy Musial autographs before, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Do a quick search on eBay and see for yourself. These Leaf cards look like Topps rejects that Musial’s estate likely sold off to the highest bidder. Much like the awful sketch cards Leaf has produced in the past, Brian Grey should be ashamed to put Leaf Trading Cards’ historic name on these monstrosities. What’s sad is that the base cards in the set look great, featuring great photographs and a clean design. Unfortunately, in today’s market not a single box would sell without the guaranteed autograph of a beloved Hall of Fame legend like Musial.

When I returned to collecting early this year, I was ecstatic about Leaf after purchasing my amazing ‘Q’ Jose Canseco card. I was surprised when I started seeing nothing but negative comments towards the company’s other products. My opinion was saved by Gregg Kohn of Leaf after he divulged that his company had some huge plans for the next two years. We already know they made a deal with the Babe Ruth estate, could a similar Ruth set be in the works? Probably.

The problem is that much like Jose Canseco and Pete Rose autographs, prices are hitting all-time lows due to mass production from companies like Leaf and Panini America. There are already WAY too many Musial autographs and these less than stellar stickers Leaf is releasing have pretty much put the nail in the coffin. Was it worth it? I don’t think so but I’m also not an expert on how business works in the trading card world. I am sure at the end of the day, a profit will be earned and that’s all that really matters to executives.

Much like Panini America has finally hit their stride with the resurrection of Donruss Baseball and what’s likely going to be a huge hit with 2015 Prizm, I expected the same from Leaf Trading Cards. I’ve already given up on Upper Deck re-entering the baseball card market and was looking for a challenger to Topps’ throne but it appears that I was wrong by expecting Leaf to be “the one”.

Obviously, I trust Gregg’s word and what he says but someone should have stopped this disaster of a product from happening. Don’t get me wrong, I love these kind of sets and still have ‘The Jose Canseco Story’ line from the late 80s which came with a mini Canseco binder, 20 unofficial but licensed cards, plus a mini vinyl record to play on your home stereo featuring an interview with the still green Canseco ripping up the English language. This, however, is much different.

Surely, someone at Leaf would have known that these autographs were in no shape to be used for any product. Someone, maybe even Gregg must have gone to Brian Grey and pleaded with him not to release such a shoddy autograph sticker set with their name plastered on each card? Someone must have known these horrendous autographs would bring down the value of all Musial autos, right?

I GUESS NOT.


(PART TWO)

Yesterday, I wrote a piece on Leaf’s Heroes of Baseball product which features questionable Stan Musial sticker autographs. Unexpectedly, it caught fire on Twitter which caught the attention of Leaf Trading Card’s CEO, Brian Gray. Below is his response, 100% word for word and unedited.

— — —

The Rebirth of Stan Musial (and why it is GOOD for the Hobby)

Let me start by saying that I am a fan of Mario’s column. It is refreshing to see someone passionate about the hobby. This can sometimes lead to forgetting the business side of the equation, but even then I see Mario making major strides to adapt to the realities of the hobby.

Today, I read a column by Mario and frankly I felt very strongly that it was a one-sided view of a release that unarguably presents a more than one-sided reality.
Leaf released exclusively through Target, 2015 Leaf Heroes of Sport Boxes. This release was designed to do two things: (1) provide the market its most inexpensive way ever to collect the autograph of the man that was the last of the golden era and (2) to supply an opportunity for collectors to collect legends products inexpensively in blaster form.

Why does the hobby need inexpensive Musial autographs? After all, the man signed for the hobby for nearly 20 years. The fact is that the only collectors who realistically had a chance of ever obtaining a Musial autograph from a pack are those collectors in the hobby who buy $60-500 “HOBBY” products. We sometimes forget that the “HOBBY” consists of far more people than those collectors purchasing non-retail products. In fact, I would argue that the growth of our industry will be directly driven by the collectors who transition from “RETAIL BUYERS” to “HOBBY BUYERS”. Like our Rose release before this, this set is a HUGELY positive thing for those “RETAIL” buyers who will never get value like this from a retail product.

I think it’s about time , as an industry, we accept the fact that we will not be fans of everything released. That is why we get to vote with our wallets. However, for many less advanced collectors, this is the PERFECT chance to enjoy a GUARANTEED opportunity to acquire the autograph of a true legend at the best price ever available to these customers.

With all this being said, I additionally disagree about the implication that these were reject signatures. Stan was a very sick man the last several years of his life. FOR COLLECTORS, he continued to sign despite the great difficulty he had. What the original post fails to recognize is that this is the same Musial autograph you would have pulled out of a $100-400 box of cards during his last few years as well! The attached images show exactly why these signatures are typical (not atypical as the implication was made). Moreover, we made the decision not to use over 1000 signatures that we found unacceptable.

My personal opinion would be to recognize the good heart of the man willing to sign despite his illness, rather than essentially criticize, berate and insult him for not being able to sign any better due to illness.

If Leaf had not acquired and utilized these as it did, they very well may have been acquired elsewhere and ended up in your favorite $60-500 hobby box instead. Maybe Leaf did the hobby a second service (in addition to value at Retail)?

In summary, I appreciate those who support our brand. In making an item like this, we do carefully consider the result of our efforts. The item has been VERY successful at retail and I have every confidence it will achieve its end game of bringing more people to buy “HOBBY” products in hope of finding desirable autograph cards.

For these reasons, I believe Leaf has done the hobby a service that deserves applause for its good for the “Hobby” rather than unfair criticism based on a far too narrow perspective of the product and its reason for existing.

Brian Gray,
CEO, Leaf Trading cards