The 1990s began as a time of overproduction in the trading card industry. In some aspects, it ended the same way. While individual set production numbers decreased, the quantity of sets released grew tremendously. Of course, quantity doesn't equal quality. A number of bad sets reached the market, but the presence of the bad sets also succeeded in highlighting the great ones.
The following is a list of the top five baseball sets, the releases that made baseball card collecting in the 1990s the most exciting decade in the history of the hobby:
1990 Leaf -- One of the first sets of the 1990s is also one of the greatest. Plus, it continues to get better over time. At the height of overproduction, this set boasted a low production run, outstanding player selection, and a simple but elegant design. Featuring rookie cards of Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas, and Larry Walker as well as early cards of Ken Griffey, Jr., Greg Maddux, and Albert Belle, this set represents everything positive about collecting: long-term value and high-quality.
1992 Bowman -- Bowman boasts that it's the home of the rookie card. That statement was never more evident than in this 1992 release. Like the '90 Leaf set, the design and player selection are top-notch. But it's the rookies and first year cards, such as Mike Piazza, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and Chipper Jones, that make this set a crucial part of every collection.
1993 Topps Finest -- The secondary market value of this set has dropped in recent years, but its impact on the hobby (positive and negative) is undeniable. Finest was the first "super-premium" set to reach the market. The Refractor inserts were short-printed, and the increased cost of the packs appalled many collectors. Some thought it was crazy to pay $5 or more for one wax pack. Yet when compared to the $10 and $15 dollar packs available today, Finest was a relative steal.
1993 Upper Deck SP -- Today, this set is synonymous with the Derek Jeter rookie card. But even before Jeter's card blew up, this set made an impact with its all-foil rookie cards. Although traditional collectors abhor it, foil became a common element of many sets released during the decade. The late '90s saw a moderate backlash against foil, but it continues to be used in a number of sets. A second impact of this set is that foil rookies are extremely condition-sensitive. As grading has become a prevalent aspect of the hobby, finding perfect examples has proven to be extremely difficult.
1998 Fleer Tradition Update -- This release marked the return of the update set. In the mid-1980s, update (or traded) sets were some of the most anticipated hobby releases. Hot rookies not featured in the base sets were available exclusively in these sets. In the late '80s and early '90s, update sets became forgotten. With the anticipation of J.D. Drew's major league debut, Fleer rolled out this gem in 1998, which capitalized on both the rookie card revival and renewed interest in the forgotten update sets of the past. The result was a hobby home run.