1960 LEAF BASEBALL, Plain Vanilla

Leaf's second baseball card set has largely faded into obscurity. Even so, it has a few Hall of Famers, some rarities, and at least one "whatever happened to him?" player...

Peter Putman


Leaf Brands may not be as well known to collectors as Topps or Fleer, but its origins go all the way back to several small Chicago-area confectioners that started operations in the 1920s and were consolidated in 1947. For more than 70 years, Leaf fed eager kids a steady diet of such treats as Rainblo and Pal bubble gum, Whoppers malted milk balls, and their own version of the popular "jawbreakers" hard candies, no doubt resulting in plenty of cavities and visits to the dentists.

In the 1940s, Leaf tried their hand in the trading card market with a packaged product called "Card-O," consisting of a slab of gum and a card of an airplane. In 1943, pictures of U.S. Navy warships were added, but the company didn't hit its stride until World War II and its associated paper shortages ended.


With the country itching to get back to normal and indulge once again in its favorite pastime - major league baseball - Leaf designed and printed a 98-card, skip-numbered set of baseball players in 1948, distributed with slabs of gum. This set, which is loaded with Hall of Famers and is notoriously difficult to find in high grade, has taken on legendary status, along with Leaf's 1949 football set.

1948 Leaf cards are infamous for centering issues and printing registration errors, not to mention a few typos here and there. That said, it was the first postwar set to be issued in color, unlike Bowman Gum's 1948 black-and-white offering. It also it predated Topps' first baseball cards by almost three years.

Given that baseball card production had essentially ground to a halt during the war, you'd think that the 1948 Leaf set would have been an instant hit. Yet, these were the last baseball cards to be produced by Leaf for twelve years. By the time Leaf decided to take another whack at it, the playing field had changed completely. Topps had become the king of cards, buying out its competitor Bowman Gum in 1956 and delegating Philadelphia-based Fleer to runner-up status.


Nonetheless, Leaf formed a partnership with Sports Novelties, Inc. in 1960 to print up and distribute a 144-card set of black-and-white baseball player photos. These trading cards would be distributed not with a slab of gum, nor a cookie, nor any other sweet treat. Instead, Leaf inexplicably placed a small marble into each pack of cards. (Some kids probably thought it was a jawbreaker, and tried to eat it anyway!)

The cards, which measured the standard 2 ½ x 3 ½" size, had a glossy photo of the player on the front, photographed against a vignette. The player's name appeared in boldfaced type below, along with his position and team. The obverse of each card featured a small baseball with "Genuine Baseball Photo" and the card number on its face. Each player's full name was listed again with position and team, followed by his vital statistics, a brief biography, and the player's lifetime and past year stats.


Some collectors have pointed out the obvious resemblance between 1960 Leaf and the 1948 set, particularly in the use of large, boldfaced player names below the photos. While the monochrome photos in the 1960 Leaf set are remarkably sharp, detailed, and free of printing defects, they still came up short against the 1960 Topps set's use of bold colors, its expansive roster of players, and countrywide distribution – not to mention those legendary slabs of bubble gum that lost their taste in about two minutes.

I still remember walking into Silverman's News and Tobacco store in Livingston, NJ to load up on packs of 1960 Topps. When they were out of stock, I bought 1960 Fleers, or 1960 Nu-Cards (I was a true baseball card junkie). While I don't recall ever seeing 1960 Leaf cards in the store, if I had bought a pack only to get a marble for my efforts, rest assured that would have been the last pack.

It was to be 25 years before the Leaf name appeared on another set of baseball cards. By then, Leaf had been bought by Finnish confectioner Huhtamäki Oyj and merged with the Donruss brand, previously owned by General Mills. Today, Leaf as a company is largely out of business, with its candy operations bought by Hershey Foods in 1996 and the trading card rights sold by Pinnacle at a bankruptcy auction in 1998.


Unlike the 1948 offering, there are no skipped numbers in this set which features Hall of Fame players Luis Aparicio (#1), Brooks Robinson (#27), Duke Snider (#37), Hoyt Wilhelm (#69), George "Sparky" Anderson (#125), Orlando Cepeda (#128), and Jim Bunning (#144). That's a pretty slim offering, compared to what Topps served up that year.


Even Fleer's 1960 Baseball Greats "old timers" set was full of Hall of Fame players, and Nu-Card's oversize 1960 "newspaper headline" set showcased plenty of retired and current baseball superstars. So, it's easy to understand why 1960 Leaf baseball didn't exactly set the collecting world on fire.

This scarcity of star players may also explain why so few 1960 Leaf cards have been graded by PSA – 3,637, as of this writing. While it's more than double the number of graded 1960 Nu-Cards, it's only one-third the number of 1960 Fleer cards that have been slabbed. (To really put things into perspective, nearly 140,000 raw 1960 Topps cards have also passed through the PSA offices!)

That doesn't mean a complete set of 1960 Leaf baseball comes cheaply. The current SMR price for a complete set in NM-MT 8 condition is $4,770, but that doesn't include all the errors and variations. The first error card is #25 Jim Grant, which originally appeared with Brooks Lawrence's photo and was later corrected to show Grant's photo. The corrected version is more common than the error card.


The second error card, #58, comes in three variations. The first shows Cardinals catcher Hal R. Smith with the correct team name listed. The second variation is missing the team name, while the third has the team name blackened. Smith was a popular guy, apparently – he also appears with catcher Hal W. Smith on card #94. "W" was a journeyman catcher with the Orioles, Athletics, Pirates, Colt 45s, and Reds from 1955 through 1964, while "R" backstopped the Cardinals from 1956 through 1961.

1960 Leaf is distinguished as one of the few sets that feature a pair of Hall of Famers for bookends. It's also sprinkled with players who had a "cup of coffee" and then disappeared into history. Perhaps, the most enigmatic is card #114, William Stover McIlwain, who doesn't appear in any other sets. According to the Web site www.baseball-almanac.com, McIlwain was signed by the Chicago White Sox as an amateur player in 1957, at the tender age of 18.

He pitched five innings in two games from September of 1957 through the 1958 season, allowing six hits, one run, one walk, and striking out four batters. His career ERA was a respectable 1.80, but he spent 1959 in the minor leagues and never made it back to the big show. Six years later, he passed away at age 26 in Buffalo, NY from cancer. If it weren't for Leaf, many baseball fans would never have heard of him.


Although there are no official "series" of 1960 Leaf cards, numbers 1 through 72 are considered easier to find than cards 73 through 144. PSA 8 commons from the first group currently SMR for $22, while commons from the second group fetch $10 more.


The key card in the set is the last one, with PSA 8 copies of Jim Bunning tagged at $125. As for the rest of the Hall of Famers, Aparicio's #1 card brings $50 in NM-MT 8, Robinson and Snider currently SMR at $100, Wilhelm's card is priced at $50, Anderson's at $125, and Cepeda's at $115.

Among the error cards, #25 with Lawrence's picture fetches $50 in PSA 8, while the correct photo of Jim Grant brings $10 more. Both Hal Smith error cards are priced at $85 in the same condition. There is one more error card that was never corrected: #115 purports to show Indians player Chuck Tanner, but actually shows Ken Kuhn. It's valued at $50 in NM-MT 8.


Eight cards also exist with large player portraits and are commonly known as the "large head" variations. These portraits are more of a candid style and are believed to be printer's proofs or a test printing. "Large head" variations are extremely scarce and aren't even listed in SMR as a result. You can find these variations for sale in high grade, but be prepared to pay a few thousand dollars for each!

A quick glance through the PSA Population Report shows that Duke Snider's card has been submitted the most times (117) for grading, with 36 PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5, and seven PSA 9s awarded. Brooks Robinson's portrait sits in second place with 82 submissions, resulting in 25 PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5, and a single PSA 9. Sparky Anderson's visage is right behind with 70 submissions, garnering 27 PSA 8s and six PSA 9s.


The "bookend" cards have made roughly the same number of appearances. Luis Aparicio's card has grabbed 12 PSA 8s and two PSA 9s out of 45 submissions, while Jim Bunning's card appears in 13 PSA 8, one PSA 8.5, and five PSA 9 holders after 44 trips to California.

Common players and semi-stars are represented almost equally in the Pop Report, with 18 to 25 total copies graded on average. Of the regular issue cards, Joe Hicks' #74 entry has the lowest number of submissions at thirteen. Amazingly, twelve of those submissions have resulted in PSA 8 grades being awarded, with the perhaps "unlucky" thirteenth card earning only a PSA 6.


On the other hand, the eight "large head" variations are truly scarce, with cards #12 Ken Boyer (two PSA 8s) and #61 Vic Rehm (one PSA 8) having only four submissions between them. Other "large head" variations include #1 Aparicio (two PSA 8s, one PSA 9), #17 Walt Moryn (three PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5, and one PSA 9), #23 Joey Jay (five PSA 8s), #35 Jim Coates (three PSA 8s), and #72 Dick Donovan (one each PSA 8, 8.5, and 9 awarded).

A the very high end, only 13 Gem Mint 10 grades have been awarded, about one out of every 364 cards submitted. 1960 Leaf cards rarely come up in high-quality auctions, although the Mile High Card Company had Gem Mint 10 copies of cards #104 Jim Woods (one of 20 total graded) and #99 Marshall Renfroe (one of two PSA 10s, out of 25 graded)listed in their March 2009 event.


Even though the 1960 Leaf set isn't going to win any popularity contests, it has its devotees. There are enough semi-stars in the set to warrant collecting, and the cost of putting a high-grade set together isn't prohibitive. You'll also wind up with more than a few ballplayers you may never heard of, and that can be part of the appeal for collectors who have more than an abiding interest in baseball history.


The two corrected error cards are not easy to locate in nice condition without some serious digging, which adds to the fun. And, of course, there are those rare "big heads" out there to hunt down. No one knows for sure how many were actually printed, but it's encouraging that the few copies that have surfaced are getting mostly high grades after submission.

Based on what I've seen come up at auctions and at dealer tables, putting together a high-grade set of 1960 Leaf will be a much harder task than either 1960 Fleer or Nu-Card Scoops. "Plain vanilla" or not, chasing this set will take some time, but isn't that the best part? Besides, you'll wind up with the only baseball cards in existence of such obscure players as John Gabler, Fred Hopke, and Wally Shannon. (No, I'm not telling you who they played for – you'll have to find out on your own... )