PSA Set Registry

Collecting the 1948 Leaf Pirate Trading Card Set

For Those Seeking Cardboard "Treasure"

by Kevin Glew

"Not all treasure is silver and gold." Collectors pursuing the 1948 Leaf Pirate set on the PSA Set Registry would agree with this statement uttered by Captain Jack Sparrow in the 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean movie. These hobbyists are in pursuit of high-grade examples of the 49 cardboard "treasures" that comprise this issue. Fortunately, in the late 1980s, there was a find of these cards in Chicago that resulted in a new batch of top-end examples becoming available.

"I think the accessibility [of high-grade cards] makes this set collectible because it gives you hope that you can complete the set," noted Daniel Hollandbeck, who built his 1948 Leaf Pirate set in the 1990s.  "Collectors can expect to start and finish this set," he elaborates, and moreover, they can successfully aspire to complete this set in the PSA NM-MT 8 range.

Measuring 2-3/8" by 2-7/8", the white-bordered fronts of the 1948 Leaf Pirate cards offer artwork of famous pirates and pirate practices.

Capt EdwardsJoto and CiscoHirain Breaker

"They have great color, and they are historical," noted Hubert Bernheim, whose No. 1, 1948 Leaf Pirate set on the PSA Set Registry boasts an impressive 9.42 GPA.

Hollandbeck finds the set endearing, but he isn't as enamored as Bernheim with the color and design.

"Some of the cards have a horrible dot matrix appearance to them," he said. "The artwork, itself, isn't bad, but the coloration is really bizarre. With all the yellows, reds and blues, it's just a strange way to color everything."

Some pirates are depicted in portrait style, while others are highlighted in action scenes. Card #51, for example, illustrates "the death duel" of Joto and Cisco, two former allies who were fighting over "the ownership of a valuable pistol."

Hollandbeck likes the artwork on the Peter M'Kinlie card (#78).

Capt KiddEdward LoweBarbarossa
Anne BonneyMajor Stede BonnetWilliam Lewis

"It shows him on a boat holding a man over his head, and it looks like he's about to throw him off the ship," shared Hollandbeck.

This set also presents its share of gruesome images, including cards Major Bonnet (#62) and Captain Bannister (#65), which show men dangling from nooses.

The bottoms of the fronts exhibit the pirate's name or a short description of the pirate practice. Overall, the design is very similar to that of Leaf's sports products from the same period.

The vertical card backs present black text against a gray background. The card number and title are at the top, followed by a brief description of the pirate or the practice being illustrated. Some of the backs detail the pirate's misfortunes after their life on the seas. For example, Captain Hirain Breaker's single (#5) notes that after he had tired of a pirate's life, "he returned home to find his wife had been hung for poisoning their son. This preyed on his mind until he became insane, and drowned himself."

Some of the backs remind us that not all pirates were ruthless pillagers. For instance, Captain Robert Kidd's single (#9) explains that he was "commissioned by American merchants to fight pirates molesting American shipping." Unfortunately, the card back later relates that he couldn't resist eventually turning to a life of piracy himself.

Other pirates in this series sound downright sociopathic. Edward Lowe (#24) is a prime example.

"After a Yankee shipmaster once refused to give him a dinner, he developed an intense lifelong hatred for all Yankees," reads the back of Lowe's card. Later on the card, it reveals that Lowe once seized a Yankee ship and "cut off the captain's ear, slit his nose and sailed away, pleased to have marked a Yankee for life."

The most well-known pirate in this set is likely Blackbeard (Edward Teach (Blackbeard)) who's featured on card #58. He was a ruthless pirate and a relentless fighter. ... Of the 24 evaluated, there have been three PSA MINT 9s, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and 11 PSA 8s.

And the description on the back of the William Lewis card (#50) is enough to make your hair stand on end. It shares the story of how in one instance when his ship was damaged, he reacted by climbing "the main top" where he "tore out a handful of his hair, tossed it in the wind, crying, 'Good Devil, take this till I come.'"

"His friendship with the Devil was too much for the superstitious sailors, who deserted him," says the last paragraph on the back of the Lewis card. "He was later murdered by one of his men."

The card backs also detail some of the cruel acts performed by pirates. For example, card #8 "Dead Men Tell No Tales" discusses how pirate captains would choose prisoners and rebellious crew members to dig holes to bury their treasures in little-known locations; and after the men dug the holes, they would be killed and pushed into them. The idea was that by killing them, the captain didn't have to worry about these men telling anyone where the treasure was buried.

Card #38 "Walking the Plank" details their most infamous method of disposing of captives. It explains that the prisoners were blindfolded with their arms bound and placed on a narrow plank that extended over the water. "Then, with shouts and jeers and abuse, they forced the luckless prisoner to walk to the end of the plank from where he fell into the sea and was drowned."

Many of the backs, however, offer more straightforward biographical details about the pirate featured on the front.

"It's not like some baseball card sets, where they just give you the statistics on the backs," said Bernheim. "These cards give you a little history about the pirate and what they were famous for."

The bottoms of the backs boast an advertisement for one of four Leaf premiums. Collectors were encouraged to submit a specific number of wrappers along with a small amount of money to a Leaf address to receive either a membership to the Buccaneers' club, an album for their cards, a Bos'un's whistle or a package that included a "registered Commission, Secret Instructions and Captain's Card."

Captain BannisterCaptain CrackersPeter M'Kinlie
Edward DavisCapt John AugurBuccaneer Angria

Leaf advertised that the album could display 168 cards, and this led collectors to believe that there were that many cards in the set. Furthermore, like the Leaf Baseball, Football and Boxing sets from the same era, the 1948 Pirate cards were skip-numbered, with card numbers ranging from #1 through #168, even though there were only 49 cards. Perhaps Leaf originally planned to produce an additional series, but it's more likely that this was the company's way of tricking collectors into buying more packs to track down the non-existent numbers.

The 1948 Leaf Pirate cards were available in one-cent packs with gum. One of the most elusive cards in the series to uncover in top condition is the first card, "Captain Edwards." Often on top of collector piles, this card was subjected to additional wear and tear. Of the 14 evaluated, the three PSA 8s represent the highest graded examples. 

The set's last card, Buccaneer Angria (#168), which was frequently on the bottom of collector piles, was also more vulnerable to abuse. There are five PSA 8s and no examples grading higher.

The most well-known pirate in this set is likely Blackbeard (Edward Teach (Blackbeard)) who's featured on card #58. He was a ruthless pirate and a relentless fighter. In his final battle, the card back reveals that he received "20 cutlass gashes and six bullet wounds before falling."

"I would say that Blackbeard is the No. 1 pirate in the whole set," said Bernheim.

Dead Men Tell No TalesWalking the PlankCaptain Greaves
Edward TeachEdward Teach

Of the 24 evaluated, there have been three PSA MINT 9s, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and 11 PSA 8s. One PSA 8 commanded $250 on eBay in June 2013.

The most submitted card from this issue is the Captain Crackers single (#73). The back of this card describes how this white-bearded pirate retired to Sierra Leone where he owned "the best house in the settlement" at which he would entertain visiting pirates "with good fellowship and hospitality." Of the 33 examples submitted, there has been one PSA 9 and 19 PSA 8s.

The toughest card to track down in top condition has been the Captain Greaves single (#96). There has yet to be an example graded above PSA NM 7. Bernheim has been chasing a high-grade example for several years. This card is plagued by poor registration and is frequently found off-center from left-to-right.

Bernheim says this type of centering is common on these cards. The 1948 Leaf Pirate pasteboards are also sometimes found with poor registration, staining and yellowing on their borders. Collectors were also encouraged to adhere their cards into an album, and as a result, the cards are sometimes found with tape or glue residue.

The challenge of hunting down 1948 Leaf Pirate singles, combined with the interesting artwork and the enduring popularity of pirates, has helped this set remain a cardboard "treasure."

"I don't think pirates are any less exciting in people's imaginations now than they were 70 years ago," said Hollandbeck. "So pirate cards to me are always going to be collectible just because of the theme."

For more information on the 1948 Leaf Pirates set, please visit

Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of January 2016.