A few years after the successful conclusion to World War II, all seemed to be going well in America, as many aspects of life were getting back to normal. One of the ways life was returning to normal was the return and subsequent growth of kids collecting sports cards. Even during the depression, many children could afford the penny packs the new cards were offered in, which included a piece of gum. And once the American economy returned to normal, so did the business of card collecting.
The Bowman card company was first out of the gate in 1948 with a modest 48-card baseball card set, and then a much larger football card set. While we will never know what executives were truly thinking at Leaf Gum, they probably realized with the return of sports and Bowman's debut sets, there was also going to be a place for them in the baseball card world. In addition, Leaf had several tricks up their sleeve to induce the kids to keep buying those packs as well.
The 1948-1949 Leaf set, and yes if you read the card backs the cards are actually issued very early in 1949, was issued before the Bowman set was released that year and was the first post-war set to feature color images of the players. Many of the photos are really neat full-face photos, and one of the most legendary cards is the Babe Ruth card. The Babe is in full face form with his moon-faced visage dominating the card front, with biographical information on the back. In many ways, this is one of the simplest tributes to The Babe ever made. As baseball fans know, Mr. Ruth had passed on after a two-year battle with cancer on August 16th and this card, although not stating the death, showed us the truth of this classic line: "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail."
Another really interesting card is the Honus Wagner card. What makes the Wagner card so interesting to collectors is that he is shown with a very large wad of tobacco in his mouth. As almost every collector has heard the story of how the famed T206 example (of which the best known example has sold for upwards of $3 million) was pulled from distribution because Wagner did not want kids to see him associated with the evils of cigarette smoking. Well, there is little doubt Wagner enjoyed his bad habit, and by 1949 did not ask for those cards to be pulled from distribution.
The 1948/1949 Leaf set also had several key rookie cards, including three of the most famous players who assisted in breaking down the color barrier: Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson. The Paige card, which for years was so hard to find because catalogs had the wrong card number, is one of the very difficult short prints. Meanwhile Jackie Robinson was well on his way to being the first person of color to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. For both Paige and Robinson these were their first national cards issued and with the blessing of history, we can see now just how important these two cards are in card collecting history. And Larry Doby is an underrated force in history as the first black American League player, and then the second black manager (and the first to be a full-time manager).
We mentioned the Paige card was a SP and is very difficult to obtain. What makes the 1948-49 Leaf set so hard to collect is the set was "skip-numbered" and also of the 98 cards issued, 49 were issued in normal quantities and the other 49 were available in significantly less quantity. This was obviously designed to keep the American youth buying packs. There was nothing unusual in the early card collecting days of either not issuing a card as part of the packs (1933 Goudey Lajoie) or having such an extreme example of a short print card so these cards are still almost never seen today (U.S. Caramel Freddy Lindstrom comes to mind on this). This was designed to keep kids interested and buying packs.
And when kids bought the packs, they treated them like all kids treated cards back then - complete disregard for preservation. However, some cards still survive in good condition. A quick count from the PSA Pop Report shows that slightly more than 3500 of the nearly 19.000 cards graded by PSA are in PSA 7 (NM or better condition). And since no Harry Breechen cards are available in PSA 8 or higher, as of today one cannot complete a PSA 8 (Nm/Mt) 1949 Leaf set. Also if you check the PSA Pop Report, note card #101 John Sullivan is the famous fighter and should not be included as part of the baseball card set listings.
Another tidbit about the 1949 Leaf set: If you look at the back of the cards there is note that if you send in 10 wrappers, you could receive one of what turned out to be eight blank-backed, black-and-white portraits of retired greats. While we can discuss whether the most famous eight retired players were pictured, this is a pretty good representation of baseball history in these packs.
Overall, the 1949 Leaf set was designed to be the first of a long-running group of sets, but there turned out to be more than a decade before the next leaf set, and then nearly three decades before they became part of Donruss. By the late 1980's Leaf was the "Canadian" version of Donruss, and in 1990, Leaf struck out as their own brand and helped usher in the super premium baseball card market of the 1990's and beyond. While that is a story for another day, there is little doubt the 1949 Leaf set was the first step in the process of what Leaf is today.Return to See More Just Collect Sets