Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Ambitious Classic: The Inside Story of 1996 Leaf Signature Series Baseball

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From Derek Jeter to Dwayne Hosey, the selection of autograph cards in the 1996 Leaf Signature Series Baseball is exhaustive.

The signed singles were rquee attractions of this trailblazing set that was the first licensed major league issue to include an autograph card in every pack.

“This is the ground-breaking set that I feel brought us to the modern hobby from an autograph perspective,” said Bobby Cherian, who owns a near complete 1996 Leaf Signature Series master set.

With 252 autograph cards in the original 1996 Leaf Signature Series and 217 in its Extended Series, this set was also an incredibly ambitious endeavor, and, as Eric Tijerina, the hobby manager of Pinnacle/Donruss at the time, will tell you, a lot of work.

“It was a logistical nightmare,” recalled Tijerina, who’s now a U.S. immigration judge.

He remembers having to coordinate the shipping of the cards to the players and then ensuring the cards were returned.

Shawn Heilbron, the Pinnacle/Donruss communications and marketing manager in 1996, shares similar recollections.

“That was quite a logistical challenge,” said Heilbron, who’s now director of athletics at Stony Brook University. “I remember a lot of phone calls to agents. And we would have to fly out and meet certain players and literally have them sign the cards.”

The autograph cards were ultimately inserted into 1996 Leaf Signature packs. What many have forgotten is that there are 150 non-autographed base cards (100 in the original series and 50 in the Extended series), as well as also parallels of these.

The concept of including an autograph card in each pack was hatched early in 1996 before Tijerina joined the company, and Donruss began securing players for the set during spring training.

Tijerina says Donruss worked with the Major League Baseball Players Association and every player was offered a contract that would pay them $10,000 to sign 5,000 cards, which translated to $2 a signature.

1996 Leaf Signature Series Baseball Frank Thomas Autograph

That spring, Donruss had marketed the product to dealers to be sold in four-card packs, with one autograph in each pack, for a suggested retail price of$9.99. Around the same time, Pinnacle was in negotiations to buy Donruss and Tijerina recalls that the 1996 Leaf Signature Autographs series almost kiboshed that deal.

Pinnacle frowned upon the $2 per autograph contract that Donruss was employing. Tijerina said that deal left little wiggle room for the company when you took into account production costs, royalties and the fact that they would have to sell the packs to dealers for around $6 each.

Pinnacle, however, eventually relented and purchased Donruss, but Tijerina knew that the 1996 Leaf Signature Series wasn’t going to make money.

To reiterate, for the original 1996 Leaf Signature Series, players who agreed to the $10,000 contract were required to sign 5,000 cards, which included 3,500 cards with a bronze stamp, 1,000 with a silver stamp and 500 with a gold stamp.

Each player was shipped their cards in a cardboard box with a thin black marker to sign them.

Tijerina says the $10,000 contracts resulted in them having a checklist of mostly journeyman players. So they scrambled to add short-printed autographs of 10 stars: Roberto Alomar, Wade Boggs, Derek Jeter, Kenny Lofton, Paul Molitor, Raul Mondesi, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn. Each of them autographed 1,000 cards: 700 bronze, 200 silver and 100 gold.

As to be expected, Tijerina and his team encountered numerous challenges. Tim Salmon, for example, spilled shaving cream on about 100 of his cards and had to be sent replacements. About 100 of Dennis Martinez’s cards were damaged during shipping. And Heilbron can remember flying to the Dominican Republic to track down Raul Mondesi to sign cards.

Late or Missing

Six players – Carlos Delgado, Brian L. Hunter, Phil Plantier, Jim Thome, Terrell Wade and Ernie Young – returned their cards after the original series deadline and their cards were inserted into the Extended Series packs. Others failed to return their cards at all, but some have surfaced on the secondary market.

When the original series was released in August, collectors were hoping to pull a short-printed star autograph, although there were also several well-known players who were not short prints, including Pedro Martinez, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.

But Cherian says the short-printed Jeter is the most coveted card. Lee Markowitz, who has focused on the set’s rarer cards, says the Rivera is less desirable because it’s not a short print.

“If it was a short print, who knows? Maybe it would go for more than Jeter,” he said.

1996 Leaf Signature Series Baseball Mariano Rivera Autograph

But even with these superstar autographs, collectors complained about the original series.

Tijerina says hobbyists told him the set “was overpriced at $10 a pack” when they were generally pulling journeyman autographs, and the product wasn’t flying off the shelves.

“It wasn’t like this rousing success from the beginning,” said Tijerina. “We had this excess inventory, and we were like, ‘Oh no, what are we going to do with it now?’”

To compound matters, the company still had autograph contracts with players and more cards set to come in, and Tijerina says they were obligated to manufacture a second series.

He knew the company couldn’t raise the pack price, so he suggested they include two autographs in each pack for an Extended series. They also upped the number of short prints to 30 and decided to lower the production run of the Extended Series, which included 50 base cards and 217 autograph singles, to less than half of the original series.

“It was about putting more value in it without upping the price,” said Tijerina.

Released in January 1997, the Extended Series packs included five cards, two of which were autographs.

The design of the Extended Series cards also differed from those in the original. Gone were the gold, silver and bronze stamps, but the white card stock remained and outside of the 30 short prints, the rest of the players signed 5,000 cards.

Most of the short printed stars – including Roger Clemens, Tony Gwynn, Randy Johnson, Kirby Puckett and Sammy Sosa – signed 1,000 cards each. But Greg Maddux and Alex Rodriguez only autographed 500.

1996 Leaf Signature Series Baseball Extended Sammy Sosa Autograph

“I remember back then that the Maddux was the toughest and most expensive one,” said Mike Mier, a long-time 1996 Leaf Signature Series collector.

Jim Thome’s cards could also be pulled from the Extended Series packs. He mistakenly only signed 514 gold and 410 silver cards. Mier says the Thome cards are some of the set’s most elusive.

1996 Leaf Signature Series Baseball Jim Thome Autograph

Collectors also had the chance to pull one of 31 Century Marks autograph cards of stars and prospects from Extended series packs. Just 100 of each of these were signed and they were essentially parallels of cards from the Extended Series with a blue holograph.

Tijerina says the Extended Series went over better than the original, but it still seems hard to believe that this revolutionary set, in its entirety, was not an immediate success. Today it definitely has its share of followers.

“One of the things that drew me to it is the autographs,” said Cherian. “Obviously, they’re on card, but they’re not just the first initial, last initial autographs. Everybody has done a full autograph and you don’t see that much anymore.”

The 1996 Leaf Signature Autograph collectors also appreciate that this set boasts early certified autographs of many Hall of Famers, as well as the only pack-issued autograph of many common players.

“It’s a set that checks both boxes for me,” said Mier. “I’m a set collector and I like to collect autographs and I thought it was a beautiful set.”

Cherian believes this set remains underrated.

“I think we will never in the hobby see a checklist of autograph cards quite like this again, where you’ve got 250 players autographing in one series and then have these incredible tiers of players where you have Hall of Famers . . . and then everybody else behind them,” said Cherian. “You can’t find sets like this anymore.”

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