Each week I look back through my baseball card collection for a deep dive on beloved Bombers and past seasons.
Player: Kevin Maas
Set: 1990 Leaf
Card #: 446
Before Shane Spencer, there was Kevin Maas.
The sweet-swinging lefty was supposed to be a benign mid-summer call-up during a horrific 1990 campaign. Instead, he slugged his way into Yankee lore with one of the all-time great home run tears. This week we take a closer look at a Bomber cult hero and the groundbreaking 1990 Leaf set.
After years of functioning as a replica set for the Canadian market (similar to Topps’ O-Pee-Chee brand), Donruss reframed their Leaf brand as their premium card answer to Upper Deck’s industry-changing ’89 set. Prior to Upper Deck ’89, cards were mostly printed on thin card stock with gray or brown backs. Fleer and Score began to branch out with brighter, color backs, but Upper Deck ’89 was something new entirely. The card stock was thicker and whiter and the photography sharper and more dynamic. Its arrival served notice to Topps, Fleer, and Score that they would need to up the ante.
Once UD ’89 changed the game, the other companies scrambled to offer their own premium product to compete in the newly created space. Fleer countered with Ultra in 1991, the same year Topps debuted Stadium Club. But, Donruss was the first to take a swing at UD’s newly acquired supremacy with an iconic set. Today it is still regarded as one of the best of the “junk wax era.”
1990 Leaf matched UD ’89’s quality and surpassed it in design with a simple and elegant layout. Striking silver beams fanned out along the bottom left corner, contrasting a thick white border that framed beautiful, color-saturated photographs. The silver backs were a far cry from the drab brown that Topps offered through 1991. Those aesthetic elements and a 528-card checklist full of rookies and stars combined to make ’90 Leaf a must-have product. The frenzy only increased when word spread that series two of the set had a smaller print run.
Collectors maintain an outsized interest in the set compared to its “junk wax era” contemporaries. It remains one of the most important sets Donruss ever produced.
Best from the Back
In August of ’89 Maas underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. The setback left him off the team’s 40-man roster ahead of spring training ’90. With his hopes of starting with the big club dashed, Maas attended minor league spring training with his sights set on a late season call-up. He would get his shot, and would not disappoint.
Maas in 1990
1990 was a dismal year in the Bronx. Mattingly, limited by a bad back, played in just 102 games during his worst season in pinstripes. Without their offensive catalyst, the Bombers finished last in the AL in batting average (.241), RBIs (561), runs (603), hits (1322), walks (427), OBP, SLG, and OPS. Their 1027 strikeouts left them next-to-last. The anemic offense led them to just 67 wins, leaving them in the East Divison cellar, a full 21 games behind Boston. It was in the midst of that dreary summer in the Bronx that Kevin Maas arrived like a comet.
The 25-year-old lefty was called up on June 28 from triple-A Columbus. He was an unheralded prospect taken in the 22nd round of the ’86 amateur draft, brought up for 1st base support for the ailing Mattingly. He notched a hit in three at bats in his June 29 debut vs. the White Sox, and followed with a hit and an RBI the next day in a 10-7 win over Chicago. Three games later he hit his first long ball during a July 4th loss in Kansas City.
He added another on July 7 vs. Minnesota, but didn’t begin to turn heads until he hit a pair of homers on July 14 against the White Sox at the Stadium.
He went homer-less in his next five games, but went yard in each game of a three-game set at Arlington Stadium that stirred up considerable buzz. He homered again on July 31 vs. Detroit, then took the Tigers deep twice two days later for his ninth and tenth home runs to reset a rookie record, needing just 77 at bats for his first 10 home runs.
For his 12th home run he sent a blast into the Kingdome’s upper deck, becoming the 21st player to accomplish the feat. He went on to smash 13 home runs in 110 at bats and 15 in 133 at bats, each time setting a rookie record. During a summer with little to cheer about on River Avenue, Maas captivated the city’s attention. His 21 home runs were the most for a Yankees rookie since Bobby Murcer cracked 26 in ’69 and he finished 2nd in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Sandy Alomar Jr. His exploits, brought on by his compact, natural uppercut, began to elicit comparisons to the most legendary hitters in pinstripe history.
Unfortunately, though Maas hit 23 home runs in ’91, his batting average fell to .220. In ’92 injuries limited him to 98 games. He played in just 59 games in ’93 while slashing a meager .205. The Yanks finally released him during spring training ’94. Maas toiled in the minors before reentering the bigs with Minnesota in ’95, his last season in the majors. He bounced between the minors and the Japanese league for two more years before retiring.
Despite not maintaining the Ruthian trajectory of his rookie surge, his summer tear remains as a mythic footnote in Yankee history. Eight years later, Shane Spencer experienced a similar meteoric rise by clocking 10 home runs in only 57 plate appearances, eclipsing Maas’ record.
In raw (ungraded) condition this card normally sells for $1.00 on eBay. A PSA 10 sold for $27.99 earlier this month. The silver backs were prone to chipping, making graded 10s harder to come by. The set also had a lower print run than the 1990 flagship sets of the the major card companies. These two factors lend staying power to the set’s value.
Notable Yankees in 1990 Leaf
#69 – Don Mattingly
#314 – Matt Nokes
#359 – Deion Sanders
#446 – Kevin Maas (RC)
#465 – Jim Leyritz (RC)
Bonus Hobby Knowledge: Relic Cards
In the late ’90s card companies continued to innovate in an effort annex new space in an increasingly competitive market. Out came the relic card, a thicker card containing an embedded piece of a player’s jersey or bat. When Upper Deck put out the first relic cards in ’97 the treasures were incredibly rare. On average you needed to open 800 packs to have a shot at a relic card. The hobby became captivated by the hunt and card companies capitalized, as they so often did, by flooding the market to meet the demand. Fast forward to today: most hobby boxes guarantee at least one relic hit, driving down the uniqueness of the card. Unless a relic card comes with a low serial number or an accompanying autograph, it typically holds little value.
The authenticity of relic cards has also been called into question in recent years which has contributed to lower values. Several former dealers, who served jail time, were convicted in 2013 for selling thousands of dubious jerseys to card companies like Panini and Upper Deck under the auspices of authenticity. Card companies have tried to combat the mistrust by verifying higher-end relic cards with serial numbered holograms that allow hobbyists to look up the exact jersey the swatch came from. With lower end relics, companies have simply better protected themselves from litigation by watering down the guarantee on card backs from “game-worn jersey” to “memorabilia” that is “not from any specific game, event, or season.”
Relic cards continue to push forward despite the controversy. Today they include a diverse array of memorabilia including eye black strips, cleat studs, jersey buttons, cleat tongues, batting gloves, and more.