By Arnold Bailey
It’s too bad that the very rare Rocky Graziano card overshadows the other 49 cards in Leaf’s 1948 Boxing set.
Graziano’s scarce card characterizes him as a “rough fighter” with knockout power in either hand and describes his three classic middleweight championship battles with Tony Zale.
Zale proved to be the better fighter, winning two of the three title bouts against Graziano. And Zale has a card – No. 15 – in that Leaf set, too.
But collectors put more stock in the number of cards available than the number of victories scored by a pictured boxer.
As a result, one of Graziano’s Leaf cards has sold for as much $41,125 while Zale’s card in the same set can be easily found and added to a collection for as little as $16. Even a PSA 9 version of Zale’s card is priced no higher than $475.
The Graziano card is so scarce that Leaf’s boxing set is considered complete without Graziano, at only 49 cards. Some theorize that Graziano wanted more money to get his picture on a card, so Leaf decided against him. Others think the Graziano cards may have been salesman’s samples produced in limited numbers. Or the cards might have been part of an early test run. Whatever the reason, the Graziano card is so scarce it has come to be known as boxing’s version of baseball’s priceless Honus Wagner cigarette cards.
The Graziano card isn’t the only challenge for collectors. Leaf skip-numbered the cards. So, the set begins with card No. 1 (Jack Dempsey) and ends with No. 102 (Jake LaMotta), with 52 numbers missing along the way. Missing numbers meant kids kept buying Leaf’s gum in a frustrating search for cards that didn’t exist in what amounted to a cardboard mirage.
The cards are worth the challenge. Collectors who know boxing history also know that the “other” 49 cards in Leaf’s set are worthy of attention. They form a good boxing history, a collection of the best the sport had to offer at the time, going all the way back to the start of the 20th century.
Of the 49 “other” cards, 41 picture boxers who are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the shrine to the sport that opened in 1989 in the upstate New York village of Canastota.
In addition, the World Boxing Hall of Fame, which opened in Los Angeles in 1980, has enshrined 44 of the boxers included in the 1948 Leaf Boxing card set.
If that’s not impressive enough, consider the total win-lose-draw career totals of Leaf’s regular 49. Together, they scored 4,569 wins including 2,188 knockouts, with only 735 losses and 301 draws. (They also were in 66 “no contest” bouts.) Graziano and his hard-to-find card would add 67 wins, 52 KOs, 10 losses and 6 draws to the total.
It was in 1948 that Leaf made its presence known in the sports card world, with baseball and football sets in addition to the boxing cards. The three series are similar in design and in their focus on the top athletes in each sport. Leaf skip-numbered both the boxing and baseball sets (98 cards numbered through 169). But the 1948 football cards are numbered consecutively (98 cards numbered 1 through 98). It wasn’t until a year later that Leaf also skip-numbered its football cards (49 cards numbered through 150).
Measuring 2 3/8”-by-2 7/8”, the boxing cards are printed on coarse cardboard stock, some of it white or cream, some of it grey. Many believe the grey versions were printed in 1948 and the white/cream a year later.
Card fronts are dominated by colorized likenesses of the boxers, against either a red, white or blue background, inside a white border. The printing process was frequently flawed, so the color on the player likenesses is often not where it’s supposed to be. The color blue seemed the most elusive. The boxers’ names are in white within horizontal blocks under each photo, either black or red in color. There are 41 vertical fronts, and nine with horizontal layout.
The backs of the cards, all vertical in format, repeat the number in the upper left corner beside the boxer’s name, above what championship (more than one in some cases) he held with his won-lost record, birth place and date, plus best weight and height. A brief but usually interesting biographical paragraph follows, often a wealth of trivia. There also are a few factual errors such as Sammy Mandell taking part in 55 no-decision bouts (5 such bouts are on his record).
The bottom third of each card is devoted to a promo for Knock-Out Bubble Gum and an album to hold the cards, that was available to collectors if they sent five wrappers plus 25 cents in coin to Leaf Gum’s Chicago address, which was also printed at the bottom of the card back.
The album hype continues Leaf’s misleading skip-numbering process. It has a color cover with 32 heavy black pages, room enough to hold 168 different cards. As collectors eventually realized, Leaf produced only 50 different cards. So, albums still would have space for 118 more cards after a complete set of 50 was stored away. And, considering the scarcity of the Graziano card, even 50 was an almost unachievable total.
The wrappers of the 1-cent packs are dominated by Knock-Out, the name Leaf gave to the gum in its boxing packs. Leaf changed the gum name to All-Star for its baseball and football packs.
Spotty color registration isn’t the only problem with the cards. The white borders on the front of the cards tend to discolor. Improperly cut cards seem plentiful, as are cards with the wrong backs, especially those picturing Beau Jack, Bob Montgomery, Chalky Wright and Sugar Ray Robinson.
The cards were sent to market in the early fall of 1948. That’s determined by the reference to the records “through the summer of 1948” on the back of the Montgomery card (No. 44) and the Robinson card (No. 64). Also, the Graziano and Zale cards both refer to their third title bout, which was fought in June 1948.
Leaf’s strongest suit was its selection of boxers to include in the set. Here’s a breakdown, by weight division (note: some boxers won titles in more than one division):
Heavyweights: Leaf includes Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Gene Tunney, Jim Jeffries, Max Schmeling, Max Baer, Jess Willard, Jack Sharkey, James J. Corbett, Max Baer, Primo Carnera, Arturo Godoy and Bob Montgomery. Among pre-1949 heavyweights not included are James J. Braddock (the “Cinderella Man” who counted Max Baer among his victims) and Tommy Burns (only 5’7”, 170 pounds).
Light Heavyweights: Billy Conn, John Henry Lewis, Georges Carpentier, Melio Bettini, Tommy Loughran, Gus Lesnevich and Tony Christofordis. Among big names not included are Maxie Rosenbloom (perhaps better known later as a movie actor), and two fighters nicknamed “Battling” (Levinsky and Siki).
Middleweights: Sugar Ray Robinson, Tony Zale, Mickey Walker, Jake LaMotta, Harry Greb, Marcel Cerdan, Al Hostak, Freddy Steele, Fred Apostoli, Ceferino Garcia and, of course, the elusive Rocky Graziano. Stanley Ketchel, Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey and Gorilla Jones might have also been considered, the latter on nickname alone.
Welterweights: Fritzie Zivic, Jackie Fields and Jimmy McLarnin. Other possibilities could have been “Mysterious” Billy Smith (who held the title for about a decade), Ted “Kid” Lewis and Young Corbett III.
Lightweights: Barney Ross, Sammy Angott, Benny Leonard. Beau Jack, Sammy Mandell, Henry Armstrong, Bob Montgomery and Lou Ambers. Others might have been Oscar “Battling” Nelson and Ike Williams.
Featherweights: Willie Pep, Kid Chocolate, Abe Attell, Chalky Wright and Tony Canzoneri. Not in, but worth a look, were Torpedo Billy Murphy, Petey Scalzo (perhaps better known later as a referee), Sandy Sadler (who beat Pep three times in four title bouts, with the first one on Oct. 29, 1948, well after Leaf produced its card set), and Joey Archibald (one of the greatest boxers from Rhode Island).
Bantamweights: Johnny Coulon and Harry Forbes. Other possibilities include Manuel Ortiz (15 title defenses) and Abe Goldberg.
Despite those exclusions and the elusive Graziano card, Leaf’s 1948 boxing set still is one of that sport’s most collectible sets.
Arnold Bailey is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.