The Reason Upper Deck Abandoned Holograms

Right from their debut in 1989, Upper Deck climbed to the top of the baseball card mountain thanks to bright, crisp photography on the front and back of each card, a rookie card that went on to rule the hobby for an entire decade, and a small hologram on the back of each card that helped to prevent counterfeiting. Upper Deck was a Ferrari in the days of Station Wagons.

As someone who lived through Upper Deck’s dominance in The Hobby, I cannot put into words how dull products like ’89 Donruss and Topps were. It was clear that Upper Deck was just the shot in the arm collectors were looking for. In their sophomore year, they even introduced the pack-inserted, certified autograph, as well as serial-numbering.

But that’s not what we are here to discuss.

As Upper Deck continued to grow in popularity, they went from tiny holograms on the back of cards to somewhat annoying team logo holograms in every single pack. It was only a matter of time until we got full hologram baseball cards and for me it happened in 1992 with their Denny’s promotion, as well as an insert set in their flagship product.

Keep in mind that this technology predates both Pinnacle’s popular Dufex printing tech, as well as Topps’ future king of parallels, the Refractor. For a young collector, say about 12, nothing was cooler than pulling a Jose Canseco baseball card hologram. Also, keep in mind, ’93 Refractors were nothing like today’s version.

1992 Denny’s Grand Slam

For years, Upper Deck toyed with holograms but it wasn’t until 1996 when the company seriously produced an entire set of them with SPx Baseball. This was the year Topps introduced Bowman’s Best’s ‘Atomic Refractors’ and also the first year the Bowman flagship included pack-inserted, certified autographs. The writing was perhaps already on the wall. There was a changing of the guard moment approaching.

1996 SPx

As someone who at 16, spent most of his income on baseball cards, ’96 SPx was a disappointment. The cards were very thick, featured a Gold parallel, and even on-card autographs seeded at 1:2000 packs but the action on the front was blurry and it seemed as if the technology had somehow taken a step back.

As much as I liked holograms and Upper Deck in general, for the first time in a long time, Topps Company was making a strong push. The following year, Topps introduced Bowman Chrome and took back their claim as the #1 baseball card manufacturer, a title they hold to this day thanks to a long-term exclusive deal with MLB.

1997 SPx

Clearly, Upper Deck didn’t get the memo as they produced their greatest SPx release of all time in 1997. In one of the strongest years, design-wise, we collectors have ever experienced, SPx may have been Upper Deck’s greatest product of the 90s. These cards looked amazing and featured inserts and on-card autographs.

Unfortunately, a JPEG image will never do these cards justice. You have to hold one in your hand to see just how amazing these cards are. As a 17-year old, die-hard collector, I was instantly hooked and spent every dollar I could scrounge to buy as many $7 dollar  packs as possible. I was now #TeamSPx for life.

You can imagine my shock the following year, coincidentally, also my final year of collecting for an entire decade, when I ripped into 1998 SPx and found not a single hologram. Don’t get me wrong, the cards looked about as “high-end” as humanly possible in ’98 but by then Pinnacle produced ‘Crusade’ inserts and Topps’ Refractors were beginning to dominate the secondary market as well as winning this collector over.

Upper Deck’s answer was Spectrum and Radiance parallels, which were sadly quickly forgotten despite how great they looked. By my return to collecting in 2007, SPx was a shell of its former self and had been reduced to a mid-high-end, game-used memorabilia and autograph dump full of 2nd and 3rd tier players, while occasionally peppering in a Jeter autograph. It was a sad fall from grace.

1998 SPx Finite

I never understood why Upper Deck abandoned their holograms because it was never widely explained. This of course was long before the days of social media platforms and even organized forums. To this day, I believe that Upper Deck was the front-runner in print technology, ages ahead of early Refractors and Dufex.

So then why in the world did they give up a race in which they were winning? Refractors were introduced in ’93 but really didn’t come into their own until 1996.. Same goes for Dufex by Pinnacle Brands, a company which would cease operations by 1998. Was it a creative decision that killed the Upper Deck hologram?

We now have an official answer.

From the sound of it, looks like the decision to scrap holograms was a cost-cutting measure. Plus, more than likely these players weren’t exactly looking forward to the “process”. All you have to do is look at thousands of sloppy, half-assed signatures on today’s cards to imagine what Upper Deck was likely dealing with. Rich, spoiled, young ball players aren’t exactly the easiest people to work with.

One does have to wonder what if. What if Upper Deck moved forward with holograms? Upper Deck still had another 10+ years with the MLB license to tinker and improve the technology. Perhaps they were on a collision course with MLB for their mid-2000 antics but it would have been nice to see Upper Deck hologram cards past 1997. Today, there are 30+ spin-offs of the original Refractor.

What about holograms?

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