How Competition Saved Baseball Cards

The year was 1989 and Topps Company was running on cruise control. Fleer and Donruss needed to take Topps to court to enter the baseball card market but neither company were able to deliver products to provide any real competition. For decades, Topps cards featured the worst in photography, with shots being taken mostly during Spring Training in the most haphazard ways possible. The card stock always felt cheap and the actual printing was a crime against humanity, as many cards were blurry fresh out of packs. Topps was a company that seemingly had no interest in keeping collectors happy and were fine living off their legacy.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Thankfully, everything changed in 1989 when Upper Deck joined the growing baseball card market. Their debut not only produced an iconic rookie card (Ken Griffey Jr.) but was a breath of much needed fresh air in the collecting world. The photography used in these cards were exciting, action-packed, and the printing was crisp and clean. Each card carried a small hologram, ensuring the authenticity, making these cards look and feel like a million dollars. Upper Deck caught Topps by surprise and took control of the market in a way that both Fleer and Donruss failed to do since their debuts in 1981.

Topps was caught so off-guard that they couldn’t even produce a proper response a year later with their disastrous ’90 Topps flagship. The same year people were buying packs of 1990 Topps with their blurry photography and what felt like recycled paper card stock, Upper Deck was introducing the pack-inserted certified autograph in their second year. The executives at Topps at the time must have been in a state of panic and rightfully so. This new card company had completely revolutionized baseball cards. It took Upper Deck 2 years to accomplish what Topps did in 42 with the in-pack autograph.

By 1991, Topps was ready to go toe to toe with Upper Deck. Their flagship was hands down, one of their better efforts of that century with some of the greatest photography that’s ever seen on baseball cards. Just check out Benito Santiago, Walt Weiss, Carlton Fisk, and Roger Clemens to see some of the magic Topps produced that year. Furthermore, Topps finally produced a premium product to compete with Upper Deck called Stadium Club. Just two years after the debut of Stadium Club, Topps introduced the Refractor in Finest and the rest is baseball card history.

It would be interesting to hop into a time machine to stop Upper Deck’s 1989 debut from ever happening to see just how the baseball card market would have looked throughout the 90s with Topps, Fleer, and Donruss coasting through the decade. The Junk Wax era, despite being known for massive overproduction, is also notorious for half-hearted designs that haven’t come close to standing the test of time. Imagine an entire era where Topps wasn’t pushed to innovate with Finest, Stadium Club, Bowman’s Best and eventually Bowman Chrome?

Sure, Topps White Knights and forgivists will assure you that they are certain Topps would have eventually gone down that road on their own but it is in my opinion that Upper Deck’s strong debut embarrassed and forced Topps’ hand. The result was baseball card perfection from Topps that was so important and ahead of its time that the technology introduced by them in 1993 is still the focal selling point of products from 2021. Not only that, Topps produced technology that has been blatantly ripped off by Leaf, Panini America, and yes, even their former rival, Upper Deck.

With Topps in the rear view, it will be interesting to see how Fanatics does without competition. Without Upper Deck, Topps has completely flooded the market. Many insiders and collectors believe we are in the new Junk Wax era and it certainly appears that way to me. Leaf & Panini, despite a few well-received products here and there since 2009, have not made even a tiny splash compared to Topps who had the full MLB license to toy with. We don’t know much about Fanatics Baseball yet but what is clear is that they will be the exclusive, meaning they will never face any true competition.

As a collector of over 30 years, that thought keeps me up at night …

4 thoughts on “How Competition Saved Baseball Cards

  1. As a collector for 50 years, I kind of yearn for the days before Upper Deck.

    It was more authentic and less contrived. But I understand time changes for all… But…

    Give me your poor flimsy cardboard and unwanted grainy photos and keep your glossy photo to Vogue and keep your Chrome on your car.

  2. Pingback: Upper Deck’s Impending Doom | The Baseball Card Blog

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