The Rise & Fall of Upper Deck (In Pictures)

When I began this blog in 2007, Upper Deck was the first company to come onboard as an official sponsor. My first year as a collector, 1990, was a year in which Upper Deck ruled the baseball card market so to even be acknowledged by them was a huge honor. What I got to experience first-hand, as one of the original baseball card bloggers, was the self-destruction of one of the greatest card companies of my lifetime, starting with a disastrous Sweet Spot release. After 2007 Sweet Spot hit the market, the official countdown to the Topps Monopoly began, one that lasted less than two years.

Last month, 2022 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions was released and after watching several breaks I quickly realized why beloved Upper Deck employee, Chris Carlin, who devoted over two decades of his life to Upper Deck, left for greener pastures. The writing had been on the wall for all us collectors but there was still hope by some that U.D would make it through to regain their M.L.B license and/or be purchased by Fanatics. I do not think that is an option any longer. I now believe that Upper Deck will never again produce baseball cards and as a company, they are on their last legs.

Today I’d like to show collectors, especially the younger ones, why Upper Deck ruled the baseball card market for so long and what events led to the alliance forged between Topps Company and Major League Baseball, one that continues to thrive despite the efforts of Panini America and other third-tier brands.

— — —

1989 Upper Deck

Upper Deck exploded onto the card scene in 1989 and caught its competitors, Topps/Donruss/Fleer, completely asleep at the wheel. While 1989 Topps has grown in status over the years, it was Upper Deck’s debut that every collector was chasing. Despite having zero parallels, Upper Deck’s photography selection led to the creation of several iconic images and one of the most important rookie cards of all-time, thanks to a smiley-faced rookie for the Mariners.

— — —

1990 Upper Deck

While Topps was busy producing one of its worst flagships ever in 1990, Upper Deck was changing the face of the sports cards industry thanks to the debut of the pack-inserted, certified autograph and also the first, hand-written serial numbered card. In today’s world, pulling an autograph #’d to 2,500 is the equivalent of being kicked in the groin but in 1990, this was the most sough-after, talked about, and valuable baseball card of the year. This card cements Upper Deck’s legacy in a way that no cardboard drama could ever erase.

— — —

1994 Upper Deck SP

With the Junk Wax era coming to an end, Upper Deck needed a response to 1993 Topps Finest, a product that would eventually signal the “changing of the guards” in the baseball card market thanks to the ingenious creation of the Refractor parallel. While the Refractor was still nowhere near the monster it is today, the technology was improving with every release, with Upper Deck having no real response or competitor for it. Upper Deck instead focused on high-end cardstock, die-cuts, and holograms.

— — —

1997 Upper Deck

In 1997, Upper Deck once again changed the face of sports cards with the debut of the game-used memorabilia card.Today, this gimmick is dead in the water but in 1997 and into the early-2000s, collectors absolutely loved finding these relic cards in packs. Incidentally, Topps missed the boat yet again BUT instead created a new product for collectors in 1997 called Bowman Chrome, which used Refractor technology. We all know how this story ends …

— — —

1999 Upper Deck

By 1999, Topps’ Bowman Chrome line had begun to corner the market but Upper Deck had one final ace up their sleeve with one of the most shocking cards to ever to be produced. There was a huge public outcry when Upper Deck announced that it would be cutting up a game-used bat of Babe Ruth to include in their ‘A Piece of History’ inserts. Collectors and baseball historians were enraged but no one could deny how magnificent the cards turned out. The year, once again and for the final time, belonged to Upper Deck.

— — —

2007 Upper Deck Sweet Spot

by 2007, the baseball card market was dominated by Topps Company and Upper Deck had been lapped many times over. It’s clear the company’s fatal error was not putting together a proper competitor for Topps’ Refractor and instead focusing on memorabilia and autographs, which had good intentions but is not what collectors were chasing. Now, collectors wanted first-year autographs in many different colors.

One of Upper Deck’s big brands of the time was Sweet Spot, a product that featured faux baseballs embedded on cards and signed. In 2007, Sweet Spot was a one pack per box product that retailed for $150. To the shock of many collectors and the horror of Upper Deck, the leather substitute used on the baseballs were swallowing up the ink meaning that more than half of these cards were being pulled on release day suffering from major fading issues.

To make matters worse, Upper Deck used Sweet Spot to take a direct shot at MLB’s Home Run King, Barry Bonds, with an ultra-rare asterisk card and a short-print caricature card of then Topps owner, Michael Eisner. This was Upper Deck taking direct shots at Topps Company and Major League Baseball. I cannot even imagine what was going through their executive’s heads, but this product alone was the death nell of Upper Deck Baseball. MLB would announce Topps Company as their official, exclusive brand in 2009.

— — —

2009 Upper Deck O-Pee-Chee

With Upper Deck and MLB’s relationship in the tank, Upper Deck did the unthinkable and released O-Pee-Chee, a licensed baseball card produced which directly used Topps designs on their cards. This caused Topps Company to sue Upper Deck baseball in a lawsuit where this very blog and my name was brought up as evidence by Topps Company! You’re welcome, guys. Now where’s my free swag?

— — —

2010 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions

Depending on your tastes, you either loved these cards or hated them. With Upper Deck’s MLB license blowing in the wind of Topps’ sails, Upper Deck was forced to think outside the box and boy, did they ever! Included in 2010 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions were bugs embedded into trading cards. Unlike earlier years when Upper Deck was pushing boundaries, this time, they were the ones beaten to the punch by Topps, who two years earlier produced cards with fossils, DNA, and even teeth of prehistoric animals. Goodwin Champions, as expected, flopped, unless you were an aspiring entomologist.

… … …

2017 Upper Deck Skybox Clerks

In 1994, Upper Deck and director, Kevin Smith, were on top of the world, in their respective fields. By 2017, however, both Smith and Upper Deck had fallen on hard times. Producing a trading card set on a 23-year-old indie film wasn’t on my hobby predictions of 2017 but it happened and it was actually done incredibly well. So well, actually, that it spawned a sequel in a set for Chasing Amy, which was a disaster that was postponed for nearly two years.

Much like Kevin Smith in 1994, by 2017, the baseball card giant, Upper Deck, was now an underdog and had lost its status among collectors and in their industry.

… … …

2022 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions

… and here, we have, sigh, 2022 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions. Long gone are the innovations that put to shame several baseball card companies. Now we have Jennifer Love Hewitt, Pokemon rip-offs, and Joe Biden lenticular cards that weren’t even that cool in the 80s with Sportflics. I have watched 5-7 breaks of this stuff on YouTube and it is absolutely brutal. It’s hard to believe that this is the same company that introduced autographs and game-used relics in trading cards.

I feel bad for those who work at Upper Deck today. It isn’t their fault they company fell from grace, it is their former owner’s, Richard McWilliam, who tried to play hard ball with Topps and MLB and was publicly humiliated so badly that he drank himself to death. What’s even more tragic is that there are young baseball card collectors today who will only know Upper Deck for unlicensed sports cards and Goodwin Champions and not the amazing, innovative products they were creating year after year, two decades ago.

  • Yes, they do have Marvel, All-Elite Wrestling, and N.H.L but this is a baseball card blog.

3 thoughts on “The Rise & Fall of Upper Deck (In Pictures)

  1. Great post (as usual). I enjoy Goodwin Champions (kudos to UD for creating a Steve Caballero card), but that’s really the only product from them that I’ve been interested in the past ten years. I love their MLB licensed stuff (even their Sweet Spot Signatures… excepted for the faded ones). And congratulations to Mr. Carlin. I had some communication with him about ten years ago about creating a card of Eddie Aikau. He was kind enough to reply and even sent me a cool Kelly Slater card for my Surfer PC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s