How Upper Deck Won the War and Still Fell on their Sword

In late-1991, Upper Deck was at the top of the Baseball Card mountain after only three years in business. In 1989, with Topps and other card manufacturers like Donruss & Fleer asleep at the wheel, Upper Deck entered the market and introduced premium baseball cards to the collecting world. The following year, Upper Deck beat all competitors to the punch by introducing the first ever, pack-inserted, certified autograph. The world of sports trading cards was in Upper Deck’s complete control.

One can imagine the new kid on the block finding immediate success being a good reason to rest on their laurels but Upper Deck was already hard at work creating their next big innovation; full, holographic baseball cards. To Upper Deck, it must have been seen as a can’t miss opportunity. Step one, premium cards. Step two, autographs in packs. Step three, holograms. You could even excuse some arrogance as by this point, everything Upper Deck touched seemed to turn into hobby gold.

Craig Taylor walked into Upper Deck’s Carlsbad office in late 1991 with his genius creation in tow. His company, Signs & Glassworks, INC. had been working with printing technology since the late-80s and had taken an interest in the PREMIUM baseball card market, which was all the rage with kids and adults. His idea was simple, baseball cards could one day be printed on more than just cheap cardstock and with that little idea, Taylor set forth on creating, unauthorized Upper Deck “Chrome” baseball cards to pitch directly to Upper Deck in a top secret meeting, which included the legendary Richard McWilliam.

Only Craig knows how many prototypes he produced but what is known, thanks to my sources at Upper Deck and PSA Grading & Authentication, is that exactly 20 different subjects of the Upper Deck Chrome prototypes were created for the pitch meeting and since 1991, only a handful have surfaced and been submitted to PSA (all rejected). My source, who asked to remain anonymous, says that the most Chrome prototypes that have been submitted to PSA of any one single player is five.

Furthermore, my source tells me that Upper Deck officials were perturbed that Craig created unofficial & 100% unauthorized copies of Upper Deck trademarked baseball cards and the risk that these “counterfeit” cards posed were enough to bring an abrupt end to any possible deal between the two companies. MLB was beginning a war on “Broder” counterfeit cards during this period and Upper Deck didn’t want to risk losing their license. The prototypes were left at Upper Deck’s office and Craig jumped in his car for the twenty minute drive to his San Marcos warehouse to begin work on his next project, a Chrome prototype card to pitch to Upper Deck’s main rival, Topps Company. By the end of that week, Upper Deck employees tossed the experimental Chrome prototypes in their dumpster and forgot all about Signs & Glassworks.

This is the point in our story where we meet “Miguel”. Miguel’s name has been changed to protect his identity. In 1991, Miguel was a retired United States Marine who was working in Carlsbad as a security guard for Upper Deck. Miguel was aware, as were many other employees, their families, and even kids around town, that Upper Deck was known for discarding mountains of baseball cards, including uncut sheets, as well as misprinted/error cards, usually on the night before their dumpster was to be emptied, to keep would be prowlers and collectors looking for free cards not suitable for consumers, far away.

On Upper Deck’s dump day, Miguel asked his supervisor for permission to grab some discarded baseball cards for his young son, a huge Oakland Athletics and Jose Canseco fan. Unfortunately, on that day, the only cards in the dumpster were three, almost metallic baseball cards of Jose Canseco. Miguel grabbed all three, gave two away to his fellow co-workers and took one home for his son. His son, “PJ”, eventually grew out of collecting baseball cards but kept the prototype card tucked away for over three decades.

As for Craig Taylor’s brilliant idea, he didn’t give up despite Upper Deck’s cold rejection. Craig went on to create a generic Chrome card for Topps Company, to much better results. This time around, Craig produced his own design, airbrushed out NFL logos, and didn’t include Topps’ own trademarked brands in the final print to prevent a repeat of the embarrassing Upper Deck debacle. By all accounts, Topps fell in love with the prototype and its potential and signed on the dotted line. Just a year later, 1993 Finest was introduced to the baseball market, with the parallel we all know and love, the Refractor, by its side.

One cannot underestimate how important that chrome prototype was. Yes, Upper Deck eventually released hologram baseball cards as inserts in their flagship and eventually as its own brand, called SPx, but by 1998, Upper Deck moved away from holograms completely to focus on game-used memorabilia cards. While it can be argued that Upper Deck dominated baseball cards for years to come, once Topps introduced the 1/1 Superfractor, based directly on the Chrome technology created by Craig Taylor, that Upper Deck passed on, the Baseball Card War was officially over.

Upper Deck was essentially gifted Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet to finish off its competitors but for one reason or another, decided to pass on the technology, leaving it open to Topps Company. The ramifications of that meeting are sadly still being felt today as Upper Deck hasn’t produced licensed baseball cards since 2009. They also went on to lose the NFL and NBA licenses and today are a fringe trading card company that produces NHL and Marvel trading cards to very little fanfare.

On a side note, I first wrote about the Chrome prototype cards in 2015, which you can find here. In late 2017, Tanner Jones, a famed Jose Canseco collector and one of the most talented custom baseball card creators, perhaps ever, claimed to have picked up one of the 1991 Upper Deck Chrome prototypes. You can read all about it here. I’ve discussed Tanner’s card with the owner of the one that came directly from Upper Deck’s dumpster and the owner states that Tanner’s card does not have the same texture on the front and is also mysteriously missing the trademark information on the back of the card, as seen below.

Does that lend the possibility that Tanner’s card is perhaps a very well-designed custom card or even a fake sold to him? It’s not at all impossible. What I do know is that the card you see above is 100% original, removed directly from Upper Deck company property in 1991 and held for thirty years by a non-collector with no ulterior motives to move the card, promote his online persona, or say, sell a book.

With my success in finding a source both inside Upper Deck and PSA, my next step will be to find the mysteriously silent owner of the now defunct Signs & Glassworks. My goal is to hopefully have the opportunity to interview the man responsible for these prototypes along with the greatest innovation in modern baseball cards.

Stay tuned …

If you have some information that may be useful, please leave a comment. You can also reach me on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “How Upper Deck Won the War and Still Fell on their Sword

Add yours

  1. Wow, had no idea about all this. What a cool story and great history lesson.

  2. Reprint cards like this would be huge! Would be something I would actually buy a pack to get. I spend a lot on cards, but nothing on new wax. This would interest me

  3. I’ve talked to PJ many times. I’ve seen a handful of the Canseco. Since you posted my name here questioning if mine copy was potentially a fake or custom … I’ll remove all doubt for you and your readers who may question it. it is real. The texture is in fact the same. It looks like you used both mine and PJ’S pics in your article and you can even see the texture.

    Regarding the back, there are 3 types: silver, magnet, and the one you show. I suspect they are all different backed layers, and if you remove pj’s back, it’ll show a magnet, silver, or both.

    Hopefully my explanation is enough to show there no monkey business attached to promote my online persona, or say, sell a book.

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