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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

This Isn’t Goodbye

I love baseball cards. I love writing about baseball cards even more. Since 2007, with a long gap in between thanks to Fatherhood, I’ve made baseball cards my life. I’ve written thousands and thousands of words on that very subject on this blog, message boards, and social media. I’ve talked about them on several podcasts, interviews, and even my own podcast, which I wasn’t able to see through to the end.

Now, on a personal front, I find myself leaving my industry where I have worked for the past 10+ years to start fresh in something completely new. I have to focus and commit in order to be successful and that means I can’t continue writing as much as I do now. After all, aside from work, I also have a wife and an 11-year-old daughter I need to help make her way through life through these challenging times.

Fear not! I have one more, HUGE article coming this weekend which I’ve put a lot of time and energy into and I can be found on Twitter, where I take part and/or start at least one conversation every day. Make sure to add me on Twitter by clicking HERE. If time permits, I will even soon create a TikTok account opening packs of baseball cards, something I was doing in 2007 on YouTube and also VIMEO.

Be back soon but if I don’t, never stop collecting!

All Card Grading Services Are Created Equal, Except This One

I’d like to say that it’s a crazy time to be a collector but truthfully, it’s a crazy time to be an American. We’re dealing with inflation, rising gas prices, baby formula flippers, and people all over the country losing their homes due to rent increases. We’ve got schools, hospitals, and grocery stores being shot up daily and innocent people dying, plus a fire burning between Democrats and Republicans that has been raging out of control since the 2020 election with no end in sight.

As a collector, I look to baseball cards to escape the real-world madness that is filled with tragedy and heartbreak. Why anyone would want to bring that aspect of society into collecting is beyond my realm of understanding but ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Southern Values Card Grading, a grading company that immediately lets you know they are against “Liberals”, as it is clearly marked on their MS Paint-generated company logo.

SVCG appears to be running their “operations” out of Oklahoma and its owner, Christopher Dewey, is charging $25 for grading services, with an additional $15 for a custom label. On the company’s Facebook page, there are several examples of custom labels which feature the Confederate Battle Flag. Aside from the flag being completely tone-deaf in 2022, the font and design work is atrocious. Despite all this, SVCG seems to be thriving as there are seemingly hundreds of cards in their slabs featured on their Facebook.

When you see someone proudly waving the Confederate flag, you immediately assume that the person must be a racist BUT judging by SVCG’s incredibly unprofessional website and Chris Dewey’s aspiring career as a rapper, which is somehow even worse than the aforementioned website, I don’t think Chris is a racist. That being said, I do not think SVCG will be able to make a dent in a market ruled by PSA. There are more than enough MAGA in the hobby to justify a company like this but in the end, love wins over hate.

The Card at the End of the Rainbow

When I think back to 1990, it doesn’t seem that long ago. It’s hard to imagine just how much the world and our lives have changed in those 32 years. Back then, I was a 10-year-old kid running through our local Ames Department Store looking for G1 Transformers. Being the spoiled little shit that I was, there was no shopping trip with Mother that didn’t result in me being gifted a new Transformer for my collection.

Unfortunately, this Ames only carried the awful G2 Transformers which I wanted no part of so rather than give up, I went into other sections to see if there was ANYTHING I could grab before my mom completed her shopping. To my horror, I looked over and saw her at the checkout stand with her items, so I grabbed what I thought was a pack of playing cards and ran over to her in time for the lady at the register to scan the pack of playing cards.

As it turns out, what my mom actually purchased was a set of 1990 Topps Ames All-Stars. My life was Transformers, wrestling, and video games. I knew absolutely nothing about baseball or any of the players on each of these cards but one card in particular stuck out and before the end of 1990, I was already building my collection of Jose Canseco baseball cards that to this day, over 30 years later, is still going strong.

Last year, Topps included the 1990 Ames Jose Canseco in their Archives Signature Series Retired edition with only 7 copies. The first one hit eBay and I quickly placed a $50 bid, thinking no one in their right mind would bid more than $20 for it. Besides, since 2014, Topps has absolutely destroyed the Canseco autograph market thanks to over 1,000 different Jose Canseco certified autographs, totaling in the mid 6-figure region.

The next day when I went to make my payment, I was shocked that the card sold for $78. I was dismayed because due to willful ignorance and being stingy, I secured only $50 for a card that is essentially the legacy of my 32-year card collecting journey. To make matters worse, another sold last month for $36 dollars, which I completely missed. That means only five copies remain and odds of another appearing on eBay anytime soon are very low.

For me, this card brings back memories of my childhood, spending happy moments with my mother, and so much more. To have an official signed copy produced by Topps would be a dream of mine and quite possibly, would let me close out my Jose Canseco collection once and for all. I’ve set several saved searches on eBay with multiple notifications, but I am also asking for help. If anyone sees this card for sale, please contact me immediately.

You can leave me a comment on this blog, hit me up on Twitter (twitter.com/CardFanatixBlog), or just use the old-fashioned email (WaxMorgue@gmail.com). For the first time in my collecting life, I see the end in the horizon. I want to add this card to my collection and sail off into the sunset but I can’t do it alone. Please, keep 1990 Topps Ames in your thoughts.

Lightning Never Strikes (Donruss) Twice

1995 must have been a tough year for baseball card manufacturers. For starters, a baseball strike cut short a historic home run chase between Ken Griffey Jr. & Matt Williams and canceled the World Series. Fans were furious and attendance would suffer for years to come. I can’t imagine there was much anticipation for new releases that year and from the research I’ve done, it appears several companies produced much less product than usual due to what many believed would be a downturn for business.

One company, which was owned by Pinnacle Brands, would go on to release perhaps one of the most peculiar and flat-out strangest designs we’ve ever seen, with baseball cards that resembled debit/credit cards. In hindsight, Donruss Studio was way ahead of the times. In 1990, there were 300 million transactions made with debit cards, just 14 years after 1995 Studio, there were 39 billion transactions, which leads me to believe Studio likely deserves some credit for that growth.

As usual with Pinnacle Brands, collectors weren’t ready to think outside the box and the product tanked. It probably wasn’t the best idea to release cards of millionaire ball players on literal credit cards during a baseball strike that caused fans to turn on the players for they perceived as greed. For me personally, I loved 1995 Studio and it’s easily one of my favorite designs of the 90s. The set featured no certified autographs or serial numbered cards, which were still new-ish concepts in 1995 but it got collectors talking.

What I didn’t know was that in 2002, Donruss went back to the well to recreate their infamous 1995 design. Just as it failed in 1995, it repeated the performance in 2002. By then, Donruss was a company on its last legs. Pinnacle Brands had long filed for bankruptcy and Upper Deck had been the King of Baseball Cards for nearly a decade. What no one knew was that in just a few years, Topps Company would introduce the 1/1 Superfractor, which mixed with their Bowman lines, would make every other card manufacturer obsolete.

Also, what a contrast between the player on both images. In 1995, Griffey Jr. was destined to be the new Home Run King, easily on pace to surpass Hank Aaron’s immortal spot in baseball. By the time he appeared in 2002 Donruss Studio, Junior had become injury prone and had lost his smile. The shine was off the apple, the records were no longer in sight, and he had been surpassed in popularity by a new crop of superstars, not to mention a behemoth named Barry Bonds.

My only experience with Kenny was after a Marlins game in which several of Cincinatti’s squad signed and posed for pictures with the Florida Marlins fans but Griffey Jr. walked out in a business suit and a smug look on his face and ignored every kid who begged for his attention. Luckily, Austin Kearns and Bucky Dent, who was a coach at the time, spent nearly 20 minutes with the rival team’s fans signing away until they were practically dragged to their bus. I’ll never forget how miserable Ken Griffey Jr. looked.