Topps’ Gimmick Missed by A Hair

Card collecting trends come and go. At one time back in the 80s, lenticular cards were all the rage thanks to cheap packs of Sportflics being sold in every Toys r’ Us in the country. As technology improved, those “3D” cards we all loved as kids just didn’t cut it anymore. Fads in sports cards come and go but its action on the secondary market that ultimately decides what sticks around and what ends up buried in the hobby graveyard. Who knew way back in 1993 when collectors were pulling the first ever Refractors out of packs of Finest that we’d still be obsessing over them in 2021?

Topps Company was definitely thinking outside the box when they produced the first ever “DNA” hair relic card of none other than George Washington, found in packs of 2007 Allen & Ginter. For a company that has seemingly been on cruise control for the past decade, this was definitely a move new collectors wouldn’t expect from today’s sad version of Topps. Thanks to these DNA gimmicks, baseball cards were once again back in mainstream media and collectors were scrambling to grab a box of Allen & Ginter. What other product offered you an opportunity to own a literal piece of U.S. history?

These Topps DNA cards were so popular that Upper Deck, usually a company ahead of the curve, flat out stole Topps’ idea and produced their own line of hair relics cards but to much less fanfare. In 2009, I even pulled one from a retail box of Upper Deck Spectrum. Two months later, my redemption for a Jaqueline Onassis ‘A Piece of History Hair Cuts’ was fulfilled. The card, which didn’t even feature a picture of JFK’s first lady’s (but not last) hair trimmings was anti-climatic to say the least. I eventually tossed it on eBay and sold it for a little under $300, which was not bad considering the retail blaster was $19.99.

Unfortunately, Upper Deck’s hair relics came to an end when they lost their baseball license and Topps’ original version of the DNA card was retired in 2014. After that, the DNA cards that were seemingly all the rage, quietly disappeared. Today, these forgotten inserts rarely even come up for air on the secondary market, with the last one appearing over two months ago on eBay. In September 2021, a Joe DiMaggio hair relic from Upper Deck sold for a surprisingly high, $1,852. You would think that figure would make other collectors list their own versions of DNA cards but for now, there is still nothing.

A friend of mine once told me that collectors find hair relics “creepy”, which is an opinion I don’t necessary disagree with. However, it’s no less creepy than seeing an overweight neckbeard with stains on his shirt chasing down high school-aged children for autographs, which happens every single year in Minor League stadiums across the country. If anything, maybe it’s a good thing card companies retired these DNA cards because it gives a chance for the market to breathe and makes these DNA cards even more desirable when they do finally make an appearance on eBay and other auction sites.

After losing their bread & butter with MLB licensed baseball cards and the much-desired WWE license, Topps needs to once again pull a rabbit out of their hobby hat before Fanatics puts the nail in their coffin for good. It is my opinion that there is nothing that will grab national attention more than a glorious return of baseball cards with embedded pieces of hair from historic and/or famous dead people. It may sound gruesome but these cards definitely deserve one last run in a Topps-produced brand and there’s really not much time left so if someone from Topps Company is reading, get to it!

The clock is ticking …….

Upper Deck’s Impending Doom

If ever there was a meteoric rise in the world of trading cards, it would have to have been in 1989 with the entry of Upper Deck into the baseball card market. Officially, Upper Deck was the 5th manufacturer approved by M.L.B. to produce licensed baseball cards but unlike the previous companies such as Fleer, Donruss, and Score, Upper Deck shot straight to the top of the charts. Upper Deck cards, from year one, were a cut above every other company’s efforts. After all, Upper Deck introduced the pack-inserted autograph (1990) and the game-used memorabilia card (1997) before any of their competitors and are mostly responsible for the ultra, high-end market we have today.

I’ve already written that without the fierce competition provided by those early Upper Deck sets, Topps would not have been pushed to innovate and create products that to this day, rule the world of sports cards. Topps is King, at least until Fanatics takes over, because overnight their historic flagship was made obsolete thanks to 1989 Upper Deck. The problem Upper Deck faced is that once those glory years came to an end and we rolled into Y2k, the momentum in the baseball card market had shifted. Upper Deck failed to secure the rights to Refractor technology and spent the next decade playing catch-up in what eventually became a two-company race.

By 2007, Upper Deck was a company that was self-imploding under Richard McWilliam. What was once a respected brand that was beloved by collectors world wide, had morphed into a company with devastating quality control issues and public relations disasters so short-sighted that it would eventually cause a domino affect that would cost Upper Deck their baseball, football, and basketball licenses. By 2010, the heart and soul of Upper Deck was gone and all that was left was a sad shell of its former self. McWilliam, once a hobby hero, had a front row seat to his company’s demise and watched his world crumble until his death in 2013. By some miracle, Upper Deck carried on.

What we’ve gotten from Upper Deck since their exit from licensed sports is cards with pieces of plants and bugs embedded into them, an entire set of unknown (to most) military veterans, a slew of lackluster Marvel releases, and cards of athletes in suits doing anything but playing sports. Upper Deck has also produced several licensed sets from movie franchises old and new, which have been met with little fan fare but have still managed to sell out. In 2017, Upper Deck produced a Clerks trading card set and eventually followed up with a Chasing Amy release. These type of products have helped keep Upper Deck’s name alive but little known pop culture sets are expensive and won’t keep the lights on.

The only sports license Upper Deck was able to keep was hockey. Upper Deck’s N.H.L products have been a ray of light in an otherwise dark time and have even given some collectors hope that one day Upper Deck would return to the baseball card market. All those hopes were dashed once the Fanatics monopoly was set in place but as long as Upper Deck remained in hockey, all was safe, or so it would appear. Those hoping for the best for Upper Deck now have reason to panic as Upper Deck has canceled several hockey products, while delaying others. To make matters worse, the one product that has brought national attention to Upper Deck, All-Elite Wrestling, has also faced delays, angering many wrestling fans.

You have to hand it to Upper Deck, they have survived twelve very long years after losing their sports licenses in 2009. This hockey cancelation/delay can’t look good in the eyes of the N.H.L executives, especially when there is a company spending billions of dollars and locking down all sports. Only time will tell just how loyal hockey is to Upper Deck but at the moment, things look very bleak. For many years, rumors have been spreading of Upper Deck filing for bankruptcy and of company-wide lay-offs but every year, like the roaches they embed into Goodwin Champions, Upper Deck continues to survive. My question is just how many lives does this once historic company have left?

Upper Deck Lived Long Enough to Become the Villain

Three years ago I wrote a piece about how Topps’ greatest idea of all-time, the Superfractor, was being stolen by both Leaf Trading Cards and Panini America. Although the Topps Superfractor made its debut in 2005, the actual pattern was first used by Topps in 1996 as a not so rare parallel. You can read all about it here. That now beloved “swirl” is not owned by Topps, which is why companies have been ripping it off left and right without consequence. I expected Brian Grey of Leaf to have no shame whatsoever and wasn’t all too surprised with Panini America but I felt good that the one company that refrained from creating their own knock-off of the Superfractor was Upper Deck.

Upper Deck was never one to follow a trend. They came into the market and introduced “super premium” baseball cards during a time Topps cards appeared to be printed on recycled toilet paper. A year later, they introduced the pack-inserted autograph into the collecting world and continued producing one innovation after another. By the late-90s, they created the game-used memorabilia card and took control of the baseball market for the next few years. It’s been a rough decade for Upper Deck, what with losing the MLB, NBA, and NFL licenses but they have managed to survive somehow with NHL and non-sports cards. This is one company too proud to steal an idea just to help make ends meet, right?

Well, say hello to the Upper Deck’s version of the Superfractor.

Leaf’s snake oil salesmen, Brian Grey, gave their knock-off Superfractor an ultra-complicated name of ‘Super Prismatic Gold’. Panini executives went the simple route with the ‘Gold Vinyl’. Upper Deck on the other hand, well, they titled their Superfractor rip-off, the ‘Golden Treasure’. Not only does adding their own spin to the Topps original come about 15 years too late, it’s also fresh on the heels of serious reports that Fanatics is extremely interested in the NHL license to complete their monopoly of sports cards. Sorry, WNBA and soccer doesn’t count.

What’s truly a depressing sight is that Upper Deck, a company that has been in a downward spiral the better half of 15 years is now resorting to producing a card that is synonymous with their bitter rival, Topps Company. For almost their entire run as a licensed card manufacturer, Topps was always in Upper Deck’s rear view in the race to be the King of Baseball Cards. It took a Topps/MLB monopoly to give Topps the unfair victory. This ‘Golden Treasure’ has to completely destroy the remaining morale at Upper Deck , if such a thing even exists anymore.

As much as I rag on Topps, especially during their monopoly (2009-current), it’s impressive that they’ve been able to take a silly pattern produced by a printing company to completely change the game of trading cards. There have always been investors and flippers in our hobby but the Superfractor turned sports cards into a multi-billion dollar industry that has attracted the attention, for better or worse, of entrepreneurs and celebrities. Collecting is once again cool and in the mainstream media. It began in 1993 with the Refractor, continued in 1996 with the “Swirl”, and exploded in 2005 with the Superfractor.

… no matter what happens after Fanatics takes control, Topps will forever be legendary.

Why Baseball Heroes Didn’t Work

By 2008, I was deep into my baseball card addiction. I spent 7 days a week writing, sorting, scanning, trading, and buying cards. During this time, thanks to the growing popularity of Topps’ Superfractor, Upper Deck was far behind in the hearts and minds of collectors. Frankly, Topps was just cranking out far too many Refractors with Upper Deck having no well-known or popular parallel to compete. Baseball cards had suddenly become a one-horse race.

This was a much different scene than the one collectors enjoyed in 1990, when Upper Deck, in only their second year as a company, was laying the smackdown on Topps, Fleer, Score, and Donruss. Coming off an enormous debut in 1989, Upper Deck turned up the volume to 11 by releasing the first ever, pack-inserted certified autograph with a Reggie Jackson Baseball Hero insert #’d to 2,500.

While no one can deny that pack-inserted autographs changed the world of sports cards FOREVER, it wasn’t something to brag about 18 years later. By 2008, the climate had changed once again and now it was 1/1 Superfractors that were dominating the scene and Topps was in complete control. That didn’t stop Upper Deck from paying tribute to their ancient idea from 1990 by producing 2008 Baseball Heroes.

The product was full of star autographs, young and old. Each hobby and retail box were absolutely loaded with serial numbered parallels (and lots of color), and many of their game-used patches, which were growing stale even back then, came with stripes. It should have been a perfect, mid-level product but there was just something missing. It was like going to your high school reunion and finding your crush with 5 kids by 4 different men.

2008 Baseball Heroes was heartbreaking.

To make matters worse, the product was a dud from the start. This, followed by a very unpopular 2008 SPx, a once God-like release, signaled the official changing of the guards in the hobby. I consider the last few years of Upper Deck to be a complete disaster. It was a time when the company seemed to completely give up on new designs and concepts and chose to rely heavily on nostalgia and gimmicks like game-used relics and autographs.

I remember seeing boxes of 2008 Baseball Heroes for under $100 at my local card shop but I instead chose 2008 Bowman Chrome, which at the time, was so much damn fun. I wasn’t alone, either. I spent the next year passing by blaster boxes of Baseball Heroes sitting untouched at my local retailers. They were more likely to start growing mold than they were to sell, even at $20. Eventually, they hit $15 and one by one began to vanish.

It’s now 2021 and I have to say, I’d give anything for a re-release of Baseball Heroes. They say you don’t know what you have till it’s gone and while I did take Upper Deck for granted in their final years, I would have never expected them to lose their license. I was a long time fan of the company who felt they needed a refresher but seeing what happened in 2009 with the Topps monopoly makes me look back in sadness and regret.

Baseball Heroes wasn’t fresh or popular at the time. If there were 40 products released between Upper Deck and Topps in 2008, Heroes would fall somewhere down the middle. Still, at its price point it delivered just enough “hits” and serial numbered cards to keep the hit-chasers happy. The memory of collectors can be very short-termed, but this is one product from Upper Deck’s final years that I believe will stand the test of time.

CM Punk (and Pacific’s) Triumphant Return

I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never quite understood the fascination with CM Punk.

CM Punk was a charismatic wrestling personality and a great storyteller in the ring but by the time he rose to stardom, my lifelong obsession with the squared circle was nearing the end. I watched him instead as the co-host of a short-lived TV show covering WWE programming and saw him on more than one occasion get physically destroyed in the world of MMA. Oh, and of course I followed him on Twitter, where he occasionally had some interesting takes on WWE. I was certain by 2021 that the hype was over and we’d never see Punk wrestle again but his return, this time for All Elite Wrestling, absolutely shook the wrestling world. CM Punk’s comeback happened to come right on the heels of Upper Deck, at the Nation Sports Cards Convention, announcing that it was now the official card company of All Elite Wrestling. Upper Deck even managed to release a timely Topps Now-style CM Punk card to commemorate his unexpected/expected return.

The card below, which was only available for a few days, did big numbers as you can imagine and brought some much needed attention to Upper Deck. Punk’s first AEW card should come as no big surprise, however, considering Upper Deck’s strong relationship with CM Punk. Punk has appeared on multiple Upper Deck products over the years from hockey sets all the way to Goodwin Champions. Looking at the card below, to me, there’s nothing special about it but it’s always good to see Upper Deck in the spotlight again after the disastrous decade they have had to face since losing the MLB, NBA, and NFL licenses. It’s fair to say, Upper Deck’s glory years are in the rear view mirror. Just how many years/months CM Punk’s return to wrestling lasts is also up in the air but at age 42, he could easily perform for another decade if he’s inspired and paid accordingly. With Punk, nothing is certain.

So after seeing Upper Deck’s first Punk AEW card I started wondering about Punk’s rookie. I assumed, wrongly so, that it came from those mid-2000 Topps wrestling sets that where everywhere but to my surprise it came from Pacific Trading Cards! Thanks to Punk’s long-awaited return, the hottest card in the hobby for at least one weekend, came from Pacific. Talk about a blast from the past. The craziest part of all this is that in 2004, Pacific was on its very last legs after losing the MLB license (and all others) due to sheer stupidity. This means that at the time of Punk’s Pacific rookie card release, Pacific was looked at by collectors in the same way we look at Upper Deck today. Pacific in 2004 was a shell of their former self on the verge of bankruptcy and shuttering down due to one controversy after another. The only real difference between Upper Deck and Pacific is that Upper Deck, thanks to investors, was able to continue producing trading card sets long after their demise in major sports while Pacific struggled until finally ending all business operations.

As for Upper Deck’s upcoming AEW set, I’m still a wait-and-see guy. I asked one of their employees what their chances are of getting Punk signatures in the set, even as redemptions. I was told it’s unlikely due to the timing “but never say never when it comes to Upper Deck or CM Punk”. I for one hope they can find a way to make it happen, not for collectors … there’s enough CM Punk autographs out there. I want this set to be a huge success for Upper Deck as a company. Now that baseball is locked up for an eternity by Fanatics, it seems all Upper Deck can fall back on is their unlicensed sports cards, the Marvel properties, and this now very hot AEW product. The last thing I want to see is Upper Deck go the way of Pacific Trading Cards. As a collector of 30+ years, I’m tired of seeing the companies I grew up on closing down for good. I’ve lived through Fleer, Donruss, and Pinnacle’s demise, I don’t think I could handle Upper Deck’s extinction. No sir, not after making it THIS LONG without baseball.