Interview with Card Sharks Author, Pete Williams

Originally published March 9th, 2009

The day Upper Deck became an official sponsor of Wax Heaven, many readers accused me of selling out and going corporate. One reader even sent me a very angry email asking why I have never covered Pete Williams’ book, ‘Card Sharks: How Upper Deck Turned A Child’s Hobby Into A High-Stakes, Billion-Dollar Business’.

The truth is that I have never had a chance to read Card Sharks. I searched high and low in book stores and libraries but never could find a copy. Rather than giving my opinion on a book I have never read, I went straight to the source for a very special interview you won’t find anywhere else.

Pete Williams has agreed to sit down for an interview with Wax Heaven. This interview is brought to you exclusively by the Card Blogosphere and Dave of Fielder’s Choice, who helped put together some of the questions for Mr. Williams and wrote a great review of Card Sharks on his own blog.

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How did the card industry react when Card Sharks was published?

A: The book came out in April of 1995, a time when few people were on the Internet. So there wasn’t the type of viral response you see with books today. Several hobby publications, dependent as they were on Upper Deck advertising, were not very kind to the book, though I can remember at least two hobby writers apologizing to me later for their slanted coverage.

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Were the ethical standards at other card companies better than at Upper Deck during the early 1990s?  Did you hear about any unethical schemes involving other card companies that were similar to what Upper Deck did with the reprinted Dale Murphy cards and the French hockey cards?

A: I wouldn’t know. The book evolved out of rumblings I heard in the industry at the time about Upper Deck. I had only been working on the book for a few months when one of the Upper Deck founders, Bill Hemrick, filed a lawsuit against Upper Deck that included allegations of card reprinting. That became a significant part of the book. Hemrick later settled his suit with Upper Deck.

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If you were to write a follow up to Card Sharks, what are some of the biggest events in the last 14 years of the hobby that you would want to cover?

A: I’ve been asked this question through the years and it’s very flattering. The publishing business, however, doesn’t work that way. I can’t think of a book that’s been updated or revisited 15 years later, though it’s an interesting idea. Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson did a terrific job in their 2007 book “The Card” investigating many of the industry’s hot-button issues of recent years: grading/slabbing, card doctoring, auctions, etc. I highly recommend their book.

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In Card Sharks, you wrote a lot about Beckett and the book values of certain cards.  Do you believe, as many collectors do, that Beckett has lost its integrity and relevance in today’s hobby?  If so, what led to their decline?

A: Losing one’s integrity is a rather harsh accusation. I’ve always found Dr. Beckett and his staff to be people of high integrity and character. Once they got into the auction and grading business, however, I did raise an eyebrow over what appeared to be a conflict of interest. Then again, there’s perhaps no business I can think of so replete with conflicts of interests as the sports card/memorabilia business, and that extends to auction houses and appraisers, card manufacturers, sports leagues and their unions, and hobby publications. As for Beckett losing its status as the definitive source of values, the reasons would include slabbing/grading and the Internet providing an easy forum for competitors to spring up. I marvel that we’re not that far removed from the days of waiting for the Beckett Monthly magazines to arrive in the mail. That seems like another lifetime ago.

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Where do you think the hobby is headed in the future?  What changes do you think Upper Deck, Topps, and other companies will need to make in order to keep existing collectors interested and attract new collectors in the 21st century?

A: Admittedly, I don’t cover this industry to the extent I did during its early-1990s heyday, but here’s my take: Generation X people like me don’t recognize “the hobby” anymore. My formative collecting years were the late 1970s and early 1980s. I learned to read from baseball cards. They taught me geography, arithmetic, how to alphabetize and put things in numerical order, and how to save and allocate my limited financial resources to buy packs of cards. My family did not have cable TV and even though I saw only five MLB games in person before becoming a baseball writer after college, I was familiar with every player in the game by the age of 7. This is the role “trading cards” played for generations of collectors. I’m not sure what role they play these days, let alone in the future, given our technology-based culture and the countless short-sighted marketing approaches card manufacturers and sports leagues have made over the last 15 years in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.

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In the last six months alone, Upper Deck has laid off many employees, canceled a product shortly before release due to lack of interest (2008 Update), discontinued two very popular brands (Masterpieces, Sweet Spot), and rumored to have shut down their Nevada facility. With all these elements in place, do you believe there is opportunity to write a follow-up on Card Sharks?

A: I have not followed the state of Upper Deck very closely, but such measures really are no different from what’s happening in most U.S. industries right now. Again, the nature of the publishing business is not to write follow-up books and “The Card” pretty much updated the state of the industry adequately for now.

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With all the new card technology introduced in the last decade, do you believe we are in the new “Golden Age” of collecting or like many collectors, do you feel “game-used” memorabilia and other “gimmicks” have made companies care less about design and photography and more about what bat or jersey they can cut up and insert into a card?

A: I’m starting to feel like a geezer talking about the good old days. No, this is definitely not the golden age of collecting. When everything is overproduced and shamelessly marketed as a can’t-miss, limited-edition, blue-chip investment, as it has for the last 15-plus years, it’s very sad. Kids couldn’t care less about the technology and other gimmicks used in cards, if they pay attention to cards at all. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the four sports leagues take game-used and autographed memorabilia in house and eliminate dealers. It’s already happening to some degree.

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If given just one choice, which card would you invest in and why: a 2001 Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols autograph or a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.

A: I would never, ever invest or even talk about investing in sports cards or memorabilia. The notion of sports memorabilia as investment is a huge misnomer and everyone who perpetrates it should be ashamed of themselves. If someone offered me one of these two cards, I’d take the Mantle. Any value the Pujols card has is manufactured by the perceived scarcity of Pujols’ signature. Last I checked, Albert is still with us and signing on a daily basis. Admittedly, Mantle appears to have signed quite a bit since his death in 1995.

Pete Williams Official Website

Card Sharks @ Amazon

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Why Did Upper Deck Abandon Its Comeback?

In early 2013, Upper Deck shocked dealers and collectors in attendance at the Industry Summit by proudly announcing their return to the baseball card market scheduled for release later in the year. Around this time, Upper Deck had secured a deal with MLBPA to produce two baseball products with the first being Fleer Retro and later, Sweet Spot Classic. This was huge news for collectors who were growing tired of the Topps baseball card monopoly or those simply unhappy with Panini’s offerings. Some lucky Industry Summit attendees were even rewarded with random Precious Metal Gems inserts of Mike Trout (Blue, Green, and Red). There is currently one on eBay for $2,000.

In case you’re wondering, at some point before the release of this product… Upper Deck slammed on the brakes and abruptly (also without notice) made a U-turn, canceling their long-awaited return to baseball without even as much as a press release or Tweet offering an explanation as to why. Dave & Adam’s Card World still has an active Fleer Retro Baseball page with a product breakdown but as you can imagine, no available boxes for sale. All that we really know was that a box would have yielded 100 total cards, four retro inserts, and six autographs. Sadly, a Fleer Retro checklist has never been made available by Upper Deck or anyone else for the matter.

2013 Fleer Retro insert

I am really surprised that Upper Deck’s return wasn’t with one of their own homegrown products. It is well-known that in Upper Deck’s final years in baseball, they absolutely did Fleer wrong. In the opinion of a 29-year collector, Fleer’s products were consistently at the top or close to it in quality during the entire decade of the 90s but by the time Upper Deck bought the license, they churned out forgettable, lifeless products which was the exact opposite of something the once great Fleer brand was known for. It almost felt like what Vince McMahon did when he purchased his rival, WCW. This new Fleer was a total burial job but with Upper Deck now giving the iconic company its due in 2013, all was well in the hobby world or so it seemed.

Unfortunately, my connections with Upper Deck carry very little weight these days. When I contacted my longtime source to discuss this matter, I was given a very short, “No comment”. Unfortunately, it appears we may never know what caused the cancellation of Upper Deck’s return to baseball. Was it low, early presells, negative feedback, or both? We can only speculate but from what I’ve seen online, people weren’t exactly thrilled about Upper Deck baseball cards without logos. You can read some feedback from collectors on two popular card forums here and here. Of course, message boards aren’t exactly known for positivity but it does give you a good glimpse back to that time and how collectors were discussing Fleer Retro.

This year’s Industry Summit is being held on September 2019. Unfortunately, it appears Upper Deck will have no exhibit or even any of their representatives in attendance. Perhaps they have yet to register? I guess this means we won’t be getting any 9th inning heroics from the company that ruled baseball cards out of the gate in 1989 and completely changed the hobby by beating the competition to the punch with each and every new innovation. It certainly appears for the time being, 2013 Fleer Retro will remain buried treasure as Upper Deck has seemingly thrown in the towel in the fight to compete, at the very least, with Leaf and Panini America.

While there isn’t much information on Fleer Retro, there is even less available on Sweet Spot Classic. We don’t even have a single mock-up to judge for ourselves whether or not the return of Upper Deck’s Sweet Spot had any potential. There are, however, several Fleer Retro mock-ups featuring players such as Derek Jeter, Tony Gwynn, Bo Jackson, and many more. Frankly, too many to post here but you can see them all on my Twitter feed by clicking HERE. If you miss Upper Deck baseball products or simply want to see another company compete for the baseball card market in 2019, make sure to let them know in my Tweets, which Upper Deck reads and comments on frequently.

 

2013 Fleer Retro insert

Too Much of A Good Thing?

For a Jose Canseco collector, 2018 has been one hell of a year. Topps Company, the exclusive card manufacturer for Major League Baseball, has produced one Jose card after another. Some have been absolutely brilliant, while others have failed to impress. For a guy who was once considered a pariah in baseball and was removed from Topps’ line-up for over half a decade, it’s great to see some consideration thrown our way.

For the most part, I’ve been busy picking up Jose cards I missed through the entire decade of the 90s but have also acquired several new 2018 cards including multiple autographs, parallels, and yes … even base cards. It appears the mass production of Canseco autographs and game-used relics over the past five years have completely shrunk secondary market prices and that’s great news for me. Or is it?

Lately, something else has been bugging me. Jose is days away from turning 55. For a man who abused Steroids for more than two decades and has had some public health problems, it’s safe to say he’s got another 5-7 healthy years ahead of him (if that). The amount of autographs he can sign in that time because he has no full-time job, could reach into the 25,000+ thousands.

Much like Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle before him, soon, Jose’s autographs will hit rock bottom. Sure, Topps will continue to produce low-numbered, even 1/1 cards signed by Jose that will hit 4-digit prices but everything else is starting to seem like a waste to this 28-year Canseco collecting veteran. Sure, some cards look great but there isn’t much that stands out from the past five years.

If you want cards that will hold their value, it’s time to go to past such as 1999 Fleer Mystique, which features Jose’s hard-signed autograph and serial numbering. That card, while not as fancy as some of Topps’ 2018 offerings, is now considered rare despite a 250-card print run. On eBay, there are no active auctions and just one completed auction. Now the 2000 Upper Deck Game Jersey inserts are a whole different story.

Upper Deck was a company ahead of its time and was the first to introduce both pack-inserted certified autographs and game-used relics into an MLB licensed product. These Canseco Game Jersey cards sell for dirt cheap despite an on-card autograph and a very respectable design that has aged well BUT finding a Game Jersey Patch is every serious Canseco collector’s dream and holy grail.

I’m not here to knock the new school of baseball cards. There are printing gimmicks today that would have blown the doors off anything Pinnacle Brands was doing in 1997 and I’d probably trade my entire collection to be able to own a Topps Superfractor of Jose Canseco but let’s face it, there’s just too much product being produced and it has devalued Jose’s stock on the secondary market.

Much like many collectors today who have stopped buying new product and gone to vintage, I can see the same trend happening to fellow Jose Canseco Super Collectors. It’s those late-90s cards that have survived 25+ years and had lower print runs that will hold and rise in value when Topps continues pumping out thousands of new Jose Canseco autographs and relic cards. I see the light, vintage collector. Sorry it took so long.

I’m not saying I am going to go cold turkey on 2018 cards but maybe it’s time for me to stop picking up everything that is being produced and save up for that 1998 Donruss Crusade insert I have been putting off for so long. I have picked up almost every single 2018 Topps Series 1 & 2 card of Jose … and trust me, there’s a lot … but have consistently balked when it was time to spend $100 on the Crusade.

What the hell was I thinking?!?