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Here’s the deal: I’ve been around this hobby for 20 years and have worked at Upper Deck for 12. I used to be the editor of Trading Cards magazine during the hobby’s heyday in the early ‘90s and spent ample time comparing, reviewing and writing about innovative sports card products. I watched price guides go up and down; industry trade shows catch fire with more and more excited collectors; and products being unveiled that made people stop and take notice. And more often than not, Upper Deck was the company that made people say: “Wow.” Very simply, they had products worth crowing about.
UD took the hobby by storm in 1989 with the release of its inaugural baseball set, headlined by the much-talked-about Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card (#1). That single, sought-after card catapulted through hobby price guides and reached as high as $150 on the secondary market. Its meteoric rise gave birth to more hobby periodicals and more price guides, not to mention hundreds of new hobby shops sprouting up throughout North America. Older, vintage sports cards were still on serious collectors’ radars, but it was Upper Deck’s initial set that made it possible for any collector to enter the market and turn a modest profit on their original investment. If somebody wasn’t seeking a quick return, they at least walked away with a better baseball card for their collection. The burgeoning hobby, as we know it today, was off and running.
Upper Deck’s debut baseball release also introduced the industry’s first-ever anti-counterfeit hologram on each of its cards. It was groundbreaking. That security device would revolutionize the industry, put competitors on notice, and force card counterfeiters out of business.
In 1990, Upper Deck introduced the first autographed cards in product with the release of its Reggie Jackson “Heroes of Baseball” inserts. Nolan Ryan autographed “Heroes” cards followed in 1991. Upper Deck debuted the hobby’s first-ever game-jersey cards inside Upper Deck Football in 1996. An actual game-used jersey swatch from the player was incorporated on the card front. In 1998, the hobby’s first digital trading cards, called “PowerDeck,” were unveiled by UD. Each beautifully designed trading card-sized CD-ROM was an audio/visual masterpiece that contained 60 seconds of video of the player featured! Babe Ruth bat cards and 500 Home Run Club member bat cards packed out shortly thereafter where an actual piece of a game-used bat used by the players featured was embedded on each of the card fronts. Collectors salivated at the mere thought.
Two years later, “Legendary Cuts” signature cards were released by Upper Deck, which contained the hobby’s first cut signatures of deceased legends and stars. High-end sets like Exquisite and Ultimate Collection were next. You get the drift. When it came to knocking the socks off of collectors, Upper Deck consistently delivered.
What I’ve noticed during my tenure here is that the folks at Upper Deck have worked hard to establish a loyal following of fans interested in purchasing a superior product. It’s as simple as that. So it’s a shame that after 21 years of dedicated service we’re no longer allowed to produce baseball cards showing MLB trademarks, logos and team names because we are, in fact, the company that attracted so many new customers to the category. They came buzzing like bees to honey. Topps may have had a monopoly on the baseball card market for 40 years, but things really didn’t start to flourish until UD arrived.
Its cutting-edge designs, full-color photography, glossy cardstock and anti-counterfeit hologram kick-started a hobby that was dying a slow death. But now the right to produce baseball cards goes exclusively to Topps, the industry’s 60-year-old grand-daddy, for at least the foreseeable future.
Major League Baseball believes that collectors are now the real winners with its decision to limit the playing field to just one licensed manufacturer. But does the collector really win in the end?