Monday, January 7, 2013
The death of an innovator and an irritant
I debated writing about this all day ... well, for a couple of hours anyway. How could I properly pay tribute to a man to whom I've been nothing but derisive on this blog?
"Never speak ill of the dead." That's what ran through my head over and over. Richard P. McWilliam, co-founder and president of Upper Deck, had died over the weekend. Perhaps it would be best to say nothing at all, since I couldn't say anything nice.
But I can't say nothing. That's not a proper tribute. No, a proper tribute is not to remain silent, but to acknowledge a person in their time of passing, no matter what you think of them. To acknowledge their contribution here on earth, no matter how removed you are from the situation. This is a blog for my thoughts on cards, right? Duty calls.
McWilliam's invention, Upper Deck, does not mean as much to me as it does to many collectors. I did not grow up with Upper Deck. In 1989, when the first UD product hit shelves, I cannot remember ever seeing it available for purchase. I remember Topps, Donruss, Fleer and Score. No memory of Upper Deck.
I have about 80 cards from Upper Deck's first set now, all of them the products of trades for the Dodger set or from repack packs and boxes. I have never willingly purchased a 1989 Upper Deck card solely BECAUSE it's a 1989 Upper Deck card.
I simply don't care about the set.
So, yeah, I'm a collecting outsider when it comes to Upper Deck. Probably another reason why I shouldn't be writing about this.
But I must recognize Upper Deck's impact on the hobby, the impact that McWilliam made. His impact is undeniable. UD forever changed the hobby. It didn't make "a better baseball card," as I've heard some say today. Not in my view. It made "a more collectible baseball card for its time."
Just look at '89 Upper Deck in retrospect. As objectively as you possibly can. Put away the fact that you were 10 when they first came out and they were the most awesomely different thing to ever appear on cardboard ... er, or whatever that card stock was.
Objectively, '89 Upper Deck is a marginally notable set on so-called "superior" card stock, with a weird hologrammy thing on the back, with candid/action photos on the back, with somewhat different photos on the front, loaded with rookies and lots of dark, shadow-obscured photos.
In short, it doesn't hold up all that well. It's kind of overrated. But this is the impact that the set and McWilliam made. Despite its faults, it remains iconic, one of the greatest sets of all-time, for better or worse.
I'll say "worse." From an emotional standpoint, that is.
It introduced us to a card stock that we still are suffering with today. What IS that junk? Somebody at a card company somewhere please find a cardboard box.
It solidified the idea that stats on the back were disposable. I know Donruss diminished stats before UD (and Topps did way back in the day). But UD made full stats obselete. Who needs full stats when you can put another color photo on the back? This was a good thing to young collectors back then. But not to me. I want my full stats -- even in the days of baseball-reference.com.
It introduced the concept of the "premium baseball card." Sure it raised the bar on the card sets to come, but it also raised the prices. And collectors to this day complain about how much they have to shell out for a pack of regular, old base Topps. There's something oxymoronic about the words "premium" and "baseball card" together anyway. Cards are supposed to be a nickel, aren't they? Or a penny? Weren't cards throw-ins when you bought gum or candy? Their original nature, their selling point, is that they didn't cost much. UD changed all that.
Emotionally, I am so disgusted with Upper Deck.
But "rationally," yes, McWilliam and Upper Deck did some good things ... or at least, notable things.
There ARE nice cards in 1989 Upper Deck. And the action on Upper Deck sets that followed is some of the best to ever appear on baseball cards. Upper Deck's photography forced Topps and others to improve its photos. And it took Topps years to reach the level of UD in this area -- if it ever did at all.
Upper Deck led to Stadium Club. It led to a zillion premium sets. It forced Topps to walk out of its 1980 world model and change the way it produced cards for consumers. UD created the best hockey and football cards on the market.
Upper Deck was an innovator like no other card company since the early days of Topps. It introduced memorabilia jersey cards to collectors. Some collectors never liked these kind of cards -- I've stopped liking them. But to collectors in the late 1990s, they were mind-blowing and completely altered the way card collectors collected.
For better or worse.
There is only one Upper Deck set that I rank among my favorites of all-time. It is the 1993 UD set. It remains amazing. Possibly the most well-thought-out large base set of all-time.
But that is the only one I truly appreciate. Sure there are other smaller Upper Deck sets that I enjoy. Most are legends sets. You'll see a 2001 Upper Deck Decade '70s want list pop up on this blog soon. And there are other interesting "lesser" UD sets, too.
But the vast majority of UD baseball sets were not my collecting style. I could easily make the argument -- as some collectors have -- that Upper Deck, and specifically its debut set, is what's wrong with everything in the hobby today.
Mostly, when I think of Upper Deck now, I think of how they screwed themselves out of a baseball license through underhanded and unscrupulous business practices. Given what I've read and heard about UD and their management leading up to that point, I wasn't surprised. Even little things like assigning the Dodgers the "666" number during the companies' early sets were signs that things weren't quite right. Upper Deck irritated me, both on card and with how they ran their business. McWilliam takes the blame for a lot of that. He was the hobby's baddie for a long time.
But that's speaking "ill," right?
I'm supposed to honor a legacy on this day, I think.
So here is what I'm honoring:
Thank you, Mr. McWilliam for all the night cards in 1989 Upper Deck. Thank you for the 1993 Upper Deck baseball set. Thank you for some cool hockey cards. Thank you for items today that can be traced back to Upper Deck -- Allen & Ginter framed relics, awesome inserts, brilliant photography. In short, thanks for creating some competition. For a guy who was used to collecting just one set a year -- and happy doing so -- that's a lot to admit.
As for the rest?
Well, the rest was just irritating.