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

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.


  1. I'm still torn on where I stand on UD.

    As you said, they basically started the whole "premium baseball card" thing. I've never really forgiven them for that.

    I do mourn McWilliam on this unfortunate day, but I also can't help of think of what I read in the book Card Sharks every time I hear his name. (A good read if you haven't already picked it up.)

    But, Upper Deck did bring about some nicer aspects of this hobby. Great photography, more competition, and largely better cards.

    So, for today, I'll have to thank McWilliam for that.


  2. You are kinder than I would be. For all Upper Deck's "good" intentions, they literally ruined many of the best aspects of the hobby.

  3. Ding Dong the Witch IS DEAD

    Agreed - In most ways Upper Deck ruined the Hobby I loved up to 1989.

    High Cost Glossy Cards took the fun out of collecting 35 cent thin card board cards.

    There 1994 Collector Choice sets were fantastic and 1997 Upper Deck Legend Football is great but otherwise, they have not done much good in the last 20 odd years

  4. Dewayne Buice in a 1989 Upper Deck "tribute" post?

    Nice touch. :-)

  5. I will never be convinced that the 1990 Upper Deck Ben McDonald 'error' Rookie card was not intentional. That card stopped my collection in it's tracks. I had been dutifully putting together Oriole team sets up until word of that 'error' hit the hobby publications. I knew I wasn't going to pay through the nose for it. So I stopped doing Oriole team sets. To this day my collection runs from 1954 through 1989.

    Sorry to see the guy pass but I resent Upper Deck. Funny thing is I really liked to new 'look' that they introduced in '89. Oh well.

  6. Great post...

    ...however, I think what Topps has done since they got the exclusive license is way worse than what UD did.

    At least before 1989, we didn't know Topps was slacking off. Now it's painfully obvious.

    If I thank McWilliam for any one thing, though, it would be Masterpieces.

  7. I agree with all others above, great post, Night Owl.

    But, and I'm already hearing a buzzing in my ears from the torrent I may be about to unleash, being of the "Ken Griffey Jr generation"...

    quote from: where he states, "Collecting sports memorabilia helps us find a tangible connection to the games we love. Most collectors today started out as kids collecting baseball cards of their favorite players. Whether you’re from the Mickey Mantle era, the Doc Gooden/Don Mattingly era, the Ken Griffey Jr. era or are just starting to build a collection of Bryce Harper rookie cards or Mike Trout autographs, the motivation is much the same."

    ...anyway, being from the Ken Griffey Jr. era, a lot of my enthusiasm as a child (not yet a teenager) came from this set. Now, over 20+ years later, returning to the hobby and having a 2013 resolution not so much about what to fill in my collection but just to start collecting again, I'm fast learning that UD is...greatly disliked...though that seems a bit tame.

    I'm admittedly a rookie all over again when it comes to collecting, so I'm hopeful a few of you gents will comment further on this as, frankly, I've been looking forward to building a set, dare I say, of the 1989 UD series that helped me get in to collecting all those years ago.

    All that shared, another great post, Night Owl. I'm learning a ton from what you post here and having a hoot [sic: intended] digging through your archive of posts.


  8. Well said and I think many agree with you on most points. I know it's not nice to speak ill of dead, I just wish I'd said a whole bunch of nasty things before he died.

  9. My favorite story from "Card Sharks" is how McWilliams didn't know who Reggie Jackson was when he was in the UD Offices. REGGIE FRIGGIN JACKSON. To me it was never about sports or even collecting for McWilliams.

  10. Underdog, I also just restarted card collecting, I too am from the Ken Griffey Jr era (my blog is dedicated to his cards exclusively), and I am also building my own set of 1989 Upper Deck. We're like card cousins, bro.

    Anyhoo, I have only heard snippets of people hating on Upper Deck, and I've seen references (in the last few days especially) that are lost on me. I may have to read up on what went down.

    I ducked out of the hobby for 13 years. Knowing nothing about what actually went down, I still love '89 Upper Deck. And '95. And they have numerous amazing spinoff sets.

    Also, Topps started improving their photography very quickly. The 1991 Topps set is a testament to that.

    But UD putting the Dodgers on card #666? I know a couple bloggers who may have issues with that...

    As always, thanks for your perspective, Night Owl.

  11. Underdog...collect what you like! That should be the main thing you think about as you get back into this. If you want to do 89 UD - go for it! Nobody is going to hate you or anything because you do that.

    Whatever niche you decide on, embrace it and enjoy it.

  12. I agree with many of your points, but I do think the big deal folks make out of 89 UD is warranted. It was just so different. The packs were different, the card stock was different (I think better), the photos were better, and Ken Griffey Junior was card number 1.

    Topps used the phrase game changer for 2012. When was the last real "game changer". It's been a while, and while it's definitely been since 1989, in 1989 Upper Deck was most definitely a game changer. And at the time it seemed good, though there obviously was alot of downstream bad for collecting in general. Did UD help turn the "hobby" into a business - most certainly, but if they didn't I believe someone else would have.

    I disliked their shady practices a lot more than that. They were always innovative, but I guess they started getting innovative in a bad, dishonest way.

    I see your point about the full stats being gone, but when I was 9, it was cool to have a second photo.

  13. I think Upper Deck ruined baseball cards.

    Someone would have done it sooner or later but that doesn't excuse them.

    Wally Joyner was over-rated

  14. I collected cards in the '70's when I was a kid. In college, I discovered UD back in '89 and have that set along with the next 3 years of UD. I never knew there was such venom towards UD, but I understand it completely. For someone who likes to complete sets, UD made it impossible to do that in the mid-90's! The only modern cards I collect now are hockey cards and UD has that license. Trying to complete their 2012-13 Opee-Chee NHL set is maddening. They've made their high # cards very sparse. I know it was intentional. Oh well, I'm learning to not obsess over completing a set and just enjoying what I get. Thanks for the blog!!

  15. Life long Topps bubble gum dust sniffer, I could not get in to UD. However, it's funny I enjoyed buying a box 0f 1993 UD baseball. Great looking cards, but after that never was interested in their set.

    I did like their attempt at Topps Vintage sets, until they got Topps. Indeed "Card Sharks" was an eye opener to their business practices....

    Is the 1975 Topps baseball the most iconic set since the 52 Topps???