Chaos and Kanji is the blog where I write about my adventures through Japan!

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The End of an Era

By now you've heard that Richard McWilliam, the co-founder and controversial head of Upper Deck, passed away. He changed the face of card collecting when that 1989 set was released. I started collecting in 1989, and I remember seeing packs of Upper Deck sitting on Walgreen's shelf (for a very short time before they sold out) next to Topps, Donruss, and Fleer. For some reason, Walgreens didn't have Score packs - though the convenience store close to my apartment did. I think I bought one pack of Upper Deck that year; with a price twice as high as the other brands, I wasn't going to spend my hard-earned allowance on something that gave me fewer cards!
1989 Upper Deck isn't my favorite design, but it does spark memories. And the improvement in photography and image quality forced other manufacturers to step up their game. Over the years, Upper Deck "invented" a whole ton of gimmicks to keep collectors chasing for cards. Upper Deck was the first company to insert actual chase cards and autographed cards into a major product (1990's Baseball Heroes). They released the first memorabilia cards. They issued throwback sets as early as 1993 (remember BAT All-Time Heroes [second image down]?) before anyone else really went that route. Sure, Topps reprinted its 1950s issues, but they never really released a throwback set. Upper Deck tried digital cards, cards on CD-ROMs, and the most popular relic set of all time, the Piece of History series which includes a Babe Ruth bat relic card.
While creating amazing works of cardboard art, Richard McWilliam and Upper Deck have had plenty of problems. In addition to legal troubles and shady business practices, Upper Deck is blamed for the current price of cards. In 1989, cards cost about a nickel each when buying packs. Adjusting for inflation, they should run about 10 cents each, though we know they cost at least twice that (sometimes $1/card or more) from the pack. But can you imagine the amount of complaining people would do if Topps issued its flagship cards on 1990 (or even 1993) style card stock? Even Heritage is on thicker cardboard than the original release. There are base cards so thick that my sheet-fed scanner can't handle them (and that scanner can handle thinner relics like Allen & Ginter).
If you've been reading this blog for long enough, you know that Upper Deck's products are some of my favorites. I am on a quest (paused right now) to complete all the flagship issues. I am trying to put together a full run of the Baseball Heroes line; I've collected a good handful of the insert sets the company has issued over the years.
You may not like Upper Deck and Richard McWilliam because of their business practices, and I've had my fair share of disagreements with the company. I might never open a box of Upper Deck product again. But McWilliam led a group of visionaries; Upper Deck was the Apple of the card industry in the 1990s. I'm not sure what card collecting would be like today if it wasn't for him, though I know there are a lot of great products and innovations today that wouldn't exist.

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