Upper Deck actually started out in 1988 with a few promotional cards that were passed around to different card shops and dealers. I was lucky enough to land a copy of the Wally Joyner promotional card and consider this one of my favorites and a prized possession within my card collection. The card design is very similar to the 1989 Upper Deck design with a few minor changes. The logo positioning in the top left corner is the biggest difference between the promotional cards and the initial 1989 set.
Everyone who has collected cards knows the Ken Griffey Jr rookie. First card in the first Upper Deck set. In my opinion, this is the greatest baseball card of the modern era. It's not the most valuable, but it is simply iconic. There are so many collectors who have this card in the collections and have a great story behind the day that they pulled it from a pack, or bought it, or trade for it. For me, I remember the first time I saw this card. I remember the first one I ever put into my collection and all the others I have added to my stack of 89 Upper Deck cards during the past few years.
After the 1989, Upper Deck cards became a staple of card collecting just like the hordes of collectors who insist on completing a Topps set every year. Yes, I put together a Topps set every year, but Upper Deck was just as important. In many ways, as a modern collector, the Upper Deck cards were better. You knew when the Upper Deck cards rolled out you were going to see something that was well designed, creative, and always pushed the envelope on collecting. My favorite Upper Deck base set was the 1999 release.
I am not sure what is so appealling about the 1999 Upper Deck set, but I really enjoyed putting this set together back in the day. The base cards have a really nice design and with the foil edges it's clear that this card was put out by Upper Deck without even looking at the logo at the top of the card. The inserts were always pretty good in the Upper Deck sets. Even if they weren't spectacuarly tough to put together they were almost always fun to look at. My favorite set of inserts from Upper Deck came from the 1993 set with their Now & Then cards.
I think that Denny's did a knock off of these a few later, but these are spectacular cards. Love the photographs that Upper Deck used for the cards and the design is awesome. This is the type of work that Upper Deck had in all of their sets though. As collectors we almost became spoiled by the design and workmanship that Upper Deck put into their sets. Of course, that extended beyond the base set. I like 1999, so let's stick with that year and look at some of the great products that were typical of Upper Deck within a calendar year.
Ovation- This product started up in 1998 and ran through 2002. I recently looked at the last issue that Upper Deck put out in 2002, but the first two sets were the best in this series. The coolest feature had to be the embossed baseball seams on the cards which were a hallmark throughout the product's run minus it's final 2002 edition.
Legends- This set always gets a lot of love for its autographs, but the base set and inserts are cool too. Again, Upper Deck finds cool pictures and has great design and presentation for a set. I almost feel like this base set is an afterthought to most collectors, but it's a really cheap buy and a fun set to own. This product, or similar products focused on older players, ran throughout Upper Deck's twenty years producing baseball cards.
Authentic-This was another long running set which had a heavy following because of autographs. The set often featured the Chirography autograph line, or Upper Deck would throw in a bevy of buyback autographs. The base sets are often really good looking too and are worth a good look for your collection. I love the way Upper Deck did the player photos on the 1999 set, Ray Lankford is shown, with the colors popping on the player uniform contrast with the simple white border.
One other thing that was great about Upper Deck was the diversity in price points. You wanted high end, you could have it without sticker autograph on a really card. You wanted middle of the road, you got it with some cool features and good looking cards. Upper Deck also made good cards that kids could afford. I know Topps talks a good game about this, but outside of the base Topps set, what product is affordable and kid friendly?
Products like MVP, Victory, and Hologrfx offered younger collectors a crack at getting cards and kept kids interested in collecting cards. Plus some of the cards actually looked really cool....
Beyond the cool sets Upper Deck pushed the card hobby on other fronts too. Upper Deck is personally responsible for my love of autographed baseball cards. The company followed Donruss and Leaf in the late 90s in putting out one autograph per pack products which had great signers and a good card design.
These cards still look great more than a decade after it's release and the set has a great set of names. Many of the cards can be tricky to find and have held their value well despite being a mass produced set of autographs. I am not talking about the Mitch Meluskey or Ivan Coffie autographs. Those are cheap. Upper Deck had more interesting autographs....
Upper Deck had plenty of of limited autographs which are extremely tough to track down and find. This Brian Jordan autograph is one of my favorite Upper Deck autographs in my collection. I started looking for the card when it was first released and it took me more than a decade to finally add the card to my collection. It's truly a unique card which Upper Deck excelled at making during their time making baseball cards. The other autographs worth mentioning.....
This guy, Ken Griffey Jr, signed a few autographs for Upper Deck. They have held their value pretty well over the years and the autographs always look great. This is my personal favorite in my collection, but there are plenty of good ones out on the market. Upper Deck always did a great job of throwing out some big name signers in all their sets and Griffey was always at the top of the list.
Upper Deck also did a lot with the relic cards. The cards eventually lost a lot of their value and they are way too common, but the older Upper Deck cards are still classics in my book. I especially like the 1997 and 1998 cards..
Both are sets are fairly easy to find, but they have held their value and collectability better than some of the more recently overproduced relic cards. Some of the early SPx Winning Materials cards are also cool relics to track down.
Overall, as a long time collector of baseball cards, I really miss Upper Deck. The fact that they have not had an MLB license in five years, but still remain a relevant and important part of the hobby should tell the powers that be how important of a company Upper Deck is in the hobby world. They are not Topps and that's a great thing, plus after two decades in the business, it's clear that Upper Deck has created its own proud and great traditions which brought some great cards to collectors. If Upper Deck never makes another baseball card again, I will always be a fan and continue to add cards from their time in the hobby industry. However, hopefully we will one day we will all be excited about the return of their baseball card line. It's been a great 25 years Upper Deck. A tip of the cap.