Thursday, August 22, 2013

When Upper Deck ruled the world

I kind of wish I was around back in 1989.

Most collectors probably didn't know it at the time, but the hobby was about to go through a massive amount of change in the coming years.

And it was all thanks to a little company called Upper Deck.

Simply put, UD revolutionized the hobby, taking it in a completely different direction. Being able to see all that change on the ground floor is why I would've liked to have been collecting back in '89.

Collecting baseball cards has never been boring to me by any means, but I'm sure things were especially exciting after Upper Deck's grand break into the hobby.

Although Topps was on a fairly strong run at the time, UD certainly proved to be a worthy competitor in 1989.

As evidenced by this terrific night shot of knuckleballer Charlie Hough, Upper Deck's checklist featured some of the greatest photography the hobby had seen at that point. Plus, the little hologram on the backs prevented counterfeiting, which was a big concern for collectors back then.

Did Upper Deck's very first release do the unthinkable?

Did they actually top Topps right off the bat?

I don't think so.

Upper Deck's first release is a great set, but I like '89 Topps just a tad better. The photography was nice, the color-coded borders were a great touch, and the design is an absolute classic.

It's no accident that it'll serve as the template for the special insert minis in 2014 Topps.

This close-knit fight wasn't the only one for Topps and Upper Deck, though. In fact, it was just the beginning.

While other companies like Donruss, Fleer, and Score put out some decent sets in the '90s and 2000s, it was basically a battle between Topps and UD over the next two decades.

And, while Topps was the grizzled veteran, the young, hotshot Upper Deck still bested the unquestioned king of the hobby quite a few times.

Going over the 20-plus years both companies were in the baseball card industry, I went back and looked at just how many times UD came out on top in the year-in, year-out competition.

To me, these are the years that Upper Deck raised the banner over Topps.


After a couple great sets in '89, both UD and Topps produced complete busts in 1990.

Continuing with the "baseline" theme that they established the year before, Upper Deck produced an similar design in 1990. Unfortunately, it paled in comparison to its inaugural release.

Still, in my eyes, Topps might've hit their absolute low in 1990. Try as I might, it's a set I've never particularly liked. Boring design, boring photos, just boring in general.

In 1990, Upper Deck pretty much won by default.


After a nice two-year run by Topps, Upper Deck pulled out the big guns in 1993.

Most collectors will tell you that '93 marked the absolute pinnacle for Upper Deck. I tend to go by that train of thought.

Between the amazing photography, clean design, and large checklist, 1993 Upper Deck is one of my favorite sets of all-time. UD made some nice sets both before and after '93, but none even come close to matching their greatness that year.

Still, Topps was no slouch in 1993, either. I've always thought '93 Topps was one of the more overshadowed sets of the overproduction era. I rather like the banner nameplate they incorporated into the design that year.

That said, it pales in comparison to 1993 Upper Deck.


The mid '90s were a fairly dark period for Upper Deck.

UD's 1994 release was a far cry from their legendary '93 checklist. Their 1995 release wasn't much of an improvement. And '96 might just be my least-favorite UD design ever.

Topps, meanwhile had a nice little run of sets in the early '90s, one that ended with one of their most dismal efforts in 1996. Still, since I don't particularly care for '96 UD, Topps took the nod there.

By the time 1997 came around, it was clear Upper Deck wanted to step up their game, and they did so in monumental fashion. As far as I'm concerned, their "dated" 1997 checklist is superior to all their other sets but one. (1993, of course.)

Meanwhile, Topps was digging themselves a deeper hole in 1997. The drab borders and hard-to-read font makes for a worthy candidate for "Worst Topps Set Ever".

In what might have been the biggest blowout during the two-plus decades they were in the hobby, Upper Deck absolutely trampled Topps in '97.


The new millennium marked another victory for Upper Deck.

Neither company made particularly nice sets in either 1998 or '99, but I had to give Topps the slight edges in both years.

Topps continued their average string of checklists in 2000, with what might be their absolute most average set. It's a set that's always been just...there for me. I've never really had much to say about it. Not bad, not good. Right smack dab in the middle.

Upper Deck, however, rolled out a perfectly nice set in 2000. While the nameplates aren't exactly scan-friendly, it's a nice set as far as photography goes.

I still think it's one of the more underrated releases in their catalog.


Upper Deck had one of their finest hours in 2002.

I absolutely love the white nameplates UD used that year. They give the cards a rather sophisticated feel, which, in this instance, I like. And, of course, Upper Deck did a nice job with the ever-important topic of photography in '02 as well.

Topps, on the other hand, hit a bit of a bump that year. The foil lettering can be awfully tough to read at times. Plus, I've never liked the dark orange/gold border choice.

And I've never understood why Topps felt the need to stick that "2002 Topps" decal onto these. It's like they thought we'd forget what year it was or something.

Upper Deck earned the nod in a heartbeat.


This was probably UD's slimmest margin of victory.

Both Upper Deck and Topps produced some of their finer sets of the decade in '06.

For a while, I thought I liked Topps better. Their 2006 checklist helped reintroduce me to the hobby after a year-long collecting phase, so I'll always appreciate it for that. Similar to 1993, the banner-like nameplate is a nice touch.

In the end, though, I have to give the victory to Upper Deck. They somehow managed to mix a 1200-plus-card checklist and a ton of stellar photography into one single set. I still don't know exactly how they did it.

I'm still finding new gems to chase from '06 UD.

And I'm sure that'll continue for years to come.


This is another case where Upper Deck simply won by default.

While I bought a lot of it, I was never fully on board with Upper Deck's 2007 checklist. The claustrophobic design does have a few gems, but it wasn't one of the more well thought-out efforts on their part.

That said, 2007 Topps was even worse. Black borders can be hit-and-miss at times, and '07 Topps missed by a wide margin. Not to mention they scan worse than almost any other set in history.

It's probably one of my five least favorite Topps designs ever.

So, yes, Upper Deck gets the victory here.

But take that with a grain of salt.


As it turns out, 2008 would be Upper Deck's last victory over Topps.

The 2007 and '08 Topps sets might be the the worst two-year run they've ever had. At least they rebounded with a great '91 set after the subpar 1990 design.

I like 2008 Topps a bit better than '07, but not by much. They really dropped the ball with the photography that year. I think that's more a product of the rather overbearing borders, though.

Upper Deck, meanwhile, had their last moment in the sun in 2008. It's still one of my personal favorite releases in UD history. Nice, clean, basically everything you'd want in a modern set.

Unfortunately, after a couple decent releases in 2009 and 2010 (the latter of which was an unlicensed checklist), Topps won the ultimate battle.

They flat-out knocked Upper Deck out of the hobby, starting their almighty "Topps monopoly" in the process.

I don't know about you, but I'm about ready to see UD make a comeback in the world of cardboard. If the past is any indication, they certainly know their way around the hobby.

Plus, I think it's about time someone gave Topps some competition.

Why not Upper Deck?


Anonymous said...

I think UD 89 definitely killed Topps! Also, I really liked 94 and 95. And I don't really like 95 Topps too much.

Interestingly - I think 2008 is the most similar to 1995.

Agree with you though that 1993 is UD's best effort!

Jerry Yeager said...

Being an old-old collector, I gravitate to Topps because Topps was all there was when I was young, so I sort of look to Topps because I always have. I agree that Topps needs competition and I Think that Panini is producing the product to give Topps a run. I also think that Panini will or already has overtaken Topps.

Mike said...

I thought 2008 Topps were great!....maybe its because I'm old,but most Topps sets simply look more baseball card-y to me!

night owl said...

You could've been around in 1989, but that doesn't mean you would've seen Upper Deck.

I collected like crazy in '89 and not once did a I spot a pack of Upper Deck.

Others, meanwhile, saw Upper Deck but couldn't afford it. It was pretty pricey for young collectors at the time.

Anonymous said...

I'd been in the hobby for 15 years in 1989, and here's a summary of my thoughts on UD at the time:

1) 89 cents a pack? Are they out of their minds? Who's gonna pay that much for a pack of cards???

2) Holograms on the back and tamper-proof packs? Paranoid much?

I may have bought one pack of UD to check it out, but I was not impressed. Besides, there was plenty of other sets to collect. Donruss was easily my favorite set of 1989, followed by Score, Topps and the inaugural Bowman set. The drab Fleer set and the ultra-high-end (at the time) Upper Deck were largely ignored.

Swing And A Pop-up said...

Add me to the list of people who couldn't afford Upper Deck in 1989. You could buy 36 count boxes of 1989 Topps for $15 which was much more in my price range.
Of course 2 years later I was paying 3 bucks a pack for 91 O-Pee-Chee Premier. I still shudder at that.

Ana Lu said...

Agree! The card is not only about the frame design and logos. Is also about photography more and more. And UD had it since the beginning.

I hope UD will be around the corner when the license for Topps exclusive cards ends and they manage to pick up something!

Anything that goes without some competition is not that healthy. Is like a championship with only one team. It will win every game for sure and the fans will lose the interest in it for sure.

Mark said...

Even without logos, I enjoyed the 2010 UD set. Nice photography given the limitations, and a strong player selection for only releasing Series 1.

If you lined up the 2008-2013 Topps designs, I'm not entirely sure I could put them in order without making a mistake. The designs have become insanely redundant.

petethan said...

We actually disagree about something. I still don't know why people hate 1990 Topps so much. It has its flaws, but it's a nice set, in my opinion. Certainly better that UD during their generic early years. I think you're right about 1997 going to UD, but I also think you give Topps short shrift there, too. The NL (green) cards look better than the AL (red) ones. But I think it's one of their spiffiest sets of the decade. Though it does have a severely truncated checklist.