Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The All-Time Upper Deck Countdown: 22-15

Sometime last week, a thought hit me: How come we never talk about Upper Deck's designs?

Maybe it's just me, but I don't often hear people talk about UD sets with pride or debate about which UD design is better. True, Upper Deck gets a lot of airtime in the hobby, but most of it seems to center around the imprint and legacy they've left on the industry (for better or worse). It seems to me that what often gets ignored in the discussion of Upper Deck are the cards themselves. 

I stop to wonder why this is. Perhaps it's because UD was simply produced in a different generation -- designs maybe weren't as central to the overall enjoyment to the hobby as much as someone who grew up collecting vintage Topps. Or perhaps it's because, from the year of their inception in 1989, UD has been more concerned with photography than design. 

I personally think it's more the latter, and that's a shame because while, yes, UD designs aren't as iconic and crucial to the hobby's timeline than those of Topps, UD's long history in the baseball card market deserves discussion, or (cue lightbulb)...a list! And so as a tribute to Upper Deck, I've ranked each of their 22 base designs, which I'm ecstatic to share with you over the course of three separate posts.

Unfortunately, however, we start where all countdowns must begin: the bottom.

#22 -- 2000 Upper Deck

The dubious honor of the Worst Upper Deck Set of All-Time goes to 2000 UD.

This is the set that I most often forget about when running through Upper Deck's designs in my head. Even when preparing my rankings, I came to 2000 and said to myself: wait, what the heck does 2000 UD look like again? [internet search] Oh, yeah...THAT one.

It's just not particularly well-designed or memorable in any way. The foil is awful and the nameplates are 98 percent last name and two percent first name for some reason. The fronts feel cluttered. Blue is my favorite color, and yet this design somehow manages to screw that up, too. I really can't think of anything good to say about it.

Safe to say Upper Deck didn't ring in the new millennium with style.

#21 -- 1994 Upper Deck

Even I'm a bit shocked that '94 UD came in as low as it did on this countdown -- I mean, it's sandwiched between two of Upper Deck's all-time classic designs (not to give too much away).

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that 1994 Upper Deck is pretty much a template for how NOT to design a baseball card. It's historic in that it was the first UD design to feature foil. But that's about all it has going for it.

First (and perhaps most importantly) of all, the gold foil on a black background is absolutely AWFUL. You have to get the light just right to even read it. And talk about a cluttered card front -- the weird shrunken black-and-white box serves no purpose and obscures the main photo on a lot of the cards in this set. Plus I don't know which way to orient the card backs -- should it be vertical for the photo or horizontal for the stat line?

Who knows, who cares.

#20 -- 1999 Upper Deck

Ah, the infamous "salad tongs" of '99 UD (a genius description first sighted on Night Owl's blog many moons ago) -- aka the Most Use of Foil on a Single Card Design.

Admittedly, there was a time when I actually kinda liked the salad tongs. But no longer. The cards themselves are distracting and might actually feature the most boring photography of any UD set, which is saying something given how consistently good UD's photos were during most of their reign. Also the backs are basically one big shill for this newfangled Internet thing.

I'll pass on the salad tongs at the Upper Deck buffet.

#19 -- 2001 Upper Deck

I want to rank this one higher because I have fond memories of opening large amounts of 2001 Upper Deck as a kid.

I vividly remember pulling the Ichiro rookie from this set from a pack in the backseat of my mom's car one balmy summer night. But the memories are all 2001 UD has going for it, sadly. The foil nameplates have an odd, hard-to-read font and (like many of these bottom-ranking UD designs) obscure the photography, which is central to enjoying most UD sets. The backs have more negative space than about any other card back I can think of offhand.

I'll always treasure the memories, but they're not enough to boost 2001 UD any higher on this list.

#18 -- 2005 Upper Deck

Now we're into perhaps the most difficult area of any comprehensive list: The Glut of Indifference.

I simply don't have a lot of feelings one way or the other towards a lot of the sets in the next few spots on this countdown, 2005 Upper Deck included. Like many others I'm sure, I have a whole lot of indifference towards most of UD's releases from the early-to-mid 2000s. You don't see cards from that era a whole lot, and not much excites me when I do.

It seems like 2005 UD is one of those sets that's almost perfectly dull: I'm sure very few people have strong feelings about it one way or the other.

#17 -- 1998 Upper Deck

I tend to enjoy UD's mid-to-late '90s stuff more than most people, but '98 Upper Deck admittedly doesn't belong to that fold.

The design is clean enough, and the backs have those cool "Date in Time" descriptions, but there's simply not a lot to get excited about with this set -- so let's save some time talking about it and just move on.

#16 -- 1992 Upper Deck

In contrast to most other brands, Upper Deck's early years (1989-93ish) are sometimes regarded as its Golden Age.

The biggest outlier of the bunch to me, however, has always been 1992 UD. Again, it's just bland. It did away with the kinda cool baseline-themed borders of UD's first few designs and replaced it with...nothing? I've noticed too that a lot of the back pictures of 1992 Upper Deck are better than the ones on the front. I'd have to go through some of my singles from this set again to see just how prevalent that phenomenon is, or whether it's all in my head.

By and large, UD has been at its best when letting its photos do the talking, and I guess '92 Upper Deck does that...but so many other UD designs do it better.

#15 --1996 Upper Deck

We close tonight with the set that, for a long time, was my absolute least-favorite in UD's wide catalog: 1996 Upper Deck.

I don't know why I disliked it so much. Maybe it's that the Victorian-ish name plates didn't seem to mesh all that well with UD's mostly forward-thinking vibe (I feel like everyone in this set should be named Aristotle or Chester). But looking at it now, I don't think 1996 UD is all that bad. Sure, it's far from my favorite, but it has its high points. It certainly stands out in the grand scheme of UD's designs, more than a lot of other brands' mid-'90s efforts did.

It's not quite worst-to-first, but all things considered, 1996 Upper Deck should be proud to hold the #15 slot on this countdown.

And the good news for all of you now is that the tough part is over: the bottom-of-the-barrel of Upper Deck lore has been spoken for, so join me next time when the stuff on this list starts to get a bit more exciting (I promise).


Matt Prigge said...

96 is the set that jumps to mind as the only UD set being genuinely UGLY. To be honest, I kinda like 94 and totally adore 92. Looking forward to the rest of the list.

Swing And A Pop-up said...

I have to agree with you on the majority...these are some pretty ugly sets...although I like 92 Upper Deck a lot more than you do.

The Shlabotnik Report said...

My problem with Upper Deck designs is that many of them are so unmemorable. I went through this group saying "Oh, yeah... that one" about every one except for 1992, which is so ubiquitous as to be unforgettable for the wrong reasons.

Nick Vossbrink said...

I'm completely unaware of anything past 1995 but I'm not disagreeing with any of your choices on this bottom-of list so far. I liked 1992 at the time but the drop shadow thing has not aged well at all. Kill the drop shadow though and you've got something nice.

night owl said...

Most of Upper Deck's sets just scream "WE NO NOTHING ABOUT DESIGN AND WE DON'T CARE ONLY LAME COMPANIES LIKE TOPPS CARE" ... I mean 1999 UD is just bizarre.

I also like 1992 UD a lot. For me the first five years of UD goes like this: "meh, meh, meh, Hey I like this, AWESOME".

Jeremya1um said...

I think I tend to disagree with most of these, but I think it could have to do with the fact that I remember opening a few packs each year from 1996-1998 of Upper Deck.
I really love 1996, and 1998 isn’t far behind, and I liked the 1994 set because it was like nothing collectors had seen before. The 2000 and 2001 sets were boring to me, and 2006 seems like it ripped off of 2001 (as did 2008 from 1995). I’m not a big fan of 1995 for that matter, but I would rank it above 2007 probably. You were right about 1992 though. That set was kind of blah compared to the 1991 and 1993 sets. Again, I probably have soft spots for some of the sets you listed because I was a young teenager when they all came out. Good idea for a post. Can’t wait to see the other two.

Mike said...

I like the '92...they look kinda "classic"

Adam said...

1992 Upper Deck was the very first Upper Deck packs I ever opened. To this day, I still like the design and the funky team names/logos. In regards to the other sets on this list, I'm indifferent to them on way or the other as to me I can't really keep track of what's what as my knowledge is pretty fuzzy post 1996 and through the early 2000s but 1994 is a set I always enjoyed as well with the cool b&w photo and out of the box design.

Laurens said...

1996 was ‘classy’ which I liked, 2001 had Ichiro and Pujols rookies while 1992 was decent though it’s pretty much early 1990s junk wax to me.

The other designs featured on this countdown. - were kind of monotonous and boring.

JediJeff said...

I have to say - labeling any design worse than '99 or '07 and I question if you took your meds this morning.

Robert said...

I probably would have ranked '96 & '98 lower and '92 higher.

I really don't mind the '92 set to be honest, I probably would have placed it near the top 10.

Can't wait to see the rest of the sets.

P-town Tom said...

'99 would be in my #22 spot for sure. Ugh. Way too much foil and not enough picture.

Fuji said...

Don't think I've ever taken the time to rank UD set designs... but I can't complain too much about your selections. The only one that I disagree with is the 1996 design. It's up there in the 20's for me. Quite possibly the worst.

Doc Samson said...

Love that you're doing this countdown. Just purchased a wooden factory box of '96 . To my surprise, the cards are really nice. The photography is outstanding. There also some great posed shots of players like Clemens and Bagwell.

As for the design? It's actually kinda of grown on me. I always liked copper as a color. It also doesn't break my number one rule when using foil: I can easily read everything. There are also other pluses: the subsets are cool, the first card is Ripken breaking the games played record and some of the horizontal cards are absolutely beautiful.

Here's another thing I will throw out when I personally rank any set: the display factor. How do the cards look in the pages of a binder? I put a few of these in pages and they look great. Vivid, sharp and clean. Well, that's my two cents. Thanks again for doing such awesome work!

Bulldog said...

Nice cards. I forget how much I enjoy those. Great post.