February 19, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #32 - 31

32. 1990 Upper Deck
If you were Upper Deck, how would you have followed the seminal 1989 set? With an equally revered set in terms of design, availability and checklist, or by capitalizing on the hype surrounding your somewhat limited 1989 production run with a flood of product?

I haven’t looked at Card Sharks since reading it last summer, so forgive me if I paraphrase. The gist of the situation was that because the 1989 set took almost the whole hobby by surprise, everybody and his brother wanted to get in on the ground floor for Upper Deck’s 1990 release. Upper Deck, understanding the situation, was smart because they required dealers to buy in way in advance, guaranteeing a wide distribution. Then, as dealers realized en masse that the 1990 product was kind of a dud—and that the hobby was flooded with massive amounts of the product—Upper Deck was already laughing its way to the bank.

Why was it a dud? A couple of reasons. First, it wasn’t 1989 Upper Deck. The inaugural set was impossible to follow; any set in its wake was going to suffer. Second, the player that 1990 UD should have put on card #1 (Frank Thomas) wasn’t even included in the set (he wouldn’t find his way onto an Upper Deck card until 1991). Third, the stock was flimsy and the design seemed weak in comparison to 1989. I say that it ‘seemed’ weak because it actually wasn’t, it was just minimal to a fault. Fourth, there were so many of these cards that the special-ness of the Upper Deck brand seemed to evaporate.

But even though it was a dud at the time, the cards survive well. Sure, the stock is flimsy, some of the rookies have fallen by the wayside, and the design is a little boring, but it’s not a bad follow-up, especially when you take the situation into account. It bears repeating: any set would have had a hard time playing successor to 1989 Upper Deck.

31. 1993 Donruss
After creating birdcage-lining sets with ballooned checklists in 1991 and 1992, Donruss did something peculiar in 1993: they released a nice set that was worthwhile to collect. (They also did something interesting that didn’t seem so at the time: they released a set of 792 cards, the number of cards Topps practically trademarked in the Eighties. Why 792? It broke down nicely to two 396-card series. Ironically, though it didn’t feel that way, it was Donruss’ largest base set ever.)

It’s almost as if they frantically yelled ‘Wait! Wait!’ in vain as the trucks left the printing plant in 1992. Lesser companies would’ve turned to drink and vice, and probably closed up shop. Donruss just went back to the drawing board and came up with a somewhat attractive design, a balanced checklist worth buying into for both series, and inserts that felt more like true inserts rather than glorified subsets.

They also breathed new life into the by-then stale Rated Rookie subset by spreading the cards out over the entire set, and paring down the amount of them to 34 (from 40 in 1991 and 44 in 1992). By doing this, Donruss no longer felt naked without the Diamond Kings as a base set subset. It also allowed the Rated Rookie to become more of an event card (see the David Nied RR on #792, the last card of the set).

In addition to all the improvements on the base set, 1993 Donruss should be characterized as the brand’s transition set. It was the first Donruss set since 1981 without a puzzle. And even though they had separated the Diamond Kings into their own insert set in 1992, 1993 saw the brand put a greater emphasis on inserts (seven sets in all). The rest of the Donruss Nineties would follow suit.

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