June 17, 2006

Best Set Countdown: #5 – 1989 Upper Deck

This is the most overrated set of the decade. I know all that crap I wrote the other day about ‘rating things fairly.’ Well, is it just me, or has anyone ever rated this set fairly? All I’ve ever seen or read is how great this set is. Am I in the minority who thinks this set embodies everything that’s wrong with baseball cards and card collecting?

I’m not saying the set’s unimportant. If I thought that I would’ve put it down at the bottom with the other goddamned rejects like 1985 Fleer Update. It is important. Hell, it’s one of the most important issued in the decade, or any decade for that matter—but for all the wrong reasons.

I guess if you wanted to get technical you could say that baseball cards were ‘corrupted’ with the introduction of Sportflics in 1986, or if you drank the Kool Aid at Topps HQ you might think it all went to shit in 1981 when your monopoly dissolved. You’d be wrong. Fleer and Donruss didn’t really get their acts together until 1984, so they weren’t really an immediate threat to Topps, and Sportflics was more of a novelty than anything else (I’d be really surprised to read that Sportflics cut into any major part of the Topps profit for the handful of years that they put out sets). No, the real threat surfaced the very first moment a dealer opened a pack of Upper Deck for the first time and the first time he or she compared the Upper Deck product against any other set that year. At least Score got a color headshot on the back; when it came to the combination of color and card backs, Topps, Fleer and Donruss were kind of pathetic. In hindsight, the Upper Deck design wasn’t all that great, but it was a hell of a lot more attractive than any other set put out that year. A chalked foul line, a clean white border, crisp photography, triple-exposed photos, plus a full-color back, with a full-color photo.

This is a lot to do in your first year. And I think this is really what set Upper Deck apart from the other companies: they got it right the first time. They were so professional--right away--that there was no way you could root for them to succeed (or afford any product they put out). For all the shit we give Fleer and Donruss, we do it out of love, and not because we particularly love their sets, but because we love that they were brave enough (or dumb enough) to release sets that would suggest that someone with decision-making power was slightly incompetent. Or if not incompetent, then that the companies recognized that they would never be able to get everything perfect, so their sets were works-in-progress (you can’t tell me with a straight face that 1988 Donruss was their final choice on design).

There was no learning curve at Upper Deck. They weren’t the lovable losers, they were the rich kids. It was Topps and Fleer and Donruss (and to a certain extent Score) who were cast as the rag-tag bunch of misfits, but instead of the scrappy group sending the square-jawed rich kids packing, they assimilated. It took them a couple of years to afford the Polo shirts and the glossy card stock, but they did it. And that’s really where the hobby went downhill. Buying packs was no longer about building a set, it was about finding a crappy insert with a hologram on it. Don’t get me wrong, when I was a kid holograms were just about the coolest thing you could buy (especially if they were holograms of dinosaurs), but when companies began inserting autographed cards, it was inevitable that sequentially-numbered parallels and gold cards and jersey and bat cards and all this other shit would warp collectors’ priorities, until it would no longer be about building a set.

And yes, I think it’s fair to say that all of this started with this set. Here are some other ways this set got it right from the start:

Team Cards Like the Diamond King, this subset succeeded basically because Upper Deck used a huge mega-star from each team, not some poor sap just because he had a good year the previous season. So they’ve got guys like Sandberg, Brett, Strawberry, Nolan Ryan, Will Clark—you know, big stars.

Rookies Up the Wazoo Also borrowing heavily from Donruss, Upper Deck appropriated the Rated Rookie into their own ‘Star Rookie’ subset, setting off the set (like great, hobby-defining sets do) with their priorities concretely on the side of the rookie. Ken Griffey Jr., to be exact. Easily the most sought after and iconic card of this or any set put out since the Canseco Rated Rookie from 1986 Donruss.

A Tale in Two Series Before Upper Deck brought out its High Numbers Series (with cards you’d beg for, including that ridiculous card of Nolan Ryan with the goddamn football and rookies of Todd Zeile and Jerome Walton), no set had had two series of cards since the Seventies. I’m not counting the Topps Traded sets where they numbered the cards starting at #727, to simulate an extra series. This was another huge deal, because it was like the rookie/traded/update sets released around the same time, only you could buy it in packs, which is, although less cost-effective than buying a completed set, admittedly much more fun. Now it seems like every basic major-issue set has at least two series. I think after Upper Deck did this, the first of the other sets to do two series was 1991 Donruss, which was unfortunate, because both series were god-awful (I’ve said it: Donruss should’ve just quit after the 1987 set while they were ahead).

Errors & Misprints It’s inevitable that there will be errors and misprints in any set, mostly because card companies as a collective whole don’t employ proofreaders. That last sentence is not true, of course, but sometimes you have to wonder. Anyway, it always seemed like the average major-issue set in the 1980s was riddled with errors, either in the printing of the cards, bad spellings or missing words. The best was when you’d get a card with the wrong back (I’m thinking of you, 1981 Topps). Other good times included searching in vain at card shows for some goddamn common you couldn’t seem to find only to have it turn out that the company didn’t put that number into the set. Or maybe a card simply wouldn’t have a front or a back. (You know, on most packs of cards there’s tiny fine print that says that if you get ‘damaged’ cards in a pack, you can send them in to the company and they’ll replace them, free of charge. So how awesome would it be to work in that department? Like the Land of the Misfit Toys, only replace ‘Toys’ with ‘Baseball Cards’ and ‘Land’ with ‘Windowless Room’.) Upper Deck didn’t have any really big screw-ups, the biggest being the Dale Murphy reverse negative (they also had a few mixed-up photos, including Fred Manrique/Ozzie Guillen).

So that’s why I hate this set. Oh, and one more reason is because I couldn’t afford any cards from this set until I was older. Seriously, when you’re 11 years old how do you rationalize spending your $5 allowance on two or three packs of Upper Deck over something like eight or nine packs of Topps? Especially with the possibility of getting that kick-ass Gregg Jefferies Future Stars card? Forget it.

Of course, now I can afford packs from this set. Like this one here.

The foil pack doesn’t scan very well, so the hell with it, let’s just get on with the cards! Goddamn foil packs! They’ll slice up your fingers before you can even enjoy the cards…you’ll only learn later when you come to in the ICU that your friend completed a trade with you for your Dwight Smith rookie while you were comatose from the loss of blood…

Actually, let’s skip the cards. It’s a lousy pack, even by 1989 standards. I’ll sum it up in three words: Kirk Fuckin’ Gibson. I would love to see this guy make the Hall of Fame, if for no other reason than he managed looking tough even when he was gimpy. He looks like he woke up in a park, went sixteen rounds with a bear…or a bottle, and then hit his World Series home run.

Get him a bodybag! Yeeaaahhhh!


Chris Harris said...

Kirk Fuckin' Gibson! More like, Awesome Fuckin' Review of what is, an Overrated Fuckin' Set. If not for the Griffey RC, this is a $25/box junk wax product.

But '89 UD was "The Product that Changed The Hobby" (for better and for worse), so it's got to be in the top 5.

Anonymous said...

The Upper Deck design was pretty great, in my opinion; especially in contrast to all the garbage that was put out that year. I don't see your need to "root for them" like they were some sort of underdog. They came in and kicked ass from the start, and made it worth your while to spend money on a pack of cards. Versus, say, any of the other sets from that year that look pretty heinous. And there's nothing there to take away from the set-building priority that a collector loves. It's just a beautiful set of cards that surpasses any of it's peers that year, and for nearly every other year. I completely disagree with your logic of spending $5 on 11 packs of shitty topps cards. '89 Topps sucked, and the joy of pulling a good card out of the fewer packs of Upper Deck was much greater than getting one out of the 10 packs of the horrible Topps set, or any of the others, for that matter. And your idea that this set introduced the craze of autograph or jersey cards is complete BS. This set had no standout pulls that were limited to a certain number or any other inserts that weren't a part of the actual set. Don't hold your adolescent crap against what should be in at least the Top 3. This set changed the collecting world for the better.

Anonymous said...

In my 22 years on earth, I bought 3 packs of 1989 UD. I managed to pull a Griffey in that last pack and swore I would never even willingly look at another pack of 1989 Upper Deck again.

Jim said...

That's kind of how I felt about the '89 Upper Decks, I was like "who needed you!" they did change collecting for good, I don;t collect anymore, and subsets, bat cards, game worn, etc are the main reason.

Get him a bodybag! Yeeaaahhhh! all it needs is the great cackle that follows that line!

Adam said...

I have a love/hate relationship with '89 UD. Likewise, their was no way I could afford buying packs back in '89. Even today card shops still want $100-$150 bucks for the set! I'm still not willing to shell out that much...

TBW said...

Your blatant anti-elitism is noted and appreciated.

I, too, was initially wowed by the quality of UD '89. But if I had known then that all the other card companies would soon follow suit with higher card production values and correspondingly high prices, then maybe I wouldn't have welcomed Upper Deck into the hobby quite so much.

I still look fondly on the days when I could buy a wax pack of '87 Topps (17 cards) for 40 cents. Now packs of about half as many cards sell for 3-4 times the price. I was more or less priced out of the hobby in the early '90s, and I've never really returned. To use a ballpark analogy, everyone else moved to Upper Deck's level, while I remained in the neglected bleacher seats.

I think of it like this: whereas once the hobby once catered to kids who played flipping games and stuck cards in the spokes of their bicycle wheels to make a cool noise, now it's been overtaken by snooty investor types asking each other, "Pardon me, but do you have any Upper Deck?" It's just less fun now.

Is there a value-oriented line of cards being sold these days? I haven't been keeping up because it's hard to find packs of cards outside of hobby boutiques and Wal-Marts, neither of which are convenient for me.

Anonymous said...

'89 Upper Deck at #4, eh? I suppose you think Citizen Kane is overrated, and Mozart should have stopped writing music when he was 4, right? In general, I have enjoyed most of your articles, but this one is just ridiculous. You've taken your hipster/contrarian views too far on this one. Just saying the opposite of what everyone else thinks does not make you original. There are a few things in this world that are worth every bit of the hype and praise they receive, and 1989 Upper Deck is one of those; it is a work of art, whether you want to admit it or not.

Anonymous said...

First off, great review. You've covered all aspects of the legenedary 1989 Upper Deck set. But I, too, cannot understand your negative viewpoint on UD's first ever release. I believe it was a success, partly due to you know who, Ken Griffey Jr.

As #1, Griffey really led the charge for UD, and is one of the reasons why Upper Deck is a such a dominant player in the card market. UD was the first to capture intriging photos on their ball cards; they did it with a swagger. Plus the condition-sensitive nature of 89 UD makes it an even more valuable gem. I've tried to complete the whole set, but I'm always missing a card from the Low Series.

If I had one knock on 89 UD, it would be the confusing low and high series releases. What a hassle to collect!

Anonymous said...

You guys are somewhat right. I'm an old fart (36) and bought 2 full Upper Deck sets at $80/each back in the day (plus all the extra packs I bought as a fan, which I still have).

My advantage back in the very early 90s was that I had a ton of Joe Montana second-years (really his rook year). That year you could tell what was in you pack (it's been a long time, but I think maybe that the first (for sure) card was random, but you'd check the last card and know all the other cards (excluding the first, which was completely random). I got f*ed a number of times on this, but my college roomie and I bought a ton, enough to figure out the sequence.

I'd still have a great number of cards of studs in their early/prime years, but when I was off to college I put my cards at my grandmothers (more trustworthy) and some kid who brought her 'stuff from the attic' obviously brought my stuff to his place. To the tune of at least $3000 conservatively.

I still wonder if he needs a confrontation, as I wonder if that amount of money is worth it to me. I'd never get caught, and the only reason isn't the money, it's just handing off the cardboard to my kids. Anyhow, I've been pretty cool on not stealing. I feel maybe I should teach lessons. This punk is probably in his mid-20s now though.

Anyhow the UD set is still a classic. Great photos. It's been 'dissed a bit too much. Griffey, Jr. is maybe still THE card, but it's a great set.