March 17, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #16. 1993 SP

I didn’t know how to approach SP. Not in writing about it and its historical significance for a company like Upper Deck (I happen to believe that it redefined the company and together with Topps Finest pushed The Hobby at large down the deep, dark, foil-stamped, holographic tunnel from which it’s never re-emerged), but when I first saw it on the shelf at my local card shop. Don’t get me wrong; I like this set. It intimidated me to no end when it originally came out, but I’ve warmed to it as card prices in general have inflated over the last fifteen years. It’s just, well… When it comes to owning baseball cards, I have a bit of an inferiority complex.

Let me re-phrase that. When it comes to life, I have a large inferiority complex. I can’t tell you why… but I want to thank all those collectors who’ve loved and destroyed the crap out of their cards. Without you there would be nothing out there for me to buy.

I’m not ashamed to admit it: I love creased, dinged and frayed cards. Cards that show a lot of wear have always been friends of mine. Just this afternoon I re-sorted my vintage notebook and I’d have to say that about 90 percent of the cards in the book have paper loss, noticeably chipped corners, creases and/or sun damage. A personal favorite is my copy of Jim Bouton’s 1966 Topps Venezuela card: it’s covered in scribbles from the previous owner plus I can fold it twice and it doesn’t snap to pieces. And that’s one of the better cards in my collection.

The writing was on the wall for me when Score came out in 1988; that set did a lot of things that Topps, Fleer and Donruss weren’t doing at the time (full-color backs, photos on the backs, printed on a nicer, cleaner card stock, poly-bagging packs), and really it was only a matter of time before there would be a new set with packs that I couldn’t afford. That came sooner rather than later with Upper Deck the next year. After that it was Leaf in 1990, Stadium Club and Ultra in 1991 and so on and so forth until I could barely afford any packs by the time I stopped buying new stuff in 1995. But I digress…

Of the three ultra-premium sets that debuted in 1993, SP was the most subtle and most delicate. Maybe it was the etched copper foil stamp, or the simple two-color block pattern along the left edge —for me reminiscent for some reason of nautical flags and tags of preppy designer clothes. Or maybe it was ikebana design of the thin, circuit-like metallic ink line that traveled up the right side of the front to provide underscore for the team name along the top. (The light bulb filament-like bob and weave shape of the line would also lend visual cue to the die-cut edge of the Platinum Power insert set. See what they were doing there? It’s a nice touch that ties the insert and base sets together without working too hard.)

But most likely, it earned this distinction because instead of using the Upper Deck and individual teams’ logos, the company name and team names were spelled out in the same copper metallic ink. Because of the omission of these graphics, the SP aesthetic wasn’t piecemeal, and the designers had control of the entire layout of the card. (If you need a refresher course in ultra-premium card design in 1993, take a look for flaws in Topps Finest and Fleer Flair: Finest uses the same Topps logo as the company’s other brands, while Flair’s otherwise elegant design is taken down a few notches by the mostly-harmless-but-by-no-means-elegant team logos, positioned in the upper right hand corner on the back.)

With nine players from each team represented and a total checklist just shy of 300 cards, the make-up of SP was strong, and on the strength of design, overall checklist and availability was able to turn a relatively weak rookie class into desirable cards across the board. Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon (on his only rookie from 1993) lead the pack, but am I wrong or did Beckett have the Chad Mottola card somewhere around $5 at one point?

1993 saw Upper Deck grow up. Not only did the company successfully transform its flagship from a fun-loving, cartoony, young-person’s baseball card set to a mature, classy, young-adult’s baseball card set, but it birthed a brand that gave the company a strong foothold in the rapidly expanding ultra-premium market. If I thought I was intimidated by SP when I first saw it, what about Topps and the other Upper Deck competitors?

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