Upper Deck has become such a prominent part of the sports card landscape that it is hard to believe that its first cards were printed in 1989.
And, according to Pete Williams in his book "Card Sharks" (Macmillan, 278 pages, $21.95), it's amazing that the cards were produced at all.
Williams, memorabilia columnist for USA Today Baseball Weekly, looks at Upper Deck and how it changed the sports card industry. He spent 15 months researching the book and initially had the cooperation of Upper Deck officials, who later turned reticent. But he spoke to many former employees (and former officials), most on the record.
What emerges is the portrait of a company that rode the wave of the sports memorabilia boom, setting standards with better ideas and, led by a president consumed by greed, acting unethically.
An Orange County, Calif., card dealer who had been burned by counterfeit cards mentioned to a customer that he would like to produce a counterfeit-proof card. The customer, a printer who did work for Architectural Digest, thought he could. The card store was called The Upper Deck.
From this chance meeting came the cards that changed the hobby. Now everybody's cards are made of higher-grade paper and more care is taken in printing. Insert cards (an Upper Deck innovation) are ubiquitous.
But problems with money and printing almost prevented production of the first cards. As it was, they were very late. But Upper Deck was able to capitalize on the buildup it had given them, and favorable reception made them a hit.
Williams makes a strong case that Upper Deck board members reprinted valuable cards, purchased them from the company at wholesale prices and sold them to dealer friends. This, he points out, is not illegal, but it "just isn't done." Upper Deck board members were profiting from high prices of "rare" cards by making more.
And while Upper Deck was becoming the industry standard, it was firing key executives and then being sued by them. At the heart of it all was company president Richard McWilliam, who was crucial to Upper Deck's spectacular rise and often the focus of its internal struggles.
Topps Finest baseball
The Orioles' Armando Benitez is among the 30 players in a 30-card rookie subset of Topps Finest baseball for 1995. The 220-card set will be released this week. Insert sets feature
sluggers and power pitchers. There are five cards per pack.
Friday-next Sunday, Hall of Fame Weekend card show, Essex Community College (expected signers are Hoyt Wilhelm, Bob Feller, Harmon Killebrew, Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and Monte Irvin), Friday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., next Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., (800) 542-3976.
CARD OF THE WEEK
Schick, which sponsors the NBA's rookie awards, has its own NBA rookie (the league's official razor, complete with NBA logo), which it is teaming with rookie cards from NBA Hoops. There are 30 cards, and, unlike regular Hoops rookie cards, they have no numbers and "Rookie" is not in gold foil. Cards can be found in Tracer refills and through a mail-in offer. (Shown is Donyell Marshall.)