field climb to their perch by taking calculated risks, and collectors witnessed this concept firsthand when 1990 Upper Deck baseball cards hit store shelves that spring.
The year before, UD had immediately established itself as a disruptive force in the baseball card business not only for their revolutionary yet classic card design, but also for the audacity of making a ROOKIE the very first card in their very first set.
Sure, pegging Ken Griffey, Jr., as the poster child for UD looks like a stroke of genius nearly three decades later, but the truth is that it was a gamble that paid off.
So, how would Upper Deck leverage that bit of luck as it planned out the prime slot in its sophomore issue?
While Topps led off its 1990 offering with a string of Nolan Ryan cards and Donruss treated collectors to a Bo Jackson Diamond Kings pasteboard, UD once again went their own way. After all it takes the swagger of a leader, a champion, to start off your base set — your only set that really mattered at all at the time — with a checklist.
And coming into the 1990 collecting season, Upper Deck clearly was the champion of the card-makers, excepting perhaps the hue and cry of a few traditionalists who couldn’t stomach paying more than 40 cents for a pack of baseball cards.
Just as surely, card #1 in UD’s sophomore effort was nothing but a bunch of text and a gaudy drawing — the Star Rookie Checklist.
BORING OR CLASSIC?
Upper Deck was willing to forgo making card #1 a centerpiece of their set for three reasons: 1) they were king of the hill (see above); 2) their #1 could at least bank on the cachet of “Rookie”; and 3) they were backed by an award-winning design.
In fact, at first glance, and especially if you didn’t live through the boom years, you might have trouble distinguishing the 1990 Upper Deck cards from the 1989 Upper Deck cards — and from the 1991 Upper Deck cardsb for that matter. As in the previous year, UD’s 1990 issue was focused on presenting bright, crisp photos of the players we loved to watch, in a mix of posed and action shots.
Aside from that huge photo that covers more than 80% of available real estate, card fronts feature very little in the way of design. On the left-hand side of the lower white border, the player’s name appears in small black letters, with the team logo just above, in the lower left-hand corner of the photo itself.
Whereas the right-hand border of the 1989 set showed a first-base line capped by, well, first base, 1990 cards feature only a clean white strip to the right. Instead, the Upper Deck logo picks up the action in the upper right-hand corner, and a baseline extends along the upper border to the left, terminating in a small “second base,” inside of which is the player’s position in black letters.
Of course, the design of Upper Deck baseball cards does not stop on the front. When you turn one over, you’re treated to a color and techno explosion that dwarfed the card fronts of most sets made to that point.
In the top left-hand corner of the vertical layout is the card number in black type, with the fabled Upper Deck hologram to its right. Collectors were skeptical about the supposed anti-counterfeiting device during UD’s first few years, but we quickly became accustomed to such wizardry, and it was a milestone on the path toward the super premium brands that were to follow.
Beneath these two, which stake out the left-hand third of the card, are the MLB and MLBPA logos. Rounding out the panel is a block containing the player’s name and team name, along with his position and vital stats and a table with up to five years of statistics, plus career totals. The right-hand two-thirds of each card is devoted to another crisp, beautiful full-color image of the player.
The Upper Deck card back seemed to be a direct throat punch aimed at Topps, who never (well, almost never — see 1971) included photos on card backs and who always took grief for their dingy brown card stock. The blazing white borders on the fronts AND backs of UD cards were almost blinding by comparison.
GREENHORNS AND GREATS
Of course, no set could get by on its design alone, especially during the end-cap years of the 1980s and 1990s when the rookie card blaze was still burning out of control. And, while the 1990 Upper Deck set never could boast of a surefire legend on the order of Junior Griffey, it did fine in the realm of first-year standouts.
Among the rookie cards from the 1990 Upper Deck set that still draw interest decades later are Sammy Sosa (#17), Juan Gonzalez (#72), John Olerud (#56), and Larry Walker (#466).
Beyond this quartet, though, several other players who made their UD debut in 1990 have caused their own ripples in the market, including Marquis Grissom (#9), Eric Anthony (#28), Bob Hamelin (#45), Jose Offerman (#46), Ben McDonald (#54), Kevin Maas (#70), and Dean Palmer (#74). These lower number cards were tagged with the “Star Rookie” designation, as was Deion Sanders (#13), even though that pasteboard is not a “true” rookie.
Even in 1990, there were plenty of hobbyists more interested in particular star players than in rookies, and Upper Deck had sufficient room to showcase the game’s best among their 700-card base set. Ranging from Jose Canseco (#66) to Kevin Mitchell (#117), and from Orel Hershiser (#256) to Dennis Eckersley (#513), UD had every big name you could ask for.
Beyond the “normal” card for each star, however, Upper Deck also offered paintings of one player from each team on the front of club checklist cards, ranging from ho-hum choices like Steve Sax for the New York Yankees (#18) to Hall of Famers like Robin Yount for the Milwaukee Brewers (#91). And, even though Julio Franco somehow pulled the checklist rug out from under Nolan Ryan for the Texas Rangers (#82), Upper Deck still saw fit to include two different cards of The Express: a 5000K card at #34 and Ryan’s base card at #544.
GET UD HIGH!
If all of that nearly-full-bleed magic weren’t enough Upper Deck goodness for you, all you had to do was wait until late in the season. That’s when UD jumped into the update set foray with a concept they called their “High Number Series.”
Of course, issuing cards in series was not a new idea to veteran collectors, but it was considered dated in 1990. Ever since Topps had ditched multiple series in favor of one big issue per year in 1974, we had come to view the former as a quaint practice of the past.
Never mind that Topps themselves continued to issue cards in stages throughout most of the intervening years in the form of their own Traded Series.
But Upper Deck took a different tact to update sets than Topps or Fleer ever had.
Rather than issuing the cards as a dedicated box set OR putting them in their own Mylar-pack boxes, UD slid their high numbers in with cards from the lower 700 and wrapped them 15 cards to a pack and 36 packs to a box, same as always.
As you might expect from a late issue, the 1990 Upper Deck high numbers were loaded with players who had changed teams and rookies who made an impact but whom UD had missed the first time around.
Among the notable veterans making a high-number appearance were Willie Randolph (#704), John Franco (#709), Jeff Reardon (#729), Dave Winfield (#745), Dave Parker (#766), and Cecil Fielder (#786).
“New” rookie cards in the upper 100 included David Justice (#711), Carlos Baerga (#737), Delino DeShields (#746), and David Segui (#773).
Upper Deck also treated collectors to an “updated” Nolan Ryan card (#734), as The Ryan Express did indeed join a new club — the 300-Win Club — on July 31, 1990.
HERO AND HARBINGER
Even though Upper Deck had forged their initial success at least partly on the shoulders of a young man who had yet to become a superstar (Griffey), they weren’t content to build on just current players in 1990. Perhaps inspired by Ryan, the ageless wonder, Upper Deck set out to make a recently retired legend one of the centerpieces of their marketing strategy.
Specifically, they produced a 10-card set of “Baseball Heroes” that featured eight different milestones in the career of Reggie Jackson, p
lus a checklist, plus an artwork “topper” card showing Reggie with each of three teams (A’s, Yankees, Angels), along with a Baltimore Orioles hat. These cards were inserted in high-number packs, and the entire operation was dubbed, “Find the Reggie.”
As an added incentive, Jackson signed and numbered 2500 of those topper cards, effectively giving birth to the modern chase card.
Certainly, the chance of pulling a Reggie autograph was more compelling than the promise of “A Minimum of One 3-D Team Logo Hologram,” as their Mylar wrappers proclaimed. And since it was Mr. October, the nostalgia factor was steep enough to draw in even veteran collectors who naturally preferred the pink death-by-gum offered up by Topps packs.
Still today, and although 2500 is not a *small* print run, the autographed Reggie topper card sells for more than $100 in ungraded condition. And, despite the continued wide availability of 1990 Upper Deck packs, the chance to pull a Reggie is enough to entice the occasional impulse purchase.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF CARDBOARD
If you’ve followed along this far, then you know that the 1990 Upper Deck set featured 700 base cards, 100 high-number cards, 10 Reggie Jackson cards, 1 Reggie Jackson autograph card, and 26 team logo cards (in 3-D!).
But if you’re the sort who has to have everything or nothing at all, then the 1990 set might prove more challenging than it first appears.
To begin, there are a handful of interesting misspellings among the first 100 or so cards, including such doozies as “suprising” news about Mike Schmidt’s retirement (#20) and the ever-popular “definately” (#42), which has definitely tripped up more than a few inattentive wordsmiths over the years.
These were never corrected, however, so they won’t do much extra for you other than maybe make you feel better about your own shortcomings.
There are, on the other hand, several variations which make building a master set quite an endeavor.
Some of the more obvious of these include:
- Ben McDonald (#54) can be found with either the Orioles or Star Rookie logo on front.
- The Mickey Tettleton checklist card (#60) lists #683 as either Jamie Weston (ERR) or Mickey Weston (COR).
- Andy McGaffigan’s (#597) card shows either McGaffigan or Rich Thompson.
- Ditto for #89, which shows either Rick Reed (ERR) or Jim Gott (CORR).
- Nolan Ryan’s #734 can be found with and without the “300th Win” stripe.
Then, starting at number 101 (Gerald Perry), the wheels fell off the Upper Deck printing press. From there through #199 (Al Newman), every card exists either with or without the copyright date on the back of the card.
A minor variation? Sure, you bet.
But if you want to collect EVERY possible variant of 1990 Upper Deck, you have to get all these babies, too. If that’s where you find yourself, and you want to see every known error and variation in gory black-and-white detail (and usually with photos), check out The Trading Card Database, as they’ve done a typically bang-up job of cataloging the E & V love.
For our purposes, just know that a master set of 1990 Upper Deck baseball will come in somewhere north of 950 cards when you add in the base set, the high series, the Reggies, the 3-D team logos, and the goodies in this section.
THAT’S A LOT OF CARDS — WHO HAS THAT KIND OF MONEY?
Considering that we’re talking about nearly 1000 of the finest, most technologically advanced baseball cards that 1990 had to offer, it must cost an arm and a leg to collect second-year Upper Deck cards, right?
Not unless you’re in the habit of giving away your limbs for free.
Even a second-year Ken Griffey, Jr., card in the highest graded condition (PSA 10) checks in at around $100, and graded specimens of other cards from the set just go down from there.
You can find low-number unopened boxes for $5-10, and the high-number series run about the same despite the chance to pull a signed Reggie.
And if you paid more than $10 or so for a complete factory set anytime this decade, you might have been had. You can also occasionally find complete runs of the “no copyright” cards for a reasonable sum, and that includes Griffey and Craig Biggio.
So are these cards worthless? Only if you don’t have the memory or imagination to let them tug you into the sunlit outfields of 1989, before we knew what PEDs or Florida Marlins were.
For the rest of us, 1990 Upper Deck baseball cards are an affordable — and gorgeous — reminder of simpler times, when the hobby and the game held us spellbound all summer long.