My greatest acquisition from this past weekend’s trip (alongside the internet’s Common Man) to TwinsFest in Minneapolis was not, if you can believe it, the baseball which now bears the authographs of (both!) Chris Herrmann and Alex Wimmers, nor the memory of a brief, but spirited, exchange with the very bad J.R. Richard. Rather, it was an introduction to the oddity that is the 2010 edition of Upper Deck baseball cards.
Apart from the autograph stations, the main attraction of TwinsFest is the copious amounts of baseball-related memorabilia being sold by the only slightly less copious number of baseball-memorabilia vendors. The Common Man has already documented his inability to restrain himself wherein the coveting of baseball cards is concerned. For the present author, however, the event represented the first time I’d thought of baseball cards at any length since probably 1992.
If these demographic reports right here are any indication, The Reader is very likely aware of Upper Deck baseball cards and their relation to the soul. Said Reader is, moreover, very likely unable to think of the 1989 Ken Griffey Jr card without feeling a sort of warmth — as of the sort provided by a fine brandy — in his or her bosom. That Griffey card was the first card in the first ever set released by Upper Deck — a set that, by means of its clean design and a higher quality card stock, surpassed considerably what the market had offered consumers to date.
Eventually, of course, Upper Deck’s competitors caught up. Then, in a frantic effort to outdo one another, card companies introduced all manner of inserts, parallels, and premium sets to the market. As the hobby became flooded and the means of production ever more costly, manufacturers started folding. Score produced its last set in 1998; Donruss, 2005. Upper Deck bought Fleer after the latter company’s 2005 release, made two more sets under that moniker, and then retired the Fleer name after 2007.
That left only Topps and Upper Deck as the two remaining card-making licensees of MLB — an arrangement that lasted for two more years.
Then, in August of 2009, Major League Baseball announced an exclusive licensing arrangement with The Topps. The stated purpose was to “streamline” the industry, but the obvious result was that Upper Deck — again, the only other remaining licensed baseball card-maker — would be ruined. While technically, owing to an agreement with the MLBPA, they (i.e. Upper Deck) could still produce cards with players’ likenesses, it is a truth universally acknowledged that cards without team logos are Mega Lame.
Upper Deck, however, announced that they would still be producing cards in 2010. The internet wondered if they (i.e. Upper Deck) might deal with the constraint in a creative way, as some previous manufacturers had, albeit in limited runs.
But this is where it gets weird: in late October, Beckett announced that they’d received a preview of 2010 Upper Deck cards “but not card images,” noting in that same post that “collectors anticipate[d] the unveiling of its first baseball line to be published without MLB team names and logos.” Over a month later, on December 2nd, 2009, contributor Mario of Card Collector Digest wrote that “while Topps Company has already showcased their designs for the flagship brand and Heritage, Upper Deck has been surprisingly tight-lipped.” Just the previous year, Upper Deck had released its first image previews at the beginning of November.
In fact, Upper Deck’s silence lasted another couple months, until, in the last week of January — just a week before the release of Series 1 of the 2010 base set — the company released the first images of the cards. Featuring players in uniform. And totally real team logos on those uniforms. Totally illegally.
The response of Major League Baseball was swift. In a statement released on Jaunary 28th, MLB announced that they “were surprised and disappointed that Upper Deck, a former partner of ours, would violate our contract by clearly using our intellectual property without our permission.”
However, at this point, it was too late. Upped Deck Series 1 was released the next week — also featuring uniformed and be-logo-ed players. A month later, Upper Deck and MLB settled a lawsuit, the terms of which permitted Upper Deck to continue distribution of of Series 1 — with the provision that they (i.e. Upper Deck) would “agree not to use MLB trademarks including team names and/or logos on its trading cards going forward.”
But Series 1 still exists, is the point. I saw, and bought, a bunch of packs of the cards at TwinsFest. It’s a set — half-a-set, really — that shouldn’t exist. And it’s very likely the last release by a company that reinvented and reinvigorated the industry.