No, really. This set did change it all. It’s not hyperbole. I won’t go into Upper Deck’s business practices (Card Sharks is a great book covering the gorier details of that), but I’ll approach is as what it was like seeing these for the first time in 1989.* As a kid, Upper Deck was the first luxury item I could wrap my head around and, frankly, covet. Lamborghinis and Ferraris existed, but at a price I couldn’t wrap my head around. $1.00 packs when $0.50 was the limit? Pure desire. And they were so pretty.
*I’ll fact check myself here, as the first baseball cards I ever paid attention to were the Topps 1990 which I bought on July 4, 1990. BUT, seeing the 1989 (and 1990) Upper Deck cards that year was still a revelation compared to the rest of the market. This isn’t like claiming the first glance at Upper Deck 1993 was a revelation; the revelation had already been delivered and 1993 had lots and lots of other premium sets, but the masses hadn’t all heard it in 1989.
The pictures don’t capture it, but packs of these cards were $1.00. This was obscene in the world of $0.25 and $0.50 packs. Beyond that, the packs were foil, the ballerest of card wrapping materials when the competition was in wax-coated paper or shrink-wrapped plastic. As a seven year old, there is NOTHING fancier than the most expensive pack on the shelf. Next, the cards are thicker and more rigid (that’s what she said) than anything else on the market at the type. Oh, yeah, they’re glossy, too. On both sides. None of that white cardboard feel and look on these. Topps Tiffany are fancy, but they’re not this fancy. Sure, SportFlics examples are glossy on the back, but they’ve got a super funky front. [deep breath] There’s so much new here that I need a paragraph break.
The decorative borders? Not just geometric shapes… Donruss… but full color, detailed printing. Look at the baseline on the right. Much clearer and evocative than any solid color or tessellated pattern along an edge. Hmm… a first baseline. More on that later. But that printing looks really, really good. Why is that? Because prior to Upper Deck, baseball cards used the traditional four color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, key (black)) printing process. Upper Deck printed with a magazine-style six color process, the same used by Architectural Digest (if Card Sharks is to be believed). For the sake of trivia, I believe it was CMYKOG (orange and green added to the standard four color process). Why do the cards look better? That’s why. There’s a HOLOGRAM!!! It’s presented as an “anti-counterfeit” feature which is a genius marketing idea. These cards were so nice that counterfeiting was a concern. (note: it wasn’t. This was still prime junk wax era.)
As a more subtle feature, notice that the front and back both feature a legit picture. It’s not just a Fleer low-resolution headshot on the back. We’ve got glossy action shots on both sides. Wow. Not sarcasm. This is something new. I’m not above nitpicking, so here’s my nit. The two action shots for Carlton Fisk are likely from the same game, potentially even from the same play (gut feeling is Tigers Stadium). Away jersey in both pictures. Helmet on, facemask off. Orange/yellow railings. I’m being annoying. This is a great card design. So much so that Topps doesn’t get the year’s first entry.
I’ll talk more about Fisk’s 1988 season later, but the key item here is that it’s the most important set since Donruss/Fleer 1981. For completeness’ sake, I’ll include the ultimate 1989 Upper Deck example which was iconoclastic at the time and now just plain old icon, the Ken Griffey Jr. Turtleneck and chain? Absolutely.