Looking Back: 1989 Upper Deck Baseball

Perhaps never has one individual card anchored a set more than Upper Deck’s inaugural foray into the sports card business in 1989.

Everybody knows the card. Everybody has seen one. Most collectors now are in possession of one.

Card No. 1 in the 1989 Upper Deck set is the famous Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.

I earned my Griffey rookie card by working in a card shop, sorting and taking inventory sometime around 1996. I was paid in “card money,” of which my two biggest prizes were a Joe Montana Topps Stadium Club refractor and the aforementioned Griffey rookie.

When I earned my Griffey rookie card, the high book price was in the $80 range. Now it can be had for half that. In fact, the complete set is now valued in that neighborhood.

Perhaps the one positive Upper Deck brought to the hobby was it forced Topps to improve its products. Soon after the 1989 Upper Deck set hit the shelves, Topps countered with premium card brands such as Stadium Club and Finest.

But with most good news comes bad news, and Upper Deck had its share as it attempted to carve out a niche in the collecting industry.

The most obvious downer, at least for those of us with little disposable income, was the price. Who wanted to fork out $1.50 or so for a pack of Upper Deck cards when Topps cards were sitting right next to them on the shelf and going for as low as three packs for a buck?

Were we really so intrigued by fancy foil on the card packs and promise of an innovative “fraud-proof” hologram to extend our collecting allowance?

Granted, compared to the worn-out look of the Topps cardboard, Upper Deck offered us a refreshing alternative. The cards DID look cool. The photos were nice, crisp and clear, and Upper Deck even gave us a secondary picture on the back, even if it did take away complete player statistics that made Topps the favorite of old-school collectors. And who didn’t like the triple-take photo on the Nolan Ryan card (#145)?

Personally, I believe most of the Upper Deck sets, similar to Fleer’s base sets, are some of the best-looking cards to get autographed. The clean card fronts, with little that gets in the way of the player pictured, along with the white background, makes it an easy choice for signature hunters.

Like the “Rated Rookies” in the Donruss sets, Upper Deck featured several rookies in its “Star Rookies” set, which was part of the base set. The first 26 cards of the set were Star Rookies, with card #27 the rookie checklist.

The most glaring omission from the top 26 potential rookies was Craig Biggio, who was inserted at #273 of the set – not that anyone else could have foreseen such talent.

Cards numbered 668-693 are team checklists, featuring a star player from each team. The final seven cards of the set are checklist cards. Upper Deck did introduce an extended set, cards #701-800, that were released separately.

Noted error cards include Pat Sheridan (#652), which did not list a position on the card front and books considerably higher (about $8) than most error cards of its kind. Dale Murphy’s photo (#357) is a reverse negative, and Upper Deck mixed up Willie Hernandez and Guillermo Hernandez.

For me, the thing I disliked most about Upper Deck, and I believe this issue exists to this day, is in the way the cards are distributed in wax packs.

I could buy a box of Topps cards and collect as much as 60 percent of the base set, with rarely more than two or three doubles of the same player.

Not Upper Deck.

It always seemed to me that whenever I bought a box of Upper Deck cards, I might get five cards each of players #101-105 and zero cards of players #106-110. Being fortunate enough to get five Griffey rookies in one box aside, this made hand collating Upper Deck sets more than frustrating.

For this reason, I’ve never been a big fan of Upper Deck. I think Topps did enough to improve on its products to make Upper Deck easy to pass up on the shelf.


1989 Upper Deck Baseball

Complete Set: 700 cards.

High book: NM, $80.

Top Stars: #120 Ryne Sandberg ($1); #145 Nolan Ryan ($3); #195 Roger Clemens ($1.50); #200 Don Mattingly ($2); #210 Rickey Henderson ($1); #215 George Brett ($2); #241 Greg Maddux ($2); #265 Ozzie Smith ($1); #285 Robin Yount ($1); #300 Mark McGwire ($4); #406 Mike Schmidt ($1.50); #440 Barry Bonds ($4); #467 Cal Ripken Jr. ($2.50);

Top Rookies: #1 Ken Griffey Jr. ($40); #13 Gary Sheffield ($4); #17 John Smoltz ($3.50); #25 Randy Johnson ($10); #273 Craig Biggio ($4); #736 Tom Gordon ($1); #742 Steve Finley ($1.50);#755 Jim Abbott ($1.50).

Filed in: Featured, Historical, Looking Back

Bookmark and Share!

2 Responses to "Looking Back: 1989 Upper Deck Baseball"

  1. ChrisR says:

    It seems there are a lot of folks who enjoyed collecting as kids, and lost interest, and eventually had interest return as adults. Being able to pick up the cards you chased so much as a kid for a buck or two on eBay is good for some cheap nostalgia (though the kid version of me would be undoubtedly upset that the value hadn’t risen to the point that I could even afford such a magnificent card) The Griffey is still _the_ card to me, and to lots of others, apparently, b/c for all of the dream cards of my childhood you can grab for a buck, The Griffey is still going for a lot more than a 20oz.
    I read once that it was estimated that more than a million copies of that card alone were produced, but it still retains its value.

  2. Pablo says:

    No way is Topps better than Upper Deck! Cheaper sure, but better? No way! With Topps making so many boring sets in the ’80′s and ’90′s like the ’86, ’88, and ’90, Topps needed a kick in the pants! There were no baseball cards I enjoyed more in ’90′s than Upper Deck! And Fleer was in second! Topps became so boring with their cards that it was time somebody showed them the future of cards! I miss Fleer and I miss Upper Deck making baseball cards. Topps being the only one allowed to make baseball cards right now is not right!

Leave a Reply

Submit Comment

© 2015 Card Collector Digest. All rights reserved.