The card to the right of this paragraph is card number 65 from the 2010 Upper Deck Series 1 baseball card set. The card itself is classic Upper Deck featuring an impressive close-up shot of Chipper Jones finishing his left-handed swing. There are, quite literally, hundreds of cards featuring Chipper’s swing at this point, but this one still stands out for the excellence of this shot. Upper Deck does its best to make sure that their card designs do nothing to detract from the quality of their photography. The name, in foil, will, unfortunately, often disappear into the photograph. The green border design element at the bottom of the card is perfectly done however. The most untypical portion of the card is the small black and white portrait. It works. When you look at this card, you wouldn’t realize that there’s anything strange going on at all. Certainly, when viewed in isolation, the card doesn’t seem odd at all.
Let’s take a closer look at the card. In each of the photographs on the card, Chipper’s head is turned slightly. You can see enough of his batting helmet that you can tell that the Braves classic "A" logo is on display, but you don’t actually see the logo. It’s also worth noting that on the picture of Chipper Jones swing, you can’t see the Atlanta and tomahawk logo that’s plastered on the front of the Braves blue road jerseys. In the green border, where the team name is displayed, the card says Atlanta. In 2009, Upper Deck used a team logo. Most years, they either display a logo to indicate a player’s team affiliation or they display the team name. In the past, Chipper’s card would have said Braves rather than Atlanta.
It wasn’t just the Chipper Jones card though. In 2010, Upper Deck did everything possible to hide the logos in their photography. They often appeared partially in the set’s action photography, but as little as possible was shown. Additionally, the team’s location was always used rather than the team name. (If you didn’t know the difference between the uniforms, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a player on the Cubs and one on the White Sox since cards for both teams were simply identified as Chicago. The same is true for the Yankees and the Mets.) This wasn’t just true of the base set, but also the insert sets. Chipper Jones was featured in the Supreme insert set and was again pictured form the back with his head in a profile position so as not to see the team logo. The team is, again, identified as Atlanta.
A baseball card manufacturer typically require the approval of two entities to produce baseball cards. The first is the Major League Baseball Player’s Association (MLBPA). This is the player’s union and their permission is required to use the images of all the players in the league on a baseball card. In order to use the logos and other trademarked and copyrighted material of Major League Baseball, a contract with Major League Baseball Properties (MLBP) is required. The only way to produce cards without the approval of the MLBPA is to sign player’s to individual contracts with permission to use their image. The only way to produce cards without the permission of MLBP was to either obscure or eliminate all copyrighted and trademarked information from the cards and photos. No logos and no team names could be used on the cards. Upper Deck had both since their inaugural year of 1989 when they revolutionized the hobby. Unfortunately for them, times change.
Major League Baseball Properties was determined to see baseball card collecting return to popularity. After 2005, they refused to issue a new license to Donruss effectively ending Donruss’s production of licensed baseball cards. In 2009, they decided that Topps would be the exclusive manufacturer of licensed baseball cards by refusing to renew their contract with Upper Deck. The theory espoused by the head of Topps, Michael Eisner, and by Major League Baseball is that baseball card sales were down because of consumer confusion. They believe that collectors are so simple, or so stupid, that when they saw cards on the shelf at their local Target from multiple brands, they are beset with a confusion so severe it would render them incapable of purchasing even a single pack of baseball cards. In 2010, for the first time since 1980, Topps would be the sole producer of licensed baseball cards.
As it turns out, the MLBPA was not on board with MLBP’s decision to freeze out Upper Deck and continued to license Upper Deck to produce cards of big league players. Throughout the history of the hobby, there has been a smattering of sets that were produced without a license from Major League Baseball. These typically featured awful air-brushing to remove logos from the cards. Usually, this was done by the manufacturer so they could save money on the production of the set. These cards were almost always ugly. It was hard to picture how Upper Deck would proceed. Upper Deck built their brand on the idea of producing beautiful baseball cards that couldn’t be counterfeited. The idea of clean, classy designs paired with top-notch photography simply does not match up with the idea of bad airbrushing. Would Upper Deck really produce unlicensed cards?
When the calendar turned to 2010, no one was sure exactly what Upper Deck would do, but they had many a product up their sleeve and they hit the shelves in quick succession. There was Ultimate Collection (which UD released as “2009”). There was Signature Stars (which UD also considered a 2009 product). The lawsuits came and Upper Deck went ahead and put Series One out anyway. Not including team names in the products and not directly picturing any of the logos didn’t sway MLB. It didn’t sway Topps. It wasn’t swaying the courts. Upper Deck reached a settlement with MLBP and they are now, more or less, out of the baseball card business.
I’ve been looking through Chipper Jones cards form the time period, and you realize, that Topps and MLBP may have won, but collector’s didn’t. I don’t feel sorry for Upper Deck, they have a long and sordid history of dirty dealings. (I highly recommend the book Card Sharks which details the early days of Upper Deck. They were also found guilty in court of producing counterfeit Yu-Gi-Oh cards.) It makes me sad that there isn’t an Upper Deck base set for 2011 or 2012. They have produced so many great sets. They have, over the course of their existence, innovated more than any other trading card company. It’s a shame and every collector is poorer for it.
There are still great Chipper Jones baseball cards being produced. There just aren’t as many. There is, undeniably, less variety. There’s less chance for one of those cards to stand out from the pack. There’s less chance for greatness.
Cards Featured in this Post
- 2010 Upper Deck #65 ($1)
- 2010 Upper Deck Green Supreme Insert ($3)
- 2009 Upper Deck #528 ($1)
- 2009 Upper Deck Signature Stars #25 ($1)
- 2009 Upper Deck Signature Stars Gold Signatures Auto #25 ($160)
- 2009 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions #6 ($1)
- 2009 SPx #421 ($1)