With its high quality, glossy stock, dazzling color photos and the most famous first card in modern hobby history, the 1989 Upper Deck Baseball set revolutionized the industry.
"It was the first premium-type set that came out. Upper Deck was on the leading edge there," said Dave Jacobs, who owns the PSA Set Registry's No. 1, 1989 Upper Deck set. "They actually started a domino effect for that type of premium set."
Ryan Farabough, proprietor of the registry's No. 4 set, agrees, "I think it really set the bar for quality after it came out. Within the next few years, everyone upgraded and tried to keep up and I think it just really energized and changed the hobby."
Issued in foil packs in low and high number boxes, this trailblazer boasted 800 cards (1-700 in the first series, 701-800 in a high number series). Two different factory sets – one featuring cards 1 through 800 and another comprised of cards 701 to 800 – were produced. The set also includes the Rookie Stars (#1 to #26) and award winners (#658 to #667) subsets and a series of Collector's Choice art cards (#668 to #693).
The fronts of these singles showcase a large color photo of the player surrounded by a white border. An artist's rendering of the runner's lane from home to first base appears to the photo's right, while a team logo and the player's name are printed across the bottom of the regular cards. Another color photo, along with the player's biographical data, statistics, card number and a hologram are included on the regular card backs.
Ken Griffey Jr. is the set's inaugural single. The most renowned rookie card of the modern era, more than 50,000 Griffeys have been graded by PSA. At press time, there were 1,266 PSA 10s and 15,843 PSA 9s.
"It's not that difficult to get in PSA 10," noted Jacobs. "It's very readily available in PSA 9."
Logic might dictate that because it's the first card in the set, the Griffey might be susceptible to damage, but Jacobs says that Upper Deck inserted a blank white card in front of the future Cooperstowner's card for protection in factory sets.
"Upper Deck had a lot of insight when they did that," said Jacobs. "Had they not put that card in front of that No. 1 card, it would've been a mess."
Other notable rookies in this offering are Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield, Craig Biggio, Tom Gordon, Steve Finley, Jim Abbott and Omar Vizquel. A number of Hall of Famers are also part of the set, including Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, George Brett, Kirby Puckett and Mike Schmidt. Two innovative Nolan Ryan cards are also featured. The Ryan Express is showcased in a "triple exposure" photo (#145) in the first series and tossing a football (#774) in the last series.
Error cards were also plentiful in this set. Some Sheffield rookies, for example, were printed with his position "SS" upside down on the card front. There's no premium for this variation. Another flaw is that many cards were printed without holograms or have duplicate holograms. These cards are not rare, nor highly coveted by collectors.
The most notorious error, however, is the reverse negative Dale Murphy card (#357). Reportedly pulled from production early in the print run, this card is not easy to track down. Of the 102 graded by PSA, there has only been two gem mint examples. At its peak, the Murphy was selling for more than $100, today a PSA 9 example generally commands between $20 and $40.
Despite being a relatively modern set, 1989 Upper Deck poses a number of challenges for registry enthusiasts.
"It's still new enough that if you want any of the common players, you're going to have to submit them yourself," said Farabough.
Jacobs knows all about self-submissions. He is just six cards shy of a straight PSA 10 set. Many of his PSA 10s are not only self-submissions, but they're the only gem mint examples in existence. Four of the cards he needs have no PSA 10s at all. With all this in mind, Jacobs says the most important character trait that '89 Upper Deck collectors can possess is perseverance.
"I got a good start on it and I just stayed with it and I think that's part of it. A lot of guys will start building these sets, then they just get bored with them," he said.
A surprising variety of condition issues also hinder the set. Jacobs says he often pulls batches of cards from factory sets that have centering issues. He has also had problems with dinged corners.
"It's got very sensitive corners," he said.
Another common flaw is damage to the holograms on the back of these cards.
"That's ruined more (PSA) 10s for me, where the card had the centering, the card had the corners, the card had the gloss . . . but then the hologram was tore up on the back," said Jacobs.
But arguably the biggest condition issue is scratches on the photos.
"When you shuffle the cards . . . you can actually scratch the surfaces of the card," said Farabough.
So far, competition for graded 1989 Upper Deck cards hasn't been fierce, but Farabough expects this to change.
"I think it's the only set from the late '80s, early '90s that stands out as . . . the potential to be anything," he said.
Jacobs has similar sentiments.
"I've always loved that set. The '89 Upper Deck set, to me, was kind of the turning point in the hobby, when the hobby was taking a really bad road," he said.
And while the set is considered a trailblazer, Jacobs is on the brink of blazing his own path into hobby history. When he tracks down the six remaining PSA 10s that he needs, he will become the first registry member to complete the 800-card, 1989 Upper Deck set in gem mint condition.
"I will finish it," he insisted.
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