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The St. Louis Cardinals of the 1989 Upper Deck set

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30 years ago, Upper Deck changed the baseball card industry. Here’s what the Cardinals of that first set looked like.

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If you collected baseball cards in 1989, whether you were a hardcore hobbyist or just a kid saving up quarters for a pack, the paradigm changed completely with the introduction of the first set from Upper Deck.

Upper Deck was designed to be a premium baseball card in every sense of the word. The quality of the photography, printing and card stock far exceeded that of Topps and the other cards of the era. A hologram on the back of each card was designed to make them difficult to counterfeit. And of course, most notably to consumers, the damn things sold for $1 per pack - double the cost of a Topps wax pack.

The 80s was a decade when the collecting community really exploded, and the public at-large became aware of the value of baseball cards as an investment. Upper Deck went after this market with cards that were designed to be a commodity.

The set is, of course, most famous for the Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card, which once fetched as much as $1,000. But I thought I’d take a look at the Cardinals in the set.

The first thing that jumps out about the Upper Deck set compared to the cards of its era is the quality of the photos, and in particular how many of the photos captured players in action. As I noted in my love letter to the ‘87 Topps set, back then, it often looked like the company had sent a photographer to one Spring Training game and then simply printed whatever photo they got. Most of the Cardinal pics in that set are pretty dull, and they are nearly all wearing a Spring Training / Batting Practice jersey.

Compare that to the energy you can feel just about bursting off the paper in these Willie McGee and Vince Coleman cards. Upper Deck also included a second, full-color photo on the back of each card, along with the forefather-approved counting stats of the era.

It was still okay to bunt in 1989.

In addition to the action shots, the cards often feature very good candid, portrait shots. I especially love this one of The Secret Weapon, Jose Oquendo.

On quite a few of the cards in the set, you’ll find an action shot on one side of the card and more of a portrait shot on the other. It makes for a good looking card and a nice snapshot of a player at that moment in time.

Speaking of action, check out this portrait of pure athleticism:

As for the Cards - both in the set and on the roster - it’s not a particularly banner year. The team finished 3rd in the six-team NL East that season, seven games behind the Cubs. The roster was a mix of aging holdovers from the Whiteyball teams and players who would become mainstays of the middling 90s.

As for rookie cards, one Cardinal was featured as a “Star Rookie” - Upper Deck’s somewhat clunky iteration of the All-Star and Rated Rookie cards from Topps and Donruss. The company selected just 26 Rookies to tag with the Rookie Star treatment and made them the first 26 cards of the set. Griffey, Jr. was #1. Other notable rookies in that first set were Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson.

The Cardinals lone representative in that group was the 2nd best pitcher named Cris Carpenter (phonetically) to every wear a Cardinal uniform. A first round draft pick who was also a punter at the University of Georgia, Cris-with-no-H Carpenter would go on to scuffle through eight major league seasons and accumulate -0.2 WAR.

The best Rookie in that ‘89 Cardinals set was actually Todd Zeile, a former 2nd round pick who would play 16 seasons and accumulate 19.5 WAR.

It’s not uncommon to see misfires in terms of which rookies are highlighted in a given set, but in this case, Carpenter likely got the nod over Zeile for reasons of photography. Tom Geideman, Upper Deck’s first employee, told Beckett that it was particularly difficult in that first season for the company to get good quality photos of rookies, many of whom were in the minor leagues the season before. Even the iconic Griffey Card is a portrait from a Sports Illustrated shoot that was edited in an early Photoshop-type system called Scitex.

As a result, and given Upper Deck’s emphasis on high-quality photography, it seems likely that Carpenter got the edge on Zeile due to his action shot, as opposed to Zeile’s angry glare.

Looking back through this set, I was struck by how little emotional connection I had to these cards. In fact, before I started flipping through, I couldn’t really remember any specific, individual Cardinal cards from the set.

That’s because, even as a kid, buying a pack of Upper Deck was more like buying a lottery ticket. The $2 or $3 I carried into the gas station or the hobby shop was only going to get me half as many packs, but there might be some gem that the Beckett Price Guide proclaimed could fetch me $6 or $10... and maybe there would even be a Griffey.

But even if this set of Cards cards is a little cold to me, they are still beautiful objects. Upper Deck would continue to improve, adding more little collector jackpots like autographed cards and player-worn jersey swatches, and generally contribute a lot of innovation to the hobby.

My fellow collectors... did you collect Upper Deck in ‘89? How do you feel about the set now?