For collectors of a certain age there is something oddly comforting about junk wax cards. Far too many were printed, they’re littered with quasi-errors and print issues, and “rare” chase cards are numbered in the thousands. However, they are also full of players who are now in their respective halls of fame, the cards are necessary parts of many PSA Set Registries and a $5 or $10 investment can still bring hours of enjoyment. Not a bad deal. Below is the latest installment of the PSA Blog series called Diamonds in the Junk, where we crack some junk wax, review the results, relate them to the hobby today and have fun along the way.
During their first few years in business, the release of new Upper Deck products always generated a buzz in the hobby. UD was considered to be cutting edge by collectors with their clean white stock, simple designs and killer photography. Each new release was gobbled up by collectors who were hoping to stock up on the newest equivalent of the Ken Griffey Jr. RC and Dale Murphy reverse negative.
I busted a box of 1991 Upper Deck low series baseball foil recently in search of some Diamonds in the Junk, but before I began I did a bit of research to reacquaint myself with what would have been considered the big hits back then. The biggest of all would have been the Nolan Ryan Checklist Auto and the Nolan Ryan Strikeout King Auto inserts that were part of the Nolan Ryan Heroes set. UD was among the first companies to insert auto’d chase cards in their packs. Numbered to 2500 (which seemed so low back then!) these cards were like hobby gold. Both inserts are actually the same card, but on every 100th card (100/2500, 200/2500, etc.) Ryan added the “Strike Out King” inscription. After the Ryans, the Michael Jordan SP1 was on everyone’s Want Lists, and the rookie crop of Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Bernie Williams, Mike Mussina and Luis Gonzalez are reasonably solid, although Jeff Juden, Todd Van Poppell, Pat Kelly and D.J. Dozier were also in the mix back then as well.
The thing that I recalled after tearing into the first pack was that Upper Deck cards always used killer photography. I don’t know if it was a stated goal of UD photographers, but it just seemed that they went the extra mile to produce particularly cool images. In my estimation, Fernando Valenzuela (175), Al Newman (413), Rickey Henderson (444), Gino Petralli (492), Ken Griffey Sr. (572) and “Ground Breaking,” (677) a card featuring Carlton Fisk and Robin Ventura in throwback White Sox uniforms, are among the coolest cards in the set.
Eight packs in I had a glimpse of the funny Upper Deck collating that I remember from years past. Two Stan Javier cards were back-to-back in the same pack. I had a duplicate experience with Tommy Herr cards a while later. Urban legend back in the day spoke of ’89 UD packs that contained nothing but Griffey rookies. Whether that was true or not I cannot say; I certainly never encountered one. But it did seem that packs with duplicate cards showed up more often in Upper Deck boxes than in most other products.
One factor of large sets with few subsets is that the quantity of hall of fame players in a box might not be very good. Out of 36 packs I only got base cards for 19 HOF players including duplicates of Ryne Sandberg and Frank Thomas. One was a HOF RC (Chipper Jones, 55) which was nice, but overall the density of good cards was pretty low.
Beyond the auto’d Nolan Ryan cards, the Michael Jordan (SP1) card was the big chase back in the day. “SP” was a loosely-used term, as these cards are far from rare. The card was produced to commemorate a day when MJ took batting practice prior to a White Sox vs. Indian game in 1990, and after initial popularity died down it enjoyed a short resurgence when Jordan “retired” from the Bulls to take a crack at career in baseball. I got one in the 12th pack I opened, and while it doesn’t have huge dollar value, I felt that familiar burst of excitement when I found it.
I have mixed feelings about this rip. On the one hand, I was pleased to recall the quality product that UD (over)produced in the early years. The design is simple and clean, with the aforementioned stunning photography. I feel that Upper Deck cards presented better than anything else in the genre that year, and they deserve kudos for that. However, the experience itself wasn’t fantastic. While I can appreciate the small holographs found on UD cards that were designed to eliminate counterfeiting, the card-sized stickers that were inserted in each pack seem overkill. Also, I got annoyed with the fact that cards come out of the pack facing front, back, upside down and right-side up. It may sound finicky, but having to twist and turn each card before proper viewing detracts considerably from the simple pleasure of opening a pack and casually looking through the cards.
I was kept busy for nearly two hours by my $10 box, and I have certainly paid more for worse entertainment in the past. Still, would I recommend a 1991 UD Low Series box to a friend…? Maybe, but just in a pinch. Next time I am in the mood for UD Junk Wax, I will probably opt for 1990 baseball instead.
OVERALL RIP GRADE: C+