Blast From the Packs: 1992 Upper Deck Baseball, a photography master class

When I look at the portion of my sports card collection I kept from when I was a kid, I see some patterns that reveal my tastes at the time. In football, I loved athletic, scrambling QBs who could wind their way out of the pocket for a first-down themselves or uncork an absolute bomb downfield, so I collected players like Kordell Stewart and Steve Young. I really liked cards with foil and holograms on them, so I was drawn to Upper Deck, Fleer Ultra, Flair, and other sets that made those embellishments standard before their competitors in all sports.

And when I look at my baseball cards, I see a lot of cards from a lot of different sets, but one of the sets with the highest “population” in my beat-up old binder was the relatively simple, unadorned 1992 Upper Deck set. And despite that, I zeroed in on this set to purchase a fresh box from eBay, to re-experience what I liked so much about this set at age 10.

I remember buying a lot of these packs. I’m sure some of the consideration was pure economics: I don’t remember these being much more than some of the other, more “boring” base sets like Topps and Donruss, and they were certainly cheaper than some of the other foily/shiny sets. It was a good compromise, in other words, between my childhood buying power and aesthetics.

These cards, though, 28 years later, still look like a modern set. It’s not the design or the cardstock that look modern: It’s the photography. Pure and simple, point blank, this set features some of the best sports photography I’ve ever seen on collectible cards. This is Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Life Magazine-level photography and editing. Opening these packs, while not the most exciting experience I’ve ever had, was a lot of fun just to see what photos the editors of this set chose for even the more forgettable players of this era. Like, look at these photos:

The Famous Chicken is messing with Tigers All-Star first-baseman Cecil Fielder on the front of Fielder’s own card. Giants first-baseman Will Clark is making a determined face while having eye black applied. Cal Ripken’s brother, Billy, most famous for having a curse word on the butt of his bat in another of his baseball card photos, is playing with an extremely expensive camera in his warm-ups. That George Brett shot isn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but it captures the absolute pinnacle of that amazing swing as well as any photo I’ve ever seen (check the flex in that bat, the strength and stability in those arms). I don’t know who Chris Haney is, but has anyone ever looked better in that bright red and powder blue Expos uniform? Roberto Alomar is just fielding a ball, but how did they get that angle? Is this staged? Even if it is, I don’t care, because it’s an amazing action shot. And have you ever seen road GRAYs look as bright and COLORFUL as they do in that Alomar shot or that shot of … rechecking the name … Mike Pagliarulo of the Minnesota Twins? And besides the awe-inspiring use of light in that photo, just the frame itself, stupendously cropped and presented in full drama, is amazing. If I were Mike, I’d have a print of this shot blown up and framed in my study. (Though I can’t tell if he made contact with this swing or maybe swung and missed … eh, it doesn’t matter, it’s an amazing photo.)

No other set I can think of would have made me go “oh wow, that’s a really great shot of Mike Pagliarulo! I’m going to put this in my binder so I remember to take a picture of it and write about what a great photo that is.” And no other set I can think of so consistently blasted me in the face with intense and amazing portraiture. Here’s a few examples:

Known curmudgeon Barry Bonds, in one of his last contentious seasons in Pittsburgh, looks like the happiest man at the best family get-together ever in his photo. Brewers pitcher Jaime Navarro is clearly having a lot of fun with his photo shoot. Brian McRae’s portrait appears to be candid, but the photographer caught him looking like he’s contemplating the secrets of the universe and calmly attaining an intense understanding of ultimate truth. That picture of Doc Gooden on the back of his card makes him look like a literal angel descending from heaven to help you win the pennant. And get out of here with that amazing smile, Frank Thomas, you’ve got enough perfect baseball card pictures.

But there’s one portrait in the set that stopped me completely in my tracks. It just stunned me completely. Have you ever gone to a museum and been looking at paintings, sculptures, whatever, and suddenly you see one that just makes you FEEL something you can’t quite describe? Maybe you feel a sadness out of nowhere, or an intense joy, and you’re looking at the thing and you can’t quite explain WHY you feel the way you do, you’re just vibing and resonating with the piece, and it’s a special experience? Have you ever felt that?

I ask because the portrait for Nolan Ryan’s card in this set did that to me. No lie.

I grew up at the tail end of Nolan Ryan’s career. When I was coming of age to enjoy baseball, he was kind of a crusty old dude who was setting a bunch of strikeout records and had somehow been pitching since the early 1970s. He also played for the Rangers, a team I never liked much. But I still kinda admired him as a guy who could throw the piss out of the ball and had clearly done it at a very high level for a very long time.

So by 1992, I’d already seen a lot of photos of Ryan, a lot of his baseball cards from the past and present. I knew his face pretty well, the shapes it makes on the mound when he’s in game mode, the way it softens ever so slightly in the dugout when he’s not throwing. But I had never seen his face like … this.

I know I compared my beloved Frank Thomas Stadium Club card to the Mona Lisa in an earlier post, but this portrait is a better comparison to that iconic work. Is he smiling here? Yes and no, right? His eyes are kind of smiling, but also intense, like he’s looking at someone or something he really loves. I was thinking about what the photographer might have said or done to get this look on his face, and a friend suggested maybe he was thinking about his kids and/or his wife. I thought that sounded about right. Who or what else could make crusty flamethrower Nolan Ryan look like that? Who besides Nolan Ryan’s wife or kids would have ever seen him make such a serene, slightly intense, deeply contemplative face? Now we have, you and I, because this photographer brought the goddamned heat with this photo. When I opened the pack that contained this card and flipped to it, I gasped. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but I genuinely feel privileged to have seen this photo, and to own a couple copies of this otherwise worthless card. If I had a man cave-type area, I would seriously consider framing one.

So, in summary, the photography in this set is the absolute top reason to collect it, in my opinion. As for the rest of the features — the inserts, the subsets, the other special stuff — I was a bit underwhelmed. One of the key features of every pack was at least one Star Rookie and one Top Prospect card. Each team in the majors had at least one featured rookie and one featured prospect, and I must say: Most teams did not have very good rookies and prospects in 1992. The standouts in each category to me were rookies Ryan Klesko of the Braves and Jim Thome of the Indians, and prospect Manny Ramirez of the Indians (I already had the Ramirez card from 1992, and got a couple of the Thome card, but no Klesko in this box). The rest were pretty garbagey.

As in the 1991-92 Upper Deck basketball set, this set also features very cool pieces of art on the team checklist cards, though the artist isn’t as clearly credited as the one who did the basketball ones (just a signature — V. Wells — is visible on the artworks themselves).

There were also these Ted Williams “Baseball Heroes” cards that were heavily advertised on the packs and the box itself, but they were definitely underwhelming. There are so many in the insert set (like 30-some), and each card features one of Ted’s career highlights. The design is meh, and they aren’t worth anything more than the common cards in the base set either, so apparently collectors weren’t really animated to seek these out.

Strangely, I had a Willie Mays Baseball Heroes card from my childhood collection that purports to be from the 1992 set, but it has a different (and cooler) design, and I didn’t get any of these from the box I opened. It may have been featured in retail packs instead of hobby packs or something along those lines.

The only other subset worth mentioning is the Bloodlines subset, in which fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins in the major leagues are featured together. So you get the Kens (and Craig) Griffey, the Gwynn brothers, the Ripkens, and the young Martinezes — Pedro and Ramon — among others. The Martinez card, to me, really captures the chip on young Pedro’s shoulder: nearly passed over by scouts entirely due to his diminutive size, then later passed from Los Angeles to Montreal, where he started his climb toward one of the best pitching careers in history.

And if you will allow me a moment of bellyaching, the most annoying piece to me in this set was the inclusion of hologram logo cards. Not players in the holograms, no: Team logos on little computer generated flags. The cards have no information on them, and nothing on the back. Actually, I take that back: The Blue Jays one, pictured below, has the date April 25, 1992, on it. None of the other cards I saw have dates on them. Why? Who is this for? I’m so mad at these cards I haven’t even bothered to Google what happened at the Skydome that day. I usually get really excited when I see a holographic card in a pack, but this set made it a bitter pill. And they were weirdly rare! Out of 36 packs, I only got like five of them, with two of them being Florida Marlins logos (new to the league in the 1993 season). Yuck, man.

OK, on to the geeky stuff. This is a 700-card base set, so I can tell you even without diving into the spreadsheet I kept that I came nowhere near finishing it. The only real disappointment I can share is that I did not get the cool-ass Ken Griffey Jr. base card that features a triple-exposure, as seen below:

The one that got away.

As I did with the 1991-92 basketball box, I kept a spreadsheet with the cards in each pack I opened, with notes on their condition. I noticed that this set, released not quite a full year after the basketball set, had noticeably improved quality control: edges were uniformly sharp and cleanly cut, I found zero offcenter cards in the entire box, only four or five cards total had bent corners or other kinds of slight damage out of the pack, and only two packs had more than one of the same card (intra-pack doubles, as I refer to them now). This set is notable for how consistent and well-produced it is, at least in my experience.

And finally, once the final pack was opened, I once again calculated the ATR Excitement rating, as introduced in the post about the 1991-92 Upper Deck basketball set. By rating each pack on a scale of 1-5 (actually, 0-5, as I felt a couple of the packs in this box warranted a lower-than-one rating) where 1 is very little excitement and 5 has me reaching for my binder and my sleeves to put these amazing cards away for the future, I then averaged the rating for each pack to find the rating for the whole box. The basketball box rated 2.58, which seemed low, but I reasoned may actually be somewhat high considering most packs a person opens, particularly in this junk-wax late 1980s-to-mid 1990s era, were pretty underwhelming.

I could tell as I was opening the packs, just by the way things were shaking out, that this box was unlikely to score as highly as the basketball box did. And in the end, I was correct. This box of 1992 Upper Deck baseball rated:

1.89!

So, yes: Definitely lower. But still fun, is the thing! I would say the biggest drags on the rating for this box were:

  • the lack of exciting subsets/inserts
  • the lack of exciting holograms (logos, ugh)
  • the lack of a Ken Griffey Jr. card, which might have justified a 5 for a pack (I just thought that card was really cool, and of course as a youngster I loved Griffey)
  • the sheer number of absolute scrubs playing baseball during this period: seriously, I get the desire to represent as many major leaguers as possible in a base set like this, but when I don’t even remember 10 or 12 players in a 15-card pack, over and over again, that’s going to be a drag on the ratings

I tried to keep the excellent photography in mind when I was rating packs, so in a couple instances a 1 became a 2 or a 0 became a 1 because even though the players on the cards were utterly not exciting, a couple of them might have had some really great photos with bright pops of color. The first time I saw that Nolan Ryan card, the experience of that alone was enough to justify one of the two 5s in the box (that great Frank Thomas card was the other). But it wasn’t enough to push this box over a 2 rating.

I’m starting a few other sports card-related projects on this channel because A. I’m running out of sets that I can afford AND want to buy boxes of already (that’s a topic for another post) and B. I like to open these boxes very slowly, and I want to write about cards more in between completed boxes. I’ll have some posts coming up about some quirky packs I’ve found from the past, as well as some newer cards that have caught my eye. I’m also trying to dabble in video, so we’ll see what comes of that. For now, though, here’s a peek at which box will be opened next:

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