It is mid-July, three weeks to the day before Major League Baseball will announce that, starting in 2010, it is awarding the exclusive rights to produce trading cards with MLB team logos and nicknames to Topps. I am in Carlsbad, Calif., receiving a tour of the headquarters of Upper Deck, which has produced licensed baseball cards for the past 20 years and is Topps's only remaining competitor in a cratering market. We're in a fenced-off area of the warehouse known as the Game-Worn Jersey Room. It is where memorabilia go to slaughter, cut up into hundreds of pieces that will eventually be affixed to insert (or chase) cards, which are placed in random packs in the hopes of enticing collectors.
More than 10,000 chopped-up items are stored in plastic bags on rows of metal shelves. For my visit Mark Shaunessy, the supervisor of this operation, has laid out an assortment of yet-to-be-cut artifacts on a table, including jerseys belonging to LeBron James and Grady Sizemore (with real dirt stains!), a bat of Derek Jeter's and baseballs signed by Joe DiMaggio and Walter Johnson. In the middle of this collection is something that was certainly neither worn nor used in major league baseball, let alone the NBA, NFL or NHL: a sequined, neon-green strip of fabric.
"That," Shaunessy says, "came from Miley Cyrus. It was her headband. We're going to do cuts of that too."
Would you believe that a 16-year-old's hair accessory is far from the strangest thing on display? To its left is a Baggie labeled FRAGILE: TITANIC COAL—containing actual coal pulled from the ship's wreckage. Chris Carlin, the marketing manager leading my tour, informs me that in a baseball set called Goodwin Champions, coming out in September, "there are going to be landmark insert cards: stuff like Titanic coal, the sands of Iwo Jima, Dead Sea salt." Inside perhaps the last packs of fully licensed MLB cards that Upper Deck will ever make, buyers might also find equine hair, with actual hair-sample cards of Kentucky Derby winners Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. (The human hairs of Beethoven and Che Guevara were contained in a pack earlier this year.)
Farther to our left is a briefcase. Its brass nameplate reads S.D. JR., for Sammy Davis Jr. Its leather, its lining, perhaps even the nameplate will soon be cut up and attached to cards. "Just got these in—they're Farrah Fawcett's," says Shaunessy, referring to a pair of olive cargo pants. They seem absurdly small. Carlin wonders whether he could even fit one leg in the waist.
The sports trading card industry is dealing with an uncomfortable present and an uncertain future. The sales of cards peaked in 1991 at $1.2 billion, according to estimates by Sports Collector's Digest, but slid to $400 million by the turn of the century and to $200 million last year. MLB is banking on Topps, now owned by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, to reattract kids and streamline product offerings. Upper Deck put out 16 baseball sets in 2009 and says that it will continue to make cards with its MLB Players Association license in 2010, though none of the subjects can appear bearing a team logo. A lawsuit by Upper Deck challenging Topps's exclusive deal is also a possibility, a company source told SI last week.
Even so, there's no guarantee that the existing customer base—hard-core hobbyists for whom even jersey swatches are becoming passé—will stay on board. Insert cards have been around for years. Will pop-culture ephemera be enough of a draw? When someone's pack yields a poly-cotton swatch that once hugged the backside of a Charlie's Angel, what will be the reaction? Arousal? Shock? Or, worse, indifference?
You have to go back 20 years to find a landmark baseball card: Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1989 Upper Deck Star Rookie, the number 1 card in that set. That was Upper Deck's rookie year too, and the company stormed onto the scene that March with a wildly successful premium product. Branded the Collector's Choice, it was twice as expensive as its peers' (99 cents per pack, compared with 49 cents for such top competitors as Topps, Fleer, Donruss and Score) and twice the quality (packaged in foil with color photos on both sides and a hologram on the back). But this is what mattered: Upper Deck had the undisputed Griffey rookie card. Topps and Score didn't have the foresight even to include the Mariners' 19-year-old phenom in their first-edition sets, while Donruss and Fleer were virtual afterthoughts in the hobby's frenzy over Upper Deck's premiere.
By the time, say, Derek Jeter came along in the 1990s, the market had become oversaturated with Upper Deck copycats; the Yankees shortstop had eight different rookie cards. When Albert Pujols arrived in 2001, he had 43. In '89 Griffey stood alone, and his card's value has held up reasonably well: at a high end of $40 in the most recent Beckett Baseball. But as his 21-year, surefire Hall of Fame career comes to an unremarkable end in Seattle, it appears unlikely that baseball cards will regain the cultural significance they had 20 years ago. The Kid's Upper Deck debut could very well be the last iconic rookie card ever made.
The image of Griffey that became part of collecting lore, with his blue turtleneck and 'fro-mullet tucked beneath his cap, was doctored. In his home office in Corona, Calif., 75 miles north of Upper Deck's headquarters, Tom Geideman hands me a Polaroid that had been sitting atop a binder of Griffey cards and says, "This—it's cut off a little bit—but this is the original photo." Griffey's wearing the navy-blue hat of Seattle's Class A affiliate, the San Bernardino Spirit, whose logo is a silver S over a red star. The picture was taken by the late V.J. Lovero, an Angels team photographer who shot Griffey and his father for a Sports Illustrated feature in 1988. Lovero sold one of his extras to Upper Deck, which airbrushed the hat royal blue, erased the star, made the S yellow and—ta-da!—completed the makeover.