Essential Reading: Card Sharks

February 27, 2009 at 2:17 am | Posted in Random | 14 Comments

No, this post isn’t about this kind of card shark:

ag_mako_shark

It’s about the book Card Sharks: How Upper Deck Turned A Child’s Hobby Into A High-Stakes, Billion Dollar Business by Pete Williams, which was published in 1995.  I read about this book on the internet sometime last year (I can’t remember where) and then purchased a copy on eBay in the early summer, and eagerly read it whenever I had time throughout the summer.  I’ve been planning to write a post about it for about six months, but I never got around to it before today.  Recently, Marie from A Cardboard Problem offered to swap her copy of The Card for my copy of Card Sharks, and I decided that I would finally write my post before mailing the book to her.

card_sharks

I cannot recommend Card Sharks highly enough for any collector.  It is definitely a must-read.  The book did a great job of informing me about the history of the card collecting hobby, and it also taught me to be very cynical about the people who are running the card companies.

Although the book’s subtitle might lead you to believe that it is only about Upper Deck, the first four chapters cover the entire history of the hobby prior to Upper Deck’s formation.  It was incredibly interesting to read about the advent of tobacco cards, which were started in Durham, North Carolina, very near where I now live.  The book also covers the beginning of Topps, its competition with Bowman in the 1950s, and its eventual acquistion of Bowman.  This led to Topps’ monopoly on the card industry, and its efforts to prevent Fleer from producing baseball cards.  It was very eye-opening to learn about all that Fleer had to go through for more than 20 years in its battle with Topps over the right to produce cards.  The book also details the explosion of the card industry after Fleer and Donruss finally started making baseball cards in 1981.  At the same time, the hobby itself began to grow into what we are familiar with today.

It’s hard to imagine how different the hobby was in the 1970s, but the book describes how the major collectors of that time would place classified ads in newspapers and travel to towns all over the country to buy old cards from people who had no idea of their value.  It’s amazing to think about how astonishing it was in 1980 when three 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards sold for $3,000 each at an auction in Philadelphia, an event that led to a dramatic increase in the value of older cards.  The book also talks about the beginning of The National, and the beginning of the Beckett price guide, back when the Beckett name still had integrity and relevance within the hobby.

After the first four chapters, the next 18 are about the rise of the Upper Deck company.  It all started at a card shop called The Upper Deck that was near the Angels stadium in Anaheim, California.  The shop’s owner, Bill Hemrick, had been fooled into buying a large quantity of counterfeit 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie cards.  He met an executive from a graphics company, Paul Sumner, and the two of them started to plan a new card company that would use hologram technology to prevent counterfeiting.  Along the way, they needed to recruit several investors, and one of them, Richard McWilliam, eventually wrested control of the company from them.  McWilliam was calling the shots by the time the first 1989 Upper Deck cards rolled off the presses in 1989.

The book goes into great detail about the many challenges that Upper Deck faced in starting up, including getting licenses from MLB and the players association, and just how close they came on several occasions to seeing everything blow up in their face.  It’s actually pretty miraculous that they were able to overcome all of their obstacles and produce a set as iconic as 1989 Upper Deck has become.

Of course, Upper Deck was a major success and completely revolutionized the hobby.  As the company began to grow, we learn about the greediness of Richard McWilliam and his complete lack of ethics.  It’s almost hard to keep up with the names of all of the Upper Deck executives who were hired and fired in the early years of the company.  But there were two reprehensible acts that McWilliam spearheaded that really made me cynical about Upper Deck and the entire card industry.  I’m not sure how well known these things are, but I have a feeling that many of today’s collectors do not know about them.  If you plan to read Card Sharks, what I’m about to write about might be a spoiler, so you might want to stop reading.  But whether you read it here or in the book, I promise that you’ll never look at Richard McWilliam’s facsimile signature on the back of your Upper Deck autograph and relic cards the same way…

The first reprehensible act was related to the Dale Murphy reverse negative error card from 1989 Upper Deck.  The error was corrected during the printing of the cards, and Upper Deck announced that only about 20,000 of the error cards were printed.  This was in the days of massive overproduction, and a print run of 20,000 was considered amazingly low.  The card’s value soared on the secondary market, and by September 1989, its Beckett book value reached $100 (when Beckett’s book value was an actual reflection of the market value).  Even though Upper Deck was making a ton of money from sales of its incredibly popular first baseball card set, McWilliam became angry that he was not benefitting from the high secondary market value of the Murphy card.  In the summer of 1989, he ordered the Murphy error cards to be reprinted, and 13,500 of them were produced.  McWilliam and other executives then secretly sold the reprinted cards to dealers.  This increased the supply of the cards, and not surprisingly, the value quickly began to drop.  Essentially, people who invested in the card after being told that there were only 20,000 copies were screwed, while McWilliam’s wallet was fattened.

This apparently happened many times over the next few years when the secondary market value of a particular card was high.  Needless to say, this was incredibly unethical.  While the serial numbering of valuable cards would seem to prevent this sort of thing from happening today, it’s not hard to imagine Richard McWilliam concocting other types of schemes that we don’t even know about yet…

It got even worse with the sad story of Upper Deck French hockey cards.  When Upper Deck first produced hockey cards for the 1990-91 season, they also made French language cards to sell in Canada.  The French cards sold very poorly.  When Upper Deck began planning its high-number series for hockey in the spring of 1991, they decided to produce only 620 cases of the French cards due to the low demand.  However, when they leaked out that they only produced 620 cases, the demand for the cards shot through the roof.  To give you an idea of how small of a supply 620 cases were, Upper Deck had produced 162,876 cases of baseball cards in 1990.  The cases began selling for over $10,000 on the secondary market.

When Upper Deck saw that cases of the French hockey cards were selling for $10,000, McWilliam ordered a reprinting of the cards with 960 more cases being produced.  Given the secondary market value, these new cases were worth $9.6 million.  The cases were distributed to Upper Deck executives and board members, and many of them sold the cases, thus increasing the supply that was on the market, and bringing the value of the cards down dramatically.  People who had bought the cases for $10,000, and even collectors who bought boxes, packs, or singles of the cards when their market value was significantly higher than the English cards, were royally screwed.

The only bad thing about Card Sharks is that it’s 14 years old.  I’d love to read a follow up book, with inside information on everything that has happened in the hobby since 1995.  That includes the introduction of relic cards, the increased prominence of autograph cards, the demise of the original Donruss-Leaf company, Pinnacle, Pacific, and Fleer, and even everything that went on behind the scenes when Upper Deck almost purchased Topps in 2007.  It would also be very interesting to read about the decline of Beckett and hobby shops along with the rise of eBay and other web sites in the 21st century.  And of course, there have probably been many other unethical schemes that are just as bad as what Upper Deck did with the Dale Murphy reverse negative card and the French hockey cards.  Where is Pete Williams when we need him, or for that matter, where is any serious journalist covering the sports card hobby?  Maybe the blogs really are the true industry watchdog today.

Hopefully I’ve helped to pique your interest in reading Card Sharks.  It really was an outstanding book that was very well-written, and it provided a wealth of information about the history of the hobby and Upper Deck’s early years.  I really believe that every collector should read it.  Now it’s your turn, Marie…

14 Comments »

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  1. thanks for the review. I am going to see if the library has card sharks and read it.

  2. I’m not Marie, but I’ll chime in. I’m about 75 % finished with the book. Dave gave a great summary and review. My son has a book report due in a few weeks. Could you help out?

    Reading the book, I’m amazed at how “loosey-goosey” a fashion Upper Deck was created. I’m also stunned at how their upper management seemed like a carousel with the big players staying on for such short periods of time.

    It made me become interested in the Major League Baseball Players Association and how it came to be. Based on the figures in the book they are not hurting financially.

    Speaking of the MLBPA, there’s an interview with Jamey Carroll (infielder most recently with the Indians). His dad owned a baseball card shop. The interview can be found on the MLBPA site.

    Good read. Good review. Get a copy and read it soon.

  3. Great post! I love reading about the shady side of the industry!

  4. I read Card Sharks about ten years ago, and it remains at relevant as ever. It is a bit dated but nonetheless, Williams’ book is still a “must read” for any and all serious collectors.

  5. Dave –

    Fantastic review. I would also love to read a follow-up book, if only because I’d wager that it contains numerous additional instances of shadiness – both from McWilliams/UD, and even from Topps.

    Keep up the great work,
    – JSB

  6. Thanks! Great review! I think you’ll really like The Card. I just read it last week. Good stuff.

  7. I thought I did a review on that book too. Amazing read. Really shows what a tool McWilliams is. Very cut throat. I agree I’d love to see a follow-up to this book

  8. I read “The Card” last year. Needless to say, it changed what I collect and buy today. (nothing from Upper Deck).

    I also do not get cards graded.

    Having been inside the sports world covering MLS soccer, I found it fascinating that Upper Deck had jersey cards of non-existant player jerseys.

    Either they got them straight from the manufactorer or they made them at Upper Deck. They did NOT get them from the league and they were not game-worn.

    Anyway, great review and keep us posted.

  9. Well at least I don’t have to write a review now, lol. I can just link people to yours. Hahaha

  10. Tks for the heads up Dave. Well written. The hobby needs watchdogs. Keep the good work

  11. Wow, Upper Deck was pretty smart by putting those holograms on the cards! I never knew what those were for!

  12. I love how people are so shocked by this whole revelation. I mean, up until last march, no one really had any clue to how bad it could really get.

    Listen, I guarantee there are awful things that are going on that makes this stuff look like child’s play. Diamond Club would be a good place to start.

    Trust me, all this says is that whereever there is money to be made, people will take advantage of any small break and make it a large crack.

  13. Did you know that Dewayne Buice actually made it possible for the UD card company to exist.

    From Wikipedia:
    “Buice was one of the original managing partners of the Upper Deck trading cards company, and he held that position from 1988 to 2000. Buice was in downtown Yorba Linda, California one evening in November 1987 looking for a particular Chinese restaurant in the area, and after wandering around the neighborhood without much luck, he went into a baseball card shop called “The Upper Deck” to ask the person working there if s/he knew the whereabouts of the restaurant.

    The owner of the store was working that night, and he recognized Buice as an Angels player. On the spot, the owner offered him a 12% ownership stake in his baseball card company he was trying to start, if Buice would get him in touch with MLBPA. The company he started was called Upper Deck. Buice entered into a four year contract with the company. After the strike in 1994/95 was resolved, Upper Deck gave Buice six more years of ownership in the form of a contract extension. While working for Upper Deck between 1988 and 2000, Buice earned $15 million, far more than his short MLB career brought him.”

    I thought that was interesting.

  14. Yeah, Buice was prominently featured in the book. In the interest of not re-writing everything that was in the book, I left him out of my synopsis. There are a ton of interesting stories from Upper Deck’s early days to read about in Card Sharks…


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