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The Hobby: The Rise and Fall of Upper Deck

-1This is a story about Richard McWilliam, the longtime CEO of the Upper Deck Company, but we’re going to lead with someone McWilliam fired: Jay McCracken, who even describes himself as a “disgruntled former employee.” The reasons for beginning with McCracken owe less to advancing some sort of scurrilous agenda than they owe to sheer math. At some point, it seems, McWilliam canned practically everyone who got near him at Upper Deck. If we were so picky as to exclude the testimony of disgruntled former employees, the story of McWilliam’s rise and fall with Upper Deck would fit on the back of a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.

McCracken today is past 70, retired, with an entire room of his California condo dedicated to The Hobby, as sports cards and memorabilia collectors call their pastime. Baseball hooked him in the 1940s, and he stayed loyal to it through a sales career at Nestlé. In the late ’80s he took a flyer on an unproven company called Upper Deck that a small cadre of entrepreneurs was hatching. As one of the few employees with meaningful corporate experience — McWilliam was another — and a devotee of baseball card culture, McCracken was instrumental in growing the company from a scrappy startup to an overnight colossus. “We did $49 million in sales our first year,” McCracken says by phone, noting that the Wall Street Journal at the time pegged the private company’s sales at closer to $11 million. Within three years, Upper Deck’s gross topped a quarter of a billion dollars.

-2During those years, McCracken’s position was pretty swell — “the job of a lifetime,” he calls it. Upper Deck sponsored the baseball old timers’ games (rebranding them Heroes games, out of respect) and McCracken got to throw out the first pitch in 21 major league ballparks. He became social with Ted Williams and Harmon Killebrew, and today has dozens of photos Hall of Famers autographed to him. The capper came in 1992, when Upper Deck organized, for a second time, a charity game in the old Iowa cornfield stadium where Field of Dreams was shot. The night merged celebrities (Meat Loaf, Kelsey Grammer, Jon Lovitz, Iowa governor Terry Branstad), former big-leaguers and Upper Deck brass at the hallowed site that sprung out of the line, “If you build it, they will come.” The white-collar scrubs practiced all week with a pitching machine throwing 60 mph gumballs only to face Ferguson Jenkins whipping 80 mph strikes at them. “Vida Blue was throwing really hard,” McCracken says. “Somebody said he was in the 90s. I was batting sixth. The first five guys strike out. I say, ‘Hey, Vida, you’ve got to remember who’s paying for this thing.’ He grooves me one and I bounce it into the corn for a ground-rule double.”

In those days, this was how Upper Deck rolled. But trouble was brewing, as it always did even in those heady early years. Three days after the charity game, McWilliam gutted his executive team, axing five men in succession — an inverted firing squad. McCracken was among them. Ostensibly this was because, for the first time, Upper Deck was suffering through the fairly common chore of taking returns on its cards; it had overproduced, and thus fallen short of sales projections, and thus sought a scapegoat. The fall guy turned out to be virtually everyone of consequence except the man ultimately in charge.

McWilliam, he hung in there. Through that purge, through the rest of the fat years when men still hoarded baseball cards like blue chip stocks, through the industry-wide bust, through a spate of lawsuits, through the loss of all four major sports’ licenses — a meltdown that alone would’ve driven a less determined man out of the business. His admirers knew him as a brilliant businessman, a tireless worker who would arrive at the office before dawn, a risk-taker, a titan in a niche industry.

Eventually something caught up with him. McWilliam, 59, was found dead at his $3.7 million Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., mansion on January 5 of this year. The medical examiner noted that he had been “vomiting for for the past few days and was binge drinking,” but initial obits pointed to his 2008 heart surgery in lieu of a cause of death. Since then, the San Diego County coroner has determined that McWilliam died of acute intoxication — a bender — atop chronic alcoholism. He left behind a widow and three children. In recent years the company had been hurting, and so too had been the man who made himself synonymous with Upper Deck.

McCracken noted a touch of irony, if you can call it that, when McWilliam died in 2013. The Upper Deck executive, otherwise the picture of Machiavellian rationality, had always been superstitious about the number 13.

And that’s about as much sentiment as McCracken could connect to the man.

“The guy was a cutthroat bastard,” McCracken says. “I hate to use that language, but that’s exactly what he was.”

-1^^

So it was in the late ’80s, when Upper Deck took the humble baseball card — long an object of careless admiration, more recently revered as a collectible — and redesigned it with its commodity in mind. At the time, the market was dominated by a few companies that ran their operations with at least a vague sense of history. McWilliam’s Upper Deck had the audacity to reinvent cards and memorabilia as remorselessly unsentimental, suited to a generation who grew up sliding cards into Lucite instead of between bicycle spokes.

The idea was so right for its time, and Upper Deck initially exploited it so well, that the company overthrew the industry almost overnight. In just its second full year producing cards, according to Pete Williams’ 1995 Card Sharks: How Upper Deck Turned a Child’s Hobby Into a High-Stakes, Billion-Dollar Business, the company had cobbled together the financing, the licenses, the distribution, the printing capability and the sheer testicular fortitude to turn out more than 3 billion baseball cards worth $100 million in sales. The natural startup hiccups along the way limited Upper Deck cards’ availability, and prices on the secondary market soared: a $200 case of cards might be resold for five or 10 times as much. McWilliam and the other founding owners became millionaires several times over, at nosebleed speed.

What followed could only have been predicted by anyone who had read a single Greek tragedy and taken even one microeconomics class. In the Card Sharks version of events, hunger met success and became hubris. McWilliam, accustomed always to getting his own way, turned Upper Deck into a banana republic, scapegoating anyone who disagreed with his methods, disregarding any counsel that he forgo short-term gain for long-term stability, and, soon, forging cards by the boatload, exploiting a market that priced cards based on scarcity. A company whose founding principles were quality and authenticity quickly took on the worst traits of McWilliams’ character. The company strangled the golden goose, glutting the marketplace with overpriced made-to-order memorabilia. Greed was a brilliant business strategy only until it wasn’t.

^^^

-4The last time JB Bernstein saw his mentor Richard McWilliam was at the Super Bowl in 2008. McWilliam was always a reluctant sports fan, more in thrall of the money and access they provided than in the games themselves. Bernstein was an agent and an entrepreneur, and in an earlier era, a survivor of the heady early ’90s boomtimes at Upper Deck. That day at the game, Bernstein was brewing a project that drew sneers every time he explained it. But he had a suspicion McWilliam would dig it, because McWilliam understood risk and he cherished vision.

Reached in California, Bernstein, now a sports agent, remembers McWilliam as hard on his employees — but what great manager isn’t? Bernstein never saw him make a decision that wasn’t a business decision. “No matter what people tell you,” Bernstein says, “he never took anything personal.” If he fired someone, it must’ve been because that person wasn’t producing. For how could you stay in business if you fired the people who were making the money?

What he did do, scrupulously, was calculate the risk odds, hound a project to its living end, and, once the dust cleared, scrutinize outcomes mercilessly. In those days, anything they slapped a green diamond on sold like free beer, but still, every deal got a post mortem. One in particular sticks out to Bernstein: a 40-card basketball set that McDonald’s included in its Happy Meals — a whale of a contract. And yet McWilliam didn’t mind ribbing the guys who put it together: You could’ve gotten more out of that.

There were never any laurels to rest on, no hint of complaisance, not even in the language. He hated the phrase, “think outside the box,” that most unaware of business clichés. “‘In the box, out of the box,’” Bernstein says. “He goes, ‘What the fuck is a box? Who made the box? Not me. All the rules, all that stuff, is bullshit.’ He said, ‘There’s only one way to do business, and that’s the best way available at any given time. The way they’re going to do it 50 years from now? We’ve got to invent that today.’ It’s that advice that guided me.”

So it was that when Bernstein bumped into McWilliam, he had to spill his newest plan. Bernstein had the mad idea of holding a pitching tryout in India. Surely, in a country of more than a billion people, Bernstein figured, there had to be a couple of major-league arms out there. To gin up interest, Bernstein was going to stage the tryout as a stunt: a reality TV game show.

“Every other person I tried to explain it to thought I was an idiot,” Bernstein says.

That was not McWilliam’s reaction. Instead, he looked at his former employee and broke into a big smile. Bernstein stopped his story and asked, “What?” McWilliam replied: “No box for you!”

Now, five years later, it’s fair to say McWilliam saw something that others overlooked. Indeed Bernstein found two pitchers; they signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The story made headlines; Disney bought the rights. Million Dollar Arm will be out in 2014; Jon Hamm will star as Bernstein. “The biggest disappointment with my success with this movie,” the agent says, “is that Richard won’t be able to come to the premiere.”

^^^

-3Mike Berkus knows The Hobby. One of the founders of the annual card convention/extravaganza that’s known simply as the National, Berkus has been addicted to card collecting since the ‘50s, was one of the first to make a buck off the collectors market in the ’60s and ’70s, rose according to the industry’s fortunes in the ’80s and ’90s, and has been intertwined with Upper Deck for the past quarter century — long enough to see the industry emerge, improve, bloom, implode and slowly return to form.

“I did buying trips for 10 years, in the ’70s,” Berkus says. “It was unbelievable. It was panning for gold, and all you could see was yellow under the water.” What changed over the next decade wasn’t the love of the cards that had always driven The Hobby. When Berkus was a kid, in the ’50s, adults hadn’t assigned value to cards. (For one measure: James Beckett’s eponymous price guides were still 20 years away.) A card wasn’t cool because it had a higher resale value; it was cool because your buddies wanted it. The cards arrived in a wax pack stained by stale chewing gum and boys bought them and tore them up loving them — tacking them to walls, wedging them in Schwinn spokes, lashing them together with rubber bands. As nature took its course, cards were mangled, mildewed, yard-saled, trashed. They were discarded.

The surviving Topps and Bowmans were by their nature scarce, and when little boys grew up and looked around for the artifacts of their childhood, they found that nostalgia had sprouted a price tag. The tipping point, when collecting lost its innocence, Berkus says, was 1981. The year before, the nation gawked at the auction of some 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie cards for $3,000 apiece, and a district court struck down the Major League Baseball Players Association’s exclusive contract with Topps, opening the card market to competition. (Card Sharks notes that in the 14 years after that ruling, baseball cards boomed from $9.2 million in Topps sales to $1 billion total — an increase of more than 10,000 percent.) No longer were men selling cards to collectors for pennies on the dollar. Everyone looked into the shoeboxes that had gathered cobwebs and mouse turds and old-attic smell and thought they saw gold.

An important thing resulted: People stopped destroying valuable baseball cards. “Mom got too smart to throw these things out,” Berkus says. “We did not have a predator out there. And as a result of not having a predator, the dues we paid for that, were simple. Originals never lost their shelf life, so to speak. Nobody’s taking them out of the display case.” America hoarded little cardboard pictures on the off-chance they might gain in value. Actual scarcity was becoming a relic. The next step was to contrive it.

By the time McWilliam and a cadre of other relative small-timers founded Upper Deck, the market was continually outgrowing its cage. Cards were valuable enough to counterfeit; one of the founders, Bill Hemrick, once bought a hundred ersatz Mattinglys that put him out $10,000. Jay McCracken was the established sales guy, nee of Nestlé; DeWayne Buice was an Angels reliever who signed on to help network within Major League Baseball; Paul Sumner was a specialist in lithography, promising cards with a quality fit for Architectural Digest; Boris Korbel was Sumner’s boss; and McWilliam, when Korbel reached out to him, was “a well-connected accountant,” as Dave Jamieson put it in the book Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.

At the time, McWilliam didn’t know sports and he didn’t know sports memorabilia. Berkus knew McWilliam a bit before running into him early on at Upper Deck, an encounter that surprised the old card maven. “I didn’t think he’d know the difference between the jack of spades and a Yogi Berra card,” Berkus says. What McWilliam did know, and what put him leagues ahead of his colleagues and competitors, was business. In an industry founded on sentiment, he had little-to-none; according to Card Sharks, he had to double-check who Reggie Jackson even was before meeting the Yankees legend (who later wound up working under McWilliam as a shill-of-all-trades). By Williams’ reporting, McWilliam threw in $2.4 million of his own money to get the company off the ground and leveraged his connections to other investors to wrest a greater share of the company — a 27.08 percent stake — than any of the other founders. He made life tough on those beneath him. He drove out his partners. But he and Upper Deck made gobs of money. In 1991, Inc. magazine named him its entrepreneur of the year.

“If you had a great idea, you’re out of your mind if you don’t take it to Richard,” Berkus says. “Richard loved – loved – hearing somebody’s wild-eyed scheme. He loved it. You had an audience. But he made it happen. Nothing can be taken away from him in that respect.

“I always looked at him and thought, man, he got his hands dirty, he got caught getting them dirty, because he was driven. He wanted to make Upper Deck the best name, period. And he did that for many years.”

^^^

Upper Deck’s raison d’être was twofold: to produce high-quality cards (befitting their status as an emerging commodity) that they could sell at high prices; and to assure buyers that the cards were legit. A couple of innovations accomplished both measures. Upper Deck imprinted each card with a hologram (quite a snazzy touch in the late ’80s) and packaged the cards in foil to prevent tampering. The company was founded on luxury and authenticity. Under McWilliam’s guidance, it sold out the latter.

Card Sharks laid out a devastating case that the company essentially counterfeited its own cards in a comedy of venal errors that became known simply as “French hockey.” The short version – Upper Deck found that a 620-case limited run of French-language hockey cards for sale in Canada had skyrocketed on the secondary market. The $409 wholesale cases of cards were going for as much as $10,000. So under McWilliam’s direction, they printed a small fortune in cards for company insiders – except that the 960 new cases ($9.6 million worth of essentially fraudulent new cards) crashed the market overnight, instantly screwing themselves and everyone who bought cases of cards on the good faith that the company wouldn’t do anything so patently unethical.

Black eyes be damned, Upper Deck kept fighting. A few years ago, it made a $425 million bid to buy Topps that fell through; Upper Deck claimed Topps deliberately discredited its rival in the process. In 2009, Major League Baseball ended its trademark agreement with Upper Deck and later sued for trademark infringement. The Major League Baseball Players Association revoked its license, claiming Upper Deck hadn’t paid its royalties. The NFL players’ association did the same. It could be a coincidence of timing, but in March, roughly 10 weeks after McWilliam’s death, the MLBPA again granted Upper Deck license to again print cards bearing its players (though, because of the impasse with MLB, without big-league logos). Berkus broke it down this way: “We have a very small world here. If the bridges got burned, where are you going? There isn’t a second baseball league playing.”

As the company faded in stature, things got ugly. Gone were the days of 20 years ago, when the New York Times headlines such as “Upper Deck Shakes Up Trading Card Industry.” In recent years, the most concise recap of the company’s demise was a story the Deal Pipeline ran last October, “Upper Deck International unwraps Chapter 15.” That is, the spin-off company that Upper Deck created to handle business outside the United States was preparing to sue Upper Deck because Konami, the Japanese entertainment company, revoked the license to print Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. It did this because, as McWilliam admitted in 2008, Upper Deck had counterfeited the game cards. This triggered a series of court squabbles that included, at one point, Upper Deck accusing the CEO of Upper Deck International, Nico Blauw, of taking advantage of McWilliam, who reportedly sold Blauw a majority stake in UDI for a single Euro “when McWilliam was in and out of hospital and rehabilitation treatments for heart troubles related to alcohol and prescription medication addiction.”

He was having a rough go of things, and he wasn’t dialing it down. McWilliam’s name is abundant in law databases; he may have been embroiled in literally dozens of lawsuits at the time of his death. It takes a sturdy company to be able to run that kind of action through its legal department. Once a company shrinks, that kind of pugnacity becomes a riskier venture. The company is privately held, and didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story, but its occasional press coverage suggests it has shrunk by hundreds of employees in the past few years.

In his death, it’s impossible to quantify what the company lost. Was McWilliam a business genius or the architect of the company’s decline? A dynamo or a brigand? A guru or a tyrant? Upper Deck may’ve lost a cutthroat bastard – but McWilliam was undoubtedly Upper Deck’s cutthroat bastard.

Credit Berkus, the Hobby lifer, for finding a Solomonic baseball analogy. To him, McWilliams was a legend who played to win, politesse be damned. He was The Hobby’s answer to Ty Cobb. “The guy was spikes-up,” Berkus says, with a glint of admiration. “You don’t like it? Get out of the way.”

 

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