Today, Upper Deck announced the passing of Richard McWilliam, the co-founder and president of Upper Deck. McWilliam had been in failing health over the last few years, but it still comes as a bit of a shock that the man responsible for the signature on the back of every Upper Deck card is now gone. You are going to hear a lot of positive stuff about him today, as he was the head of a company that many people have come to identify their youth and adulthood with. That I understand, the man should not be burdened with his shortcomings so soon after his death. However, he was one of the most controversial members of the card community ever. That is not debatable, it is fact.
There will be a question, eventually, of whether or not McWilliam deserves this kind of obituary in any form, and the answer is yes. Regardless of whether or not he was the Lex Luthor of Baseball Cards, he did head a company that blazed the trail for what the hobby is today. Al Davis and George Steinbrenner have similar reputations in their own right, and like them, Upper Deck’s successes were many, and their failures are very public.
If I make a list of the most iconic modern sports cards of this generation, Upper Deck occupies a good portion of the top spots:
I have gotten a WIDE range of comments on posts I have done about the state of Upper Deck, with many people going as far as saying that pro licensing would not be possible with McWilliam’s name on the building. All of that aside, without McWilliam, the hobby may not have gotten to the point it was at during the early part of the 2000s, and similarly the beginning of 2009 and beyond without his visionary leadership. Upper Deck revolutionized everything about sports cards in general, whether it was the first premium trading card set in 1989, the first jersey card in 1996-97, and the first high end product in 2003-04. They were the worlds first company to approach cards as a means to get closer to the players and the game, and it showed in their products.
He may not have been the person who came up with everything, but he gave it a name in the industry. This name will more likely outlive any negative legacy he leaves behind, as there is not a hobbyist today who’s collection he hasnt impacted in some way. Upper Deck will continue to produce cards with the new president at the helm, and it could be a better situation for them in the long run. That doesnt belittle the fact that the people responsible for my favorite cards may not be there to see it rise again.
I am a fan of Upper Deck, first and foremost, and I often said I didnt really let the bad stuff get to me all that much. It was just too tough to ignore that from 2005-2009 there was not a better brand of football cards out there. In Basketball, the gap was even more apparent, especially now that Panini has come on board and found the market to be very bitter with their takeover. McWilliam was at the helm of some awful decisions, including a few that may have directly contributed to the eventual irrelevance Upper Deck could experience. Either way, without him, there wouldnt have been an Upper Deck in the first place.
Someone has to play the villain, and McWilliam looks to have embraced that in the name of profit and progress. Lets just hope his passing does nothing to limit the eventual success his positive contributions can eventually have. His legacy will contain a laundry list of things not to do in sports cards, but it has a list of similar lengths that describes the best possible things as well.