The regular SP brand (which you could call SP flagship and get away with it) was only around for five years, but in that time it made a pretty big impact. This is a brand that showed the old-timers just how cool and modern cards can be, and with the newfound influx of young collectors into the market, it was a hit. It wasn’t long before Upper Deck split SP up into a bunch of spinoffs, each with a different focus. Those spinoffs with names like SP Championship, SPx, SP Authentic, SP Signature Edition, and SP Legendary Cuts would be produced right up until the end of Upper Deck’s baseball products. That makes SP one of the most successful sub-brands ever created.
SP stands for “super premium” (not “short print”), a term that must have been impossible to escape in the card shops and shows of the mid-90’s. In fact 1993 was the first year of several super premiums including high-tech, Chromium-printed Finest from the big boys at Topps, and ultra-glossy and befoiled Flair from the scrappy Fleer company. Everybody had a dog in the SP fight.
Now imagine you’re a young collector in 1993, and you just heard that those three companies are each producing their own super premium set. Which would you be most excited to see? Topps, the guys your Dad used to collect? Fleer, the folks who came up with that awesome all-yellow base set just two years before? Or game-changing Upper Deck, masters of quality and innovation from the get-go? Do I sound biased? Well, I am.
Here is the Griffey from every SP base card design in order:
|1993 SP #4|
This first year of SP is a simple, lighthearted design with a few fun, modern elements. To us, the most obvious is that great foil home plate with the SP logo stamped right into it below a crown of spikes. I say “to us” because back in ’93 collectors would have been quicker to notice the use of full-bleed photography. That barely gets addressed as a design element anymore, but back then it was far from the norm outside of Stadium Club.
Up top we get Junior’s All-Star designation heralded via that arch shape that showed up in so many Upper Deck die-cuts of the 90’s (and even one in 2010). I really like the use of team color in the split-fade of the nameplate as well as that funky little bar of alternating color in the top left corner. I don’t know what inspired them to add that bar, but I can’t imagine this set without it. It really ties the card together, not unlike Mr. Lebowski’s rug.
|1994 SP #105|
|1995 SP #190|
That big red thing on the left edge there? That is not a nameplate – it’s the SP logo. Actually it’s more like a shrine to the SP brand. The massive side-mounted chevron comes in two colors, red and blue. There is also a SuperbaFoil parallel that replaces the blue/red foil with textured silver holofoil and looks kind of awesome with the gold foil. The actual nameplate is that small, low-impact writing on the bottom of the card. Bright and rich-looking, this design is a personal favorite.
This is also the year of the first SP spinoff set, SP Championship, a bizarre one-set wonder that would slip in and out of existence without anyone seeming to notice.
|1996 SP #170|
In ’96, Upper Deck figured out a way to use wood grain in the design and still keep the aesthetic modern and cool. That combined with a tasteful layout of black and silver elements comprises the most significant borders in the timeline. They also threw in a small inset portrait on the right border of every card to balance out the full-bleed left border. There are a lot of great cards in this set, but this one of Junior in the locker room presumably celebrating the M’s pennant win In ’95 is no doubt among of the best.
Another new SP spinoff set, SPx, also debuted this year with its extreme, all-sided die-cutting and prolific use of Denny’s-grade 3-D holograms. I have a suspicion that the sudden use of borders and wood grain were to further differentiate regular SP from the super tech-forward SPx. Of course, SP would only be around for one more year while SPx would roll on right up until Upper Deck’s demise in 2010.
|1997 SP #165|
I’m not really certain where to start with this one - suffice it to say there’s a lot of stuff happening on the front of this card. The loudest element here is the large amount of holofoil on either side of the card which differs in tint by team. Griffey, being a Mariner, gets a blue-green split-fade while Texas Ranger Will Clark, for example, got red-orange. That combined with a plethora of lines, boxes, and mid-90’s Upper Deck bronze foil makes for a super-busy card front that doesn’t seem to get all that much attention from collectors.
And that is where the standalone “SP” timeline comes to an abrupt end. Upper Deck introduced “SP Authentic” in 1998 and “SPx” continued through 2010. Now, if I had to pick which spinoff was most like the original SP brand, it would be SPx due to its high-tech aesthetic and focus on modern design and printing methods; but the 1996-1997 overlap negates any chance of the timeline continuing in that direction. In addition to that, SP Authentic, while a perfect fit time-wise, was geared more towards “hits,” those being relics and autos as opposed to just cool, modern base cards and inserts. Even the brand name itself suggests a specialized focus that is just not in line with the first five years of SP.
So, in keeping with the spirit of the Design Timelines, when an evolution of a design is interrupted by a ground-up re-branding that changes both the name and the whole philosophy of a set, I just can’t justify calling it a continuation of the original set. SP Authentic and SPx will get their own timelines.
The short SP flagship timeline averages out better than most. I find it strange that despite the inundation of new brands into the market that was going on around this time that Upper Deck didn’t think there was room for an unspecialized SP set. Then again, there’s a lot of mystery to this era of cardboard.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure Topps won the super premium fight with their groundbreaking Finest brand, and the prices those cards command to this very day pretty much prove it. It’s not a very fair comparison, though, as I’ve always found that SP is more comparable to Stadium Club in market segment. At least SP has the ultimate Derek Jeter rookie.
If Upper Deck ever gets their license back I would expect to see new SP sets. I think they would be welcome, too - sort of an anti-Ginter focused on the future of cardboard as opposed to its past. That’s always been Upper Deck’s specialty: trailblazing. Maybe someday…
Here's one last look at the SP design timeline in its entirety: