Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Design Timeline: SPx

This post is part of an ongoing feature The Great Griffey Base Card Project.

In the patriarchal hierarchy that is mid-90’s Upper Deck brands, SPx is the tech-savvy son of SP who is in turn the middle-aged son of grandpa Upper Deck flagship. Where SPx uses an iPhone 6 connected to an Apple Watch, his father SP still rocks his old Motorola Razr flip phone and grandpa flagship dials in on the old school rotary. While SPx picks up early-20’s liberal arts majors on Tinder, SP is busy using the yellow pages to find a decent plumber. Grandpa flagship just fixes that shizz himself.

Alright, enough of that.

What I’m really saying here is that SPx is to SP what SP is to Upper Deck flagship. It’s a cool, techy, forward-thinking version of its predecessor loaded with shiny bits and cool gimmicks. It’s also the longest-running spinoff set Upper Deck ever produced with a total run of 14 years (1996-2009). A close second at 12 years is SP Authentic which got its start two years after SPx.

Each year of SPx is characterized by different combinations of five fundamental elements: extreme die-cutting, 3-D holograms, imprinted foil, excessive holofoil, and ultra-modern design. The SPx timeline is not unlike Taco Bell’s menu – constantly coming out with new products, but when you look they’re really just a different combination of the same ingredients. Don’t let that sour you to the idea, though – Taco Bell is awesome.

Here is Griffey on every SPx base card design in order:


1996 SPx #55

The first year of SPx was a bold statement, combining shiny team-coloring, Upper Deck’s newfound love of die-cutting, and multi-image versions of those 3-D holograms you got at Denny’s. This set is comprised of a base set, a gold parallel, the Bound for Glory insert, and a sweet Ken Griffey, Jr. commemorative card with an autographed parallel, all of which have the exact same die-cut pattern. Upper Deck really played up the set’s gravitas by including only one card per pack, and their weighty thickness and mirror finish gave a high perceived value. Despite that, these cards don’t command all that much on the secondary market.


1997 SPx #45

In the Taco Bell analogy, this design is the Burrito Supreme. Where the previous design was completely cornerless, this one is an eight-cornered cardboard octopus with three of those corners being sharp, acute angles. It’s a condition snob’s worst nightmare. Still, the design is well-thought-out, spelling out “SPX” with shapes built right into the card (S on the left edge, P in the horizontal swoosh containing the hologram, and X in…well, that big X). You may also notice the textured foil background in the action shot the color of which differs by which parallel you are holding. This one is arguably the busiest base card in the timeline.


1998 SPx #130 #/9000

I’ve always thought of the next two designs in the timeline as twins. They look nothing alike, but they both make liberal use of a substantial, heavily-imprinted foil logo element on their base cards and inserts. The massive logo elements are deeply-embedded in the card surface of both sets, and they give a unique, three-dimensional quality to what has been a two-dimensional product for over a century.

This first of the twin designs is a horizontal layout in papery foil with the large bronze SPx logo embedded in a vertical field of opposing green split-fades. The color of both the field and the foil logo changes by parallel, so you get to see the same layout in different color combinations. When it first came out I wasn’t too crazy about the design (SPx with no die-cuts?!?), but having seen the inserts and parallels, I’ve come around. With all those colors and massive foil logos, the 1998 SPx page is one of my favorite pages in the Griffey binders.

This year’s product was also called SPx Finite because every card was serial-numbered; but this would only be the case for one year, so it’s not a substantial shift in the timeline.


1999 SPx #70

The overall design of this other “deep foil” twin is simpler, but the embedded foil element has also become more refined. This year we get a complicated shape, realtexture, and smoother raised elements within the foil logo. They even went so far as to include a little batter silhouette (even for pitchers) beside the SPx logo and a little baseball centered beneath. The deeply-embedded, raised foil logo is fun to run your fingers over, but the rest of the card falls flat design-wise. Where the ’98 design was organic and attractive, the ’99 design is kind of boring apart from the embedded foil bit. Despite this, the inserts are cool and the base parallel is a knockout.


2000 SPx #67

This year’s base design lacks any of the unique elements that have been the hallmark of SPx up to this point. What we have here is essentially a very modern design that’s been bathed in holofoil. They’re not bad-looking cards, but they don’t feel like base cards to me. They have the look of an insert, and the compressed portrait and random arrangement of text feels thrown together (check out the little “SPX” in the bottom right corner that is presumably there just to fill negative space). This one is reasonably cool and rich-looking, but also forgettable in this timeline.

This is where the salad days of the SPx timeline really come to an end for a few years. As you will see the cards that are coming would be more appropriate under the regular SP banner. That is not to say they’re bad cards by any stretch (far from it – some of my favorite designs are coming up soon), but apart from some noticeably modern designs and a bit of foil here and there, they have very little of that old SPx moxy. Maybe grab a cup of coffee.


2001 SPx #85

I like this design a lot, though there’s nothing particularly unique about it. They do make great use of contrasting color, and the abstract layout is certainly attractive and modern. Perhaps the most interesting element at work here is the use of both gold and silver foil in the base design which doesn’t happen very often. Apart from that, it’s a lot of lines and boxes and one of the biggest jersey numbers you’ll ever see in a base design. A good-looking card that feels out of place after the wackiness that began the timeline.


2002 SPx #85

This is simultaneously among the most understated and attractive designs in the timeline. It’s nothing like one might expect from an SPx card, but this simple, classy layout with limited team coloration and just a touch of foil makes for a pretty nice set. I’m a big fan of the corner-mounted (albeit a bit random) focal point on the bottom left as well as the contemporary fonts and the ultra-mod logo in the background. The 2002 SPx base design is “less is more” done right.

This set started a trend, too. Going forward, every design but one will incorporate heavy use of black and white with limited team color.


2003 SPx #35

This year Upper Deck combined the horizontal configuration that began the timeline with the black-and-white motif of the previous year. The focal point in this design is an action shot superimposed over a large X that transverses the card vertically. We also get a portrait that is less black-and-white than grey-and-slightly-lighter-gray. Bits of lines, foil, and hatching are spread around the card seemingly at random along with a touch of team color. It’s another “lines for the sake of lines” Upper Deck design, but it’s one that has grown on me. This card is beautifully modern, and would be just as attractive without the holofoil. Plus the inserts and relics look great in this layout.


2004 SPx #97

Here we get the black-and-white aesthetic again, but just a touch bolder than we’ve seen in the past few years. I like the old computer font in the nameplate and the look of the holofoil against the white background. I’m also a fan of the translucent color bars and the multiple split fades that runs the length and breadth of the card. Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. The background is clunky, and the massive black bar up top heralding the name of the set is heavy and kind of ruins the card. This one could have used some editing.

It gets worse from here, but hold tight just a little longer. Redemption is near.


2005 SPx #72

I just don’t get this design. It’s like a less attractive take on ’95 Select. Every card has that huge brown field behind the player and heavy black bar below, and the little white lines that frame the player are awkward and unnecessary. Why are they there? It would seem to me they were added last-minute to pull focus away from the massive team-colored, kind-of-an-X shape on the right. The one interesting design element on this card is the barely-visible explosion that appears to be going on behind the player but that is covered up by the big, ugly brown section. Then you have the non-foil nameplate just kind of hanging out on the bottom of the card. It looks so lonely down there. As SPx designs go, this one’s a lame duck.


2006 SPx #24

The picture is cool, but that’s one of the few things to like about this oddball of the timeline. That massive side-mounted SPx logo bar dominates the entire layout, effectively shrinking the card and making the viewer claustrophobic. The only bit of innovation worth mentioning here is the addition of a line of text below the player’s surname heralding some great career accomplishment. I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of that in other sets. The inserts are decent, and the brighter holofoil version of the base card is a significant improvement, but those are not enough to save this unfortunate base set. My least favorite design in the timeline.

I could be wrong as I don’t have any sales figures at my disposal, but I like to think this set’s performance in the card market made Upper Deck realize it was time for a return to the roots of this once-groundbreaking, envelope-pushing, awesomely gaudy and overdesigned brand. Look what happened next:


2007 SPx #59

YES. This is the kind of stuff I think of when I think of SPx. Excessive holofoil, heavy-handed die-cutting, shiny, busy, seizures, drool, rainbows – all that. This is my SPx, and I could not be happier to see it in this timeline. In the Taco Bell analogy, this is the A.M. Crunch Wrap because its Upper Deck finally waking up to what SPx is supposed to be. And why not? It’s the 10-year anniversary of the burrito supreme set, after all.

So, what did we get? A massive holofoil X? Check. Action shot and portrait? Check. Lots of team color, black and white, and multi-angle die-cutting? Check, check, and double check. It’s the most SPx design in years! How will they possibly top it?


2008 SPx #23

Oh, that’s nice, too. This 12-cornered beast is all about balance and centering with card-spanning elements on multiple axes each offset by identical elements on the opposite side. You’re looking at what is probably the most bilaterally symmetrical baseball card ever made. Throw a bunch of holofoil on that with some neat little raised-printing baseballs in the corners and you’ve got yourself a beast of a base card. The inserts in this set were heavily Griffey-centric, too, so you better believe I am biased. A very fun design.


2009 SPx #27

This last one has me ambivalent. Let me explain.

Upper Deck has a history with the X as a design element. They did it in several SPx sets, most notably ’97, ’03, ‘05, and ’07. They did it for the Looming Large relic insert in 2002 40-Man. They also did it, albeit to a less obvious extent, in 2008 Star Quest and 2009 Spectrum. Then in 2008 they decided to base a whole new brand on the concept which they called - go figure - Upper Deck X. It lasted for two years and contained X-shaped die-cut parallels and multi-tiered inserts with multi-colored holofoil X’s. You see where I’m going with this.

The 2009 SPx Griffey is not a bad-looking card. First and foremost it’s one of a handful of Griffey base cards featuring him as a White Sock (Is that the singular? It can’t be…). The X element is intricately stylized and looks great in holofoil. The nameplate is simple and modern. I even like the subtle use of Junior’s new team colors in this design. It’s a looker, for sure. I want to hang out with it, maybe grab some food or something.

But I take issue with the originality of this design. I know Upper Deck was going through a bit of legal trouble around this time, but that’s no excuse for slapping the SPx logo onto what looks to me like a concept design for the third Upper Deck X base set. Go look at the 2009 Upper Deck X base card and tell me you’re not a little suspicious, too. Heck, even if that’s not exactly the case, you’re really going to have two nearly identical base designs come out in the same year under different sub-brands? Isn’t there someone whose job it is to make sure stuff like that doesn’t happen?

Sadly this is where the timeline ends. 2010 SPx was less than two months from release when a settlement with MLB put the kibosh on the whole thing. The cards sound really cool, too. Double and triple relics, Exquisite Patch cards, and something called SPx “Shadowbox” which was probably cool AF. Sadly, I have yet to come across images of any backdoored cards from the set. Too bad. I’d like to have seen where they were going next.


There’s a lot of cool stuff in this timeline, but it’s so all-over-the-place design-wise that it’s hard to see a natural progression. There are periods in which each design seems to follow the previous one naturally, and others that leave you scratching your head. Regardless, it’s still an above-average timeline if you’re into shiny, forward-thinking designs. I’m a big fan.

It’s pretty cool that a set like SPx was allowed to continue this long what with the shift in the market towards vintage designs. I also think it’s pretty cool that you never really knew what you were going to get from SPx. With sets like Flair and Finest, you had a pretty good idea what was coming next year. With SPx it was die-cut holograms one year and raised-printing foil stamps the next. The only real connective tissue here is that it was always modern, and that in itself makes it a quintessential Upper Deck brand.

Here’s one more look at Griffey on every SPx base card design in order:


  1. 96 and 97 by far my favorite. Guess that's what I get for being a 90's collector too lol

  2. I am smacking myself upside the head here...I NEVER noticed that the second year set was subtly spelling out SPx! And I've been looking at that design for 19 years now. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees!

  3. 2007 made up for the boring 05 and 06 design.

  4. Replies

    2. I suspect Mike only has one of that one, too. :-)

  5. This is a cool brand. The first two years were great, then they went all '90s with the different levels of base cards. I still like 'em though.

  6. Love the 96 and 97 sets... and the 98 and 99's were okay. But after that... things went downhill with this product line in my humble opinion.