Thursday, September 10, 2015

Design Timeline: SP Authentic

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

After the popularity of the Game Jersey insert from their 1997 flagship product, Upper Deck, ever the innovator, saw it fit to dedicate an entire brand to relics and, for the first time, a massive checklist of autographs. Generally considered to be a continuation of the original SP brand introduced in 1993, SP Authentic was among the very first brands built around the hit.

Nowadays many people bust box after box of the latest product looking only for autos and relics, barely paying any attention at all to the base cards and sometimes giving or even throwing them away. I’ll never understand this, but such behavior among collectors can be attributed to sets like this one that include one or two big pulls per box. That means the base cards that start this timeline were some of the first ever cast aside by box-breakers who just wanted the hits. You see that a lot these days.

Despite that, Upper Deck gave us a timeline of perennially clean and modern-looking base cards the aesthetic of which stays the same, more or less, throughout the timeline. That’s rare for a set that lasted for 12 years. That constant aesthetic, in combination with the name change and brand-wide shift towards hits, is one of the reasons I do not consider this a continuation of the original SP timeline. I think I’m in the minority on this issue, but feel free to view the original SP Design Timeline here and judge for yourself. Is this really the same brand?

Here’s the entirety of the SP Authentic Timeline in Griffey cards:


1998 SP Authentic #180

If you’re looking for physical evidence that this brand does not belong in the same timeline as regular SP, look no further than this card. It’s about as simple as designs get. In fact, on my first viewing this card seemed stark and maybe a little boring, but having spent a little time with it, it’s now one of my favorites in the timeline.

One of the most obvious design elements at work here is the super-thick white border which contains the modern, heavily-spaced lettering of the nameplate. That lettering is business-card-caliber enough to make Patrick Bateman from American Psycho jealous. The image of a suspensefully-lit Junior taking his stance before an evening city skyline is dramatic and powerful, and the surrounding border makes it look as though the image was painted in thick ink on a white canvas. The darkness of the image is offset nicely by the gold foil logo.


1999 SP Authentic #76

This year Upper Deck flipped the script while also keeping things classy (double euphemism!). Here we get a full-bleed photo with an antiqued sepia background. The nameplate contains both modern and classic fonts, and it stays tucked away at the bottom-left, far away from the focal center of the card. This design is definitely one of the oddballs of the timeline, too, as going forward no other designs here will be truly full-bleed or without some kind of border.


2000 SP Authentic #84

This is the design that I feel truly sets the tone for the rest of the timeline: clean, lots of white and/or negative space plus a touch of team color, and a balanced layout. That large circle in the bottom center looks like an obvious place for a team logo, but they put the SP Authentic logo there instead. In fact, there are no team logos on any SP Authentic base card until 2004. I’m a big fan of symmetry which means I hate the placement of the position there on the left border, but other than that this is a pretty good-looking card.


2001 SP Authentic #85

Another symmetrical design with a massive amount of white, my favorite element at work here is the top-mounted team name in a fun, classic baseball font. They kept a little bit of the photo background on the card, but they also grayed it out so as not to detract from the clean look. You may have to squint a little to read the player name and column of positions (with the card subject’s position highlighted in team color), but classy things are often small. Look at Peter Dinklage.


2002 SP Authentic #85

One of the most dynamic designs in the timeline, I believe this card contains both the biggest and the smallest player names you’ll find on an SP card. Again, only part of the photo background is kept, the shape of which is conducive to the high frequency of action shots in the set. A single bar of team color encapsulates the brand logo in gold foil.

This design is an oddball here. If you look at it in the context of the rest of the timeline (which you can at the end of this post), that color background and huge player name make it stick out like a sore thumb.


2003 SP Authentic #86

Back to symmetry this year, the design here features a complete border, rare in this timeline. The gray split fade turns white towards the center where we find a bizarre combination background I’ve never come across in any other design. It’s that same partial-photo background we’ve been getting from SP Authentic, this time framed in multiple stacked elements. They don’t look bad, but I also can’t quite make sense of them. They resemble a team-colored strip of film with a foil-bordered apparatus focusing on a single cell. As mysterious as the background is, the card is attractive and the border offsets the limited color in the card nicely. And that nameplate is pretty much perfect.

Upper Deck also threw in their SP Authentic logo in one corner and an SP 10th Anniversary badge in the opposite corner, both in gold foil. It would seem this is proof that Upper Deck considers SP Authentic as a continuation of the original SP timeline which began in 1993. This still doesn’t sit right with me, guys.


2004 SP Authentic #50

Here is the first team logo on an SP Authentic card, seated beside a stately nameplate in a large, bold font. The background here is probably my favorite in the timeline, a great field and crowd shot that fades into white at the bottom. The ball field element on the bottom-right seems to have been placed there to fill a bit of negative space. The coloring and lines in the top left corner harken back to a similar element on the original SP 1993 set and do the same job of balancing out the design. I imagine this design would feel incomplete without them. Plus the ball field theme goes hand-in-hand with this year's Upper Deck flagship design which references each player’s home field right in the nameplate. Definitely one of my favorites.


2005 SP Authentic #58

Look, no background photo whatsoever. Whether it was sepia-toned, grayed-out, split-faded, or even just a little tiny, sliver of its former self, some kind of photo background has been included on every card so far. Well not today – this one’s all design, and there’s not all that much to it, either. A large, curved side-border that connects to a low-impact nameplate below, a team logo stamped in a box in the corner, and a nice SP logo stamped into a field of clean white in the top corner. Simple, simple.

Apart from some shaded hatching along the curved border and nameplate, the most interesting element is the horizontal red field behind the player which, hate to break it to you, is identical for every player. There are blue and red versions, but the design is the exact same on every card. Part of me hoped it was a sliver (or squinched segment) of the real photo background, but it’s not. And even if it was, it still just looks like a mess.


2006 SP Authentic #121 SP #/899

The grayed-out photo background and curved lines that make up the side border and nameplate have become standard for this brand by now, so they’re no real surprise. The lines flow nicely, anchored around a team logo in the bottom-right corner. The biggest difference between this design and previous ones is the National League logo in the large team-colored side border. It’s a nice change from the plain white used in the same place in the previous design. The nameplate’s a little vanilla, but otherwise this is a pretty good-looking card.

Griffey’s base card was short-printed this year and numbered out of only 899. This is something that can tick off a set collector. Just remember that the numbered base cards make sense this year more than ever as it is 2006, and the term “SP” among collectors is now universally recognized as standing for “short print,” and not “super premium.” Every card above #100 is short-printed and numbered.


2007 SP Authentic #11

When I was in the Boy Scouts I learned an expression: K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple, stupid. This design does just that. Upper Deck returned to symmetry in a big way with this uber-balanced design. They chose to include no photo background at all for this one, opting instead to superimpose the player over a large, abstract background…um, thing. Bits of wood grain keep things baseball-y. An extremely simple centered nameplate and total lack of team logos also contribute to the simplicity here. This one’s not unattractive, but it is certainly on the outskirts of Boringtown.


2008 SP Authentic #1

To contrast the previous year’s design, here’s a fun, free-form layout that is uncommon for SP Authentic. The vertical nameplate is written going down the left edge along with the team and position. It’s a strange orientation for text, but the font is cool and modern. The horizontal field behind the player is almost identical to the one used in 2005, but this is strictly lines and angles of team color and shade. The position of the nameplate is still weird to me, but overall I really like the look of this card. The design is balanced without being rigid.

Also this was almost a White Sox card. Timing is everything.


2009 SP Authentic #24

Here we are greeted by the largest brand logo in the timeline. There’s nothing at all surprising about the rest of the design – lots of white, two-sided wrap-around border, and the player superimposed over grayed-out background – standard SP Authentic fare. This card does have a few details, however, that make it great. First, the foil nameplate follows the curve of the border which you don’t see often. Also, Junior’s got one foot outside the bottom border and the other behind it. It’s like he’s stepping outside of the card. Personally, I like the gratuitous tongue pic and the fact that this is the first card in the timeline to feature Mariners team coloring. Lots to like here.

Some of you knew already by the date of this set that this is the final year of SP Authentic, and one of the last Upper Deck baseball sets ever made. They would release one more flagship set in 2010 but no more SP sets (even though they already had release dates for the 2010 brand). It’s sad, but I’m glad to see they got one last Mariners card in before the end.


While the quality stayed high, I don’t find the SP Authentic timeline to be very full of surprises. Many designs look similar and certain elements were repeated a lot year over year. Then again, this set was not made for the base cards. The relics and autos of this brand remain highly sought-after and unopened boxes of the stuff command high aftermarket prices to this day.

But let us not, in our search for little bits of pants and scribbled ink, forget the lowly base card. These are the soul of the hobby, and the whole reason I started the Great Griffey Base Card Project in the first place. I liken box breakers’ discarding of them to poachers slaughtering majestic elephants to sell off their ivory on the black market. It’s just plain wack, and a terrible waste of sweet cardboard.

Here is one more look at the entire SP Authentic Design Timeline: