Monday, January 20, 2020

Flying Cars: 1997 Ultra

My son will be four in March, and I am beyond excited. Here’s a short list as to why:

1. Soon he will be able to engineer his own Hot Wheels tracks. We built a pretty sweet straightaway just last week.
2. He is very nearly ready to begin to appreciate Star Wars (after much debate we have decided we will be starting him with Episode I like the logical heathens we are).
3. We are about to make that great leap from Duplo to standard-sized Legos. This is a bigger deal that the non-initiated might think.
4. Baseball cards?

So maybe four is a hair too young to start collecting cards in earnest. He can probably handle Starting Lineup figures, but I fear for any piece of cardboard he gets his mitts on. But it’s definitely coming. He’ll be a Topps/Panini kid because, well, we have no choice.

But there will be a time when he is old enough that I can sit him down and show him what cardboard was back at the crest of the late-90’s wave of awesome, when sets like 1997 Ultra were setting a standard none of us realized at the time was unsustainable.

It’s been 20 years since the late-90’s cardboard bonanza that brought us practically every kind of innovation we still enjoy today, so you might think even more innovation has happened since, and yet it really hasn’t. Even today, over 20 years later, no one set could offer with any kind of regularity the sort of stuff you could pull from a plain old retail pack back then.

People say all the time that we were supposed to have flying cars by now, but in terms of baseball cards, we kind of already did. They came in the late ‘90’s, and we’ve been coasting ever since. We’ll get a whiff of them here and there from super-premium sets and woefully intangible digital offerings, but there’s not much you can pull from a pack you buy at Target in 2019 that can compete with the Ultras and Pacifics of yesteryear. And for my little (eventual) collector, that is a pity.

Until then, my son will just have to look upon all the amazing cards that came out of that very short period and be jealous that his old man got to live through it. And from the looks of things his generation’s music is going to suck, too. He and I have a lot of ground to cover over the next few years...

1997 Ultra #121

The longer I collect and the further removed we get from the late ’90’s, the more I appreciate the design of 1997 Ultra. This brand already has one of the greatest Design Timelines there ever was, and this set is one of the greatest of those. It set a new design standard for the brand with five of the last eleven Ultra base designs featuring that element of "script-on-a-slight-angle" (I dubbed it SOASA which is just never going to catch on) in the nameplate and six of those designs using all-holofoil nameplates.

This particular design is bright, exciting, and fun without seeming cheap. That handwriting font turned out pretty much perfect, and never was a team name better placed in a nameplate. While not my favorite Ultra base card, this is probably my favorite Ultra design.

As batting photos go, they don’t get much better than this barring a backwards-cap Home Run Derby shot or a far-away, impeccably-lit long-ball launch shot from behind. Or maybe a big, fat focus tongue. That pitch is a little high for me – I’d have probably swung right under it.

1997 Ultra #G121 Gold Medallion

The Gold Medallions this year gave us a completely different photo (as opposed to a simple foil stamp) and gold-tinted holofoil in the nameplate. I prefer the bright, mid-swing photo of the base card, but the backwards cap does help.

1997 Ultra #P121 Platinum Medallion /200

There is also a 1:100 Platinum Medallion parallel this year from an unnumbered edition of 200. As you can see the holofoil is hella sparkly. Despite a pair of 1:288 inserts from this year, make no mistake - this Platinum Medallion is the Holy Grail of ’97 Ultra Griffeys.

If you know anything about Ultra, you know their inserts are some of the best in the game; so get ready for some foiled frivolity and acetate awesomeness as we look at the incredible inserts of 1997 ULTRAAAAA!!!!!!

1997 Ultra Checklist #2

PSYCH! Ultra checklists are technically inserts (1:4), so two more boring paper cards before we get to the good stuff. Junior appears on two checklists in ’97 Ultra, both with trademark backwards caps. I call this one “Whistling ‘Stache.”

1997 Ultra Checklist #3

And this one is “Slouchy McBabyface.” The disparity in facial hair between these two cards is my favorite. Either he shaved the ‘stache sometime during the season, or his lip hair grows light years faster than mine.

Okay – actual fun insert time now:

1997 Ultra Top 30 #2

A characteristically Ultra insert with a full-bleed background design in team-specific colors. This insert also makes an appearance in the ’98 set but it didn’t have the staying power of other, more popular Ultra inserts like Power Plus, Thunderclap, or Hitting Machines.

1997 Ultra Top 30 #2 Gold Medallion

One of several die-cut inserts (or parallel of an insert in this case) from this year’s Ultra, these are actually pretty tough finds at 1:18 retail-only packs. They seem to have put a little work into the gold finish here because this sucker shines like Flava Flav’s teeth. Well done.

There is a version of this Gold Medallion that does not have the die-cutting. Whether they are errors or backdoored remains anybody’s guess, but they aren’t insanely rare. They are, however, at least a little rarer than the regular die-cuts. It’s on the want list…

1997 Ultra Double Trouble #9 (w/ Alex Rodriguez)

I get mixed feelings about A-rod cards from this era. He was so cool and good and everyone was so excited about this team and his future and all that. I still keep most of his early Mariners cards, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t resent them a little. Not as much as I do Bonds and McGwire and some of those other asshats; but yeah, still hurts.

That being said, look at this pair. I want to go to the mall with them on a Tuesday morning when no one else is there. Get pretzels, sip smoothies, and giggle in the “naughty” section of Spencer Gifts. Man, that would be a fun day.

1997 Ultra Fame Game #1

I don’t know why they tried to ruin this thing with a white border, but everything else about it is reasonably cool. The gold script nameplate and giant, embossed foil and holo-sparkle lettering in the insert title are the stars of the show, for sure. The back is also pretty darn colorful and dynamic as Ultra insert backs go – they’re usually just a picture and simple block of text. A lot of neat elements at work here.

1997 Ultra Leather Shop #1

We are still in the fairly easy part of this year’s crop of Ultra inserts which is also where the perennial leather-themed inserts can usually be found. Ultra skipped the Prime Leather insert this year (but would bring it back in ’98) and gave us Leather Shop instead. While not as bright and tactile as the excellent Prime Leather insert from the previous set, this year’s offering has a strip of team-coloring in a vertical nameplate with some lovely gold foil script.

I love this back because flipped-up shades and GIANT NEEDLE! Ever try and poke a hole in leather? You legit need a giant needle like this to do it. Just keep it away from my Griffey cards, yo.

1997 Ultra Power Plus Series 1 #4

So this is about as Ultra as inserts get – a big, bold, full-bleed design that eliminates any semblance of photo background. And holofoil – my God – TONS of holofoil. This particular card might be the most holofoil text by surface area ever to grace a card of any sport (seriously if you can find one with more, show it to me).

The back is your standard ho-hum Ultra insert back – text box, big ol’ player photo, and little else. This is why I get so excited about the backs of inserts like Fame Game and Leather Shop where they changed things up a bit.

1997 Ultra Power Plus Series 2 #1

Fleer liked the Power Plus Insert so much, they made it twice in ’97. This one from Series 2 is much rarer than its Series 1 counterpart at 1:24 where the latter is 1:8. And that blurb is all business.

1997 Ultra RBI Kings #7

One of the challenges of being a card blogger is that sometimes a really awesome card simply doesn’t scan well, and the image you are forced to give your readers looks like the dark, indiscernible mess you see above. So don’t think for a second this insert isn’t totally baddass – it is. Loaded with filigree and medieval symbols that exude royalty, specifically that of a guy who it good at hitting the ball while other guys are on base. I feel like gold would have gotten the point across a little better, but overall no complaints.

Oh, and that might be the best card back of the year for Ultra.

1997 Ultra Thunderclap #8

Now I am a huge fan of the 1996 version of this insert as I actually pulled one from a pack back in the day, it came in the incredibly scarce Gold Medallion parallel (and in holofoil no less), and I’m a total slut for purple baseball cards; but objectively speaking if I were asked to design an insert called “Thunderclap,” this is exactly how I would do it. Black sky, cool foil lightning bolts, and a back design that stylizes the player name instead of the insert title.

Then again I would probably also include a subtle personal watermark somewhere on the card like so:

I really did miss my calling.

1997 Ultra Baseball Rules! #2

The front of this card got me like, “Heck yeah, dog! Baseball DOES rule! Dang, Fleer Ultra, you cool AF.” Then you flip it over and it’s more like, “Oh, it’s Baseball Rules. Like rule-rules. Buzz harshed.”

I suspect it’s also just coincidence that rules are made to be broken and at the same time finding one of these cards without damage, especially on that top edge, is damn near impossible. These were available in Series 1 retail packs only, and if you know anything about retail vs hobby, you know that retail packs are the ones you see spread out in a messy pile in the card aisle at Wal-Mart. This is one of those cards where the premium carried by a high slab grade is justified.

Still, it’s a fun design and great use of die-cutting. And prices have cooled on these considerably in the last few years, especially in the case of damaged copies (which is most of them). Great insert and a satisfying get for the budding Griffey collector.

1997 Ultra Hitting Machines #2

Can you imagine pulling one of these things from a pack in the ‘90’s? They weren’t even that scarce for such a crazy design. That’s 34 corners, y’all. There are worse cards for slipping into penny sleeves, but not many. And how about all that etched foil? How these were as common as 1 per box I’ll never know. They look more like a case hit to me, even for the ‘90’s.

1997 Ultra HR Kings #4

My favorite of the 1:36 inserts, these are all acetate with a tasteful smattering of holofoil in the clear bits plus a lovely gold foil logo. This is another one of those that seems bland in a scan but sparkles in person.

1997 Ultra Fielder’s Choice #6

I usually take issue with inserts that are so heavily designed around a logo, but damn it if this isn’t a perfectly executed version of that very faux pas.

Thick, simulated leather with a bold stitch forming the border, a light foil effect, and the iconic Ultra logo in lieu of a forgettable one-off insert logo. And most importantly it feels like a hit. As far as Ultra inserts are concerned, this is one of the greats. I do miss the giant needle, tho.

Usually brands will have a “mirror” insert in terms of insertion ratio in each of the two series, but there is no 1:144 Griffey insert in Series 2; so today we get to jump straight to the 1:288’s:

1997 Ultra Diamond Producers #3

Of all the wacky inserts this year, Diamond Producers is a total warlock. The most noticeable design element is a deckled matte surface, pinstripes, and THAT’S IT. There’s a vague shadow effect going on in the background and the insert logo/nameplate combo is attractive enough but this design is hella-scant for a 1:288. I don’t hate it or anything – actually the matte surface is pretty darn cool – but I can’t help feeling like they should have swapped this with Hitting Machines for the most difficult pull. I’m just not getting a “case hit” vibe from this card.

1997 Ultra Starring Role #2

Die-cut refractive acetate, anyone? While it is equally scarce as Diamond Producers, this is the most highly-sought after of the ’97 Ultra inserts for two reasons. First, it’s really cool. This card has the kind of curb appeal you should expect from a case hit (though I still think that Hitting Machines insert has more). It was also at least a little harder to pull, only appearing in Series 2 Hobby packs while DP was in hobby AND retail of S1. Still, with the always-unpublished production figures of retail vs hobby product, we will never know how much more scarce Starring Role is.

If any set gave Stadium Club a run for its money, this was it. I think Upper Deck still owns the Fleer brands, so the likelihood of Ultra making a comeback in baseball in the same way Stadium Club did is as low is it can get. Hm. Kind of a bummer. I hate to end a post like this. Let me find a happy picture to cap this one off.

Oh....oh my God. Yes. Aaaaaaaand POST.


  1. Man, the days when I was excited to get an insert! Ultra was really good.

    I hope your son appreciates collecting as you do! Sometimes it comes in a different form. My son is really into Pokemon cards right now. As much as I wish they were baseball, I still enjoy seeing him organize, admire, and grow his collection. I just have no idea what any of it is!

  2. I think '97 Ultra might be my favorite Ultra. It's just such a beautiful set -- and that's to say nothing of the inserts, most of which I'd never seen/known about until this post.

  3. My son is 5, and my daughter is 8. They watch cartoons, read books, play with toys. Not really worried about them getting the story in a particular order, they'll enjoy it just fine however they get it.

  4. "2. He is very nearly ready to begin to appreciate Star Wars (after much debate we have decided we will be starting him with Episode I like the logical heathens we are)."

    NO! NO! NO!

    I didn't even read your post yet. I came right to the bottom on this. If you start at TPM, the reveal in ESB has no impact at all. You son will see it coming and all the drama at the end of ESB and the start of ROTJ will be nothing but him wanting to fast forward through it.

    Please don't.

    If you feel a REAL need to not go 4,5,6,1,2,3,7,8,9 then Machete the thing.

    It takes 1 out entirely, and I don't think TPM is that horrible, but in the grans scheme, besides Anakin and Padme meeting and the Midiclorian thing, you don't really loose anything. Except a pretty kick ass saber fight.

    But if you go Machete with 4,5,2,3,6,7,8,9 - the Vader reveal is retained and the growing up of Luke can be paralleled to the growing up of Anakin. And then, into the growing of Kylo. All three of the main "male" characters of the three trilogies (well, two-ilogy for teen Ani) are young adults, so you can mirror their growth.

    Don't do them in numerical order or I swear I will take scissors to every Griffey card I come in contact with.

  5. HEY. Two words: pod race. Dude is three.

    1. Fine - show him 1. But do not show him in numerical order.

  6. I always watch them in order... starting with the Phantom Menace. And the Starring Role insert set is awesome! I own the Jeter and the Michael Jordan... but never got my hands on that Griffey. Maybe one day.