When it comes to the big names in collectible sports cards, few have the impact of Upper Deck. From their first set of baseball cards in 1989, collectors have sought after the company’s biggest printed rookies. Though Panini and Topps run the modern sports card game, some of the best rookie cards ever made carry the Upper Deck logo. Here are 10 of those RCs standing tall among the best Upper Deck rookie cards of all time.
1. 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Star Rookie #1
Undoubtedly the most valuable card of Upper Deck’s first set, Ken Griffey Jr.’s Star Rookie stands out as appropriately iconic. Flashing a smile right towards the camera, the Kid rests his bat on his left shoulder. A blue turtleneck stretches from the white of his uniform, given extra attention with the gold chains around it. A front-facing blue cap with a bold yellow “S” signifies his place with the Seattle Mariners. While the card would normally carry the team’s logo in the bottom right corner, above the player’s name, the “Star Rookie” designation takes its place for Junior. The bottom left features the Upper Deck logo, and the top right his position.
His 22 years in the MLB went on to prove he deserved that title, earning a spot in the Hall of Fame in 2016. His scoring prowess still charts among the top in league history, ranking 17th in RBIs and 7th in home runs. Griffey Jr. spent the majority of his career with the Mariners, both starting and ending with the team. In between he spent eight years with the Cincinnati Reds before being traded during his ninth to the Chicago White Sox.
2. 1993 SP Derek Jeter Foil #279
The image shows the Captain turning a double play, arms outstretched with the ball just out of his right hand. The famous blue pinstripes of the Yankees jersey add to the prestige of the card, as does the gold “Premier Prospects” designation in the bottom right. The team name climbs vertically from the bottom left of the card in white text, “New York” boxed in blue and “Yankees” in red. Jeter’s name extends horizontally from the same corner, his position listed just off-center to its right, with the Upper Deck branding arcing just over his blue Yankees cap.
Jeter’s 20-year career, all spent with the Yankees, landed him in 2020’s Hall of Fame class. He won five World Series with New York and was its MVP during their 2000 championship. He ranks 6th in career hits and, fittingly for this card, double plays turned as shortstop.
3. 2000 Upper Deck Encore Tom Brady #254
For how amazing of a player Tom Brady turned out to be, this card is almost comically low-key. Decked out in a red Patriots uniform, silver helmet, and gray sweatpants, Brady jogs casually with the ball tucked in his right arm. Upper Deck’s Encore set keeps the majority of design features of its flagship version, only notably switcing from blue to green frame to give the card a Matrix-like feel. The card also sports gold text and trim which helps the card pop. The UD logo is emblazoned in the top left, with the team name top-center. In line with it at the bottom are the set name, position, bold “Star Rookie” designation, and the player name.
Few would have predicted such a stellar career from the guy who looked like the warmup squad. But, that’s part of what makes his rookie cards so valuable now that his career has ended (really this time). Brady spent 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, racking up an astounding six Super Bowl wins. He would spend his last three seasons as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, adding another Super Bowl victory to his record. Widely viewed as the NFL’s Greatest of All Time, Brady holds numerous quarterback career records including number one for passing (yards, completions, attempts, and TDs), Playoffs games, and games started.
4. 2001 Upper Deck Reserve Albert Pujols #204
There’s a quiet confidence in Pujols’ Reserve rookie card. His wide stance stretches across the card as he holds the bat ready over his right shoulder. His eyes are all but hidden beneath the brim of his helmet, focus locked on the pitcher’s mound off card. The red text for the Cardinals and number 5 on his jersey bear a striking match to a PSA slab’s coloring, and with only 2500 copies in the print run you may consider grading this one. The Upper Deck logo sits golden in the top right corner, “rookie” cascading from it thrice before displaying the print number of the specific card. A gold line falls from the top left of the card, nearing the bottom before extending right towards Pujols’ number. Above this line his position is listed on the left with the sport, set, and player name and team centered.
The Machine’s 23-year career spanned 11 seasons with St. Louis, ten with the Los Angeles Angels, and one with the LA Dodgers before one final year back with the Cardinals. Known for his skill with the bat, Pujols holds high career spots in league records including 4th in home runs, and 2nd in both total bases and RBIs. Pujols won’t be eligible for the Hall of Fame until 2028, but he’s widely expected to be first ballot.
5. 2015 Upper Deck Connor McDavid #201
Part of Upper Deck’s popular “Young Guns” rookie subset, McDavid leans forward over his left leg as he prepares to change direction. Eyes focused off the card’s right, his stick is held low at the ready. The card nearly centers the Oilers logo on his jersey, made to pop with the white surrounding it. The orange and blue trim of the jersey add a nice splash of color to the card. The Upper Deck logo shines in silver at the top left corner, as does the subset’s name on bottom. Above it is the player name in white, his position in the same color near the right edge. It’s impossible to miss the woman in the background, showing a friend something on her phone, unaware of her permanent spot in McDavid’s rookie card.
McDavid is the first on our list who’s still actively playing, yet earned enough recognition for a spot. Now in his eighth season, he’s spent his full career with the Edmonton Oilers and already boasts some impressive records. Though likely to change as his career continues, he’s currently 4th in both points and assists per game (1st active). He’s also racked up five seasons with 100 or more goals scored, including the current one.
6. 2001 Upper Deck Golf Tiger Woods #1
In what has to be one of the most sought after golf cards in history, Tiger walks towards the hole after sinking a putt. Wearing his iconic combination of red polo and black slacks, the Nike swoosh is prominent on both the polo and his black cap. His eyes follow his finger determinedly as it points towards the cup, putter still in his left. Though he’s squeezing his lips shut, his energy speaks volumes. The green of the course forms a natural frame around him, and the Upper Deck logo stamps the top left in gold. His name sits at the bottom left with a white background that fades into a leaderboard as it crosses right.
Tiger’s dominance in the 2000s made him a pop culture icon. Even those who had never watched a round of golf in their life knew his name. Thirty years after going pro, he continues to compete at a high level. He’s won 82 PGA Tour events, tied for most all time, including 15 majors. He’s also the second highest-paid athlete of all time, behind only Michael Jordan.
7. 2005 Upper Deck Rookie Premiere Aaron Rodgers #16
Rodgers’ red the practice uniform looks jarring compared to the green and yellow associated with the Packers. With the yellow present on the helmet and shorts, a quick glance could easily mistake the colors for the Niners. Fortunately, the Green Bay logo is visible on the getup, and the team name shares a block of green with player name on the card’s right. Below is the team’s matching yellow, highlighting his position. The card’s top and bottom are also framed, set name on top and gray pigskin pattern on bottom. Rodgers breaks the frame with his shoes and helmet, holding his right arm behind his ear before launching a pass. The Upper Deck logo stamps the top right in silver, a film strip repeating the card’s image downwards in an illusion of movement.
Though Rodgers hasn’t had the same postseason success as Brady, his individual accolades are just as impressive. Playing his whole 18-season career with Green Bay thus far, Rodgers has earned the season MVP honor four times including 2011 when he also won Super Bowl MVP. Historically, Rodgers ranks in the top 10 passers in attempts (10th), yards (9th), completions (8th), and TDs (5th).
8. 1996-97 Upper Deck Kobe Bryant #58
Entering the league straight out of high school, everyone knew Kobe was a cool kid. His card hammers the point home, rocking a pair of sunglasses on his forehead which match his off-white dress shirt, showing his teeth to the camera in a relaxed smile. The gleaming Upper Deck logo in the top right complements the silver Lakers one in the bottom left, boxed by shiny bronze. That same bronze climbs up the left side of the card in a strip patterned after basketball leather and framed by silver zigzag.
While it’s difficult to put Kobe in the Greatest of All Time debate against the likes of Jordan and LeBron, there’s no arguing that he’s up there. His career reflects that through individual records and team accomplishments alike. Playing his whole 20-year career with Los Angeles, Kobe might’ve been the biggest star in a city full of celebrities. His five championships with the Lakers, two Finals MVPs, and 18 All-Star appearances made him a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. Tragically, Kobe died in a helicopter crash with his daughter and seven others in 2020, but neither his fans nor competitors will ever forget his contributions to the sport.
9. 1991 Upper Deck Michael Jordan #SP1
If you’ve been in the hobby for a while, even if not a basketball fan, you’re familiar with the Michael Jordan rookie card. Most haven’t seen this rookie card, though. Though it’s common knowledge he left the Bulls following their three-peat in 1993 to play baseball, this card comes from a set two years earlier when the Chicago White Sox invited him to batting practice. In the card, Jordan’s following through on a swing in the cage. His red practice jersey, blue sleeves and cap, and white pants and gloves make him look like some sort of American hero – which he is, to many. Though we can’t see the ball, Jordan’s upturned eyes indicate a powerful hit. The impressed expression on his face seems to confirm it.
Compared to our other entries, the player in this rookie card doesn’t quite back up the hype. Jordan batted a paltry .202 in his single season with the Birmingham Barons, Chicago’s AA minor league team. His 46 runs and 3 homers were negligible, so it’s a good thing he’s got a better legacy elsewhere.
10. 2005-06 Upper Deck Alexander Ovechkin #443
An earlier entry from Upper Deck’s “Young Guns” rookie cards, Ovechkin looks ready for battle. Decked in the Capitals’ black jersey, the red accents resemble streaks of war paint. Solidifying his warrior appearance is his raised stick, held ahead as if ready to charge. The Upper Deck logo shines in the top right, with player name, team name, and a streaking text of “ROOKIES” at bottom. The left side bares a frame of skate-scratched ice with “YOUNG GUNS” climbing upwards. The bottom left corner displays his position.
Ovechkin’s 18-year career has been spent entirely with Washington, and is still active. He became team captain in 2010, and led the Capitals to a Stanley Cup victory in 2018. Like our other entries he boasts impressive records in his sport including 6th all-time in hat tricks, 2nd in game-winning goals, and 1st in shots.