Upper Deck co-founder and CEO Richard P. McWilliam passed away suddenly on Saturday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He was 59 years old.
McWilliam co-founded Upper Deck in 1989 and oversaw its operations until his death. He is credited with helping to transform the sports trading card industry, acquiring a Major League Baseball license in time to produce the company’s first set in 1989, which included the first Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.
“Our entire company is heartbroken and grieving his death today,” Upper Deck’s Jason Masherah wrote on the company’s Facebook page today. Masherah, Upper Deck’s vice president of marketing and business development, had fulfilled the role of president for the past year as McWilliam battled heart disease before being officially named to the post today.
“Richard was a thought leader and visionary in the trading card industry. It grew from a hobby for some baseball fans into a multi-billion dollar industry because of the multiple innovations that Upper Deck introduced under his leadership,” Masherah said in a press release. “He built a company that has weathered difficult times for the entire industry and is well positioned for future success.”
According to a 1993 New York Times profile, McWilliam and Upper Deck shook up the trading card industry by replacing traditional photos on cardboard with a premium, high-quality product. Upper Deck cards featured a photo on both sides and included a hologram to make the counterfeit proof. Rival card makers were forced to improve their product that helped propel the sports trading card market from a $50 million industry in 1980 to a $1.5 billion behemoth in 1992, according to the New York Times. The innovations also led to a saturation of the market that has devalued the modern trading card.
“I never had a passion for cards, just a passion for doing something perfectly,” McWilliam told The Times. “I don’t care if a card is worth 2 cents or $50.”