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Upper Deck co-founder McWilliam dead at 59

Posted Jan 7, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 09:46 PM

Richard McWilliam, who co-founded Upper Deck and spearheaded dynamic innovation into the production and packaging of sports cards, died Saturday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., the company announced in a news release Monday. He was 59.

The cause of death for Upper Deck’s CEO has yet to be determined, but McWilliam had been battling heart disease and had open heart surgery in 2008.

“We are heartbroken today,” Upper Deck spokesman Chris Carlin said.

Upper Deck named Jason Masherah as its president on Monday. Masherah has been running day-to-day operations of the company for about a year, performing the duties of company president. He joined Upper Deck in 2006 and was appointed vice president in July 2010. He also has been vice president of marketing and business development.

“We are shocked and saddened by Richard’s passing,” Masherah said in a news release. “However, he built a company with a strong management team, a focus on quality, and an expanding array of successful products. Upper Deck is well positioned to continue its growth and success, and I am honored to have been chosen to lead the company.”

McWilliam co-founded Upper Deck in 1988, and the company’s impact was immediately felt on the sports card market. Topps had lost its monopoly to produce baseball cards in the early 1980s, as Fleer and Donruss began issuing cards in 1981. But Upper Deck earned a license from Major League Baseball on Dec. 23, 1988, and two months later hit the market with slickly produced cards with vibrant color photography. In a savvy move, card No. 1 from Upper Deck’s debut set featured the rookie card of Ken Griffey Jr.

The photography and UV coating on the cards Upper Deck produced were light years ahead of the other companies, and UD added tamper-proof packaging and holograms that made counterfeiting difficult.

Through the years, Upper Deck added NFL, NBA and NHL licenses to its stable.

Some of Upper Deck’s innovations under McWilliam’s tenure included autographed trading cards and game-used cards (bats and jerseys) — all randomly inserted into packs — digital trading cards and games based on trading cards.

Speaking of memorabilia, Upper Deck made a big splash in 1998 and caused a spirited debate when it bought a Babe Ruth bat used during the 1920s for $23,000 from Mastro Fine Sports Auction, then created 200 shavings from the bat to be included in the Pieces of History inserts in the 1999 Upper Deck Series 1 baseball card set.

In 1992, Upper Deck Authenticated was launched in an effort to prevent forgeries. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Griffey Jr. and Albert Pujols have exclusive relationships for signed memorabilia with UD.

“Richard was a thought leader and visionary in the trading card industry,” Masherah said. “It grew from a hobby for some baseball fans into a multibillion dollar industry because of the multiple innovations that Upper Deck introduced under his leadership.

“He built a company that has weathered difficult times for the entire industry and is well positioned for future success.”

Those difficult times included the losses of MLB, NFL and NBA licenses in the last four years. Upper Deck still retains a license for producing NHL cards, and also has a license to produce images of players in their college uniforms. The company also expanded into the entertainment business with the introduction of Marvel products — most recently Legendary, a deck-building game.

The company also has suffered some legal setbacks in court.

Earlier this year, MLB Properties sued Upper Deck, claiming it was still due more than $265,000 under terms of a settlement reached between the two parties in 2010. Three weeks later, on March 16, 2012, the NFL Players Association sued Upper Deck for breach of contract because it failed to make payments owed to the NFLPA and NFL Players Incorporated under two license agreements, two services agreements, and hundreds of player agreements. That was approximately $1.25 million worth of royalties for autographs and photographs.

Upper Deck also settled a lawsuit filed against it by Konami, in which UD admitted to counterfeiting Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.

Certainly, McWilliam oversaw some innovative times and steered the company through some rough seas. Even Upper Deck’s competitors acknowledged as much on Twitter.

Topps tweeted: “RIP Richard McWilliam @UpperDeckSports, never like to see anyone leave us early & while a fierce competitor had lasting impact on the hobby.”

Leaf Trading cards tweeted: “Our condolences go out to the family, friends and faithful employees of Richard McWilliam and Upper Deck ... The hobby lost a pioneer.”

Terry Melia, former Upper Deck spokesman, said McWilliam “always was polished and attentive.”

Melia, who joined Upper Deck in 1998 and was laid off in 2011, interviewed McWilliam several times during the 1990s when he was a reporter and editor for Trading Cards magazine.

“At one of those encounters, following a Mickey Mantle signing at the newly opened UDA Store at the Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, he even handed me a Mantle-signed baseball at the end of our interview,” Melia said. “I told him I already had one, but he just said: ‘Keep it.’ ”

During his years with Upper Deck, Melia got to watch McWilliam in action with the media and within his own company.

“As the years progressed, he would occasionally deliver company-wide addresses to the masses,” Melia said. “Each time, Mary Mancera, my boss, and I would try and come up with succinct sound bites for Richard to use during his announcements. More often than not, he went with his own set of notes and ignored ours.

“He did things his way and on his own terms.”

McWilliam is survived by his wife and three children. Funeral services are pending.

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