Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Card companies need to do more to ensure the authenticity of "game-used" materials

NOTE: This blog began as a labor of love between me and Sooz during the summer, and it went quiet after she began working for Beckett. But I still have the urge to write about cards, so I decided to revive the blog (note the updated banner above). Expect to see updates every few days. Sooz might still stop by sometimes to write about her Derek Jeter collection. -Dan

By Dan | @dgood73
Card collecting in the post-scandal days requires additional scrutiny and skepticism.
That inability to separate fact from fiction makes it difficult for fans.
What was real? What wasn’t? Who knows.
I could be writing about the sports world’s steroid scandals. But no, this focuses on memorabilia cards – cardboard that carries “authentic” pieces of jerseys, bats and other materials.
My concern ramped up recently after a Florida man, Brad Wells, told investigators that he sold bogus game-used jerseys to card companies – and that the companies were aware of his underhandedness.
“Brad Wells sold game used jerseys to the three major card companies (at the time), Donruss, Upper Deck and Topps,” an FBI transcript states.
In the transcript, Wells admits to using new bats and “dirtying up" uniforms to make them look game-used.
He also discusses an Upper Deck buyer’s interest in acquiring Derek Jeter jerseys from a reseller – for a fraction of the price of legitimate, actual Jeter jerseys, with disregard for the source of the jerseys.
Certainly fraud is going to happen.
Certainly, some improper memorabilia cards are going to reach collectors’ hands.
But following these recent developments, the companies’ hands are dirty now. And they need to do more to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

Game-used cards became popular in the mid- to late-1990s, putting collectors closer to the action than ever before.
Here was a chance to own a jersey worn by Ken Griffey, Jr. or Walter Payton or Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky – without paying full-scale auction prices.
Upper Deck was the first brand to popularize jersey cards. Back then, that company did everything ahead of the others, from autographs to holograms to jerseys. Eventually the other companies followed suit, and by the early 2000s, the market was saturated with game-used cards, little slivers of cotton, wood, rubber or plastic touched by our sports heroes.
At the beginning of the venture, the companies were specific about the sources of the on-card materials.
Football legend Dan Marino’s 1996 Upper Deck jersey card featured a lengthy and specific write-up on the reverse describing the jersey’s usage:
“Congratulations! You have received the first ever Game-Worn Jersey card from The Upper Deck Company. On the front of this card is an authentic piece of a game-worn jersey from an official National Football League game. This swatch is from a jersey worn by Dan Marino on December 18, 1994 at Indianapolis. We hope you enjoy this piece of NFL history as we at The Upper Deck Company continue to keep you “As close as you can get!”

Upper Deck changed its wording on game-used cards in the following years to state that the jersey swatches were worn during a specific season, and eventually in an official game.
By 2006, Upper Deck began using the phrase “certified to us” in regards to on-card memorabilia.
Certified to us … Hmm.
The re-worded authenticity certification matches the time frame in which the Florida man says he was selling retail jerseys to UD and other companies.
The card companies all faced similar issues, similar dilemmas. How far do you have to go to ensure that something’s real? And will collectors notice either way?
So it’s possible that your “game-used” cards aren’t game-used at all, simply retail jerseys that received extra patches, and maybe use at the local sports field.


Pull a game-used memorabilia card in a current Topps pack, and you’ll see an interesting line on the reverse.
“The relic contained on this card is not from any specific game, event, or season,” the certificate reads.
So how do we know it’s real?
There’s nothing in that statement that reveals where the memorabilia came from, how Topps obtained it, how the materials have been certified, nothing.
And that’s simply not good enough anymore, not after all of the statements and accusations, scrutiny and doubt.
Panini, meanwhile, works with an authentication company called The Meigray Group for many of its game-used items. Meigray deals directly with teams’ equipment managers and documents each item, a chance for outside authentication – and a way to avoid the pitfalls of reseller-fueled fraud of the past decade.
Moving forward, card companies should provide collectors with better documentation of game-used items – from outside certification to an online database to security codes.
(NOTE: Leaf is already doing databases for major hits; recently written about by Voice of the Collector)
At the very least, something.
Previously, Donruss Playoff – which was purchased by Panini in 2009 – would show a picture of the pre-cut item on the card’s reverse.
Social media has contributed to the authentication process. Earlier this year, Topps posted photos on Twitter showing pitcher R.A. Dickey’s pants covered in dirt stains, the pants directly sent by the Mets following a recent game. Now pieces of those pants appear in packs.
Such documentation provides collectors with peace of mind.
That peace of mind costs money. But it also means something for consumers in such a cut-throat industry.
Collectors pay for these cards, and they deserve truth and honesty. Companies’ guarantees should mean something.


I still enjoy game-used cards. I’m just a little more skeptical now.
I was searching on eBay today for a Nolan Ryan jersey card. I own more than 300 Nolan Ryan cards in my collection dating to 1970, but no pieces of memorabilia.
Time to change that. I typed in my search and hundreds of cards appeared, the cards ranging in price from $10 to $500 or more.
Many of the swatches were plain white or gray, Nolan’s usual uniform colors during most of his career. Some were yellow and orange from his Houston Astros days.
But how easy would it be for someone to buy an unused white, gray or yellow jersey and sell it to a card company?
I also steered away from Upper Deck, Donruss and Topps cards from the questionable era. You just never know.
I settled on a 2005 Fleer Classic Clippings Cut of History jersey card, mainly because of the material included.

The jersey shows a blue pinstripe, something that Nolan’s Angels, Astros and Rangers teams never wore. No, “The Ryan Express” only donned pinstripes during his time with the New York Mets between 1966 and 1971. The material on the card reflects that uniform trend. This is a wool jersey from a very specific baseball era, the type of uniform that’s been sitting around for quite awhile.
How do I know it’s real? I don’t. But the swatch dates to a specific era and matches a uniform that Nolan Ryan once wore.
And that’s good enough for me – for now, anyway.


  1. I would like to see the card companies limit "game used" cards to items that they obtain directly from the teams/leagues that they deal with. Forget the third-party items, and the credibility issues largely go away.

  2. I wish they'd match the swatch to the picture (or at least the team) depicted on the front of the card. Ryan above should have a piece of Astros jersey or a picture of him in a Mets uniform.