The modern sportscard hobby has lost one of its pioneering members. Richard P. McWilliam, co-founder and CEO of The Upper Deck Co., died unexpectedly at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., on Jan. 5. He was 59 years old.
McWilliam is credited with transforming the sports trading card business by creating Upper Deck, a company that grew to become a leading sports trading card business and expanded to become a major sports and entertainment company. McWilliam drove that growth through continuing innovation to improve the quality, breadth of content and the form and style of trading cards.
McWilliam co-founded Upper Deck in 1989 and served until his death as its CEO and chairman of the board. He was known as a visionary with a keen eye for quality and innovation. With an awareness of the lack of creativity and quality in the sports trading card and memorabilia industry, he began developing sports products that raised collectibles standards overnight.
Under his leadership, Upper Deck’s innovations included significant improvements in the graphic quality and statistical information about the sports stars featured on trading cards, autographed inserts in trading cards, game jersey cards, the hugely popular “Piece of History” bat card with a piece of a bat swung in a game by the legendary Babe Ruth, digital trading cards, holographic certification of authenticity of autographs, cards with pieces of players’ jerseys embedded in them, games based on trading cards, expansion of content to players in virtually every major sport, extension into entertainment and other celebrity areas.
McWilliam had been recognized as one of America’s fastest rising executives. He was named as one of the nation’s top entrepreneurs in the “1991 Entrepreneur of the Year” listing by Inc. Magazine. Sporting News also named him as one of the Top 100 Sports Executives in the U.S. In 1998, Beckett Baseball named him one of the most influential people in baseball.
Upper Deck provided some additional details on McWilliam’s ventures in a tribute to its founder. In addition to the trading card company, McWilliam was founder and CEO of Jet Source, an aircraft fixed-base operation and aircraft charter and maintenance company located at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif. It has been voted as one of the top 40 FBOs in the U.S. among thousands of such operations. Previously, he was COO of the second-largest medical clinic operation in Orange County. He practiced as a certified public accountant for 11 years after receiving Bachelor’s degrees in Accounting and Economics from California State University at Fullerton.
He was known for his love of sports, for his relentless pursuit of outstanding quality and perfection, and for asking much from his employees, but even more from himself.
Speaking of Upper Deck employees, former UD marketing specialist Terry Melia shared some memories working with McWilliam.
“As the years progressed, Richard would occasionally deliver company-wide addresses to the employees. Each time, Mary Mancera, my boss, and I would try and come up with succinct sound bites for him to use during his announcements. More often than not, he went with his own set of notes and ignored ours. That was vintage Richard. He rarely took advice from anyone. For what it was worth, he did things his way and on his own terms.”
Melia also shared an awkward moment from his rookie season at Upper Deck. “During my first year at Upper Deck, I was asked to prep Richard for a special hobby media session we had planned at the industry’s first ever SportsFest Show in Philadelphia. The company had recently purchased a game-worn Michael Jordan Bulls jersey at auction and we were going to be cutting it up to use as card-front swatches later on in the year.
“When I got on the plane to go to Philly, I was riding in coach and Richard was riding up in first class. I prepared a two-page Q&A for him so he’d be ready for any questions the media might have in store for him. About an hour into the flight, I got up the nerve to maneuver my way into first class. I knelt down beside his seat, introduced myself and handed him the two-page document. As he looked at me as if to say, ‘Who the heck are you?’ I told him these would be likely questions coming from the media today and that it would be in his best interest to read through it. Without uttering a word, he took the document in hand as I quickly made my way back to my seat. Based on his non-verbal response and look-right-through-you stare, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had done something wrong.”
Under his direction, Upper Deck supported the Baseball Assistance Team, youth sports programs, local Boys and Girls Clubs, the Make a Wish Foundation and Operation Gratitude.
It can’t be ignored that McWilliam and Upper Deck have also had their share of legal battles over the past several years, resulting in million-dollar lawsuits. But McWilliam will be known for his innovations in the modern card hobby that are still used today.
For the last year, Jason Masherah has been carrying the title of vice president of Marketing and Business Development, while also overseeing day-to-day operations. With McWilliam’s passing, the company has formalized Masherah’s role and named him president.