For baseball fans, the name of a Hall of Fame player brings up instant images from the history of the game. For those of us falling into the category of “vintage” fans, those mental snapshots include moments we actually witnessed such as…
> Ted Williams hitting a milestone home run (#400) at Fenway Park.
> Being at Angel Stadium the night that George Brett went 4-for-4 to reach 3,000 hits.
> Seeing Carl Yastremzski playing left field at the old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in his rookie season.
> Hearing Sandy Koufax’s fastball hit the Catcher’s mitt at Dodger Stadium.
> Watching Cal Ripken Jr. hit a home run at Camden Yards.
> Sitting at Jack Murphy Stadium and having the privilege to see Tony Gwynn hit an opposite field single.
For Hall-of-Famer Ken Griffey Jr., the memory is different because it went unnoticed by history. In the early 90’s, a group of baseball fanatics from Southern California did a Spring Training road-trip to Arizona and took in four games in three days. On a beautiful day at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels were hosting the Mariners and some unlucky member of the home team hit a deep drive to left-center field. Junior got a great jump on the ball and ended up making the catch with a head-long dive on the warning track. He proudly showed off the ball to the crowd and then got up and sprinted to the dugout (it was the 3rd out) with a smile that everyone could see. Yes, a meaningless game and a dangerous play by a star player, but it told you everything you needed to know about his enthusiasm and love of the game. I still remember that catch like it was yesterday and it jumps into my consciousness every time I see a baseball card collection that includes his Rookie Card.
Interestingly, Ken Griffey Jr. also had a profound impact on the baseball card industry. In a 2015 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Magazine, Dave Sliepka chronicled the background of the turbulent story of baseball cards in the 80’s. As we’ve talked about in previous visits, Topps lost their monopoly of cards in 1980, allowing Donruss & Fleer to enter the market in 1981. By the late 80’s, other companies were entering the fray and collectors were becoming more and more frustrated due to over-production and too many similar products. That all changed in 1989, when a fledgling company called Upper Deck received licensing and started producing sports cards.
Putting together their first baseball card in 1989, the company decided to alter the landscape by offering a higher quality collectible with thicker paper stock, beautiful photography and a hologram for authenticity. They even had the audacity to charge $1 a pack, which was more than twice what Topps cards cost at the time. Sliepka describes it as “going from a rotary phone to an iPhone”. Another significant factor in their success, however, was the willingness to take chances. They decided to go out on the limb to feature “prospects”. Other companies had always had “rookie cards” in their sets, but Upper Deck opted to have the first 26 cards in their 700-card offering to be “Star Rookies”.
The best decision was to have Ken Griffey Jr. be the #1 card in the set. Today, that seems like a no-brainer but when the calendar turned to 1989, Griffey was only 19 years old and had never played a game above AA. In fact, due to injuries, he only played 75 games in the minors in 1988. To verify how “out of the box” this thinking was, Topps didn’t even include Griffey in their 1989 set. Two other Hall of Fame members were also in that 26-card subset…John Smoltz & Randy Johnson. However, what would have happened if one of the other prospects had been chosen to be #1, like Doug Dascenzo, Mike Harkey or Felix Jose?
Griffey exploded onto the scene in 1989 by hitting 16 HR’s with 61 RBI’s and 16 SB’s to finish 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting. And the perfect storm of the Upper Deck set dominated the hobby with the Griffey RC becoming the most popular card. The good news for today’s collectors is that Upper Deck joined the competition in producing mass quantities of the product and you can still buy a factory-sealed set for around $50 on eBay. To show the popularity of the individual Griffey card over the years, grading company PSA has had over 75,000 of them submitted. Only 5% have been determined to be “Gem Mint 10” and if you have one, it’s worth over $1,000. A “Mint 9” (about 33% of those submitted) books for $175 and a “NM – MT 8” (41%) is worth about $75. The downside to the glossy sheen of this product is that even a card coming out of a sealed pack or set could have enough slight damage to impact the grade. For collectors, this background allows you to own one of the most famous cards in the history of the hobby for a reasonable price.
As for me, every time I see the card, it also takes me back to the warning track in Tempe, Arizona.