When you look at the numbers and the highlights, it’s obvious that Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the greatest to ever play baseball. To prove that, his Hall of Fame plaque will be unveiled Sunday, after he earned a record 99.3 percent of the vote.
But that only tells half Griffey’s story. Sure, he was great on the field, but he was also the coolest big leaguer to ever put on a uniform. That combination made him one of the most popular athletes of the ’90s and an immortal all these years later.
You know the numbers: 630 homers, 1,836 RBIs, 22 seasons. But here’s the rest of the Griffey legacy. These are 15 things that made him the coolest baseball player ever.
We start here because beyond anything else, the swing is what we’ll remember most. If you watched Griffey play, there was a 100 percent chance you tried to copy his swing in your backyard. It was just that pretty.
BEING ‘THE KID’
He debuted in the big leagues at 19 and looked just like his nickname, “The Kid.” But it was obvious right away that he could hold his own. To legions of actual kids, this made him an immediate favorite.
HIS BASEBALL CARD
Straight up, if you didn’t have a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, your baseball card collection was inferior. There are no arguments about this.
THE VIDEO GAMES
Which Griffey video game you prefer might depend on when you were born. Both “Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball” (1994, Super Nintendo) and “Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest” (1999, N64) are among the most beloved. But Griffey’s run as a video-game cover boy earned him cool points with yet another demographic.
Griffey is the closest thing baseball has had to Michael Jordan, and Nike knew that. That’s why it gave Griffey his own line of shoes (and eventually his own Swingman line and logo). The Swingman was never as good as the Jumpman, but when Griffey’s kicks first dropped in 1996, it was groundbreaking that a baseball player had sneakers AND they were that fresh. (Sidenote: Nike has re-released the Griffey Air Max 1 in new and old colorways this year)
LIL’ PENNY LOVED HIM
Everybody remembers (and loves) Nike’s Lil’ Penny commercials, which were mostly centered around NBA star Penny Hardaway. But do you remember the one where Lil Penny wanted Griffey to be president? Gold.
MICHAEL JORDAN WANTED *HIS* AUTOGRAPH
As we’ve established, Jordan set the coolest-athlete-in-the-world bar in the mid-90s, so when Jordan wanted Griffey’s autograph at the 1993 MLB All-Star game, there could be no greater co-sign.
HE HIT BACK-TO-BACK HOMERS WITH HIS DAD
When you’re 20 years old, you probably don’t want to do what you’re dad is doing. Unless, of course, he’s hitting big-league homers. So in 1990, when Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. hit back-to-back dingers against the Angels, an MLB first, that was cool as could be.
HE BROKE HIS WRIST MAKING A SPECTACULAR CATCH
Remember, Griffey wasn’t just a pretty swing and swag personified. He could play defense too. Of all the great catches he made, this one might be most memorable, when he broke his wrist flying into the Kingdome wall and grabbing this ball.
HE WAS ON THE ‘FRESH PRINCE’
Here’s another great early-’90s coolness co-sign: Griffey had a cameo on the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in 1994, in which he, for some reason, showed up at a Bel-Air Academy fundraiser, got wooed by Hilary Banks and made fun of Will. That’s like the full “Fresh Prince” experience.
HE WAS THE VILLAIN IN ‘LITTLE BIG LEAGUE’ — BUT STILL THE BEST
Not only did Griffey get on the big screen in the 1994 film, “Little Big League,” but he was among the movie’s antagonists. This was the power of Griffey — he could play a villain and people still loved him. Vince McMahon would be proud.
HE RAPPED — IT WASN’T BAD
Sports history is full of athletes who made rap songs when they had no business rapping. When Griffey jumped on a track with Seattle rapper Kid Sensation in 1992, he may have been the first baseball player to release a recorded rap. And you know what? It wasn’t too bad. Even today.
HE GOT NAME-CHECKED BY JAY-Z
Baseball is, as somewhat noted above, not the sport most in touch with hip-hop. So when Griffey started getting name-checked in rap songs, that was a sign he wasn’t your average baseball player. When he got name-checked by Jay-Z on 1996’s “Hova Song,” it was a testament to Griffey’s coolness. It remains a pretty clever line by Jigga too.
“Slimmy at the Rucka wanna leave and spend with me /
I consistently take em out the park like Ken Griffey”
As good as his bat and his glove were, Griffey’s most indelible image might be at the bottom of a dogpile after he scored the winning run to send the Mariners to the ALCS in 1995. Look at the joy on his face — the chosen one helping the Mariners win the first playoff series in their franchise history.
HIS BACKWARD CAP
You didn’t think we’d forget this, did you? We saved the best for last. When Griffey turned his cap backward — most famously at the 1993 Home Run Derby — it was like he shifted the tectonic plates of baseball. He was flying in the face of tradition, riling up the old-timers and adding a type of flair the game hadn’t seen before. For that and everything else above, he’ll always be the coolest.
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