What the iconic 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck card means to a generation of fans

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
The 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.
The 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.

I’ll never forget when I got my Junior. I was at the card shop, opening packs, two of them, the fruits of my labor from sweeping the floor and making my bed and doing other chores expected of a 9-year-old. My weekly allowance was $3, and packs of Upper Deck baseball cards, the coolest things I’d ever seen, with their impossibly white borders and holograms on the back – holograms! – were $2 apiece, so I’d resigned myself to one. Ken, the mustachioed man who ran the place and a couple years earlier sold me my first baseball cards, said he’d give me two for $3. Ken was the best.

The first pack was a dud. It felt like a kick to the shin. Baseball cards were the first drug I ever tried, and they hooked me immediately. Nothing beat the rush of tearing open a wax pack, popping the stale gum, thumbing through 15 pieces of cheap cardboard and hoping for something new or rare or exciting. It was pure possibility.

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I’m fairly certain Upper Deck was my first introduction to the idea of premium. Upper Deck didn’t bother with gum. Its cards weren’t meant to adorn bicycle spokes. The pack was a shiny silver foil. The cards looked better, cleaner, Apple before Apple, this beautiful amalgamation of form and function, high-end enough to convince a child he wasn’t just buying baseball cards. He was investing in them.

What hammered home this notion, more than anything, was the face of a boy, 18 years old, wearing a half-smile and a gold chain with a medallion. Something about Ken Griffey Jr. felt right. I’m not sure why. My Griffey knowledge was limited to the frenzy his card caused. I didn’t know the only thing more gorgeous than his card was his swing. I didn’t know he had tried to kill himself at 18. I didn’t know that 15 years down the road I’d actually get to meet him, and it would be the only time I ever found myself legitimately nervous to interview someone. All I knew was that I needed card No. 1 in Upper Deck’s first set: Ken Griffey Jr., bat on left shoulder, Mariners hat photoshopped onto his head, ornate rookie decal in the lower right-hand corner, the apple of every white, middle-class suburban 9-year-old’s eye in 1989.

Before I opened the second pack, Ken pushed the button on one of his cases, and the cards in it started rotating like they were riding a Ferris wheel. When it stopped, an Upper Deck Griffey sat on top. Ken popped a key into the back of the case, slid open the door and pulled out the card for me to ogle. I flipped it over and soaked in every word on the back: About his dad still playing, the back injury that slowed him in Double-A, how he went to “Cincinnati’s famed Moeller HS.” Ever since, it hasn’t been Moeller High. It’s famed Moeller High.

The genius of Upper Deck’s choice of Griffey as card No. 1 belonged to a kid named Tom Geideman, like Griffey just 18 years old. As a college student working at the fledgling card company, Geideman convinced Upper Deck’s brass to differentiate itself from Topps and Donruss and Fleer by leading off its set with a minor leaguer. This predated by a good 15 years the prospect culture that the Internet birthed and today has grown into an industry within an industry, fetishizing minor leaguers because of what they might be.

Gregg Jefferies, one of the choices for Upper Deck’s first card, scratched out a solid if underwhelming major league career. Sandy Alomar Jr., another possibility, made six All-Star games and should be a major league manager sometime soon. Gary Sheffield, the other option, developed into a borderline Hall of Famer with a positive steroid test on his resume. None was Griffey. No one is Griffey.

And no one, to a child whose love of baseball blossomed in the late 1980s and was fortified in the early ’90s, ever will be Griffey. I know this seems anachronistic and all, but you have to understand: Baseball was cool back then, and no one was cooler than Ken Griffey Jr. He was the last baseball player whose popularity exceeded football and basketball stars. And, yeah, the backward hat helped craft this eternally youthful image of him, and his Nike shoes were dope, and the luminescence of his swing – so perfect; so, so perfect – matched his aesthetic. The real reason everyone loved Griffey, though, was because he was that damn good.

Griffey, not Barry Bonds, was supposed to break Hank Aaron’s record. Through age 29, the only players with more Wins Above Replacement than Griffey were familiar names: Cobb, Hornsby, Mantle, Ruth, Ott, Aaron, Foxx, Speaker, Collins. That was it. Then the Mariners traded him to Cincinnati, and his body gave out. This is an oversimplification, of course. Not all of Griffey’s years with the Reds were rough. He just missed 51, 92, 109 and 79 games in his just-after-prime seasons. Bonds, healthy and juicing, passed him. Junior went to the White Sox, then returned to Seattle, then walked away in the middle of the 2010 season. The game was done with him just as much as he was with it.

And so began the five-year countdown to the inevitable: Griffey’s election to the Hall of Fame and his induction this Sunday, alongside Mike Piazza. Junior received a vote from 99.3 percent of the electorate, a record. I was giddy to be one of the 437 who did check the box next to Griffey’s name. I half-wondered whether the Hall would use the picture from his ’89 Upper Deck card on the plaque. No image of a baseball player in the last quarter-century better represents its subject than Griffey’s Upper Deck photo.

All these years later, it resonates not just because of its simplicity but its position as the fulcrum of trading cards. Luke Winn argued in Sports Illustrated that the Upper Deck Griffey was the last iconic card, and he was right. Upper Deck’s success gave way to more gimmickry, a watered-down premium marketplace, the pricing out of so many. Prices rose. Supply spiked. Demand cratered. The card market crashed. Cards taught a good lesson about investing: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. My kids’ college fund now sits in my basement. My wife is pretty sure a mouse nibbled away at a few of the boxes.

No way they got my Junior. It’s in a case with screws in each of the four corners. I don’t care that it’s worth a pittance, that Upper Deck, sensing the fervor for it, preyed on suckers like me and printed exorbitant amounts of the Junior – that more than 50,000 of them now have been graded by PSA, the hobby’s biggest authenticator and arbiter of a card’s value. In truth, it wasn’t some kind of a special card I got that day.

The truth, for some reason, doesn’t matter to me. I still love that card. I still believe it’s the greatest card ever produced – better than the T206 Wagner, the ’52 Topps Mantle, the ’86 Fleer Jordan, the Billy Ripken F-bomb. I don’t care if there are a million Upper Deck Griffeys. That just means more people get to behold its splendor.

We’re all collectors. We collect baseball cards and Pokemon and coins and bottle caps and memories and tragedies and opinions and wisdom. We collect because we shaped our society around this instinct to gather, and we judge our lives on how the little pieces we’ve amassed along the way fulfill us. Ken Griffey Jr.’s Upper Deck card, No. 1, will forever be one of those tiny bits to me, to my generation. I’ll never forget standing in the card shop, tearing open that foil pack, Ken the dealer saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” as I thumbed through, right thumb to left, and stopped as I saw the rookie logo in the lower-right corner.

I peeled away the card on top, and there it was: the medallion, the half-smile, The Kid, staring back at me, new and rare and exciting. Forever, to a boy of 9 then and a man of 35 today, perfect.

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