Today in our Card Chronicles series we take a look at the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Card.
Every baseball card is in some way the same. A cardboard rectangle printed with a photo of the current day’s MLB stars, maybe embroidered with a piece of jersey or something similar to add some uniqueness. Yet any collector will tell you that certain cards transcended the raw materials that make them up and carry a certain indescribable aura. The 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr rookie card is one of those special cards.
A Small Card Shop in Anaheim
The 1980s were a great time to be a collector of baseball cards. What had begun in the 19th century as an addition to a pack of cigarettes had evolved into a hobby that millions of Americans of all ages took part in. The decade would prove to revolutionize the industry and it began with two new companies – Donruss and Fleer – entering the market in 1981.
Donruss and Fleer were the new kids on the block, but they were significant because they broke the monopoly that Topps had held on baseball cards for nearly thirty years. Baseball cards were increasingly being seen more as investments rather than toys, but with these new producers joining the market the number of cards would skyrocket and dilute the value. The 1980s would come to be known as an era of over-producing, resulting in few cards that were rare enough to hold significant value. However, little did anyone know that in California a small start-up company was about to change baseball cards forever.
Paul Sumner was a salesman in the graphics business when he wandered into a card store in Anaheim, California, looking to buy some baseball cards for his son. Sumner was not a major sports fan at the time but after looking over the product available he was disappointed with the quality of selection. Bill Hemrick was the owner of the store, a small card shop named Upper Deck, and as Sumner learned more about some of the issues with cards, specifically counterfeiting, he came up with an idea that would put his experience with graphics to use. This idea would change the way cards are made forever.
Upper Deck was awarded a license to produce MLB cards for the 1989 season and they got to work. Sumner worked to add a hologram to each card which would not be easily replicable, preventing fakes from being produced as they had been for many other high-value cards at the time. The hologram was made from the same material as is used on passports and drivers’ licenses and is expensive to replicate.
When Upper Deck’s first baseball set hit the market, it put everyone on notice that they weren’t there to mess around. The cards arrived in foil compared to wax, and Sumner’s big idea of having a hologram on the cards to prevent counterfeiting was a major success. With an increase in quality came an increase in price as Upper Deck packs sold for $1.00 apiece, prices consumers had never seen before. It didn’t seem to matter as packs flew off the shelves and Upper Deck struggled to keep up with demand.
The 1989 Upper Deck baseball set began with cards numbered 1 to 26 consisting of the Upper Deck Star Rookie collection. Leading off in the desirable number one spot would be Ken Griffey Jr., a rookie and former first overall draft pick that was not a lock to be playing on the Mariners big league roster that spring. The decision to put Griffey Jr. as the number one card was one made by Tom Geideman, an at the time 18-year-old who was a big fan of collecting baseball cards and had been hired as one of Upper Deck’s first employees.
The number one position in a set of baseball cards holds a certain sacredness to collectors and the choice of who would be the face of their first set was not an easy one for Upper Deck. Geideman wanted to begin the set with one of the top prospects of the time, and his candidates included Gregg Jeffries, a player who had been in the big leagues with the Mets the previous season, as well as Gary Sheffield and Sandy Alomar Jr. Geideman’s gamble to put Griffey Jr. as the number one card is a decision that worked out great for Upper Deck and has gone down in baseball card history.
Geideman was only six months in age apart from Griffey Jr. and had watched him play for the San Bernardino Spirit. No other card brand had Griffey Jr. in their number one spot, in fact, some did not have him in their set at all, and it was another aspect that made the 1989 Upper Deck set unique. All was good, until Geideman and Upper Deck ran into a new issue. They had to find a picture of Griffey Jr. for the card.
The solution to this problem came in the form of a smiling headshot of Griffey Jr. in a San Bernardino Spirit uniform, taken by Sports Illustrated photographer V.J. Lovero. A few touches in the Scitex machine, photoshop before photoshop, and the image were ready to be printed onto cards, the S on the cap now representing Seattle and the colors changed.
If you look closely at one of the cards today, you can see that the cap has been changed from the navy blue that the Spirit wore to the royal blue that the Mariners rocked. One thing that was missed was the turtleneck that Griffey Jr. is wearing. It remained navy blue and when examined you can tell the difference that there is a difference in color between the turtleneck and the cap.
While Jeffries, Sheffield, and Alomar Jr. all went on to have solid careers, it was Griffey Jr. who would captivate fans and bring some swagger and charisma to baseball as he rocketed up the home run charts. Griffey currently has the seventh most home runs in MLB history and captured America’s heart in the process.
A Bit of Baseball Card History
Many people, hardcore baseball card collectors or not, may have heard the story about the famous Honus Wagner T206 card. Wagner was a great player that played around the turn of the twentieth century and he is known today as one of the greatest shortstops to play the game. Wagner is not only famous for his baseball skills but also because he is pictured on one of the most famous baseball cards ever.
Long before Topps held their monopoly on the market, and even longer before Tom Geideman would opt to place Ken Griffey Jr. in the number one slot of Upper Deck’s first set of cards, baseball cards were produced by tobacco companies. This T206 set that this Wagner card was a part of a set that was produced by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911.
Wagner did not agree with his likeness being reproduced on these cards and ordered the production of cards pictured with his face to be stopped. While the exact number of Wagner T206 cards is unknown, estimates have placed the number somewhere between fifty to two-hundred cards.
Today, this T206 Wagner card is the most valuable baseball card in the world when looking at the price. It has sold for over $3 million dollars in auction and copies have been owned by celebrities such as Wayne Gretzky. This is an iconic card and the scarcity combined with the pictured player is what makes it so special. The Ken Griffey Jr. 1989 Upper Deck rookie card is all the way on the other side of the rarity spectrum, as it was produced in droves, yet it retains its own special magic.
When Upper Deck’s 1989 baseball cards hit the market, they received mixed reviews as does any advancement in technology. Some people will always cling to tradition and it was no different in the card industry. A full dollar for a pack of baseball cards may not open any eyes in today’s age, but in 1989 this was a big jump and collectors’ opinions were divided on if the new packs made by the small card store in California were worth the price.
One thing was for certain, collectors were becoming more and more aware that baseball cards had long term value as they saw an increasing number of older cards sell for fortunes at auctions across the country. They had heard the stories about cards like the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card, a card that would eventually sell for close to $3 million in mint condition, that people were found in their basements decades after they had stopped collecting.
Mom’s across the country was praised for not throwing away collections that wound up having very valuable cards in them. Adults who had collected as kids went back to check on old collections left in parent’s basements. Newspapers carried stories about everyday people who had found a fortune in the form of a cardboard rectangle. Cards suddenly had life-changing value, they just needed time to get to that level and so many Upper Deck cards went into safekeeping immediately.
This meant that a large segment of people who opened these 1989 Upper Deck packs recognized the fact that this was the company’s first set, and if they just waited a few decades these cards might be worth something. Which card would be the most valuable? It had to be number one.
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You may think that it was only the serious adult collectors who cared about the value of the card, but you would be misinformed. Kids were acutely aware that this could be an investment and the large dollar signs danced in their heads. People of all ages had the idea that keeping this card in mint condition was going to be very important and it resulted in a huge quantity of Ken Griffey Jr. cards being kept in great condition.
Not only did collectors protect these cards like never before, but they were produced at the peak of the baseball card industry when cards were flying off the printing press. Demand was high and Upper Deck was more than happy to attempt to satisfy that demand. While the exact number of cards produced is unknown, most agree that it is at least over one million and possibly closer to two million.
In fact, in 2016, Beckett, one of the two premier card grading companies, released the fact that over 90,000 Ken Griffey Jr. 1989 Upper Deck cards had been graded between the services of Professional Sports Authenticator (read: PSA or Beckett Grading) and themselves. Out of those 90,000, around 2,500 have received the desirable rating of 9.5 or 10.
One reason why many of the Ken Griffey Jr. cards don’t receive strong scores is because of the printing of the card itself. Sometimes a card can be taken perfect care of, yet it doesn’t receive a high score because of issues that occurred before it was in the owner’s possession. These grading companies are thorough in their checks and any mistake in the printing process will result in a lower score.
With the 1989 baseball cards being Upper Deck’s first on the market, mistakes were inevitable. Tom Geideman was asked about the large quantity of off printed cards on the Baseball Cards Daily podcast and he mentioned that the young company struggled with printing machine issues as well as issues with the paper used. The paper was imported from Europe as part of their plan to increase the quality of cards but when it arrived in California, they did not have adequate means of storing it. The resulting changes in humidity caused the paper to stretch slightly in different directions and are why today we are left with so many off-centered cards.
Geideman continued as he told the story of the first print trial runs they had at Upper Deck. He had gotten some of his friends’ jobs working in the printing process and as they did the first trial runs they were ordered to hand destroy the cards. Geideman would tell his friends to keep the Ken Griffey Jr. cards, saying that destroying them would be the equivalent of ripping a hundred-dollar-bill. While the card never quite reached that high in value, he was right to tell them to keep their copies.
An Icon for a Generation
Lucas Stallbaumer may have the largest collection of 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. cards in the world with at least multiple hundred kept in safety deposit boxes. His love for the card goes back to when he was in third grade and heard a classmate offering $20 for a Ken Griffey Jr. card. Stallbaumer brought the card to school the next day only to have his offer rejected by his classmate. He had brought a 1991 Topps card while it was the 1989 Upper Deck card that was desired.
Disappointed with his 1991 Topps card, Stallbaumer would go on to investigate why his classmate desired the Upper Deck card so much. From there he fell in love with Griffey Jr. and decided to collect the iconic card, but he wouldn’t be able to get his hands on one until 2001 when he was 19, which cost him $56.
Stallbaumer represents an entire generation of collectors and baseball fans, although to a more extreme degree, who fell in love with the altered portrait of Ken Griffey Jr.’s sly smile printed with a quality that had never been seen before. Griffey was the hero of the league, his smooth swing knocking ball after ball over the fence, yet he was more than just a ballplayer as he exuded cool and his cards reflected that.
When asked about what he thought made the card so special, Stallbaumer pointed to the upgraded technology and card features but eventually comes back around to the player on the card. “I think it is because it is just like how the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is iconic. To me, they based it off of that card making it the #1 card in the set for the #1 overall pick. It is just a head/chest shot (a portrait if you will) just like the 1952 Mantle and just like Mantle, Griffey Jr. was that generation icon or hero of the diamond.”
There is a significance to Griffey Jr being the first pick in the draft and then the first card in the set but as Stallbaumer continues to explain, the card would not be the same if it were anyone but Griffey Jr. “Overall though the player made the card. If Griffey was a dud and only played 3-5 years and batted .200 or less, no one would care about the card. It would be in the junk wax that gets thrown away after people rip packs looking for other Hall of Famers and desirable rookies.”
The fact of the matter remains that above else it was Griffey Jr. that made the card so special. His play and demeanour on the field resonated with a generation of people around the world and the swarm of fans he created will forever have this baseball card as a grail to feel a little closer to their hero.
A Card Worthy for Cooperstown
Unlike the Honus Wagner T206 card, the 1989 Upper Deck Griffey Jr. card is not unique because of its rarity. With over a million copies made, the card has never held an extremely high monetary value and ungraded cards can be found online for under twenty dollars. Even with the huge quantity produced, the fact that the card still has value shows how much demand there remains to this day. No other card from the 1989 Upper Deck set has ever held any significant monetary value. The entire set can be found online for around the same price as the individual Ken Griffey Jr. card.
The baseball card industry is struggling today, and companies have had to be innovative in their methods to create excitement and sell packs. Buy a pack of cards today and you may find a variety of different types of cards, perhaps with a game-worn jersey insert or a replicated autograph to create a unique product.
It was Upper Deck that was the first to put these autographs into packs with the 1990 Reggie Jackson card, limited to 2500 total copies. This was another innovative decision by the company that showed that they were ahead of the curve when it came to implementing different card technologies that could capture the public’s attention.
Tom Geideman left Upper Deck in 1994 yet his impact on the company will last forever. His decision to make Ken Griffey Jr. the number one card in the 1989 set was a gamble that made the company’s set the most desirable in the industry, all while being the first set the company had produced.
The set changed baseball cards forever with their new technology that rival card makers quickly attempted to recreate. The Upper Deck hologram has not gone anywhere and can still be found on many of their cards today, and the small card shop in Anaheim has turned into a large sports card and memorabilia company.
The first card from the set will go down as, debatably, the most iconic baseball card of all time, a holy grail for an entire generation of people. The sly smile across the face of a man that was soon to capture America’s spirit and become the hero of the diamond, the player that kids emulated as they walked to the plate in their sandlot games.
The Ken Griffey Jr. 1989 Upper Deck rookie card is, just like many other baseball cards, a piece of cardboard that has been replicated over a million times. The raw materials are the exact same as every other card in that set, yet at the same time, it is the complete opposite of every other card in the set. It carries magical memories for millions of people, memories of a simpler time where they opened a pack of Upper Deck cards and marveled at the shiny foil packaging. Where they saw they examined the hologram on the card, impressed with the new technology that they had never seen before and where hopefully they perused through the cards and saw the altered image of “the Kid”, who little did they know would go on to one of the greatest MLB careers of all time, all the while exuding confidence and charisma. For this reason, this card is unlike any other produced as it holds the power to transport an entire generation of people to better days, even if it is just for a moment.