06/20/2004 3:50 PM ET
Griffey card still a hot item
1989 rookie card revolutionized collecting
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
|Ken Griffey Jr.'s rookie card, No. 1 in the 1989 Upper Deck set. (MLB.com)
It was card No. 1 in a set of 800, and there was something as different about that particular card as there was about its subject.
Ken Griffey Jr. became the player of the 1990s in Major League Baseball, and his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card became the card of the decade as well. The card's clean, white borders and first-ever hologram -- and even his pleasant smile and bountiful enthusiasm -- seemed to personify the star he became.
Both the subject and his cardboard likeness revolutionized the game in their own way, literally putting Upper Deck, a Carlsbad, Calif., sports entertainment and memorabilia company, on the map. One significant ramification of Griffey's 2004 resurgence with the Reds and his 500-homer milestone is the sudden return to prominence of a card so many baseball fans and collectors kept hopefully in screw holders.
"The '89 rookie card was, in our mind and in the industry, a revolutionary card," said Mike Barry, baseball brand manager for Upper Deck. "Not just because it was Ken Griffey Jr., but because of what Upper Deck brought into it: The first bordered white card, the first with a hologram on it. ... It pretty much launched us. It legitimized Upper Deck. That card has held through the test of time."
Here is what the text read on the back of the card:
"The son of Major League veteran Ken Griffey, who is still active with the Reds, Ken Jr. is a rising star on the Seattle horizon, possibly the finest young talent the Mariners have ever produced. He will probably begin the '89 campaign with Triple-A Calgary since his projected half-season at Double-A Vermont in 1988 was cut short by a back injury. M's drafted him No. 1 in June '87 out of Cincinnati's famed Moeller HS and 17-year-old Ken broke in with .320 and 14 HRs at Bellingham that season."
It was not just the player on the front, and not just the text on the back, that made this card special. The look also stood out. With the advent of the Griffey rookie card, a time-honored hobby gravitated toward spectacular artwork and never-ending additions such as actual fabric from players' uniforms. Griffey's rookie was not your dad's old card clothespinned to a bike wheel's spokes.
Greg Kohn, now Upper Deck's baseball product manager, previously was a collectibles-shop owner and has been on both sides of the card's progress within the trade. "Back in the early days it went for $50 or $60, and then around 1995-'96, it was probably $150," he said. "Whenever we had a showcase, we never were able to keep it in our stock. The last three years [for Griffey in Cincinnati], it definitely was in a downturn ... but whenever it became less valuable in itself, it never became a card that died. It always was a wanted card."
Today the card is available through MLB.com for $99, and the 1989 Series One Unopened Trading Card Box -- which could include any number of Griffey rookie cards and also includes Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield -- goes for $489.99.
Bill Bachman, Upper Deck's associate baseball product manager, said of the card's heyday: "That time was just a remarkable price. It was the first modern card that really catapulted the industry into collecting for value and not just your favorite team. ... It was the first modern card that was really worth more than a couple of dollars."
Griffey put Upper Deck on the map in another way. He became the first company spokesman, a unique proposition in the trading-card industry. They have retained an exclusive contract with him throughout his professional career, and he was followed within the company by such notables as Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant.
"Following him through the years, he's been a favorite of mine personally and I think all of us at Upper Deck," Barry said. "He's just a great, fun-loving, personal guy to work with. You like to see him do well. Moving from Seattle to Cincinnati created a little boom for us, and we were expecting the best. When he started to go down, it was a disappointing couple of years. We had plans for him to hit his 500th home run, cards ready to go -- not wanting to jinx anything, but we have an advertising program around it. We're going to promote the event as much as we can."
For example, look for Griffey on a nationwide TV ad for Upper Deck's Power Up Baseball Set. It is targeted for kids, featuring oversized "superhero" features of the players, and the cards include point totals.
Upper Deck also will sell Griffey game-used bat cards, with about 100 of them numbered and signed. And within the collectibles trade, the company will take out full-page ads to give a salute to the guy with the smiling face, cozy blue turtleneck and blue cap -- the kid who put them on the map and now has people talking about The Card again. A lot of card collectors are smiling again, just like the man on the front of the card.
The Card is not on a par with a Honus Wagner or a Mickey Mantle in terms of cash value. Generations from now, though, there is a good chance it will be remembered as a turning point in the world of trading cards.
"It's always the card people talk about," Barry said. "We stood by him in those three years. We had some loyalty there, and indeed it's paying off."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.