The Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed Ken Griffey Jr. to immortality on Sunday in Cooperstown, New York. Griffey played 22 seasons in the bigs with the Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago White Sox while compiling his HOF resume.
A 13-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, Griffey hit 630 home runs, and drove in 1,836 runs. He also was the American League MVP in 1997, drove in at least 100 runs in eight seasons and won seven Silver Slugger Awards.
‘The Kid’ hit 417 of his 630 homers and won all 10 of his Gold Gloves with the Mariners. He played the first 11 seasons of his career in Seattle and led them to the playoffs for the first two times in franchise history.
Junior was selected on a record 99.32 percent of ballots cast and will wear the Mariners cap for all eternity in enshrinement.
The Griffey story and legacy is one of amazing talent coming to fruition in the late 1980’s, propelled by a magical rookie card. Yes, a baseball card. You remember those don’t you?
Depending on your vintage, you may not be aware of the absolute phenomenon that was sports card collecting in the early 90’s. It was a thing man, a real thing. To keep the narrative simple, let’s use financial numbers from that time period… The sports card industry was worth an estimated 1.2 billion in 1991 money. Today, it’s a much smaller fraction of that amount.
It seemed back then that anyone and everyone was collecting. The biggest reason for the surge was the futuristic baseball cards known as ‘Upper Deck’ that launched in 1989.
Baseball cards up until that point were rather boring, made with cardboard and distributed in wax papering including a stick of pink chewing gum.
Then… imagine Marty McFly opening up the doors to his DeLorean and passing you an untampered foil-wrapped silver package containing 15 of the most beautiful baseball cards that you have ever seen in your life… High gloss cards on high quality white paper stock, with images on both sides, and a hologram.
It was an incredible upgrade and it flipped the industry on its head. Draw whatever metaphor you want, for me, the cards were from the year 2222 and they were something magical.
I wasn’t alone.
You take a survey of baseball fans between the ages of 35-45 and bring up the 1989 Upper Deck set and watch their eyes light up brighter than the moon. Then ask them what their favourite card was?
Without question 99% will respond with card number ONE of the legendary set, that belonged to none other than Ken Griffey Jr.
Childhood nostalgia digitalized…
The card itself, became the stuff of legend. The backstory is remarkable and worth a gander courtesy of the fine folks at Beckett Magazine.
Anticipating capturing a Griffey Jr. was bigger and more thrilling than anything the current ‘Pokémon Go’ craze could offer.
All efforts were put towards accumulating the 1989 Upper Deck card (no. 1) like some kind of all-consuming ring of power.
Griffey Jr. was projected to be the next big thing in baseball and his new magical glossy card would one day fetch a fortune (in theory).
Spending all of one’s allowance to roll the dice and spend big on an unopened pack of 1989 UD cards was a common occurrence in those days. What a rush. What a thrill. Nervous young hands carefully opening a pack to potentially see that iconic smile…
And when you finally got one?! Maximum joy!
Step aside Willy Wonka, your golden ticket is old news son.
An Ode to Junior indeed.
This card taught us everything we needed to know about supply and demand. This card taught us everything we needed to know about perceived value, estimated value and the way we thought money worked. Card collecting in the early 90’s was a mini-stock market and we were all brokers. This wasn’t a hobby, it was an investment. Beckett Monthly would change the value of cards based on present performance and, well, basically whatever they deemed appropriate to fluctuate the needle. It became our bible as we amassed our portfolios with a number of promising young rookies.
In the age before the internet, kids would rush to the morning paper to dissect box scores and pray that the index would read profitably. Think about it… How else are you getting these updated stats? Knowledge was key, and always has been, especially in the card game. Upper Deck and the Griffey Jr. rookie card launched the popularity of collecting cards into the stratosphere.
Scouring the dailies for results from Greg Jefferies, Sandy Alomar Jr., Garry Sheffield and Andy Benes was an everyday occurrence in the summer.
I may have personally bought every single Hal Morris and Craig Biggio rookie cards available in a small collectables shop in upstate New York in the spring of 1990. We’re talking over 50 cards.
Collectable shows and memorabilia stores were springing up like eager flowers in spring. They seemed to be everywhere.
It wasn’t just baseball that was riding this new hologram coded wave that spread to all major sports and eras…
It was open season on Hockey, Football and Basketball cards. Who’s got a Lindros? I’ll give you $80 (CDN) for a Jerry Rice rookie! I’ll throw in a Bernie Federko… No? How about a Mitch Richmond?
Little hustlers were born and made in all corners of North America chasing that sweet hologram and cardboard loot.
I cashed out in ’92 once I had gotten some inside info that they had pressed copious amounts of Junior’s rookie card. The number is rumoured to be in the millions. That obviously devalues your card significantly and I’m sorry if this is the first time you’re hearing that news.
Although, I will impart the wisdom that a card is only worth what somebody is willing to pay for it.
For me, I made a tidy profit in the collectables game and I still have a Griffey Jr. stashed away somewhere.
It was an incredible ride that taught me tons of valuable life lessons, all from one majestic card.
Before we explain how all of this Griffey Jr. phenomena almost never existed, let’s watch Junior absolutely demolish a baseball in the prime of his career…
The ball at the 43 second mark (during the replay) of that video clip leaves the yard in an absolute hurry. It’s worth watching again. Go ahead, watch it again, I’ll wait… (that Griffey strut is epic).
The greatness that was Junior almost never happened.
Due to a few contributing factors, he attempted to take his own life at age 17 by ingesting 277 ASPIRIN® tablets.
Griffey Jr. was incredibly forthcoming with the details of this event and showed incredible courage to share the story with the Seattle press early in his career to potentially provide inspiration and hope for any kids considering suicide.
Bob Finnegan of the Seattle Times wrote the article published on March 15, 1992, that brought light to this dark event from Junior’s past.
I vaguely remember somebody telling me this ages ago before the internet but I didn’t believe them. 277 Aspirin?! Who makes up a story like that?!?! After diligently fact checking and then checking some more, turns out it’s true…
In January 1988, Griffey said he swallowed 277 ASPIRIN® by his own count, in an attempted suicide attempt, and wound up in intensive care at Providence Hospital in Mount Airy, Ohio
That 1989 Upper Deck card almost didn’t exist. Staring down at it (like a fading picture of Marty McFly’s family at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance) as Griffey battled his dark thoughts.
Junior managed to rally from this negative incident and make it to the Show.
Griffey Jr. was from excellent baseball pedigree. His father Ken Sr. had been a member of the famous 1970’s Cincinnati Reds. Junior grew up in that dugout. As a young boy, he took the inspiration for his jersey (no. 24), from watching Rickey Henderson play with Griffey Sr. for the Yankees. To say hopes were high for Junior would have been an understatement. Baseball had been in his blood since his first breath.
The anticipation, followed by his incredible first 12 years in the league, was simply a masterpiece. ‘The Kid’ delivered, met, and exceeded all expectations set before him.
Griffey Jr. was the absolute business in Center Field for the Mariners in the 1990’s.
He even took ‘playing catch’ with his old man to a whole new level in 1990…
To examine the Griffey Jr. story without comparing his later years with Barry Bonds is missing the plot on the shadow narrative.
Junior had such a sweet swing that he was appointed another fitting handle, ‘The Natural’. The sheer piercing irony of this affable nickname in measurement with the Bonds legacy is incredibly fitting. Griffey navigated the epicentre of the ‘steroid era’ without any blemishes or indications of guilt, while Bonds… not so much.
Due to his sweet swing and having excelled in his youth, Griffey Jr. didn’t stay in the best shape later in his career. One could asses Junior rested on his laurels throughout the 2000’s, but the truth was his decline was sparked by numerous injuries and the cruel, inescapable aging process. Junior’s second act in Cincinnati (traded in 2000) was very pedestrian due to his diminished health. He suffered season ending injuries in 2002, 2003, and 2004. After posting a stellar debut season of 40 HR and 118 RBIs at the age of 30 with the Reds, he proceeded to miss over 630 games in the ensuing 11 seasons.
The rapid diminished statistics made Junior somewhat of an afterthought in 2001 after he managed only 22 HR (111 games) compared to Bonds’ MLB record setting 73 (at age 36)?! Bonds would go on to defy the aging process averaging close to 40 HR in his last five seasons before retiring. Junior would never hit more than 35 HR (2005) again. The once promising rookie who was projected to break Hank Aaron’s MLB record of 755 HR fell off the pace. Instead, Bonds claimed the mantle and finished his career strong to best Aaron, and raise the historic mark to 762.
The shadow narrative of Bonds’ involvement with steroids taints his accomplishments, and although he never officially tested positive, there is heaps of damaging testimony that was famously brought to life in the 2006 book ‘Game of Shadows‘.
Bonds played during the ‘steroid era’ in San Francisco, which was located conveniently close to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO).
Griffey Jr. played through that controversial time span in Ohio, which was located much closer to the Baseball Hall of Fame. There has been great divide amongst some writers as to Bonds’ legitimacy for inclusion in Cooperstown. As it stands now, he has been denied entry due to all the damaging rumours and inflated results, which clearly indicate that he most certainly cheated.
The similarities between the two players both having fathers who played MLB baseball is noteworthy. Bonds’ father Bobby played for the San Francisco Giants, and named Willie Mays as Barry’s Godfather. Mays sits 5th on the all-time HR list with 660, 30 above Junior.
The results were overwhelming for Junior when the voting was revealed earlier this week. He received the highest vote totals ever, and in the process, the writers who voted sent a message to Bonds who remains on the outside looking in, despite hitting more home runs than anyone in the game’s history.
No matter what any father/son combo accomplishes in professional sports, one of the best stories involves the Griffey boys in baseball. The two of them playing together on the same team is just incredible. To close our ode to Griffey Jr., I’ll leave you with an amazingly heartwarming tidbit from Junior’s 500th home run.
Griffey Jr. hit the 500 mark on June 20, 2004, in St. Louis. It was Father’s Day and Griffey Sr. was in attendance. Junior became just the 20th player to join the 500 club. In an unbelievable twist of fate… it was his 2143rd career hit, tying his father’s all-time career total.
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