Collecting Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball Cards & Memorabilia
Junior Headed to Cooperstown
by Kevin Glew
Forget about Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa. And with all due respect to Cal Ripken, it was Ken Griffey Jr. who saved Major League Baseball (MLB) after the strike in 1994.
No, Griffey never matched the single-season power output of McGwire or Sosa or the durability of Ripken, but the five-tool superstar electrified crowds with his smooth, powerful stroke, his fence-climbing catches and his child-like zeal for the game. With his trademark hat on backwards, Ken Griffey Jr. was the face of baseball in the 1990s.
“He was amazing to watch,” said Lucas Stallbaumer, who owns the No. 4 Current Finest Ken Griffey Jr. Master Set on the PSA Set Registry. “His swing was almost perfect.”
Bob Sehlke, who has assembled the registry’s No. 8 Current Finest Griffey Master set, also admired Griffey’s swing. The veteran collector, who lives in Seattle and had the opportunity to watch Griffey play in person many times, found the superstar to be very personable.
“I thought he was a class act,” said Sehlke. “You never heard any dirt about him. He was not like some other stars who appeared to have a disdain for the fans. He actually had a great rapport with the fans in Seattle, and he just seemed to be having fun.”
And not only was Junior the face of his team and his sport, he was also the face of a new era of trading cards. His No. 1 card in the 1989 Upper Deck set launched premium sports cards and with it a whole new era in the industry.
While the T206 Honus Wagner may be the most storied baseball card, Griffey’s Upper Deck rookie, according to sports business reporter Darren Rovell, is “arguably the most popular, most widely held baseball card of all time.” In fact, more than 60,000 of them have been submitted to PSA since 1991.
“It’s definitely an iconic card - not just amongst Ken Griffey cards, but across the entire industry,” said Sehlke. “That’s the card that would define him. There have been a lot of great shots of Griffey on cards over the years, but that’s the card to have. If someone is a serious Griffey collector and they don’t have a 1989 Upper Deck rookie, I would question whether or not they were a true Griffey fan.”
Not surprisingly, there has been a spike in the prices for PSA GEM-MT 10 examples since it was announced that Griffey will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer.
Born on November 21, 1969, in Donora, Pennsylvania, on the same date and in the same town as fellow left-handed hitting immortal, Stan Musial, Griffey seemed destined for greatness at an early age. His father was a speedy, .300 hitter for the “Big Red Machine” that won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 1976, but Junior was blessed with far more power than his father.
The younger Griffey was named U.S. High School Player of the Year in 1987 and was selected first overall by the Seattle Mariners in the MLB amateur draft that same year. After parts of two seasons in the minors, a 19-year-old Griffey debuted with the Mariners on April 3, 1989, and doubled in his first at bat. A week later, he homered in his first at bat at the Kingdome.
The prodigious youngster would evolve into the best all-around player of the 1990s. By age 30, he had belted 398 home runs, 50 more than Hank Aaron had accumulated at that age. Between 1990 and 1999, he was selected to 10 consecutive All-Star games, won 10 Gold Glove Awards, seven Silver Slugger Awards and was named the 1997 American League MVP. Along the way, he topped the American League in home runs four times, won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star game three times and was named the MVP of the 1992 Midsummer Classic.
While with the Mariners, Griffey led the club to the postseason for the first time in franchise history in 1995. In fact, his performance in the 1995 American League Division Series likely saved the franchise in the city and secured funding for a new stadium. The M’s trailed that best-of-five series 2-0 before rallying to beat the Yankees when Griffey slid into home for the winning run in the 11th inning of Game 5.
“He definitely saved baseball in Seattle,” said Sehlke. “When Safeco Field was built, a lot of people called it ‘The House that Griffey Built.’”
Heading into a new century, Griffey made it known that he wanted to live closer to his Orlando, Florida, home and requested a trade out of Seattle. On February 10, 2000, the Mariners reluctantly dealt the superstar to the Cincinnati Reds for Brett Tomko, Mike Cameron, Antonio Perez and minor league Jake Meyer.
Griffey arrived in Cincinnati amidst much fanfare, but he was now 30 years old and his body was breaking down. In his nine seasons with the Reds, he’d miss a significant amount of time due to injuries and he walloped 30 or more home runs in a season just three times. Unlike some of his steroid-aided contemporaries, Griffey’s bat speed slowed, but he still managed to sock 210 home runs in his tenure with the Reds before he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox on July 31, 2008.
Griffey returned to the Mariners for parts of two seasons in 2009 and 2010 to finish his career. And though some would say he limped to the end, Griffey still posted career numbers that rank him as one of the greatest power hitters of all time. His 630 homers are the sixth-most in baseball history, while his 1,836 RBI rank him 15th on the all-time list.
So it’s easy to understand why Griffey was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot and why there’s still significant collector interest in his cards. There are six primary Griffey sets - Basic (221 cards), Basic & Collector Issues (860), Master (4,675), Basic Topps (21), Master Topps (606) and Rookies (6) - on the PSA Set Registry.
Here’s a rundown of some of Griffey’s key cards:
Minor League Cards
1987 Bellingham Mariners #15. Considered Griffey’s first professional card, this single was issued as part of a team set. Its thin paper stock makes it challenging to track down in top condition, but there’s still 611 PSA 10s. One PSA 10 sold for $222 on eBay in November 2015.
1988 Best San Bernardino Spirit #1. Issued on the top of a team set, the regular version of this card boasts fragile black and blue borders. Reports indicate that approximately 5,000 of the regular cards were produced, but there’s also a Platinum parallel that was limited to 1,300 copies.
“That’s [Platinum parallel] by far his toughest and most expensive minor league card,” noted Stallbaumer.
There are 12 PSA 10s of the Platinum card, one of which commanded $12,000 on eBay in September 2015.
1989 Upper Deck #1. This is Griffey’s defining card, but it’s by no means rare. More than a million were originally produced and even more were reportedly printed when collectors returned their damaged cards.
Regardless of how plentiful it is, this remains the most iconic card of the modern era.
“The 1989 Upper Deck rookie is a must for any Griffey collector,” said Stallbaumer.
“When you start comparing Griffey’s other rookies to his Upper Deck rookie, everything else pales in comparison,” he said.
This card was located on the top-left corner of the original 100-card print sheet, a position that generally makes cards more vulnerable to flaws. It’s also sometimes uncovered with a small surface wrinkle on the back that can knock its grade down to PSA EX-MT 6.
Of the 61,545 submitted, there have been 2,532 PSA 10s.
1989 Bowman Tiffany #220. An estimated 6,000 Bowman Tiffany factory sets were produced and the only way to initially get the Griffey rookie was to pluck it from one of these sets. These glossy cards are generally uncovered in high grade, but the Griffey is regularly found off-center.
“I can see nine of them on eBay right now and they’re all off-center,” noted Stallbaumer, in a November 2015 interview.
Of the 1,256 graded, there have been 116 PSA 10s.
1989 Topps Traded Tiffany #41T. Approximately 15,000, 1989 Topps Tiffany sets were printed, so this card is more abundant than its Bowman counterpart. Nevertheless, it remains a very desirable card.
“You have to be careful when you pull them out of the box or you might have a slight corner issue,” said Stallbaumer, who added that he has seen some Topps Tiffany rookies that are slightly off-center.
Of the 1,654 evaluated, there have been 262 PSA 10s.
1989 Fleer Glossy #548. With an estimated print run of 30,000, this card, like the Tiffany cards, initially had to be removed from a factory set. Its gray borders are particularly fragile.
“I watch them all the time on eBay, and each one I see, the left or right side [border] is frayed,” said Stallbaumer. “And they’re all off-center. It’s almost impossible to get one that’s fully centered that doesn’t have the wear on the left or right side.”
There are just 67 PSA 10s.
Key Non-Rookie Cards
1990 Leaf Preview #4. Before Leaf released its vaunted, regular 1990 set, they promoted it with 12 limited edition preview cards that they distributed to dealers. These cards boast the same design as the regular cards but have the words “Special Preview Card” embedded on the backs in white. Just 52 have been graded and there has yet to be a PSA 10.
1993 Finest Refractor #110. With a reported print run of just 241 of each card, the 199-card Refractor issue is arguably the most high-profile 1990s insert set.
So far, just 40 PSA 10 Griffey Refractors have been uncovered.
1996 Select Certified Mirror Gold #47 & #136. Griffey has two cards (#47, #136) in this mirror gold parallel set. Just 30 of each card were produced. The first card (#47) is his regular single, while the second (#136) is part of the “Pastime Power” subset.
There are two PSA 10s and four PSA MINT 9s of the regular card, while the sole graded copy of the “Pastime Power” single has been deemed a PSA 10.
1997 Topps “Pro Shooters” Marbles Checklist (1-30) #1. This checklist was reportedly distributed with player marbles that were released as a test issue in a small part of Canada and potentially in parts of the U.S. There were 60 marbles in the series and two checklists (#1 to #30, #31 to #60) that offer headshots of 30 players on each.
“The checklists are really condition sensitive because they were packaged with the marbles,” noted Stallbaumer. “They’re really rare.”
The checklists command big bucks not only because of their rarity, but because they feature the headshots of so many superstars from the era. The headshot of Griffey, for example, is featured on the same checklist as players like Derek Jeter and Barry Bonds, so multiple-player collectors covet this card. Just three of the first checklist have been submitted for grading and there’s one PSA 10 and two PSA 9s.
Certified Autograph Cards
1994 Upper Deck with Mickey Mantle. Griffey and Mickey Mantle signed 1,000 cards that were randomly inserted in 1994 Upper Deck first-series retail packs. This card features a drawing of both Griffey Jr. and Mantle.
“I’ve been trying to find that card in decent condition for years,” said Sehlke. “There are a lot of them out there, but the corners are dinged on most of them.”
Sixty-eight have been authenticated by PSA/DNA.
1999 Upper Deck 1989 Buyback #1. One hundred 1989 Upper Deck rookies were signed and randomly inserted into 1999 Upper Deck first-series packs. An additional diamond-shaped hologram was added to the backs of these cards to affirm the authenticity of the autograph. The sole example submitted has registered a PSA NM 7 grade.
2003 SP Authentic Chirography. Griffey signed several cards for the 2003 SP Authentic Chirography series. His most sought-after singles include his dual signature (#JI) with Ichiro Suzuki (#/125) and a triple signature (#GIS) with Suzuki and Sammy Sosa (#/75). The sole Griffey/Suzuki card submitted was deemed a PSA 9, while the two PSA 9s of the triple-signed single (#GIS) represent the only graded examples.
• • •
Collecting Griffey Autographs
Don’t let his smile fool you.
That’s what autograph seekers might say about Ken Griffey Jr. Though the Mariners superstar was frequently pictured smiling, with his hat on backwards, he was generally not as happy-go-lucky about signing autographs. The principal authenticator at PSA/DNA, who was a hardcore autograph collector before joining the team, can attest to this.
“He could be tough during in-person encounters,” he said. “I will say that he was a very good signer in his rookie year in 1989. I had no issues getting his signature and he was very nice. By 1990, he was signing but with less frequency, and the same can be said for 1992. By 1993, he became very tough.”
But despite his apparent aversion to signing, Griffey’s autograph is not rare. PSA/DNA notes that the all-star center fielder participated in signings for Score Board, Inc. and had a deal with Upper Deck during his career. In November 2011, Griffey signed an autograph deal with Topps and his certified autograph cards began appearing in the company’s 2012 releases.
PSA/DNA says a sizable percentage of the Griffey autographs submitted to their firm are counterfeit despite being relatively affordable.
The autograph experts at PSA/DNA further note that Griffey’s signature has changed since his rookie season. “It has changed some, especially from his early, early years. It was slightly more simplistic then, but when he hit the scene, it evolved into the more stylish version we see today,” said the lead PSA/DNA authenticator.
So how can you discern what’s real and what’s fake?
“You have to play close attention to the ‘ff’ in his last name,” said the authenticator. “These letters are very distinct when they’re real.”