Celebrating 30 Years of Upper Deck and Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Card

Thirty years after its release, the first card of Upper Deck’s premiere set is still one of the hobby’s most significant and coveted baseball cards.

In 1989, Upper Deck introduced high-tech glossy cards with quality photos and a unique anti-counterfeiting hologram on the back of each card.  High-gloss cards printed on high-quality white paper stock were packaged in foil-wrapped, tamper evident packs. No more wax packs or gum residue to stain the cards.  

At the same time, Ken Griffey Jr., whose father was a key member of the mid-’70s Big Red Machine, was named the Seattle Mariners starting centerfielder.  Instead of highlighting its initial set with an established star, Upper Deck chose the 19-year-old centerfielder to be featured on its first card. Although Griffey was the number one overall draft pick in 1987, he was a bit of a surprise choice as the face of Upper Deck.   Hobby insiders believed the honor would go to two-time Minor League Player of the Year Greg Jefferies, catching prospect Sandy Alomar Jr., or Double-A Player of the Year Gary Sheffield, the nephew of Dwight Gooden.

Placing Upper Deck’s initial leadoff hitter in a Mariners uniform became the rookie card manufacturers next challenge.  Griffey had yet to appear Mariners garb and Upper Deck could not contractually use a minor league photo. A picture of a smiling Griffey in his San Bernadino Spirits uniform caught the eye of Upper Deck executives.  The company’s production staff used Scitex, a $1 million machine that essentially did what Photoshop would do years later. The “S” on the cap was changed from silver to yellow, while the color of the cap was changed from navy blue to the Mariners’ royal blue.

By the start of baseball season, the new kid on the block had clearly passed the aging veteran Topps, as well as replacement level baseball card manufacturers Donruss, Fleer, and Score in terms of quality, marketing, popularity, release value, and market value.  At the same time, Griffey was not only the face of the hobby, but also becoming the face of baseball. The young, good-looking son of a World Series Champion was quickly establishing himself as one of the game’s tops all-around players.

Just weeks after the March 1989 release, Griffey’s Upper Deck rookie was selling for as much as $10, while most rookie  and star cards were selling for $1-$4. During the early ‘90s, the Griffey rookie became the most prized positions in the modern hobby.  The popularity of this card coincided with Griffey’s initial power explosion, beginning in 1993 when he tied the major league record by hitting a homerun in eight consecutive games.

Griffey quickly become the youngest player to hit 350, 400, and 500 home runs.  During the 2001 season, the ‘89 Upper Deck rookie peaked at $160. He was 31 years old , beginning his second year with the Reds, and aiming for Hank Aaron’s career home run record. Unfortunately a variety of injuries limited Griffey in the later stages of his career.  Griffey didn’t challenge Aaron, but he did establish himself as a hobby icon and baseball great, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 630 homers and 1,836 RBI.

The Griffey Upper Deck rookie remains largely popular, but it is far from scarce.  Although card companies seldom reveal the size of their print runs, hobbyists believe Upper Deck distributed more than two million of the Griffey card — even more than common cards in the set.  

Despite the shiney new look, many of the Griffey cards were issued in less than mint condition. Because it was No. 1 on the checklist, the card was situated in the top left corner of the printer’s uncut sheets and therefore more susceptible to being miscut or having damaged corners.  During its rookie season, Upper Deck promised to replace damaged cards found in packs. To cover the large number of returned Griffey cards, Upper Deck reportedly printed dozens of uncut sheets featuring only Griffey cards, leaving the actual number of the No. 1 rookie card in circulation is a bit of a hobby mystery.