On the eve of Ken Griffey Jr.’s election to the Hall of Fame — that’s right, I’m not even hedging — a friend on Facebook posted an image of this card and called it “arguably the most iconic baseball photograph taken in the past 25 years.” After I pointed out in jest that it would be the most iconic baseball photo of the past 28 years (taken in 1988, published in ’89), he took it a (sarcastic) step further and called it “the most iconic baseball photo Ever!”
Maybe the most iconic baseball card photo ever, but of course it’s not the most iconic baseball photo in history (hello, Charles Conlon‘s Ty Cobb), but the image of that card — 1989 Upper Deck No. 1 — needs no explanation. Anyone who grew up collecting cards in the 1980s and ’90s knows this one, probably owns it. Five-and-a-half years ago, when Griffey announced his retirement, I reflected on some of my memories of his career, including those of this card.
So with another Griffey career milestone on deck, here’s how I came to acquire this card in my collection nearly 30 years ago.
In August 1989, my family was on its annual vacation to visit family in Maine, my mother’s brother and his family. With my most recent issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly packed in my bag, I noticed that there was a pretty sizeable baseball card show about half an hour away. With an idle afternoon at our disposal, I convinced my dad to drive me up to Augusta, the state capital, and drop me off at the convention center where the show was. Uninterested in browsing, Dad went off to check out a bait-and-tackle shop or some similar fishing outpost with the understanding that he’d pick me up an hour later at the spot where I got out of the car.
I went inside and sauntered up and down the aisles, buying a few individual cards and packs here and there. I may have blown through my vacation budget in that hour, or I may have wisely left some cash back at my uncle’s in order to limit how much I spent on baseball cards. Either way, I walked out of the card show with exactly $4 in my wallet.
Dad wasn’t there yet, so I sat down on a bench to wait, looking through my new purchases. I don’t remember a single thing I bought at that show, but I remember a collector stopping to chat with me as he headed inside with a briefcase of cards. I don’t remember what we talked about to break the ice, but I do know that he asked where I was from and when I said I grew up near the Jersey Shore and Sandy Hook, he knew that area. At some point, the Griffey card came up and he opened his brief case and handed me one. I looked it over closely; I had never held one — it was in a protective sleeve, but it was still the first time I’d been able to examine one so closely, on my own terms. As Darren Rovell wrote in that Slate piece, this was a card that came to define a generation of collectors. At the time, we couldn’t see it in that light, but we still knew it was a collecting status symbol, a benchmark, a cardboard holy grail to attain.
It was beautiful. The smiling kid — I’m guessing he had to be 16 or 17 in that picture, likely taken in his high-school uniform — in a navy-blue turtleneck with gold chains resting on it, a white jersey, an “S” airbrushed onto his cap, a bat resting on his left shoulder. In place of the team logo was a “Rookie” banner, so looking at the front of the card, the gold “S” on the blue cap is the only indication that the kid from Florida was the Mariners’ — and baseball’s — No. 1 prospect.
I handed the card back to the collector, who then went into his sales pitch. At the time, the card was valued at $10 — to a kid a few weeks away from his 13th birthday, a pretty substantial price for a picture of a baseball player — but the collector offered to sell it to me for half that, $5. Knowing he’d already cut the price in half, I didn’t even try to negotiate it further. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I literally only have $4.” He understood and put the card back into his briefcase.
We chatted for a few more minutes before he got up to go into the convention center to do business. But then he turned and put the briefcase down on the bench and opened it. “Here you go,” he said, handing me a Griffey card. “You sound like a big fan and collector. You should have one.” Stunned, I went for my wallet to give him my last $4. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just take the card.”
He wouldn’t take my money, so I got the hottest card of the year for free. I still have it, in what I imagine is the same protective sleeve, kept in a narrow cardboard box — pretty much exactly the width of a hard protective baseball card sleeve — with my other most-prized cards.
I wonder if that guy remembers giving me the card for free. He was pretty young, so he could easily still be alive. And considering the way the card industry crashed in the ’90s, it’s not like he handed me a car — or even a fancy dinner — that day. But it sure felt like it at the time.