The face of vintage baseball card collecting may be the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle to some, or the T206 Honus Wagner to others. The face for modern era baseball cards, particularly from the “Junk Wax’ era, has been card #1 from the 1989 Upper Deck baseball set. This is the prized Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. Every baseball card collector has likely owned one or more of these cards at some point in the last 30 years. The card is very prominent among modern cards at every card show and in every modern card auction.
As a rookie, Ken Griffey Jr. was a young man destined for greatness on the field. This also meant that his rookie baseball cards were going to end up inside a box or binder of every kid and adult who collects baseball cards. And he as a player and as a rookie card was incredibly popular. But…
There are so many 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards out there that it’s amazing that they still have very much value to collectors. Beyond just the Upper Deck cards, think about card brands like Topps, Bowman, Donruss and Fleer before you even start to count other brands and pre-rookies.
There are two serious questions for modern era card collectors…. Should the 1989 Upper Deck rookie card of Ken Griffey Jr. really be the face of modern baseball card collecting? And secondly… How valuable should these cards really be?
Grasp this stat for a minute — PSA alone has graded more than 200,000 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards in total!
Collectors Dashboard evaluates high-end collectibles as an alternative asset class. That means the same money that could have been invested into stocks and bonds is ending up in collectibles. It may seem hard to justify this many graded cards as high-end, but as of November 12, 2021 a PSA 10 graded 1989 Upper Deck #1 card would still average $2,000 or higher. And a prized PSA 10 with a Ken Griffey Jr. autograph had an average price above $10,000. Both of those are certainly higher-priced than an average rookie star from the modern era.
The 200,000+ figure is actually just counting the PSA grades from the base sets of cards that are considered Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards. That’s even before counting other grading companies and “other rookie cards” in the tally. And to add insult to injury, we probably overlooked some of the “other” rookie or pre-rookie cards.
Griffey’s great career is really a tale of two players. One is as the dominant young home run king of a decade. Another is of a player trying to recover from injuries and having limited seasons. Even for the “Junk Wax” era, it is shocking how many graded examples there are of Griffey’s Upper Deck rookie alone. A 1 of 1 SGC 100 graded 100 PRISTINE (PRI) sold via Heritage Auctions in May of 2021 for $12,006.00 after the buyer’s premium. (Image below by Heritage Auctions)
Another consideration is that there is also a huge shadow population of Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards. This would include the cards that are being held for grading already, but which haven’t been processed or sent. It also includes the cards that are not graded. Many collectors and sports card investors are currently refusing to pay a high grading fee for what might be a disappointing grade. After all, a weaker grade might lower the price the card can sell for or make it worth less than the cost of the grading.
There are massive numbers of “other Ken Griffey Jr. rookies” from the likes cards under the brands of Topps, Bowman, Donruss, Fleer and limited edition sets. There is even a 1988 ProCards rookie card, a 1988 San Bernadino set (or sets) and a 1987 Bellingham Mariners minor league card that all get tallied up as Ken Griffey Jr. rookie and/or pre-rookie cards.
Modern era collectors know that there can be dozens of rookie cards for any player in the modern era. Players like Ohtani and the Juniors of Tatis and Guerrero go on almost endlessly. In the end, this still all adds up to just how collectable Ken Griffey Jr. rookie should be. Could these cards lose face despite how popular Ken Griffey Jr. was throughout most of his career?
KEN GRIFFEY JR.’s FIRST HALF AND LEGACY
Ken Griffey Jr. knew he was a great player in the late 1980s after being the Seattle Mariners’ number-one draft pick in 1987. Even having MLB player Ken Griffey Sr. as a father might not have let Ken Griffey Jr. know he was destined for such greatness in the next two decades for fans and collectors alike.
Griffey was destined for a Hall of Fame inclusion in 2016 (receiving 99.32% of the votes for inclusion) after a 22-year career that ended at age 40 in the year 2010. His prized batting stats would be capstoned by a .538 slugging percentage. Griffey’s 2,781 recorded hits would produce 1,836 runs batted in and 630 home runs, and he now sits at number 7 on the all-time home run list behind modern era players like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. His grand career included 13 All-Star game appearances, as well as 10 Gold Glove awards, 7 Silver Slugger awards, and an American League MVP award in 1997.
The first half of Griffey’s career had the hobby and sports fans speculating that he would break Hank Aaron’s home run king status. From 1993 to 2000 he had a base of 40 home runs every single season except for 1995. He even led the league in homers at 40 hits out of the park in 1994 despite the season being cut short by the MLB baseball strike that took effect on August 12, 1994. That strike lasted until April 2, 1995, but an injury early in the 1995 season kept Griffey to just 72 games and 17 dingers.
Griffey was still the admiration of baseball card collectors and baseball fans in the 1990s and early into 2000s. From 1993 to 1999, he hit more home runs than any other player in the majors. This had many baseball card collectors speculating and pontificating that Griffey might break the all-time home run records of Ruth and ultimately of Aaron.
GRIFFEY JR.’s SECOND HALF OF HIS CAREER
Card collectors and sports fans saw Griffey’s trade early in 2000 from the Seattle Mariners to the Cincinnati Reds (for 4 players) as a potential game-changer. He still hit 40 homes that year for the Reds in his change over to National League and he still clipped in 118 RBIs for the team that year.
Unfortunately, injuries interfered with his 2001 season and various injuries kept him to half-seasons or less until were plagued by a myriad of different injuries. His 2005 season was a more healthy 128 games, and he still produced 35 homers and 92 RBIs that year. Griffey only had 30 homers in one more season (30 exactly in 2007) and he also did not have 100 RBI in any season after 2,000.
One article from Medium.com even outlined how Ken Griffey Jr.’s career could have broken Ruth’s record without the baseball strike and without his injuries. That said, zoom forward a decade later and Griffey’s second half of his career was just not anywhere close to that great career’s first half.
1989 UPPER DECK BY THE NUMBERS
The 1989 Upper Deck baseball set was supposed to be a game-changer for card collectors. The cards had a great paper quality with better gloss than other productions of the 1980s. It had a full image on the front and an attractive presentation on the back for the stats. The big bonus to collectors was that the card came in a foil pack to show any tampering and the set also included an Upper Deck hologram on the back that was believed to keep future fakes much harder to produce.
And to further add some allure for premium collectors of that time was that the cost of $1.00 per pack was more than twice the cost of a Topps pack. Card collectors were already speculating on rookies at that time (sound familiar?), and the value of a Griffey Jr. rookie was briefly $10 or less at card shows the year this card came out. What was not as well known by the hobby was that Upper Deck was basically printing the 1989 Upper Deck set on order. It was believed that 1 million cards in planned production may have even doubled (or more). As long as the wholesale orders kept coming from stores and dealers, more cards would be printed and arrive for sale.
There is undeniably a massive population of graded 1989 Upper Deck cards of Ken Griffey Jr. With grading fees now generally running between $50 and $150 per grade, collectors now have to look at many more aspects of a card before deciding to send a card in for grading. After all, a clean looking grade of a 7 or 6 (or even lower) will sell for a disappointing price compared to many ungraded cards that are listed for sales as “Mint / Near-Mint” by card dealers at a show. That’s just the reality for modern cards now.
The changing grading standards and the long delays from 2020 into 2021 from BGS, PSA and SGC have allowed many new grading services to arise. We haven’t even tried to tally those counts up from newer graders. The sad reality is that there is no way to even ponder what the total count of graded and ungraded Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards might be.
PSA’s total graded population from the entire 1989 Upper Deck baseball card set was 160,201 cards as of November 12, 2021. Of that total set’s population, there was a total population of 84,966 Ken Griffey Jr. #1 cards graded by PSA alone. These were shown as follows for Ken Griffey Jr. alone (without qualifiers and half-grades counted as regular grades outside of totals):
- All base grades 83,485
- half grades 692 total
- qualifiers 789 grades
- PSA 10 3,985 graded by PSA
- PSA 9 had 26,776 base graded examples
- PSA 8.5 had 414 graded examples
- PSA 8 33,999 graded examples
SGC has a large population of graded 1989 Upper Deck baseball cards as well. SGC’s total population was 14,296 graded cards from the set as of November 12, 2021. Total SGC grades for card #1 was 9,269 examples. broken down as follows:
- SGC 10 PRI 9 examples
- SGC 10 had 235 graded examples
- SGC 9.5 had 40 graded examples
- SGC 9 had 1,587 graded examples
- SGC 8.5 had 1,997 graded examples
- SGC 8.0 had 2,253 graded examples
And to prove that Ken Griffey Jr. rookies still fit within the investor class, Heritage Auctions has a client willing to sell an investor lot of ten different PSA 10 cards. That lot was last being offered for $30,000. (Image by Heritage Auctions)
THE OTHER MAIN 1989 ROOKIES – TOPPS (TT), BOWMAN, DONRUSS & FLEER
While the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. face card has almost 85,000 total PSA grades alone, the numbers from Topps, Bowman, Donruss and Fleer would make many eyebrows perk up. After adding in these tallies, and not even bothering to tally up the pre-rookie and special issues, there are easily more than 220,000 total PSA graded cards alone that would count as Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards.
We have tallied the SGC total population reports for each of the base rookies, but they are not broken down by individual grades as they numbers are much smaller. Beckett graded counts are also not included in these statistics.
1989 Topps Tiffany Traded is the Topps rookie card for Ken Griffey Jr. The Topps TT #41T has 76,117 total graded PSA examples (Image below by Heritage Auctions). This is the largest of the other 1989 rookie cards of Griffey Jr. That whopping sum is before adding in a a total of 99 “+” grades and 105 “Q” grades. This is broken down as follows:
- PSA 10 has 12,710 graded examples;
- PSA 9 has 44,221 graded examples and 73 “Q” examples;
- and PSA 8 has 16,872 base grades, and an additional 83 “+” and an additional 28 “Q” graded examples.
SGC counts just 144 of the #41T cards from the 1989 Topps Traded Tiffany in its population reports.
1989 Bowman #220 has 23,133 total graded examples before getting into 78 “+” grades and 416 “Q” grades. This is broken down as follows:
- PSA 10 has 2,138 graded examples;
- PSA 9 has 11,397 base graded examples;
- and PSA 8 has 8,352 base graded examples.
SGC counts 2,933 total graded examples of #220 cards from the 1989 Bowman Baseball in its population reports.
1989 Donruss #33 as a Rated Rookie on the front with the black borders has a population of 35,527 PSA graded cards before getting into 190 “+” grades and 786 “Q” grades. These are as follows:
- PSA 10 has 1,813 graded examples;
- PSA 9 has 11,174 base graded examples before any “Q” grades;
- and PSA 8 has 8,352 base graded examples before 132 “+” grades and 578 “Q” grades.
SGC counts 4,833 total graded examples of #33 cards from the 1989 Donruss Baseball set in its population reports.
The 1989 Fleer #548 with the grey borders has a population of 52,142 PSA graded cards before getting into 109 “+” grades and 1,918 “Q” grades. These are as follows:
- PSA 10 has 4,859 graded examples;
- PSA 9 has 28,511 base graded examples before any “Q” grades;
- and PSA 8 has 16,950 base graded examples before adding in 86 “+” grades and 642 “Q” grades.
SGC counts 6,581 total graded examples of #548 cards from the 1989 Fleer Baseball (base) set in its population reports.
PRE-ROOKIE CARD VARIATIONS BEFORE 1989
Three key pre-rookie cards of Ken Griffey Jr. are not so high in graded populations but some of these routinely come up for sale on eBay and elsewhere. To keep this short and reasonable we did not include grading populations from PSA, SGC nor BGS unless specified below.
1988 ProCards Ken Griffey Jr. is of his playing for the Vermont Mariners. The cards come with a solid red colored border that make the front easily show any dings or nicks, and the basic all-white back of the stats is rather boring and nearly nondescript outside of impressive stats and 6’3″ height.
1988 San Bernadino Spirit had three different pre-rookie cards of the minor-league Ken Griffey Jr.. The Best #1 and the Best Platinum #1 cards were smaller editions. Beckett Media listed the Best #1 at 5,000 sets (reported) and just 1,300 for the Best Platimun. There was also the 1988 San Bernadino Spirit Cal League Ken Griffey Jr. #34 which Beckett listed as having a run of 10,000 sets.
Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1987 Bellingham Mariners minor league card is always tallied up as being a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. The set was supposedly limited to 15,000 produced. Heritage Auctions sold a PSA 10 Gem Mint example of this card with a “AUTO 10” grade as well for $12,600.00 back on February 4, 2021. (Image by Heritage Auctions)
We have not included the premium sets and other alternative sets that were issued and considered to be Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie cards.
From the 1989 year of issuance, there are Topps’ Heads Up #5, Bowman Tiffany #220, Fleer (base) and Fleer Glossy #548 and the Topps Traded Tiffany #41T. There was even the 1989 Bowman #259 that was a card of Ken Griffey Jr. along with Ken Griffey Sr. for a father-son card. Donruss had 3 different rookie cards for Griffey in 1989:
- Donruss “Rated Rookie” card (#33);
- Donruss Baseball’s Best (#192);
- and Donruss “The Rookies” (#3) cards.
Elsewhere, there was the 1989 Classic Travel issues. There was the Orange Ken Griffey Jr. #131 and the Purple Ken Griffey Jr. #193 card. We have seen conflicting reports on the number f these cards produced.
Mother’s Cookies kept the food-card issuance alive as well. The 1989 Mother’s Ken Griffey Jr. cards showed multiple images of this fine young athlete in a 4-card set. There was also the Seattle Mariners Mother’s Ken Griffey Jr. which was given out as part of a stadium-issued set for the Mariners team.
There is also the 1989 Pacific Griffey Candy Bar set in 3 variations of the same batting pose of a skinny young rookie. These have very basic and rather boring white, yellow and blue backgrounds.
Score was not tallied up above. There is the base card and the 1989 Score Rookie/Traded Ken Griffey Jr. #100T, as well as the 1989 Score Young Superstars II Ken Griffey Jr. #18. There is also the 1989 Scoremasters Ken Griffey Jr. #30 rookie card that was a card-store offer and mail-in offer.
And something in common with Michael Jordan and other rookies, there is “Star” set in the mix. There is a 11-card set of the 1989 Star Ken Griffey Jr. dedicated to the rookie at the time which was sold as a bagged set similar to others.
The die-cut floating head card issued as the 1989 Topps Heads Up feels like a blast from a century before, and it is less common to find in high grades.
The long and short of the matter is that Ken Griffey Jr. was a stellar baseball player. He was and still is widely popular among fans and envied by opponents. His vote-in record for the Hall of Fame should be a paramount to that popularity and skill set.
Many players have second-half careers that are not at all like their first half. That said, even in the modern era of mass production of rookie cards and countless variations, the sports collectibles market has more Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards than can easily be explained.