When we think of Ken Griffey Jr. and baseball cards, it’s a no-brainer which one we think of first: his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card. It’s become so synonomous with The Kid that ESPN’s Darren Rovell had a Twitter meltdown over it not being included in his Hall of Fame display.
There’s no denying how iconic that card is, but his career shouldn’t be defined by just that one card. Griffey played 22 years in the bigs, and between ones from his playing career and the ones produced in the subsequent years, there are roughly 5,000 cards under his name on COMC.
I don’t have anywhere near that number — my eCrater store features 13 different cards of The Kid at time of publication — but I want to highlight some of the ones that help best tell the story of this iconic player.
1991 Donruss: The First All-Star
The 1991 Donruss set falls victim to 90s-baseball-card syndrome — overproduced, strange design (have you ever seen any other card with blue borders?) — but this one does help chronicle his career. It was in 1990, Griffey’s second season in the bigs, that he made his first of 13 All-Star Games. He started in center field and hit fifth, in between Cal Ripken Jr. and Mark McGwire, but went 0-for-2 with a walk during the game at Wrigley Field. Unfortunately, the photo on the card isn’t from the game — it looks to be at the old Rangers ballpark — but it still documents his first trip to the Midsummer Classic.
1994 Leaf: The Kid Gets His First Crown
Baseball was Griffey crazy by the time the 1994 season started. He had already played five seasons with the Mariners, had been an All Star and Gold Glove winner in four of them, and was a perennial MVP candidate despite being just 24. As the doomed ’94 season began, Griffey was coming off a 45-homer season and he landed Sports Illustrated’s season preview cover with Mike Piazza, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Griffey in 2016. Griffey continued to live up to the hype as he reached all of his usual accolades and found a way to top them. For the first time in his career, he led the AL with 40 home runs despite playing in only 111 games (the baseball season itself only lasted 112). He would lead the Junior Circuit in homers three more times in his career.
1995 Topps: How Griffey Saved The Mariners
The Mariners 1995 season is the stuff movies are made of: the franchise had never been to the playoffs, its star player goes down for two and a half months, relocation rumors swirl around the team, yet somehow they come together and win in the most dramatic way possible. Of course, the best-known moment from that season came in Game 5 of the ALDS when the Mariners rallied from a 5-4 deficit in the 11th thanks to a 2-run double from Edgar Martinez (that scored, who else?, Griffey as the winning run) to stun the Yankees and earn a trip to the ALCS. Heck, that play even has its own Wikipedia page. But what is often forgotten in that saga is that the Mariners were just about a .500 team until Junior came back in mid-August from a severe wrist injury and helped the M’s overcome a 13-game deficit in the standings to California/Anaheim/Los Angeles of Anaheim and force a one-game tie-breaker against the Angels to determine winner of the AL West.
2004 Topps: Griffey Makes History
By the 2004 season, The Kid was a shell of his former self. Injuries had plagued him following his trade to Cincinnati with the exception of his first season in 2000, and was coming off a pair of seasons where he only appeared in 70 and 53 games. However, Junior still showed he could turn back the clock during the first half of the 2004 season as he stayed healthy and was named to his first All-Star Game since 2000. But the highlight of the season came on June 20 — Father’s Day — when he became the 20th player to reach 500 career home runs. It was a fitting moment for The Kid to do that considering that he played with his father during the 1990 and ’91 seasons. And just to make it extra special, that home run also gave Junior 2,143 career hits — the same number of hits that Senior had in his career.
2014 Topps: A Very Special Griffey Retrospective
When Griffey came up to the bigs, there weren’t any widely available top prospect lists. Baseball America’s first Top 100 list didn’t come out until 1990, by which time Griffey was ineligible for rookie status. However, his debut was much anticipated by Mariners fans, and he lived up to the billing early as one of his 2014 Topps cards documents. Griffey had played in 5 MLB games by the time he played his first home game at the Kingdome and was still searching for his first home run. He changed that in a hurry on that April 10, 1989 game. Batting second in the Mariners lineup, Griffey took the first pitch he saw from the White Sox’s Eric King and deposited it well into the left-field stands for his first career four-baser (he would go on to his 629 more in his career). That moment was definitely baseball-card worthy.