1989 marked some pretty significant advances in the sports card industry. Collectors saw the introduction of Upper Deck as well as the return of Bowman. And as I recently wrote, that also marked the year when football traded cards became ‘a thing.‘
Rookie cards also continued their popularity and, as is the case with any year, some were stars and others were busts. While it might be unreasonable to judge a player’s career after only their first year, 30 years later, we can certainly do that.
Let’s take a look back at some of the hottest rookies of 1989 and see how they did.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Griffey was no doubt the crown jewel of 1989. While he didn’t appear in Topps’ and Score’s regular season sets, he was in the 1989 Upper Deck, Donruss, Fleer, and Bowman issues. Griffey’s cards were hot then and have always held good value.
And when looking back at the career of ‘The Kid’, there’s no denying he was one of the best players of his generation. In a career spanning 22 seasons, Griffey amassed 630 home runs while collecting 2,781 hits, and maintaining a healthy .284 batting average. And while he never played in a World Series game, he was also a defensive star, winning ten consecutive Gold Gloves from 1990 through 1999.
Griffey is the poster child for a guy that lived up to every bit of the hype thrust upon him. Many of his rookie cards are still cheap at $10 or less on eBay but premiums are paid for high-grade PSA, SGC, and Beckett cards.
While it wasn’t nearly the same level as Griffey’s case, Jerome Walton had some degree of hype surrounding him. He made quick work of the minor leagues while batting .335 in Single A in 1987 and .331 in Double AA in 1988. He arrived to the Chicago Cubs in 1989 and that’s where you’ll find his rookie cards.
Walton immediately impressed and looked like a budding star. He shocked the baseball world with an incredible 30-game hit streak in his first season on his way to batting .293 and winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Collectors hoarded his rookie cards, anticipating he was on his way to stardom, but it turned out not to be such a smart investment.
In 1990, Walton’s average was down to a more pedestrian .263 and in 1991, it was flat out bad as he hit only .219. By 1992 Walton was only a part-time player and by 1993, he was with a new team, the then California Angels. Walton would bounce around quite a bit after that with stops in Cincinnati, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay — all by the time he was only 32. Walton did pick up a bit of the magic from his rookie year, hitting .290 with the Reds in 1995, then batting over .300 collectively with the Braves, Orioles, and Rays in the next few seasons. But he only played sparingly after 1995 and those high averages weren’t attained while playing a major role.
He had a long career but Walton’s once-smoldering rookie cards can now be bought in nickel and dime boxes.
While Griffey would become a star for years to come, he wasn’t the top American League rookie in 1989. Many collectors will forget that distinction actually belonged to relief pitcher Gregg Olson.
Olson won the award after recording 27 saves with a 1.69 ERA and making the AL All-Star team. Olson would continue to be a top reliever, averaging 33 saves a season for the next four years. His career sort of went downhill from there but he ended up lasting in the majors for 14 seasons to accumulate 217 saves.
While Olson had a decent career, cards of relief pitchers are a tough sell. Today, you can find them generally priced as little more than commons.
Had it not been for teammate Jerome Walton, Smith would have walked away with the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
With a .324 batting average, Smith’s total was significantly higher than Walton’s and he also slugged more homers. But he didn’t have the hit streak attached to his name as Walton grabbed all the attention. Ultimately, he was the runner up for Rookie of the Year honors.
Unfortunately, after a big year, Smith had ups and downs. He did bat .300 a few years later in 1993, but never turned into the player he looked like he could become. By the time he finished his career with Atlanta in 1996, he was hitting only .203. His rookie cards, too, are near the bottom of the barrel.
Talk about going under the radar.
Truth be told, there’s nothing low-key about Randy Johnson. As a 6-10 pitcher that throws hard, any scout worth his salt will be able to see some potential there. But Johnson was not a household name to most collectors by any means when his rookie cards arrived in 1989. Case in point — Johnson pitched in four games in the majors in 1988 but didn’t make his way into any of the Traded/Update sets that year.
Johnson had some ups and downs, including a pretty rough 1989 season when he went only 7-13 with a 4.82 ERA. But by 1990, he was an All-Star and his career took off after that.
While Johnson’s rookie cards at the time were not worth a whole lot, they have since risen in value. They are still junk wax era cards, which has limited their value. But they are generally worth at least a few bucks and are typically among the more desirable cards in the 1989 sets where he appears.
To most, Jim Abbott’s true rookie card is his 1988 Topps Traded Team USA card. But Abbott’s major league cards didn’t arrive until 1989 when he first debuted with the California Angels.
He put together a 12-12 record with a 3.92 ERA in his rookie campaign and collectors were immediately intrigued. Born without a right hand, Abbott immediately drew attention for not only being a unique major league pitcher, but a pretty decent one.
His 18-11 / 2.89 ERA campaign in 1991 propelled him to third in the Cy Young voting that year. In 1993, he was in the news for pitching a no-hitter, which only enhanced his popularity. Ironically, Abbott would actually lose a major league worst 18 games only a few seasons later in 1996.
His rookie cards have some appeal today but most of his 1989 issues are plentiful on eBay for a buck or two.