A ground-breaking set turns 20 with some quirks hidden among the cards that don’t say "Griffey" on the front.
It was the ‘holy grail’ for kids who chased the new baseball card kid on the block in 1989.
Upper Deck’s Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card was #1 in the series and there was no doubt he was also number one on the want list of every 11 year-old kid who rode his bike to a card shop.
Landing Griffey as a focal point and making him the #1 card in the set was a gutsy move, but Upper Deck had made a wise investment.
20 years later, Junior is still playing. His rookie card makes up at least three-quarers of the value of the entire inaugural Upper Deck issue. The 26-card “Star Rookies” subset he headlined actually contains at least two and maybe three players who will likely become Hall of Famers. Griffey was an established veteran by the time Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield became stars, but the list of rookie cards with even a moderate impact starts and stops with them.
What about the rest of the set that was so hot in 1989, when the ultra-modern foil wrapper made its debut courtesy of Carlsbad? It began as a 700-card holograph-carrying, dollar-per-packing upstart. Before the year was over, Upper Deck would add another 100 card high number series jammed with players appearing on cards for the first time. The high number series gave us Steve Finley, Tom Gordon, Edgar Martinez, Omar Vizquel and yes, Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens. Vizquel could wind up in the Hall of Fame if serious students of the game can muster the support. The 1989 Upper Deck high number set also carries the rookie card of Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi. It even includes a Jamie Moyer (nope, still not old enough to be his rookie card).
The set includes several Hall of Famers including Nolan Ryan, who boasts two cards –one in the first series and another in the high number run—as well as an apperance on the team checklist card. George Brett, Don Mattingly, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken Jr, Carlton Fisk and Barry Bonds are among those who make their first appearance on Upper Deck cards.
But maybe the one reason to rediscover the 1989 Upper Deck set are the variations that are quietly sprinkled throughout the set. Still working to get its legs in the market, Upper Deck made some glaring errors that, to their credit, were later corrected. Card #357 shows Dale Murphy but the reversed negative variety was printed only in small quantities before the error was discovered.
Card #72 Brian Holton actually showed Shawn Hillegas in the first run. #321 Gary Varsho was, at first, Mike Bielecki. #627 Bill Schroeder pictured Ronn Reynolds at first. #628 Fred Manrique? That’s Ozzie Guillen in the first run. #652 Pat Sheridan is missing his position on the front, a variation that’s tough to find these days.
There are plenty of forgettable faces in between, but in its 20th anniversary year, the set has to be acknowledged for launching a new era in card collecting, one of monster sets and white cardboard.
1989 Upper Deck on eBay