Ken Griffey Jr. has retired. Lots and lots (and lots) of copies of his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card…

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 3 2010 10:00 AM

Junior Mint

Ken Griffey Jr. has retired. Lots and lots (and lots) of copies of his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card will live on.

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Despite Griffey's illustrious career—some might call it disappointing relative to all the hype—it's amazing that the card could even command a couple hundred bucks, given how common it is and how many of them seem to be in great condition.

More than 1 million Griffey cards were printed. In Upper Deck's original mailing to dealers, the company said it would sell 65,000 cases of card packs. With 20 boxes in a case, 520 cards in a box, and 700 different cards in the set, there would be about 965,000 of each card produced for the boxes. Combine that number with the amount of Griffeys in the untold number of "factory sets," and you'd have your production run.

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Given the number of Griffey cards in circulation, there have long been rumors of an illicit reason for the card's ubiquity. Upper Deck, the legend goes, knew that printing the cards was just like printing money. As such, there was a sheet the company could run with 100 Griffey cards on it, instead of the standard sheet that had just one Griffey in the top corner along with 99 pictures of other players.

"If that existed, I never saw it," says Buzz Rasmussen, Upper Deck's plant manager at the time. Rob Veres of Burbank Sportscards, a memorabilia dealership with a warehouse of 30 million cards, says that if Griffeys were produced in greater quantity than other cards, he would've expected to come across larger collections of the card.

If there was no funny business, why are the Griffey cards so abundant? The most natural explanation is that more were saved. Figure that about 95 percent of Frank DiPinos, Henry Cottos, and Steve Lombardozzis have hit the garbage can, while a huge percentage of the Griffeys have survived. Some dealers also swore to me that, although Upper Deck claims its packs were sequenced randomly, there was in fact a predictable pattern in the company's boxes that became valuable to learn. Therefore, the unopened Upper Deck packs that remain are less likely to have Griffey cards stashed inside them.

There's one more reason for the Griffey profusion. While the card might not have received an extra production run, there was extra attention paid to its condition coming out of packs and factory sets. Because the Griffey was card No. 1, it resided in the upper-left-hand corner of the printing sheet. It was therefore more susceptible to miscuts and corner bends. Being the first card in the factory set also turned some of the Griffeys blue, the color of the box.

Card collectors and dealers who received less-than-perfect Griffeys would write in to complain to Upper Deck. The nascent company—surely understanding that its products would be seen as investments—couldn't afford any bad PR at that early stage. According to Jay McCracken, then the company's vice president of marketing and sales, the customer service desk was the place to find stacks of new Griffeys. The company was more than happy to exchange the bad card for a pristine one to keep its customers happy. That came in handy a decade later when the value of a Griffey would be determined by the card graders.

When Griffey hits home run No. 600, don't look for the value of Upper Deck No. 1 to skyrocket. After all, there's likely a card in circulation for every person living in the city centers of Cincinnati and Seattle. That sheer quantity, though, does mean that the lasting image of Ken Griffey Jr. won't be anything he does on the baseball field. It will be a picture of an overjoyed teenager in an airbrushed Mariners hat.

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