The most famous card in the history of pictures on cardboard is the T206 Honus Wagner, so rare that one of them sold for more than $2 million last year. The most well-known card of the modern era is the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr., the No. 1 card in the company's inaugural set. As Griffey nears the 600-home-run landmark, sales of the Upper Deck No. 1 are as brisk as always, with buyers snapping up a couple of dozen every day on eBay at prices ranging from $15 to $300. These two cards, the bookends of the collecting phenomenon, are exact opposites. The Wagner is the white whale of the card trade: elusive, highly coveted, and known to drive men to madness. The Griffey is the childhood lust object that everyone's mother saved, arguably the most popular, most widely held baseball card of all time.
When Griffey welcomed collectors to the very first Upper Deck set, investment was just about to trump fun in the card world. Kids had started putting their collections in plastic sheets and hard cases rather than bicycle spokes and shoe boxes, and investors would cross-check every card picked from a pack against the latest issue of Beckett's price guide. It was in this environment that Upper Deck launched in 1989 as the first premium baseball card, protected from the threat of counterfeiting with a hologram on each card, protected from the stain of the wax pack thanks to its unprecedented foil wrappers. There was no gum included, and packs cost an industry-high $1. Baseball cards were serious business.
The Griffey card was the perfect piece of memorabilia at the perfect time. The number the card was given only furthered the prospect of his cardboard IPO. Junior was chosen to be card No. 1 by an Upper Deck employee named Tom Geideman, a college student known for his keen eye for talent. Geideman earned his rep by consistently clueing in the founders of The Upper Deck, the card shop where the business was hatched, on which players would be future stars. Geideman took the task of naming the player for the first card very seriously. Using an issue of Baseball America as his guide, Geideman knew that card No. 1 would belong to Gregg Jefferies, Sandy Alomar Jr., Gary Sheffield, or a long-shot candidate, the phenom they called "The Kid." It's probably the most thinking Geideman ever did compiling a checklist, save for the 1992 Upper Deck set when he assigned numbers that ended in 69 to players with porn-star-sounding names. (Dick Schofield at No. 269, Heathcliff Slocumb at No. 569, and Dickie Thon at No. 769.)
Despite the fact that Griffey had yet to crack the majors, Geideman had the confidence that the top pick in the 1987 draft would live up to his pedigree. It goes without saying that this was a genius selection. You could imagine how the people at Topps felt when Junior became an instant superstar—and they hadn't even included him in their 792-card set.
From the very beginning, card buffs saw the Upper Deck No. 1 as not just a collectible, but as an investment. Baseball card fans, who had once traded away duplicate cards in a quest to compile a complete set, started hoarding as many Griffeys as they could. Collectors' hands would shake when they saw Griffey's face in their pack, confident that this card would be the key to financing a college education.
But the truth was that even though Upper Deck printed fewer cards than its contemporaries—Donruss, Fleer, Topps, and Score—in this case, supply came close to meeting demand. Today, many people face the reality of unloading their Griffeys at a heavy discount on eBay. On May 4, for example, you could find two people selling two separate lots of 11 Upper Deck card No. 1s. One guy was selling a lot of 26, which eventually went for $760.
It comes as no surprise that the Griffey card is the most-graded piece of cardboard in the history of the hobby. (Card grading, if you're unaware, is done by services that slap a card in between plastic and evaluate exactly how pristine it really is.) Professional Sports Authenticator has graded 51,800 Griffeys, while Beckett has graded about 25,400. (PSA's second-place card is the 1985 Topps Mark McGwire Olympic rookie card, with 46,000 grades. Beckett's No. 2 is the 2001 Upper Deck Tiger Woods card, which has been graded about 21,500 times.)
A Griffey that was graded a perfect 10 once sold for north of $1,000. Now it would go for closer to $275. "Raw," ungraded Griffeys sell for $15 to $50. (By comparison, Donruss and Fleer versions of the Griffey rookie, from graded to ungraded, usually range in price from $1 to $20.)