By Mario Alejandro
You would never imagine that something as insignificant as a smile could make or break a company.
As a child I spent countless hours looking through my baseball card collection and noticing everything from the colors of uniforms to the brands of bats and gloves worn by the players I aspired to be like one day.
In December of 1988 a new company by the name of Upper Deck was granted a license to produce official Major League Baseball trading cards. The company’s first release would debut in a couple of months and, like most in the sports cards industry, the fledgling company wanted a young, future superstar to be its face.
His name was Ken Griffey Jr., and at the time many were predicting big things for the 18-year-old kid. Fleer was one of the first to put Griffey’s mug on a card in 1989, and as you can see from the results, it was a colossal failure. Don’t even take a second look at your Bowman, because he looks even more upset. Donruss almost managed a smile but failed, and Topps didn’t even try coming close to the rookie; instead Topps chose to go for a classic baseball portrait for their Griffey debut.
Who was this kid and why did he seem to be so sulky? Was he bound for glory or was he a future Albert Belle or Tony Phillips of the baseball world? No one had a clue yet, especially collectors who’d collected all the different Griffey releases from that year.
In the end, it would be a battle to the finish to capture this future Hall of Fame slugger smiling on a Rookie Card. In one corner you had a new, unknown company vs. seemingly a Home Shopping Network-exclusive brand called Classic Baseball that didn’t seem to produce anything remotely resembling a mainstream set.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I never once saw Classic cards anywhere but on television. None of my friends who collected had any and the baseball card shops in town would laugh anytime you asked to see one. Believe it or not, there is a 1989 Classic Griffey and it is without a doubt the worst major release of all the Griffey cards from that year. In fact, it looks more like a mug shot than a portrait. On the card it appears Griffey is halfway into the “Gigantism” he would suffer at the hands of an overdose of Mr. Burns’ Ye Olde Nerve Tonic.
That left one newcomer trying to make up for the smile-less failures of icons like Topps, Bowman and Fleer. It was up to Upper Deck to catch the smile that would make Griffey a beloved slugger way before his time. It was that smile and grace that Upper Deck captured perfectly on card No. 1 of its debut set, making Griffey an icon and Upper Deck a household name.
In terms of the greatest modern-day Rookie Cards, Topps may have a 2001 Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols autograph. But consider that it is a very rare, limited card. Upper Deck did nothing more than photograph, print, and release to the masses one of the most beautiful and desired cards of all time.
It didn't take an autograph, redemption or short print. All it took was a simple smile.Mario Alejandro is a husband, father and the creator of Wax Heaven, a fast-growing, often-updated, baseball card blog.