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 cards and noticing everything from the colors of the players’ uniform, to the brand of bats and gloves worn by the guys I aspired to be like one day.
In December of 1988 a new company under the name Upper Deck was granted a license to produce official Major League Baseball trading cards. Their first release would come in 1989 and like most in the sports cards industry, they wanted a young, future superstar to be the face of their company.
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 the Bowman card, cause he looks even more upset! Donruss almost managed a smile but failed miserably and Topps didn’t even try coming close to the rookie and instead chose to go for a classic baseball portrait for their release.
Who was this kid and why did he seem to be so sulky? Was he bound for glory or was he the future Albert Belle and Tony Phillips’ of the baseball world? No one had a clue yet, especially collectors who had all the different releases from that year.
In the end, it would be a battle to the finish to capture this future Hall of Fame slugger’s best rookie card between a new, unknown company versus a seemingly-exclusive to Home Shopping Netword brand called Classic Baseball, that didn’t even really produce baseball cards.
In the late 80’s, early 90’s 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 Ken Griffey Jr. and it is without a doubt the worst major release of all the Griffey cards from that year. Infact, it looks more like a mugshot than a portrait. Actually, it looks like Griffey Jr. is midway into the “Gigantism” he would suffer at the hands of an overdose of nerve tonic in Springfield a few years later.
That only left one company to make up for the failures of icons like Topps, Bowman, and Fleer. It was up to Upper Deck to catch the smile that would make Ken Griffey Jr. a beloved slugger much like Babe Ruth and Lou Gerigh, way before his time. It was that smile and grace that Upper Deck captured perfectly in card #1 of their debut that not only made Griffey and icon but also made Upper Deck the card company to beat, a title that to this day still belongs to them.
Topps may have a 2001 Bowman Chrome autograph but consider that it is a very rare, limited card full of gimmicks. Upper Deck did nothing more than to photograph, print, and release to the masses the most beautiful and wanted card of the 90’s and beyond. They didn’t need an autograph, a redemption, or to make it a short print. All it took was a simple smile.