How Ken Griffey Jr.'s rookie card became No. 1 for Upper Deck

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_Value

When Ken Griffey Jr. is inducted this summer into the Baseball Hall of Fame, fans will undoubtedly remember his perfect swing and his spectacular home run-robbing catches. Collectors, meanwhile, will always remember his Upper Deck rookie card.

It was card No. 1 to the new kid on the block, Upper Deck -- a company cobbled together by Anaheim, California, businessmen in time to usher in the era of investing in the baseball card business.

There was no gum to ruin the stunning, glossy cardboard, and each card came with a hologram to prevent counterfeiting. Packs of 15 cards, packaged not in wax but in foil, retailed at an unheard of $1 each beginning in February 1989.

How Griffey's career took off and how the card became the darling of a business that had just reached frenzied heights has been well documented. But the story of how Griffey became the centerpiece of the set has rarely been told.

It starts with a kid named Tom Geideman, who during his high school years worked in the card shop where Upper Deck was founded. Geideman quickly gained the position of the stock broker in the store, sorting through stacks of cards and putting aside the rookies he thought had the best chance to jump in value.

It was Geideman, 18 years old at the time and an incoming freshman at UC-San Bernardino, who was hired as employee No. 1 at Upper Deck. His first job was the monumental task of selecting the players in the company's first set and coming up with an order.

Geideman was keen on using rookies for the first cards since that was what everyone was chasing, and he was going to put the best card at No. 1.

Securing photos for the 1988 first-round picks would be a challenge, so that idea was scrapped -- and  Andy Benes, who was drafted first overall that year, lost his chance at being the very first Upper Deck card. So Geideman came up with his candidates.

In 1988, Griffey played 58 games of Class A ball in San Bernardino and 17 in Double-A Vermont before getting hurt. Between the two teams, Griffey batted above .300 with 13 home runs and 52 RBIs.

"He was the team's No. 1 pick in 1987, but nobody really knew who Griffey was at the time," Geideman said. "But I figured all the other guys had nowhere to go but down. They were so hyped. My guess was that if Griffey played really well, he would be in the majors by August of 1989."

Griffey, Geideman decided, would be his No. 1 card.

Then it was time to secure the picture.

Geideman called V.J. Lovero, a West Coast baseball photographer for Sports Illustrated and a contractor for Upper Deck. Lovero happened to take pictures of Griffey in San Bernardino that season for an SI story.

A picture was found with a smiling Griffey in his San Bernardino Spirit uniform, and Geideman decided this would be the picture to take to the Scitex, a $1 million machine that essentially did what Photoshop would do in the future.

The "S" on the cap was changed from silver to yellow, and the star behind it was removed. The color of the cap was changed from navy blue to the Mariners' royal blue, but Griffey's navy turtleneck wasn't lightened to match it.

Griffey, of course, started the 1989 season in Seattle and never looked back, and he became the star of the sports card world. Topps didn't even have him in its original 1989 set, while the Donruss "Rated Rookie" and Fleer cards didn't have close to the cache of the beauty defined by his Upper Deck card.

Although card companies don't reveal the size of their runs, it's estimated that more than 2 million of the Griffey rookie cards were distributed by Upper Deck. There still are plenty in excellent condition in circulation for a variety of reasons.

Many kids who pulled the Griffey cards from packs would immediately put them in plastic sheets or cases thinking they would eventually be worth a fortune and pay for college educations.

Also, thousands of extra Griffey cards in perfect condition were sent out to appease customers who complained. Because it was No. 1, the Griffey card was in the upper-left-hand corner of each 100-card sheet and therefore susceptible to being off center or having bad corners. Jay McCracken, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, said there must have been a printing plate that had 100 Griffey rookies on it to cover the requests for replacements. However, Buzz Rasmussen, Upper Deck's plant manager at the time, said in 2008 that if such a plate existed, he never saw it.

The 1989 Upper Deck No. 1 card is the second-most graded card ever by collectible certification industry leader PSA/DNA, which slabs the cards and grades them on a 1-10 scale. That card can fetch more than $300 today if PSA/DNA gives it a 10, but you can get your hands on an ungraded version for under $20. PSA/DNA says it's graded more than 61,000 of the Upper Deck Griffey, a number surpassed only by Griffey's 1989 Topps Traded card, which was produced in mass numbers after Topps missed the boat on the Mariners star in its initial set that year.

Like any stock broker, Geideman didn't always make the right calls. The hundreds of 1986 Benito Santiago Fleer and 1988 Ron Gant Donruss cards that sit in his house to this day are reminders of that.

But Geideman made the right call with Griffey, whose Upper Deck rookie card deserves its own place in Cooperstown.