Imagine that for one year of your childhood you ripped packs open chasing the rookie card of the hottest player in the game. And then three decades later that player is inducted into the hall of fame and his rookie card can be found for less that $1.
If you are a collector of at least 35 years of age, you know this exercise well. We grew up during the great card boom. We saw packs rise from mere pennies to half a dollar, and then venture well past that. We lived the transition of packs filled with base cards to packs filled with promise and hope that it may contain some shiny treasure we came to know as the chase card.
We also know what a hot rookie card can do to a product. Insert Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey is far from the first rookie to hit the market and create waves, but in my youth, there was none bigger. Yes, Mark McGwire’s rookie home run chase generated heavy interest in his 1985 Topps USA card and his various 1987 releases. And a year later the card world gravitated toward can’t-miss New York Mets prospect Gregg Jefferies and Cubs first baseman Mark Grace. Although neither became hall of fame material, both wound up with fantastic careers. Jefferies played 14 years, collected almost 1,600 hits and tallied a career batting average of almost .290. Grace stuck around for 16 years, racked up almost 2,500 hits while maintaining a batting average above .300, and earned four Gold Glove Awards.
A year later, however, both were trumped by Ken Griffey Jr., The Kid, the phenom in the Seattle Mariners system who was the son of a Major League outfielder still bumping around the Bigs.
Griffey’s history in our hobby has been long documented. His face is emblazoned on perhaps one of the top three iconic baseball cards in history. But for those of us who could not afford to chase that 1989 Upper Deck cardboard icon, we found other ways to chase The Kid, we ripped 1989 Donruss hoping to find his Rated Rookie.
George (Ken) Kenneth Griffey Jr. We hoped to open our wax packs — literally, they were sealed with wax — and see that full name on the yellow backs of the card. Or we hoped to see that blue, black and purple top border and then the Rated Rookie logo that graced the front of a handful of rookie cards in the 1989 Donruss set.
True, the Griffey Donruss card never even approached the popularity of the Upper Deck, but it was one of only two Griffey rookies aside from the UD card that were available in packs. The Topps Traded and Score Rookies and Traded were available only in boxed set form.
Packs at the time for Donruss ran about 50 cents or so each; a full box of 36 packs usually retailed in shops for about $18. And the way collation worked you’d be lucky to see one Griffey in each box. Nonetheless, for those of us working on small collecting budgets — much of my money actually came from collecting bottles and cans –Donruss was our option. The other pack-released Griffey was in the Fleer product but the Billy Ripken “Fuck Face” obscenity card and subsequent variations drove that product’s price through the roof.
I owned a few different Rated Rookie Griffeys in my youth I pulled one or two, traded for others, and won a few in games of black jack and other silly games my friends and I would play.
In recent years I’ve found a few in bargain bins at shows for a buck or two, and I usually picked them up based on principle. Demand for the card has fallen so much — because everyone wants the Upper Deck first and the Topps Traded second — that the Donruss Griffey can routinely be found on COMC.com for under $1.
Now fast forward to Thursday. I took my kids to school and decided to do a little thrift shopping. During one of my stops I walked in and saw a mound of red boxes emblazoned with the words “Baseball Cards.” These boxes were very typical for the late 1980s early 1990s. I recall seeing these and green versions at various retail outlets such as K-Mart and Toys R Us. And I believe I had seen them in various catalogues and advertisements as well.
When I find these boxes in thrift stores they are usually filled with bulk lots of 1990 Donruss or Topps, or other sets that were part of the mass produced card era. If there was one key rookie card in any of those boxes they still wouldn’t be “worth” the purchase if the store wanted more than $5.
I opened the first box on the shelf and immediately I saw a lot of five 1990 Topps Sammy Sosa cards. A decade and a half ago this would’ve been a small fortune. Those cards were selling for $8-$15 each at one point. I combed through that box hoping to find a similar size stash of Frank Thomas rookies but there were none. I closed the box and kept moving. I went through another dozen boxes or so until I came to one that housed 1989 Donruss cards.
By now it was clear that the owner was a set builder. They had built entire sets and then placed all of the other cards in numerical order in all other boxes. If you were looking for a certain star card it’d be easy to find a half dozen or so of them in these boxes. I was hoping to find a good size lot of Griffey or Thomas rookies. And then it happened.
I grabbed a handful of 1989 Donruss and skimmed through the Bonus Card
MVPs and the Diamond Kings before I hit the Rated Rookies. There were five Sandy Alomar rookies (card #28), four Steve Searcy (card #29), seven Cameron Drew (card #30), five Gary Sheffield (cards #31), four Erik Hanson (card #32) and … SIX of card #33, George (Ken) Kenneth Griffey Jr. A smile came across my face and my instinct was to buy immediately for I had uncovered a jackpot. Then I remembered the price on the bottom of the box. This Goodwill wanted $10.24 for the box.
I hesitated for a minute or two.
Did I need these Griffeys? No.
Was it a deal to buy six Griffey Donruss rookies for $10.24? Nope.
I closed the box and put it down on the shelf.
I took two steps away and stopped. I turned back and grabbed the box.
What was I thinking? My rationale for NOT buying the box was the exact reason this hobby is so screwed up. Because we tend to worry about what cards are “worth” and don’t spend enough time enjoying the journey. Besides, the cost for this treasure I had unearthed wasn’t unreasonable.
So I placed the box under my arm and headed for the register. I paid for the item and sat in my car and pulled out the stack of Griffeys. The sight of those six in my hands is one that made me happy. The cards were in good shape and these six Griffeys until this moment had been abandoned; their fate uncertain, which is a sad but true state of our hobby.
Griffey is perhaps the finest player the game has seen since the days of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. All of those feelings the younger collectors get these days with Mike Trout, those are the same that came when you thought of Ken Griffey Jr. in his youth.
Truth be told, I lost money or could barely break even on this deal. Six Griffeys could net me $5-$6 on the open market if the right buyer came along. And even though there were three Rated Rookie cards of fellow Hall of Fame member Randy Johnson and five of Gary Sheffield, a member of the 500 Home Run Club, it would take a special buyer to hand me a crisp $10 bill for the entire lot.
But as you know this hobby isn’t just about money. It’s about the memories and feelings that come with tracking down a White Whale for your collection. It’s about the stories you have that are tied to specific cards. It’s about reliving our childhood in an instant with a glance of a player’s face on a piece of cardboard.
The sight of those Griffey’s in my hands made me happy. It made me smile. It made me remember sitting on the brick planter box in front of Brian’s Books in the Food Farm Shopping Center in Santa Clara, California, talking about nonsense with friends while thumbing through our cards.
It made me remember the aroma of the pizza being cooked and ultimately sold by the slice at the pizza parlor across the hall. It made me think of the aquarium and fish store that was next door and flooded one time, causing Brian’s Books to close for a day or two. It made me remember that in addition to baseball cards, I also enjoyed purchasing pieces of Laffy Taffy, water balloons and cap guns at the drug store just a few doors to the north.
Yes, the cards of my youth are worth less than what I paid for them. But they are not worthless. In fact, they are priceless.
Total cost of these Treasures: $10.24.
You can see more Thrift Treasures posts Here.