On the heels of The Kid's recent induction into Cooperstown, it gives me great pleasure to say that I finally own a copy of the iconic 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.
Until recently, it wasn't a card I'd ever seriously planned on obtaining. There was once a time when I felt like I should've tracked one down simply because of how famous it is. But I've since turned on the idea that anyone should or must own specific cards, because all collections are different...and besides, I never actually saw a copy I could afford.
Over the past couple years, however, I've made a push to acquire more Griffeys, and a couple rookie Juniors I picked up during a recent flea market run inspired me to revive my search for the sacred '89 UD issue.
I threw out a small bid on a low-grade copy I stumbled upon on Ebay (as you might expect, all the others I saw were either graded and/or in pristine shape and thus far out of my price range) and, lo and behold, I actually won it for a shade under $10 shipped, far less than I thought I'd have to spend for this iconic piece of cardboard history.
Iconic. That's what it is, no doubt. But hold the phone...what exactly defines an iconic baseball card? Many collectors -- including myself -- throw that term around quite a bit, but what is it, specifically, that earns that iconic label for cards like this Griffey?
I've been thinking about that ever since The Kid showed up in the mail.
#1 -- "Value"
I usually hate when people say one card has "value" and another doesn't, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of iconic baseball cards do carry a substantial amount of monetary value.
The most obvious example of this is the famous T206 Honus Wagner, the holy grail of the hobby. This card has sold in the millions, and it makes national news each and every time it does. Wayne Gretzky has owned it. It's a card for the one-percenters.
Even on a smaller scale, however, most '89 UD Griffeys continually sell for around $25-$30 at the low end. A lot of the ones I saw during my quest were priced at north of a hundred bucks. (My copy was an extreme outlier.)
But that's not to say that all "valuable" cards are iconic, nor that an iconic card can't be a cheap common, because...
#2 -- Time and place
...luckily for us commoners, an iconic piece of cardboard can still be had for as little as a couple bucks.
There are many famous baseball cards out there, but only a select few are widely defined as iconic. I'd say this '77 Topps Mark Fidrych rookie is part of that rare class, simply because the card defines the era in which it was released so perfectly.
Many of today's collectors are in the late 40s/early 50s age range, which means that Bird-mania hit right in the center of their prime youth years of baseball fandom (ask my dad). Upon returning to the hobby as adults, most of those collectors naturally flocked back to the cards they knew so well as kids, perhaps none better than the famous Fidrych.
I'd say it's still the most recognizable card of the '70s.
#3 -- So long, farewell
The prestigious "rookie card" label has always been a bit conflicting to me.
It makes sense that Griffey's 1989 Upper Deck rookie would be such a hallowed baseball card, of course, but why aren't his final cards in 2010 just as recognizable? If you think about it -- I mean really think about it -- there's little reason why a rookie card should hold any more sway than a finale.
I'm not saying rookies aren't special, but the fact that final cards get swept by the wayside time and time again is why I've devoted so much time to building my "sunset" collection. It sucks that really the only finale widely defined as iconic -- Roberto Clemente's 1973 Topps issue -- was born out of a tragedy.
Sunset cards, to me, are just as worthy of that iconic status as rookies, and I wish more of the cardboard community agreed.
#4 -- Quirks
Sometimes an iconic card can just be quirky.
Even the hallowed T206 Wagner has its roots in an oddity -- the fact that the card was pulled from the printing press because of The Flying Dutchman's alleged opposition to tobacco use (though in reality more likely due to a money dispute). The Griffey, in addition, has quirk value, in that it was the very first card ever issued by Upper Deck (not counting the DeWayne Buice/Wally Joyner promos).
Look no further than the infamous '89 Fleer Bill Ripken F--- Face error for a quirky piece of cardboard history. The obscenity itself makes for one of the most widely talked-about cards out there, but contributing further to its charm are the number of "variations" Fleer unwittingly issued in an attempt to correct its substantial foul-up.
The fact that Black Box and White Out and Scribble Out versions of this card exist (as well as many, many others) just adds to its iconic status.
#5 -- Recognizability
This, I think, might be the most pivotal factor in what defines an iconic baseball card.
There are many cards that we collectors can recall in a heartbeat, yet almost no one outside of our hobby circle knows about. The iconic cards have the ability to transcend this barrier, the ones that even the most casual sports fan would probably recognize at the drop of a hat.
I've seen many articles discussing cards like the Bill Ripken error and Mark Fidrych rookie and '89 UD Griffey that aren't actually garnered towards card-collecting audiences. Lots has been written about the famous '52 Mantle, and if I had a dollar for every time I heard it incorrectly referred to as his rookie card (actually '51 Bowman) I'd probably be able to afford one by now.
The iconics are the ones that can get non-collectors interested in our hobby, even for a second.
And now we're back to my newest Griffey.
I don't know if any card since this one has quite reached iconic status, and maybe none ever will. Even with Topps being the only major licensed brand out there, there are still a lot of sets issued each year, which reduces the chances of one single card separating from the herd. And that's not even mentioning the general apathy that a good percentage of today's collectors have towards base cards in the first place.
But I can't say for sure, because that's another requirement of judging iconic baseball cards: time. Maybe it's the simple fact that not enough time has passed for another card to enter the sacred realm.
Maybe, just maybe, Griffey won't be the last of his iconic kind.