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03/14 – Words: Will Stern

In 1989 the sports card hobby was drunk on production.

Beginning in the late ‘80s, the market was flooded with an over-production of cards propelled by a  spike in mainstream interest and a glut of new manufacturers.

This led to what became known as the “Junk Wax Era.”

Collectors were buying (who wouldn’t want a Barry Bonds, Shaq, or Jaromir Jagr Rookie Card?), and card companies were printing them as fast as they could. The downside meant that even cards featuring some of the greatest athletes of the era were cheapened on the secondary market to the point of near worthlessness.

The hobby was filled with base set productions, printed at huge multiples compared to even a few years prior. Despite mostly uninspired designs — as if the handful of card manufacturers formed an agreement to stay away from artistic flair — Big Box retailers picked up boxes of the sets in greater numbers than ever before, and by around 1988 every kid (and many adults) on the block had their very own boxes of the latest Topps, Donruss, Score, and Fleer releases.

On second thought, most of those boxes are probably still sitting in garages and storage units across the country (if not already retired to a landfill).

It’s tough to blame manufacturers for this mostly lost era in card collecting. They were, in the most literal sense, printing money.

But the era turned out to be a crucial piece of the industry’s evolution, spurring development and innovation as a means of escape from a trap of their own creation.

The first inflection point came in the form of a brand-new card company called Upper Deck.

The Upper Deck was a card shop in Southern California that formed a card company in 1989 to up-end the business, and whether they knew it or not, change the hobby forever. Joining together MLB insiders, financial gurus, and printing techies, they were going to take a shot at the big guys.

Since the incumbents offered cheap cardboard destined for the spokes of neighborhood kids’ bikes, UD brought out the big guns. More than doubling the price-point of most competitors at $1 per pack, the 1989 Upper Deck Baseball set was printed on high-quality glossy stock and featured anti-counterfeiting holograms, all decked-out in tamper-evident foil-wrapped packaging.

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Even if the price-point seemed insane at the time, the leap from wax to foil and the incorporation of the glossy design was eye-catching. Their “Collector’s Choice” tagline didn’t hurt either.

While all that may have been revolutionary, the true magic bullet came in the form of the number 1 card in the 26-card Star Rookie subset. His name was Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey Jr. wasn’t even expected to start the 1989 season, and the industry favorites for that year’s crop of hot new rookies were Sandy Alomar Jr. and Gary Sheffield. But Upper Deck wasn’t just focused on the physical appeal of their product, they needed to stand out even more.

That’s how Tom Geideman came into the mix. Barely removed from high school math class, the kid was already known as somewhat of a rookie scouting whiz. Geideman knew none of the competing sets would have Griffey, and he had a hunch that this kid could be something special.

The problem was it was 1989. No Photoshop, just poorly applied airbrush techniques. But UD was in luck, they had a picture of Griffey Jr. from a Sports Illustrated photographer. Thanks to their top-notch printing capabilities, they were able to make a believable edit of Griffey from his Single-A San Bernardino Spirit get-up to a Mariners uniform.

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The gamble paid off. After surprising scouts with an excellent spring training in ’89, Griffey Jr. was given the center-field job at age 19, debuting on April 3 and hitting a double in his first MLB at-bat. “The Kid” would go on to become an iconoclast of ’90s baseball thanks to his pure swing and legendary backward hat.

As Griffey Jr. became a perennial All-Star, his 1989 Rookie Card became ever more important as a landmark moment in the hobby.

Sports Illustrated called it “The last Iconic Baseball Card” in 2009 and Darren Rovell wrote in 2016 that the card “deserves its own place in Cooperstown.”


-Sports Illustrated

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UD’s success was a key contributor to the renaissance of the sports card industry that followed, having proved that premium products were the future.

Slowly but surely, manufacturers returned to their Econ 101 textbooks and learned about scarcity.

Topps 1993 Finest Baseball introduced Refractor parallels, which not only came in low print-runs but also brought some flair to the market with rainbow coating — now collectors were holding something more than another piece of junk wax, scientifically proven by the pretty colors produced when exposed to light.

The baseball player strike of 1994 sent many of the Johnny-come-lately collectors packing, and parallels like Refractors (picked up by other companies almost immediately) ushered in a new era.

Today all the top producers seem to have learned from their mistakes — placing the vast majority of their focus on short-prints and parallels, while continuing to experiment with designs and new products to keep collectors happy and engaged, placing the Junk Wax Era in the rearview mirror.

Some of the most valuable modern cards featuring players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Mike Trout, and Patrick Mahomes are a result of this emphasis on limited-edition releases, refractor parallels, and other exciting additions like jersey patches and autographs.

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