Lucas Stallbaumer can pinpoint the moment his relationship with Ken Griffey Jr. began.
As a third grader in Centralia, Kansas, in the early 1990s, Stallbaumer collected baseball cards, and one day a friend offered him $20 in exchange for a Griffey card. At the time, Stallbaumer didn't know much about Griffey, but intrigued by the offer, he scoured his collection, found a 1991 Topps card of the Mariners centerfielder, and threw it in his bookbag. At school the next day, though, Stallbaumer didn't get the response he was expecting. "That ain't it," the classmate told him. The classmate had a specific Griffey card in mind, and it's the one you probably have in yours when you read the words "Ken Griffey Jr. baseball card."
Stallbaumer set out to learn everything he could about the player whose card his classmate coveted, and quickly discovered that Griffey was one of the game's brightest young stars—an offensive and defensive standout who conveniently made a great subject for grade-school book reports. He also learned which card the classmate had been looking for: Griffey's 1989 Upper Deck rookie, card No. 1 in the very first Upper Deck set ever, and a card that was already on its way to becoming one of the most iconic of the modern era.
"After that, he was my favorite player, and I just collected everything that I could find of him," says Stallbaumer, now 33. Among that collection is a sprawling sub-collection of Griffey's Upper Deck rookie that would be the envy of any early-'90s middle-schooler. Stallbaumer now owns more than 400 of those Griffey rookie cards.
Upper Deck's inaugural set was released as baseball cards were increasingly being seen less as a kids' hobby—something to trade, flip, or stick in the spokes of a bike—and more as a potential investment. The financial upside for a rare card was impossible to ignore. In 1987, a T-206 Honus Wagner card had sold for $110,000. When the subsequent baseball card bubble burst in the 1990s, it left many collectors with a lot of virtually worthless cards—cheap, mass-produced sets pumped out by a variety of companies. Very few cards from that era have retained much in the way of value. But, with Griffey's rookie card, "value" has always had more than one definition.
Upper Deck was designed as a sort of premium product: cards came in foil wrappers, and each had a hologram on the back to prevent counterfeiting; bubble gum was nowhere to be found inside of the packs. Griffey was chosen as the first card in the company's first set by an Upper Deck employee named Tom Geideman, who believed the top overall pick in the 1987 draft would ultimately live up to his considerable hype. It wasn't a given that he would—Griffey didn't appear in Topps' main set that year—but it would prove to be a brilliant choice. Junior's Upper Deck rookie, featuring a doctored image of a minor-league Griffey wearing a San Bernardino Spirit cap, quickly became a hot commodity, and a must-have card for kids and collectors alike.
For a while, the price of the card remained high. Stallbaumer would have to wait until high school to afford his first '89 Upper Deck Griffey, paying $56 for one on eBay in the late 1990s. "I thought that was a little high, but that's about what the average was," says Stallbaumer. "But after that, the bottom fell out." The card was produced in huge quantities—it's estimated that Upper Deck distributed more than two million of them—and the theory goes that lots of people hung onto them, believing they would one day be valuable.
Indeed, the $56 Stallbaumer paid for that first card remains the most he's ever paid for one, even though he's been buying them for nearly 20 years now. When Stallbaumer got to college, he took some of the money he earned from a part-time job and bought a few more. He hasn't stopped since, and as of late June, Stallbaumer was up to 312 loose, out-of-the-box '89 Upper Deck Griffeys. But he also has two unopened complete '89 Upper Deck sets, each of which has a Griffey. And he has half a dozen unopened boxes, each likely to have at least a couple more Griffeys. And he has three unopened cases of the cards, each containing roughly 40 to 60 Griffeys.
To be sure, no one's sending their kids to college by selling Griffey's Upper Deck rookie, but the card isn't totally worthless. The latest Beckett guide lists the price at between $15 and $40, and Stallbaumer says he pays around $20 or $25 for them these days, either on eBay or at local card shows, though he says he once paid as little as $16.50. He prefers to buy them in bulk, and he says he's obtained as many as 50 in one lot.
When it was officially announced that Griffey had been elected to the Hall of Fame in January, Stallbaumer says the prices for the iconic '89 Griffey temporarily spiked, selling for $40, $50, even $100. The spike was so crazy that Stallbaumer says it's crossed his mind that, should the price temporarily jump again around the Hall of Fame's induction weekend in late July, he could try to sell all the ones he has at a high price, then take the money and buy even more when it inevitably drops again. He says he probably won't actually do it, though: "I know that if I do sell them all, even at that price, I'll be sick to my stomach for weeks, because they're like my babies."
(Stallbaumer is so proud of his collection that he's still angry with the Massachusetts lawyer who, earlier this year, stole a photo Staulbaumer had posted online of his Griffeys and tried passing it off as his own. He was only further irritated when ESPN's Darren Rovell posted the image to Twitter, crediting the lawyer.)
Stallbaumer, who works as a lab engineer with an aviation company in Kansas, has never sold any part of his collection, but while he admits the cards' monetary value isn't unimportant to him, he says it's not his primary motivation. "The money aspect when I was younger was a great attraction, but now it's not so much," he says. "Probably because I was poor growing up, and now I make a comfortable living and can buy cards without having to miss a meal to get them. I mainly do it for the love of the cards and getting as many of them as I can, just because I can."
I ask Stallbaumer what it was about the '89 Griffey Upper Deck card grabbed his attention and kept it all these years. "I don't know," he says. "It's probably just that it's plain and simple. And his smiling face. It's just iconic, because it was card No. 1 out of the whole set. I just really liked it. I don't really have another reason."
Stallbaumer has a small collection of other Griffey memorabilia, items like an autographed jersey and a signed ball, but he's mostly interested in cards, and especially rookie cards. "It's their first one," he says. "They're young and stupid, more or less. But they're what everybody will want in the future. Kind of like a little bit of an investment."
He collects rookie cards from other players, too (in similarly large quantities), but Griffey is his idol, and in addition to all the '89 Upper Deck Juniors, he has a sizable collection of his less famous rookies—over a thousand of his Topps Traded card, and some 2,000 of his first Fleer and Donruss cards. The collection takes up an entire bedroom in his house, stored mostly in boxes but also in some of the same three-ring binders he used to display them as a kid. The '89 Upper Decks, though, are his favorite. They take up two boxes by themselves.
"I just really enjoy that card," says Stallbaumer. "It just appeals to me, and that's why I buy so many of them. Other people buy alcohol and drink the same thing over and over every day. I just buy cards that are the same."
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