The Junk Wax Holy Grail

When I was 12 years old, I really enjoyed the Indiana Jones films. Dr. Jones was an archaeology professor who spent his down time searching the world for various priceless artifacts that were always nearly impossible to find. He faced many trials along the way that included poison darts, large boulders chasing him through passageways, rope swings over pits, collapsing caves, tarantulas and snakes. Snakes were the only thing that could come close to slowing Indiana down. His life mission was to locate and obtain the most prized artifacts in the world.

There are various “Ark of the Covenant” type sports cards over the years that have seemed just as difficult to obtain for collectors. You could probably go through each era of collecting and identify the cards that are on the must have list but there is one for me that is the Holy Grail of Holy Grail’s. The 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. turned the collecting world upside down and everyone wanted one. There are different reasons that make this card so important in our history but it remains the one card that collectors just have to have in their collection from the “junk wax era.” We’ll discuss some of the reasons ’89 Upper Deck changed the hobby but we are also going to go on a hunt through an unopened box to see if we can get lucky.

First, let’s talk a little bit about the Upper Deck cards. In 1988, The Upper Deck was a card shop in California that was about to take the leap into card manufacturing. The owners, together with Angels player Dewayne Buice, started working on a card set that would revolutionize the hobby. The goal was to seize the opportunity in the exploding card market while creating a product like no other company had before. Many collectors speculate that 1988 and 1989 were the highest production years in the hobby’s history. Upper Deck wanted to strike while the iron was hot but wanted to do things differently. There were several changes to the packaging and card itself that they were introducing that seemed like gimmicks and frills to some, but really did accomplish the goals they set out to accomplish.


Acrylic. Holds a 32pt. thick card. 4 screws. Recessed card area. 3-1/8 x 5-3/16 x 1/4″. Holds a card up to 2-1/2 x 3-1/2″.

They introduced the foil wrapper, which was a big change from the wax used by Donruss and Topps and the plastic bag used by Score. These foil wrappers were touted as “tamper-evident” and really set the standard for companies trying to make their packs as random and search proof as possible. The cards were printed on high gloss, white card stock; which was also a change from the low or no gloss images from other companies using the various brown, red, yellow and green card stock of the 80’s. The final touches included images on both sides of the card and the (now famous) Upper Deck Hologram found on the reverse of the card.

Of course, all of that innovation came at a price. Topps, Donruss and Fleer packs could be found somewhere between .45 and .55 cents per pack but Upper Deck was about to blow those prices out of the water. The price when the packs were released was set at $1.00 and the box was set at $35, more than double that of longtime hobby giant, Topps. Shop owners and collectors initially scoffed at the price and wrote the company off as a pending failure within a couple of years, if not sooner. It was really tough for collectors my age that spent so much energy already begging their parents to buy .50 cent packs! Now, I was forced to ask for double that if I wanted to get the clean, new, fancy cards from Upper Deck. I already didn’t like my chances at pulling the hot rookies for .50 cents; so I knew the disappointment would be compounded with these high priced packs.

Upper Deck didn’t stop with the packaging and card design when it came to trying to differentiate from the competition. The company decided to use the first 26 cards at the front of the checklist for the hot prospects in the league. While there were a few big names gracing other sets like Gary Sheffield, Sandy Alomar Jr., Ramon Martinez and 1989 Hobby Darling, Gregg Jefferies, Upper Deck wanted to start their set off with a true prospect. The company hired a card collector by the name of Tom Giedeman, who was known as the best prospector that frequented The Upper Deck card shop. He was right more often than not and they entrusted him to make the selection for card #1 and the rest of the prospects that year.

Going against the grain, Giedeman chose Griffey Jr. because he knew he would be a later call up than the others, some of whom were already on major league rosters, which would give the card set some mid season push. He also knew that the other companies were putting all their chips in on the other guys. Griffey was no lock to even be called up mid season as he had missed some time with injuries and had never played above AA when that selection was made. The efforts to obtain a good photo for the card has its own backstory that is probably deserving of another post but nothing about putting Griffey as #1 in the checklist was easy or safe. The choice could not have been better though in the end. Some of the other prospects fizzled and Jefferies never made the splash that was expected. The Griffey pick was such a guess (although educated) that Topps didn’t even include him in their 792 card base set that year. You’ll have to go to the Update Set in 1989 to find Ken Griffey Jr.

I didn’t purchase many packs of Upper Deck that year because of the price and the relative unavailability at my local retail stores but when I did pick up a stray pack, I was looking for Griffey much like Dr. Jones was searching for that precious gem in “The Temple of Doom.” It actually took me 28 years of ripping, searching, dodging darts and avoiding snakes to eventually pull that card from a pack and that excitement was just as real as it would have been in 1989. My LCS bought a case of 1989 Upper Deck and was selling off boxes at $100 per and I jumped on a box with that card from my youth still burning in my collecting soul. I lucked out and pulled exactly 1 from that box and it was more than worth all the years of searching and the money spent on the venture.

Trading Card BOXES – White Corrugated. One-piece boxes. LxWxH

Holds 930 cards 16-3/8 x 3-3/4 x 2-3/4″ (I.D.) Cards store sideways. Made from 200# test corrugated cardboard. Just fold together; needs no tape or glue.

That box rip was so fun that I bought a second box and am going to take the tour once more. Now that I have actually pulled my first Griffey, I feel like I can take this box a little slower and appreciate the other cards more. If I pull another Griffey, that will be amazing but that’s not what the box rip is about anymore. I want to truly take my time and appreciate the set that will live on forever as one of the game changers in the hobby. Remember how that first slow dance or first kiss was so exciting but your heart was racing so you don’t really remember all the details? That’s what pulling this card was like. I want to dance with Upper Deck one more time but this time I want to remember the song that was playing.

The box itself is 36 packs with 15 cards and a team hologram in each. There are no major inserts in the set but there are several fun errors or variations that still hold solid value today. The most notable errors are the reverse negative Dale Murphy, which I still don’t own in my collection, and some striking but rare printing issues.

In the very first pack, I pulled 2 Bo Jackson cards! I am not usually a fan of duplicates in the same pack but if it is going to be Bo Jackson, I can make an exception! You can see from this first card that the photo is really clear. I really liked the first baseline border on the right side of the card.

Both of the Bash Brothers are present in this set and I love both photos. The McGwire was always one of my favorites but Canseco is hard to beat too!

Roger Clemens had a very nice photo in the set. The photography in Upper Deck was really top notch and was another feature that made this truly a premium set.

Speaking of photography, this Gary Pettis was one of the more unique cards from the set. There are plenty of cards throughout history that have a player holding a baseball card. But how many have them holding the actual card they are pictured on? I can only imagine that Pettis is holding a prototype of some sort or maybe they used the same machine they used to photoshop Griffey’s hat. Either way, this is quite an interesting card. You can also get a good look at the back of the card where the hologram is in this example.

Here is the correct version of the Dale Murphy card. No luck pulling the reverse negative.

I was fortunate to pull two of the bigger name rookies from ’89 with Sandy Alomar Jr. and Gary Sheffield. This is probably my favorite Sheffield with the ’89 Donruss a close second.

And yes, I got really lucky and pulled TWO Ken Griffey Jr. cards! They both look to be in great condition as well and will likely end up in the grading stack. This is such a beautiful and historic card!

As hard as it is for me to believe, the second box was better than the first. I really didn’t expect to be lucky enough to pull another Jr. but I actually pulled two. In my last box, I pulled one Jr. and came up empty with Sheffield so that is a bonus! This set will remain one of the most important sets in baseball collecting history for as long as I’m alive and it will surely live on beyond that. The set was beautiful, fun, interesting and still holds value as compared to other sets from the era. There is really very little to dislike about this set. And as it relates to the original $1.00 price tag, there is one more interesting note. Today, the packs run $3 per pack so they have tripled in cost since the days when collectors were saying, “$1 per pack? Never!”


Trading Card BOXES – White Corrugated. TWO-piece boxes. LxWxH

Holds 3200 cards 15-1/2 x 13 x 4″ (O.D.) Comes with 4 compartments: 14 x 2-7/8 x 3-3/4″(I.D.) Cards store vertically. Boxes ship flat and fold together. No tape or glue needed for assembly.