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The Last Iconic Baseball Card
August 24, 2009
Twenty years ago one teenager made a bet on the stardom of another teen, whose rookie card would become one of a kind. It would also signal the beginning of the end of a once-thriving industry
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August 24, 2009

The Last Iconic Baseball Card

Twenty years ago one teenager made a bet on the stardom of another teen, whose rookie card would become one of a kind. It would also signal the beginning of the end of a once-thriving industry

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Geideman has the Polaroid because he was the one who, at age 18, put Kid Griffey on the card. In June 1988, when Bill Hemrick, the owner of The Upper Deck, an Anaheim card store, Richard McWilliam, a CPA, and Paul Sumner, a publishing company executive, founded the Upper Deck Company in Yorba Linda, Calif., they made Geideman, a rabid card collector, their first employee. They paid him $15 an hour, gave him business cards that said product analyst and entrusted him with choosing players for the 700 cards in that first edition.

Geideman set aside the first 26 spots for a subset called Star Rookies, and the logical number 1 card was Mets wunderkind Gregg Jefferies, who had been a two-time minor league player of the year; Brewers infielder Gary Sheffield and Padres catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. were also reasonable choices. Griffey had been injured late in 1988 and didn't seem likely to make the Mariners' big league roster in '89. But Geideman, whose birthday was less than six months after Griffey's, had been tracking Junior through Baseball America and believed he had the biggest upside. When Upper Deck did its first test runs of the '89 set, Geideman told the press workers not to discard the number 1 Griffeys. "I remember saying," he tells me, 'You don't want to rip up hundred-dollar bills.'"

Sets are defined by their rookies, and the Griffey pick was a defining set for Upper Deck. After making the Mariners out of spring training in '89, Griffey was an immediate sensation. Geideman, who briefly attended Cal State--San Bernardino, dropped out of school to work full time at Upper Deck after it relocated to Carlsbad. He would leave the company in 1994 to become the marketing director for The Score Board, a card-and-memorabilia company in Cherry Hill, N.J., and when it declared bankruptcy in '98, Geideman joined with a coworker to form SAGE, a niche sports-card brand that makes autographed sets of NFL prospects that are released during the window between the end of college football season and the start of the NFL season.

Griffey, however, is still a presence in Geideman's Spanish Mission ranch: In a display case just off the kitchen is a triptych with Griffey's '88 San Bernardino road jersey, autographed on the front; an '89 Mariners home jersey; and a 2000 Reds jersey, when he was wearing number 30 instead of 24. Geideman also has cards mixed into the display, and after we're done examining the jerseys, he points to an Upper Deck prototype of Lions running back Barry Sanders, from '91, the year of Brett Favre's debut.

"That was the year we started doing football," Geideman says, "and the guy doing that set felt the need to make his mark and put a guy at Number 1."

There's a reason no one remembers that card: "He picked Dan McGwire."

Before a Mariners game in Baltimore in June, I ask Griffey about the '89 card. He's Upper Deck's longest-tenured spokesman, and this year the company bought 89 of his rookies back from dealers, asked him to autograph them with the inscription 20 YEARS, then inserted them into baseball packs. He says he was never in awe of the card (which fetched $150 as recently as 2000), having already grown up in major league clubhouses. He points to the printout of the card that I'm holding and says, "That hairstyle, that hat. That's why we don't keep it around the house, so my son doesn't see it."

Trey, his 15-year-old son, is sitting two feet away, traveling with the team on summer break. It seems that he hasn't been effectively sheltered from the card. He's rocking the same hairstyle his dad did in '89. "I've already seen it," Trey says. "Grandma showed it to me."

Trey says that he has no interest in collecting cards. "I bet if I brought home a pack of football cards, you'd look at them," Griffey says. Trey is big into football, but his dad's suggestion elicits only a shrug.

"What do you think about now, son?" Griffey asks. "Girls?"

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