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Ken Griffey Jr.: Baseball’s Newest Hall of Famer and Nerd Culture’s Fringe Icon

Ken Griffey Jr.: Baseball’s Newest Hall of Famer and Nerd Culture’s Fringe Icon

I grew up an utter baseball nerd. I spent more time with baseball cards than I did with people, studying the stats on the backs of thin cardboard print-outs, caching their numbers in some fleshy brain lobe for no practical reason whatsoever. The obsession began in 1994 when my father pulled out the 1989 Fleer box set he had purchased to celebrate the year of my birth. He directed my attention to one particular rookie card, number 548 of the set, on which a glossy-faced kid was framed in an old school Mariners uniform.

By that time, Ken Griffey Jr. had already displayed the wealth of talent with which he had been blessed. He was a five-tools player in every sense of the term. “This guy is special,” my dad told me. And from my five-year-old self’s hero (my father), another was born. I followed Griffey’s career very closely over the next two decades, tracking every home run, every catch, every trade, and every injury, up until his recent enshrinement into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Today I have several hundred Griffey cards (though, somehow, I’ve never possessed THE baseball card: his 1989 Upper Deck rookie) and untold Griffey ephemera. Autographs, picture balls, gameworn jerseys, limited edition inserts and their accompanying verifications of authenticity, audio cards that play real-time commentary of the centerfielder’s various spectacular plays.

There was one such card that played back the commentator’s reaction to this catch. And one that detailed the extraordinary moment when he and his father—the baseball player Ken Griffey Sr.—hit back-to-back home runs (see below). This guy was otherworldly. He did things no one had ever seen before, and he had the sweetest swing that ever graced this Earth. If not for the litany of injuries he suffered after his ill-fated trade to the Reds, we’d be talking about him as the greatest player of all-time.

Even with the injuries, he’s inarguably one of the best, with 630 home runs (sixth all-time), 13x all-star, 10 gold gloves, seven silver sluggers, and, most impressive of all, his remaining untainted by PEDs in a generation defined by them. For all of these accomplishments, Griffey was elected to Cooperstown with a record 99.32% of the vote, breaking Tom Seaver’s record of 98.84% and obliterating the 75% needed for admission. And, of course, I’m far from the only one enamored of him. His image transcended sports, his larger cultural presence second to only Michael Jordan amongst sports figures. In addition to the high profile sponsorship deals, though, Griffey also infiltrated pop culture in a handful of other oddball appearances.

In 1994, the same year I first set eyes upon that card, Griffey appeared as a quasi-villainous superstar in Little Big League, a film in which a 12-year-old takes over managerial responsibilities for the Minnesota Twins. In a one-game playoff with Seattle, Griffey hits a bomb and robs one of the Twins of a home run to seal their fate and effectively end the movie. The Twins are my team, but I felt okay about their loss since Griffey was the one to deny them.

Two year earlier, Griffey guest starred in the The Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat.” The Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team, led by Homer and fielded by Mr. Burns, is vying for the championship, so Mr. Burns tags nine big leaguers to help them win. Griffey ultimately overdoses on nerve tonic and suffers a case of gigantism, but Homer’s team still takes the crown. Incidentally, it was the first Simpsons episode to top the Cosby Show in ratings.

Griffey was also the centerpiece of a pair of video games. One, an arcade style game called Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest, was your standard Nintendo 64 baseball caricature. I wore the cover off my condensed Game Boy version. I remember not really even enjoying it that much. I played more out of obligation to Griffey than anything—talk about a successful marketing strategy.

The other one, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, was far more bizarre. The SNES offering was recognized with an MLB license, but not a license from the MLBPA (Major League Baseball’s Players Association). That meant that they could use real team names but not the names of real players. Instead, developer Software Creations modeled its lineups after regional heroes. The Orioles’ Cal Ripken Jr., for instance, was replaced with pencil-mustached film director and Baltimore native John Waters. The Boston Red Sox were all characters from Cheers. Philip K. Dick pitched for the Cincinnati Reds. The Detroit Tigers were all famous Motown singers. And both the Mets and Dodgers were represented by punk rock icons from their respective cities. The only real player in the entire game, of course, was Griffey. It was truly an amazing convergence of pop culture, and regardless of whether Griffey had anything to do with it, he remains the face of it all.

My level of happiness is no longer directly tied to the successes of Ken Griffey Jr., and I haven’t played Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest in more than a decade. But his near unanimous admission to the Hall of Fame was both an affirmation of my youthful reverence and a nice reminder of the rather extensive roles he played throughout my childhood. Any nerd, even non-baseball nerds, can appreciate another’s overwhelming devotion to some larger-than-life figure, and for me that was Ken Griffey Jr. It feels as though his Cooperstown acceptance, though many years foretold, finally brings to a close the last pseudo-mythical, non-Sabermetric era of baseball, where swings can still be beautiful instead of a series of data points, and where paper baseball cards can still fascinate a child.

Featured Image: Clare and Ben/Flickr

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