The Dream of the '90s

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Matt Kelly

Pieces of history from Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza live forever in Cooperstown

The backwards cap and the swing. The mustache and the mullet.

For kids growing up in the 1990s, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza were two heroes that seemed larger than life. And this summer, the two electees will become baseball immortals on the Induction Stage in Cooperstown.

A large selection of the electees’ donated game-used artifacts already reside in Upstate New York, including the batting helmets Griffey wore for his 400th, 500th and 600th home runs, and the bat Piazza used to hit his 352nd home run – a new record for catchers – on May 5, 2004. But the player equipment does not tell the full story: The Museum’s archive and collection also contain off-the-field, unique memorabilia that illustrate the special connection these two legends shared with baseball fans across the country.

Cards, Comics and Chocolates

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YouTube and Snapchat were still years away when Griffey began flashing his talent on major league diamonds. Comic books were all the rage back then, and the phenomena of Junior and comics came together in concurrent periodicals released in 1992 by Personality Comics and Baseball Superstars Comics. Each series tells the story of the sparkling slugger’s rise to the big leagues, with moments like his back-to-back home runs with his father and “The Catch” at Yankee Stadium perfectly suited for a fantastical retelling.

Nine years later, Piazza’s fu manchu and flowing locks were transformed to the color pages of Meet the Mets, in which the catcher joins up with teammates Kevin Appier, John Franco and Jay Payton to form the “Amazin’ Mets.” Together, the superheroes defend kids with asthma from school bully Buddy Thuggs and his “Field of Nightmares” machine. Appier overcame his asthma to win 169 big league games on the mound.

Meet the Mets came out on Aug. 27, 2001 – less than a month before a Piazza home run helped New Yorkers heal after the tragedy of Sept. 11. Ten days after the terrorist attacks in Washington D.C., Pennsylvania and Manhattan, the Mets’ leader sent a pitch from Braves pitcher Steve Karsay deep over the center field wall to give his team a 3-2 lead.

The blast sent the Shea Stadium crowd into a much-needed state of euphoria, and cemented a profound bond between Piazza and the Big Apple.

“It was difficult to be back on the field; we didn’t even know if it was safe to be back,” Piazza said shortly after his election on Jan. 6. “But I’m honored that people looked to me for inspiration in that moment. It was a surreal night.”

The moment is symbolized in the Museum collection with an emotional Piazza baseball card. The card features Piazza wearing an NYPD cap in the dugout on Sept. 17, when Major League Baseball resumed play after a brief hiatus following the terrorist attacks.

The Museum’s newest exhibit, Whole New Ballgame, features another famous baseball card: Upper Deck’s Ken Griffey Jr. No. 1 from 1989. The piece is now one of the most coveted cards among modern-day collectors, but it was almost a disaster for Upper Deck. Former employee Tom Geideman recently told ESPN that the upstart company gambled that Griffey would be sent up to the majors, and thus don that iconic blue and yellow Mariners uniform, before everyone expected.

"He was the team's No. 1 pick in 1987, but nobody really knew who Griffey was at the time," Geideman said. “My guess was that if Griffey played really well, he would be in the majors by August of 1989."

The Kid, as it turned out, was in center field on Opening Day of the 1989 campaign for the Mariners, paying off Upper Deck’s gamble and catapulting into a premier trading card company. Starting with the double he hit in his first career at-bat against A’s ace Dave Stewart, the 19-year old exploded onto the national scene. Within just one month of his big league debut, Junior’s status was bolstered with his own line of candy bars. One of them can still be seen in its original wrapping in Whole New Ballgame.

Consider this: It took seven years for the Baby Ruth bar to come out after the Great Bambino’s debut (though the Curtiss Candy Co. always maintained the candy was named for President Grover Cleveland’s daughter). Reggie Jackson had to wait 11 years for the Reggie! bar, also displayed in Whole New Ballgame, to be passed out at Yankee Stadium.

A Man of the People

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When fans weren’t munching on his chocolate bar or a box of Honey Frosted Wheaties, which bore his likeness in 1999, Griffey was capturing hearts in another way. The Museum library contains two boxes of Valentine’s Day cards featuring the Seattle slugger, and it may be your only chance to see a photo of him on the mound.

In 1996, Junior’s popularity had grown to such heights that he entered the political fray – sort of. Nike’s “Griffey ‘96” ad campaign flooded the air waves during the heights of that year’s presidential election, and a celluloid button in the Museum collection highlights the mass appeal of the backwards cap. While incumbent Bill Clinton easily gained re-election, The Kid – who at age 26 was legally too young to occupy the Oval Office – did receive one write-in vote during the Rhode Island Democratic Primary.

Griffey could excite fans with any of his five tools, but his prodigious power was particularly dazzling in the mid-1990s. In July 1993, Griffey got hot, blasting eight home runs in eight games to tie the major-league record and inspire a poster found in the Museum library. Four years later, he put together the best power season of his career: 393 total bases, 147 runs batted in and 56 home runs – just five shy of Roger Maris’ all-time single-year mark. In September of that year, TIME magazine commissioned artist James Bennett to paint the struggle of Griffey and Mark McGwire (58 homers in ’97) to break Maris’ hallowed record. In Bennett’s painting, now housed in the Museum collection, Griffey keeps his characteristic smile even amidst the tremendous pressure.

For Mariners and Mets fans, the closest memento of these legends might be a bobblehead doll on their office desk. The Museum has two of their own: One of Piazza with a neatly-trimmed goatee, and the other of Griffey with Ichiro Suzuki from Junior’s 2010 return to the Pacific Northwest.

But the best way to actually see the two electees in person will be to take a trip on July 22-25 to Cooperstown, when one last ’90s dream will come true during Hall of Fame Weekend.

Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The Class of 2016

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Explore the Archive and Collection

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series