EDITOR'S NOTE: WCPO is looking back on Ken Griffey Jr.'s life growing up in Cincinnati, stunning success and Hall of Fame career. See all of our coverage at WCPO.com/griffey. Watch Sunday's induction ceremony at 1:30 p.m. ET on MLB Network or www.baseballhall.org.
There’s no doubting Ken Griffey Jr.’s credentials for enshrinement into baseball’s Hall of Fame on July 24. His stats and accolades are why he received the highest percentage of votes ever (99.32 percent) for induction.
But what also shouldn’t be forgotten is that for a time, Junior was THE face of baseball. It was mainly while he was with the Seattle Mariners and for a stretch, he was the closest thing baseball had to Michael Jordan in terms of marketability and pop culture icon status. His flashy fielding, trademark sweet swing and the signature backward cap and smile made him a media darling and with it brought as much exposure off the field as on — for all the right reasons.
Taking a look back, here are nine off-the-field moments and memories that will be as much of Griffey’s legacy as the dramatic home runs and wall-scaling catches:
Long before LeBron James turned his free agent decisions into nationally televised events and internet exclusives, there was the very ballyhooed return of Ken Griffey Jr. to his hometown. On Feb. 10, 2000, then Reds owner Carl Lindner navigated his Rolls Royce through a crowd of excited fans at Cinergy Field with Cincinnati’s prodigal son – a Moeller High School legend and offspring of Big Red Machine royalty.
Griffey was introduced as the newest member of the Reds after a trade with Seattle during a nighttime press conference at Cinergy. “The Kid” told a packed room of local and national media that he was finally home. He willingly took less money to play here since it meant being closer to family and in his old stomping grounds. It might have been the high point of feel-good moments in Junior’s time here, as continual injuries would never allow him to quite reach the level he played in Seattle.
That night was like a holiday in Cincinnati and the eyes of the national sports media were fixated here.
Homer at the Bat
You know you’ve made it as a pop culture icon when you’ve been depicted on The Simpsons, and Griffey achieved that in 1992. Joining a number of other baseball stars, including eventual Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Wade Boggs, Junior was on a team of ringers recruited by C. Montgomery Burns to ensure victory for his nuclear power plant’s softball team.
One by one, each team member became unavailable to the team for various reasons. In Griffey’s case, he consumed too much nerve tonic, resulting in him suffering gigantism of the head. Ironically, Griffey was the rare star of his era not to be implicated for using banned substances, yet some others in the episode later would be at the center of real-life steroid controversies. Funny that he would be the one with the juiced up, oversized head.
The Backward Cap
If there ever was a fashion statement in baseball, Junior’s backward ball cap would be it. When he came into the big leagues in 1989, the only ballplayers you’d ever see with their hats turned around were catchers. It didn’t take long for Griffey’s reversed cap look during batting practice, pre-game warmups and in the dugout to catch on. It hit its peak when he sported it while winning the 1994 Home Run Derby in Pittsburgh.
While Junior surely wasn’t the first person in history to wear his cap backward, he made it very cool. And just as with Jordan’s colorful shoes or Michigan’s Fab Five’s baggy basketball shorts, it became a thing.
But according to Complex.com, Griffey says it didn't begin as an effort to look cool. He first did it because he would wear his dad’s cap when he was a kid. Because Ken Sr. had such big hair, his cap was big. For Junior to keep the bill from falling over his eyes, he had to wear it backward.
It's Gotta Be the Shoes
Much as the backward cap became iconic, so did Griffey’s sweet swing – a smooth stroke that was as effective as it appeared effortless. The combination of the two became the perfect marketing recipe for what Nike would try to make into the Air Jordans of baseball.
The Swingman logo graced shoes and apparel just as Jordan’s Jumpman logo became synonymous with his product line. While Swingman maybe was never as recognizable as the Jordan brand, it still made an impact and to this day is still found on new Nike products, including many shoes over $100.
Hit Man Turns Pitch Man
While we’re on the topic of Nike, Junior certainly became a key player in the company’s stable of superstars in the ‘90s and 2000s alongside the likes of Jordan, Bo Jackson and Anfernee Hardaway and his sidekick Lil’ Penny. With that came high-profile, often entertaining ad campaigns.
One of which was Griffey’s faux 1996 presidential run while he was recovering from injury. He had the backing of funkmaster George Clinton, slugger Reggie Jackson and had the Mariner Moose as his running mate. Even Lil’ Penny weighed in, pointing out, “that moose could be a liability,” before offering himself up as a vice-presidential choice. Forget the fact that Junior wasn't even legally old enough to run for president.
It was just one of many ads that thrust Griffey into the commercial spotlight. That didn’t end with Seattle days either, as he was also a Pepsi pitchman while playing for the Reds.
Sweet Swing Gets Sweet Thing
You know you’ve made it as an athlete when you get food named after you. The Reggie (Jackson) Bar, (Doug) Flutie Flakes, (Chad) Ochocincos cereal and some argue Baby Ruth bars were all created because of sports superstars.
In 1989, at just 19 years old, the Ken Griffey Jr. chocolate bar was created and sold, each with a mold of him in action.
Oddly enough, according to a Baltimore Sun story from 1989, Junior was allergic to his namesake candy. The article said Griffey ate three of the candy bars before a game and went 4-for-4. But he told the paper that the next day he broke out and was swollen up.
Collectors are still selling the bars on eBay, they can be had for around $50. But it’s probably not wise to eat one after all these years as it could likely result in something much worse than an allergic reaction.
The Awkward Interview
Almost everything surrounding Ken Griffey Jr. is positive, but one interview on ESPN’s SportCenter in 2014 stood out because it was so odd and uncomfortable.
Talking via satellite with ESPN anchor Linda Cohn, Griffey was promoting Upper Deck trading cards’ 25th anniversary. An excited and welcoming Cohn found that Junior wasn’t in much of a mood to talk, answering with one-word responses and a less than enthused expression. When she asked him to respond to some Twitter questions, he wouldn’t elaborate on any answer, only giving one-word replies.
Griffey would later apologize to Cohn on Instagram, saying he was feeling ill and didn’t want to walk off the set. Cohn confirmed via Twitter that Griffey called with a sincere apology and she accepted. The ordeal is notable because it didn’t fit the image the public had come to know of Griffey.
The Card You'll Always Remember
Speaking of Griffey’s relationship with Upper Deck, it was Junior’s rookie card that very literally got the company off the ground. It was the card everyone wanted and went for gobs of money at a time when the trading card business was heading toward a point of oversaturation.
The photo was actually a doctored version of his minor league head shot, with a Mariners cap superimposed onto the glossy card.
The card was produced at such a high quantity that it’s value dropped, but that hasn’t it kept it from being one of the most iconic baseball cards of all time. Today, a perusal of eBay shows asking prices going over $1,000 for highly graded or autographed versions, but they can also be found for a few dollars.
Griffey recognized the pop culture status of the card when he recreated the look in Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' 2015 "Downtown" music video.
Becoming a 16-bit Superstar
Much as a Nike logo and a candy bar are signs of superstar status, so is having one’s name associated with a video game.
In 1994, as Junior was reaching the peak of his powers, he became the cover boy for Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for the Super Nintendo video game system.
By today’s standards, the game’s graphics are cartoonish and the gameplay is archaic, but it still remains a nostalgic favorite for many gamers, as is evident by its eight out of 10 user rating on Gamespot.com. Of the 244 reviews, only 28 rate the game a six or lower.
Griffey would continue to be Nintendo’s go-to guy for baseball with Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run for Super Nintendo in 1996 and Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest for Nintendo 64 in 1999. How many can say they share the company of Mays, Mantle, Aaron and Ruth in Cooperstown while also with Mario, Donkey Kong and Princess Zelda in the Nintendo universe?