Few rookies have captured the nation’s attention quite like Ken Griffey Jr., the lefty with the sweet swing, huge smile and incredible all-around talent when he was a 19-year-old kid playing in the majors. Instead of giving you just one Junior Griffey story, we’re going to give you a glimpse at how a weekly publication like TSN covered a phenom like Griffey in the world before social media.
Every issue of TSN included hundreds of little notes on players and teams, in every sport. There were plenty of features and in-depth stories, of course, but lots of the pages read like a compilation of Twitter-size news bytes. With his dad already a TSN regular, Junior had name recognition and the talent that intoxicated the baseball-loving country. We’ll start with the first mention we could find of Junior and go all the way up to his first (of many) TSN cover — which came out right when he made his MLB debut. And then, for fun, we’ll add one entertaining tidbit from his rookie season.
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June 8, 1987
The first mention of Ken Griffey’s son in the pages of The Sporting News magazine was actually in the team notes section. In the team notes for the Pirates, written by Bob Hertzel.
Scouting director Elmer Gray was responsible for Cincinnati drafting Ken Griffey when he was with the Reds. The Pirates hold the second pick in June’s amateur draft, and Gray could have a hand in the drafting of Ken Griffey Jr.
June 15, 1987
On the left side of Page 2, the table of contents, is the first picture of a smiling Ken Griffey Jr., to grace the pages of TSN. Junior’s wearing a Braves uniform and cap; the picture was taken before the draft in the Atlanta dugout, where his dad was playing in 1987. The story of the MLB Draft results — mostly about Griffey Jr. — is on Page 22. Here’s an excerpt, from the article written by Seattle-based contributor Jim Street.
Griffey kept the comparisons within the family, saying he saw himself as a copy of his father. “We do basically everything the same,” he said. “We hit, run and throw the same.”
But Ken Griffey Sr. disagreed. “To me, he’s got more power than I will ever have. He’s a lot better than I was at the same age.”
As a senior at Moeller this season, Griffey batted .478 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs in 24 games. He was 13 for 13 in stolen bases.
“I can’t compare him to other players around the country because I haven’t seen them,” said Moeller coach Mike Cameron. “But he’s the finest, ability-wise, I’ve seen in 20 years.”
Among the current major leaguers Cameron coached are Barry Larkin and Buddy Bell of the Reds.
June 22, 1987
Longtime TSN staffer Stan Isle wrote a weekly notes column in the magazine for more than a decade, and he led off his column this week talking about Griffey Jr.
At age 17, Ken Griffey Jr. signs a $150,000 contract with the Mariners as the No. 1 selection in major league baseball’s amateur draft. Contrast that with the circumstances 18 years ago, when Ken Griffey Sr. — now an Atlanta Braves outfielder in his 15th major league season — signed his first professional contract with Cincinnati. As the elder Griffey recalled, Cincinnati game him “a jock strap, a pair of sanitary hose and a Reds warmup jacket” before dispatching him to Bradenton (Gulf Coast) with a contract that called for $500 a month. He was selected in the 29th round of the 1969 draft, perhaps the 700th player chosen. Young Griffey is a power-hitting outfielder like his father and a heralded product of Cincinnati’s Moeller High School. “He runs like I did when I was chasing his mother,” said the proud father. Griffey has reported to Seattle’s rookie league team at Bellingham (Northwest), where he can look forward to bus trips into Oregon and Idaho. “If he has any problems,” said Ken Sr., “he can give me a call. I’ll call him every day, too, to make sure he’s alright.”
Griffey items, such as this one on Bob McCoy’s “Keeping Score” page, quickly became regulars in pretty much every issue.
Ken Griffey Jr., the No. 1 pick in the June free-agent draft, on life with the Seattle Mariners’ farm club in Bellingham, Wash., in his first summer away from his Cincinnati home: “I kept thinking about things I’d be doing back at home, you know, running around the house with my brother, being at the pool, just things like that. I got real down … I didn’t know what to do. All I knew is I wanted to go back.”
Sept. 7, 1987
Of course the Mariners entry on the “Around the Minors” page is about Griffey.
Bellingham outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., the first player selected in this summer’s draft, was batting .301 on August 25 and was tied for the Northwest League lead in home runs (13). “He started out very, very slowly,” manager Rick Sweet said. “Basically, he was overmatched. But now he’s one of the better hitters in the league.” Sweet predicted that Griffey, 17, would be in the majors by the time he is 21 or 22.
Sept. 21, 1987
In the era before social media, the “Voice of the Fan” letters page was a big deal. It was a way to have your opinion broadcast to the entire nation. This fan, Eddie Cannon Jr., of Owensboro, Ky., has an issue with the “phony” NCAA system. The more things change, eh? Eddie’s letter to TSN:
I am tired of hearing everyone from congressmen to college coaches wanting to protect the amateur athlete. First of all, they don’t need to be protected from anyone but themselves. They are the ones who accept the money. They want the money. In baseball, the players who want the money sign a minor-league contract and play. The players who cheat are the ones using the college system. They want to refine their athletic skills for the pros and college is the only place for them to do so.
It’s funny how everyone made such a big deal when Herschel Walker left Georgia after his junior year, but when Ken Griffey Jr. signed a contract out of high school no one was complaining that he was going to miss out on a college education. What’s really needed is an honest farm system for the NFL and NCAA, not the phony system that now exists in the colleges.
March 21, 1988
From Stan Isle’s notes column again. Seriously, TSN was Twitter before Twitter. Think of the RTs this anecdote would have generated.
Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., behind the wheel of the Mercedes he bought after receiving a reported $175,000 signing bonus from the Mariners last summer, drove all around Tempe, Ariz., trying to find the Seattle club’s spring training hotel. In exasperation, Griffey swung into a parking lot and used his auto phone to call Bob Porter, the Mariners’ public relations director. Griffey listened intently, jotted down Porter’s directions and started his engine. He drove about 100 feet before he looked up and realized he had called Porter from the lot at the Mariners’ hotel
April 25, 1988
Senior was playing for the Braves to start the 1988 season, which meant the Braves team notes were a great place for this Junior tidbit:
Ken Griffey Jr. had two homers in his first three games with San Bernardino, Seattle’s California League affiliate. His father had only two hits in his first 17 at-bats with the Braves. “I’ve got to get some of those bats Junior is using,” the father said. Griffey, who turned 38 during the first week of the season, still hopes to play at least one game in the majors at the same time as his son.
May 25, 1988
Yep, the Griffey Jr. excitement was real, folks.
Ken Griffey Jr. is so popular in San Bernardino (California) that a Ken Griffey Poster Night promotion May 6 was a sellout. On May 17, Griffey and two teammates addressed 2,500 sixth-graders in the “Safe at home, not out on drugs” program.
July 4, 1988
Ugh. Bad news, in the “Around the Minors” page.
Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., the first player selected in last year’s draft, probably will miss the rest of the season because of a stress fracture in a vertebra. He was batting .338 and had 11 homers, 42 RBIs and 32 stolen bases for San Bernardino (California) when he injured himself diving for a ball June 9.
Aug. 8, 1988
More bad news for the Griffey duo. For a couple of months now, pretty much every Braves team note talked about Senior’s struggles and the Braves’ attempts to trade him. Eventually he was released, promoting this note in Moss Klein’s “A.L. Beat” page.
For Seinfeld fans … the Ken Phelps-for-Jay Buhner (and his rocket for an arm) trade might not have happened if the Yankees had just waited a couple of days to get Ken Griffey.
We would have been robbed of a classic sitcom quote. pic.twitter.com/nQ5xvYkQZt
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) August 6, 2018
Aug. 29, 1988
He’s back! The injury wasn’t as bad as first thought. From the Around the Minors page.
Ken Griffey Jr., in his first appearance since being sidelined for two months with a stress fracture in a vertebra, went 2 for 4, scored a run, stole a base and had one RBI as Vermont (Eastern) lost to Williamsport, 4-3.
March 6, 1989
Neither Griffey had a great start to spring. In the Reds team note, it was mentioned that Senior was hit in the chin by a ball that glanced off a protective screen near first base. And then this, from the Mariners team note.
Ken Griffey Jr. was a first-day casualty when a thrown ball hit his glove and then slammed into his right eye. The eye was swollen shut.
March 27, 1989
Junior is still just 19, but it’s become obvious during the spring that his arrival in the majors will be sooner than later. A short stand-alone story written by Jim Street on Page 28 is headlined “A Father-Son ‘First’ For the Griffeys?” An excerpt:
Ken Griffey Jr. is making a serious bid to become the youngest player in the major leagues this season. The Seattle Mariners’ 19-year-old center fielder, drafted No. 1 in the country in 1987 out of Moeller High School in Cincinnati, went to spring training as a non-roster invitee. But after 12 Cactus League games, he was batting .429 (15 for 35) with one home run, two triples, two doubles and a team-high 12 runs batted in.
“He can run, he can hit, he can throw and he can make things happen,” said M’s pitching ace Mark Langston. “I don’t care if he’s 19 or whatever, this guy can make the club and help us.”
April 10, 1989
The Griffeys make the cover of The Sporting News. The cover story, written by Griffey regular Jim Street, is on Page 12. The headline screams “Clock Strikes Griffey Time.” An excerpt …
Griffey rushed himself into the picture, and the outlook for the Mariners changed almost overnight. In his spring-training prospectus, (manager Jim) Lefebvre didn’t even mention Griffey’s name among those battling for outfield positions.
By the time the Cactus League schedule began, Griffey’s status already was on the rise. And there was no stopping him. Lefebvre had decided to play the youngster almost every game. “I want to take a good look at him,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
It went better than anyone expected. Even Griffey. “I didn’t expect to be playing this well,” he said when he was midway through a 15-game hitting streak that was the longest in Mariners’ history for spring training.
And when the Cactus League pitching got better, so did Griffey’s hitting. Skeptics were waiting for him to be overmatched, but he went through a three-week stretch in which he never went more than four at-bats without a hit.
April 10, 1989
Legendary Dayton sportswriter Hal McCoy was a TSN regular, and he crushed his story on what it was like for Ken Griffey, member of the famed Big Red Machine and now back with the Reds, to become Griffey Senior in the blink of an eye. An excerpt:
As a Grapefruit League game was in progress at the Reds’ spring training facility in Plant City, Fla., Griffey and fellow outfielders Paul O’Neill, Eric Davis and Kal Daniels sweated throuhgh 50-yard wind sprints along the outfield warning track. O’Neill, Davis and Daniels completed their work, but Griffey plodded on, perspiration dripping off his chin in the 80-degree heat.
When Griffey finished, Davis leaned against a bullpen chain link fence and asked Griffey, “Hey, ol’ man, need some air? If you do, I’ll go to the clubhouse and fetch some.”
Griffey walked slowly to the clubhouse and equipment manager Bernie Stows greeted him with, “Hi, Senior.” Griffey feigned anger and Stowe said, “I could have called you senior citizen.”
Cincinnati restaurateur Jeff Ruby, who was in the clubhouse, added his comments, saying, “It’s the Other Griffey.”
The elder Griffey quickly corrected Ruby, saying, “I’m the Original Griffey.”
May 29, 1989
With all of 14 MLB games under his belt, Griffey Jr. rattled off a stretch of eight hits in eight consecutive at-bats (with a couple of walks mixed in), and he batted .625 in the final week of April, his first month in the bigs. That stretch was covered in a short article by Jim Street in the May 15 issue. So, yes, the hype jumped up a notch. Another Street short, titled “Griffey Bars Gobbled Up” told the story.
SEATTLE — Demand for the Ken Griffey Jr. Milk Chocolate Bar far exceeds the supply and shows no signs of letting up.
“It has gotten out of hand,” said Mike Cramer of Pacific Trading Cards Inc. of Edmonds, Wash., two days after the candy bars became available. “I had no idea the demand would be this phenomenal. We have more orders than we have bars being made.”
The 13-ounce candy bars resemble chocolate baseball cards, with wrappers showing the Seattle Mariners’ rookie center fielder at bat. The sale of the 95-cent bars began May 17, but some stores had been sold out before the candy even reached the shelves.
“We had been taking phone orders for about two weeks before they actually were available,” one store manager said. “Out first shipments were sold out before they got here.”
Cramer said his company was working two shifts and producing about 12,000 bars a day. He initially had planned to test market 2,500.
“We weren’t ready for this,” he said. “I swear to God, we have to crank them out like Hershey bars.”
He said only local orders were being filled and he was not sure if the bars would be available nationally.
“I have a large order from Cincinnati (Griffey’s father plays for the Reds), but I don’t know when, or if, I will get them out,” Cramer said. “At some point we may say, ‘We’re done’ and shut it down.
“We’ll produce them until we get tired. I’d say we’ll do this another three or four weeks. But the time we’re done with this, we’ll have had our fill of chocolate. The crew is dragging and I am dragging right along with them.”