Ken Griffey Jr. is not only remembered as one of the best players to ever play the game of baseball but as one of the premier superstars of the 1990s.
Growing up in the clubhouse of the Big Red Machine, Griffey was determined to become a Hall of Fame baseball player from a young age.
After tearing through Cincinnati’s youth leagues and Moeller High School, Griffey’s dream came true when he was chosen first overall by the Seattle Mariners, beginning one of the most impressive careers in the history of the game.
To succeed in baseball, as in life, you have to make adjustments. -Ken Griffey Jr. pic.twitter.com/OQs1PL6jh8
— Baseball Quotes (@BaseballQuotes1) July 30, 2022
George Kenneth Griffey, Jr. was born on November 21, 1969, in Donora, Pennsylvania.
His parents were Major League outfielder Ken Griffey and Alberta Griffey.
When he was just a few years old, the Griffey family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio when Griffey Sr. began playing for the Cincinnati Reds.
The young Griffey grew up in and around the Reds’ clubhouse during the Big Red Machine era. He was even present when the Reds and his father won back-to-back World Series championships in 1975 and 1976.
He spent a lot of time with players like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench, who inspired him to play baseball and work hard to become the best player he could be.
Griffey was a natural athlete, excelling in both baseball and football.
He attended Archbishop Moeller High School, a highly-touted Catholic school in Cincinnati.
At Moeller, Griffey was a standout athlete who played centerfield on the baseball team and wide receiver on the football team.
His performance as a wide receiver earned him a lot of attention from collegiate scouts. He was offered scholarships to play football at prestigious schools like Michigan.
His main love was baseball, however, and he was one of the best baseball players in the country.
In 1987, Griffey was named the U.S. high school baseball player of the year.
He showed immense power blazing speed and was a natural leader.
Legendary Atlanta Braves manager, Bobby Cox, then the team’s general manager, said of Griffey
“I saw Ken Griffey Jr. in high school at Moeller High in Cincinnati and he was the best prospect I’ve ever seen in my life. There was nobody even close to him; he was outstanding.”
After finishing in last place in 1987, the Seattle Mariners had the first pick in the draft the following year.
They picked Ken Griffey Jr., who had made it his goal to be taken first overall.
Still just 17 years old, Griffey reported to the Mariners Class-A farm team, the Bellingham Mariners in the Northwest League.
He struggled to overcome the change in scenery and often was involved in disagreements with those around him.
After struggling with depression throughout his teenage years, Griffey’s personal life began to deteriorate further as a young man.
In January of 1988, Griffey took more than 270 aspirin in an attempt to end his life.
After making a recovery, Griffey returned to the minor leagues and began to show why the Mariners had drafted him first overall.
He quickly made his way through the Mariners’ farm system, routinely batting over .300, and continued to display the skills he had at Moeller.
His speed helped him defensively and on the base paths. His power instilled fear in opposing pitchers.
He was a true five-tool player.
The Mariners were so impressed by Griffey’s minor league stints that they brought him up for spring training in 1989.
He made the team out of spring training as the Mariners’ starting centerfielder at just the age of 19.
In his first at-bat in Oakland against the Athletics, Griffey hit a double down the left field line.
Griffey took the league by storm and was considered the easy frontrunner for the AL Rookie of the Year before he fractured his right hand after punching a wall in anger that July.
He had a solid season overall, especially for a 19-year-old rookie.
He finished the 1989 season with 16 home runs and 61 RBI.
Ken Griffey Jr. doubled in his first at bat in the major leagues off Dave Stewart, April 3, 1989. AP Photo-Michael Schumann pic.twitter.com/DD6ZtOY7vt
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) April 3, 2022
Into the ’90s
In 1990, his second season in the big leagues, voters selected Griffey to appear in the first of his 11 consecutive All-Star games.
As a 20-year-old, the centerfielder hit .300 with 22 home runs and 16 stolen bases, proving he was a threat in every aspect of the game.
He also won his first of 10 straight Gold Glove Awards that year, cementing himself as one of the game’s premier defensive outfielders.
His acrobatic catches and strong throwing arm were showcased regularly in the highlight reels and in front of the Seattle crowd.
By this point, Griffey Sr. had joined his son in Seattle. In September of 1990, the pair became the first father-son duo to hit back-to-back home runs in Major League history.
In 1991, Griffey continued to impress with his performance at the plate and in the field.
Despite lashing out at unwarranted criticism from the media who considered him lazy, Griffey won his first Silver Slugger Award on his way to another All-Star appearance.
He finished the 1991 season with 22 home runs for the second straight year, but increased his RBI total to 100 and batted a career-high .327.
The young outfielder put forth another consistent campaign in 1992.
He continued to make amazing plays in centerfield while stealing bases and producing in the batter’s box.
He increased his home run total to 27 and his RBI total to 103 with a .308 batting average to go with it.
In the 1993 Home Run Derby, Griffey made history when he hit the warehouse beyond the right field wall at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland.
He remains the only player who has ever accomplished this feat, and the warehouse displays a plaque where the ball hit to commemorate the occasion.
Everyone Knows Junior!
Despite having lost the Derby to Juan Gonzalez, Griffey’s feat increased his notoriety around the league outside of Seattle.
He finished the season with an outstanding 45 home runs, a .309 batting average, and 109 RBI.
In the strike-shortened season of 1994, Griffey was on a torrid home run pace. He would have threatened Roger Maris’s record of 61 in a season back in 1961.
When play stopped that August, Griffey was leading the league with 40 home runs.
Outside of his amazing play on the diamond, Griffey was quickly becoming a household name. He became a national nationwide celebrity due to a number of endorsement deals and media appearances in films and television shows.
In 1996, he partnered with Nike to release the Air Griffey, a popular pair of athletic shoes.
In addition to Nike, Griffey partnered with video game company Nintendo to create a series of baseball video games throughout the rest of the decade.
He appeared as himself in the film Little Big League and television shows The Simpsons and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Griffey broke his wrist in 1995 on a stellar defensive play in the centerfield in which he scaled the wall on the run and robbed an extra-base hit.
Missing more than 70 games, Griffey returned that August and helped the Mariners make the postseason for the first time in his career.
They finished with a 79-66 record, good for first in the AL West Division.
In the ALDS that year against the New York Yankees, Griffey’s speed was on full display. He scored from first base on a double by Edgar Martinez to walk off the deciding Game Five.
The Mariners had come back from a two-game deficit to advance to the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians.
Getting Better All the Time
This moment is seen as a highlight of Griffey’s career and one of the greatest moments in franchise history for the Mariners.
In 1996, Griffey had another outstanding season. He hit 49 home runs, drove in 140 runs, and batted .303 with a .392 on-base percentage.
The Mariners missed the postseason, finishing second in the AL West with 85 wins.
Griffey would help lead the Mariners to another postseason appearance in 1997 as well as an AL West title. Junior also won the AL MVP Award.
He increased his home run total yet again to 56, batted over .300, and drove in 147 runs.
At this point in his career, it was hard to argue that Griffey wasn’t the best player in the AL and perhaps all of Major League Baseball.
The Mariners would lose the ALDS to the Baltimore Orioles, but recent playoff appearances and Griffey’s continued dominance in the AL led the Mariners to begin constructing Safeco Field. This was a move that signaled to Seattle that the team was going to stay after years of threats to move the team elsewhere.
Baseball fans remember 1998 as the year of the home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, but Griffey also came close.
He once again hit 56 home runs and made his routine appearance in the All-Star Game.
He also won the Home Run Derby in Colorado’s Coors Field after initially opting not to participate due to a sore wrist.
Griffey would also win the 1999 Home Run Derby at Fenway Park.
Safeco Field opened in the middle of the 1999 season and was dubbed the “House that Griffey Built.”
Griffey would only play at Safeco for two months, however, as his time in Seattle was coming to a close.
Back to Cincinnati
The Mariners had failed to extend Griffey. He requested they trade him to the Cincinnati Reds, his hometown team.
The Mariners granted his wish and traded the 30-year-old outfielder to the Reds for Mike Cameron, Antonio Perez, and Jake Meyer.
The Reds immediately signed Griffey to a nine-year contract, securing his spot in centerfield in Cincinnati for years to come.
While Griffey’s first season with the Reds was spectacular, his reunion with his hometown team would not go as planned.
He hit 40 home runs for the Reds in 2000, but injuries quickly began to catch up with him.
Griffey routinely missed extended time in his first few seasons with the Reds, playing in just 317 games from 2001 through 2004.
Injuries zapped him of much of his power. He was no longer the 40-plus home run threat he had been in Seattle.
His 40 home run season in 2000 would be the most he would ever hit with the Reds. He came close in 2005 with 35.
Griffey also struggled to maintain his range in centerfield and would never win a Gold Glove in Cincinnati.
He had surgeries for various injuries every year from 2002 to 2004.
With his decline in play, he also experienced a decline in superstardom.
While the Mariners made only a few postseason appearances during his tenure, the Reds only came close to competing in his first year, when they finished second in the NL Central with 85 wins.
Griffey’s career with the Reds is mostly known for the various milestones he accomplished.
Griffey hit his 500th career home run on Father’s Day in 2004 with Ken Griffey Sr. in attendance.
Jackie Robinson Day and Return to the AL
He won comeback player of the year in 2005. In 2007, he would create the tradition of players wearing the number 42 on Jackie Robinson Day, an event that continues to this day.
He asked Commissioner Bud Selig and Robinson’s widow Rachel—who celebrated her 100th birthday in 2022—for permission to wear the number in honor of Robinson. They both agreed.
The 2007 season was the beginning of the end for Griffey in Cincinnati.
He lost his role as the team’s starting centerfielder to Ryan Freel.
The Reds believed Griffey’s lack of mobility and history of injuries left him better suited to play in right field.
Griffey made his first return to Seattle that June during a rare interleague matchup between the Reds and Mariners.
Griffey was greeted by a loud chorus of cheers and a standing ovation.
In a brief speech given to the Seattle crowd, Griffey said:
“Never did I imagine that it would be like this coming back. I didn’t realize how much I missed being in Seattle. This place will always be home.”
Shortly after Griffey hit his 600th career home run in Miami the following year, the Reds traded Griffey to the Chicago White Sox.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 24, 2016
The White Sox were looking to add a veteran presence and left-handed bat at designated hitter and in the outfield. Griffey was just what they were looking for.
They also hoped that a change of scenery would help Griffey and his production.
Griffey’s most infamous moment in Chicago came in during a tiebreaking 163rd game between the White Sox and Minnesota Twins for the AL Central Division title.
The Twins were threatening to tie the game at 1-1 in the fifth inning when Griffey, playing centerfield, threw a strike to catcher A.J. Pierzynski to throw out the tying run in Michael Cuddyer.
Back Where It All Started
The White Sox would go on to win the game 1-0, securing their division title.
Griffey became a free agent for the first time in his career after 2008 but was not interested in retiring yet, believing he had more to give.
Deciding between the Mariners and the Atlanta Braves, Griffey ultimately chose to sign with the Mariners.
In his final two years in baseball, Griffey hit 19 home runs (all in 2009), drove in 64 runs, and batted just .199.
After receiving limited playing time and not wanting to be a distraction to the team, Griffey announced his retirement effective immediately in June of 2010.
He finished his 22-year Major League career with 84 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), 630 home runs, and a .284 batting average.
He was named to 13 All-Star games, one MVP Award, and 10 Gold Glove Awards.
Life After Baseball
The year following his retirement, Griffey joined the Mariners organization as a special assistant, performing several tasks for the team.
The team inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2013 for his contributions to the team and the city of Seattle.
The Reds also inducted Ken Griffey Jr. into their team Hall of Fame the following year.
Griffey was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016 on the first ballot with 99.3% of the vote, a record at the time.
He joined catcher Mike Piazza as an inductee.
Upon his election, Griffey commented:
“It’s quite a shock, more than anything. It’s an unbelievable honor. Just being voted in is an honor. I know how hard it is to be in there and how many players I played with throughout my career that won’t get this phone call. It’s one of those things. … It’s a pretty good feeling today.”
The Mariners decided to officially retire Griffey’s number 24 in conjunction with his Hall of Fame induction.
Ken Griffey Jr. was one of the premier players not only in the 1990s but in the history of the game.
His athleticism in the outfield and on the base paths, combined with his immense power and likeability, made him an icon in the game. He was one of the most famous athletes in the United States during his first stint in Seattle.
Many consider him the greatest Mariner ever, cementing their stay in Seattle and providing the city of Seattle with innumerable memories.
While Griffey’s return to Cincinnati did not work out on the field, he remains a legend there for his love of the city and the milestones he reached as a member of the Reds.
Ken Griffey Jr. will always be remembered for his performance on the field, his majestic home runs, acrobatic catches, and his backward cap and trademark grin.