Last Updated On: July 20th, 2023
Today, collectors take for granted that baseball cards, to a certain extent, should look a certain way. And producers have largely obliged this expectation through RPAs, refractors, and the like.
But in the era of ultra-cool punk bands and less-cool steroid use, hologram baseball cards were all the rage.
In a story that begins, ironically, at a restaurant that bears little in common with athleticism, hologram baseball cards hit an apex in the 1990s. This article will begin by going over a bit of that history and continue by highlighting a few of the iconic hologram baseball cards and sets from the era, including the slew of hits featuring Ken Griffey, Jr. We’ll also go over the prices of these cards today.
Without further ado, let’s get after it!
Table of Contents
History of Hologram Baseball Cards
The first page in the history of hologram baseball cards begins in 1986, when Major League Marketing earned a full license to produce baseball cards. In March of that year, the company released its debut set, which it called Sportflics.
The snazzy part about the Sportflics card was its “Triple Action Magic Motion” portrait. Every single card in the set featured three different pictures – one headshot and two in-game shots – that appeared when a user changed the card’s angle.
The initial reaction to these far-out cards was…tepid.
For starters, they were wildly expensive. In an era where 792 card sets from brands like Topps could be had for $16, the Sportflics set of 200 cost a whopping $40 ($111 in 2023-dollars when adjusted for inflation).
That’s not all – the cards drew comparisons to a series of Kelloggs’ 3D cards from the ‘70s and a Seven-Eleven set from 1984. Suffice it to say, Sportflics wasn’t exactly sitting at the cool kid’s table.
Despite implying the production of a second series, another series was not issued in 1986, however, Sportflics sets would be produced in subsequent years as the brand would ultimately survive a bit longer under the company Pinnacle Brands (more on Pinnacle later). Today, the 1986 set has over 3,000 cards graded by PSA, with some 64% earning a Gem Mint grade (part of a larger “Junk Wax” grading problem)
But the concept of a unique hologram-esque card was born, and the aesthetic boundaries of what a baseball card should be were stretched. At the end of the decade, Upper Deck, which debuted in 1989, began throwing small holograms on the backs of its cards as an anti-counterfeit security measure.
A few years later, Upper Deck partnered with a well-known food business to debut its first full hologram baseball cards.
Hologram Baseball Card Sets
Which food brand did Upper Deck collaborate with for its hologram baseball card debut? One might initially think a brand like Wheaties, with its storied history of athletes gracing its boxes. Or perhaps Gatorade, the preferred drink of superstar ‘90s athletes like Michael Jordan.
Upper Deck partnered up with. . .Denny’s.
Denny’s Hologram Baseball Cards
Sure, the small holo logos were cool. But in 1991, Upper Deck produced a line of full holo cards. And for the next six years, the Upper Deck-Dennys’ holos were some of the spaciest cards out there.
Here are a few highlights from the various sets:
Denny’s Grand Slam Holograms, Produced by Upper Deck from 1991 – 1995
The 1991 Upper Deck Denny’s hologram set contained even fewer cards than the Sportflics from a few years prior. This initial set contained just 26 cards, one for each team.
Everything about these cards were geared toward the “Grand Slam,” which they came to be known as shortly after release. For starters, the entire thing was a promotion to get hungry customers to buy a meal off the “Grand Slam” menu, which earned the customer a free card if they did so.
Even the selection of who would appear on these cards revolved around a grand slam – players were chosen by their propensity to knock in four runs with a single hit. In fact, if a customer unwrapped a player who happened to hit a grand slam during the promotion, they got their meal for free.
It was probably not the soundest business plan in the age of steroids; Denny’s had to stop the promotion after its initial run.
It is believed that around two million cards were printed. Despite that high print count, PSA has only graded 125 cards from this set, some of the most popular being Cal Ripken, Jr., Don Mattingly, Craig Biggio, and Mark McGwire. They aren’t the most valuable cards out there, nor do they regularly hit the marketplace in graded form – Don Mattingly’s #8 in a PSA 8 grade sold on eBay for $39.23 in January, 2023, for instance.
In 1992, Denny’s ran a second set much in the same vein: 26 players, chosen by each one’s grand slam abilities. The set includes figures like Barry Bonds, Robin Ventura, Cal Ripken, Jr., Ryne Sandberg, and Jose Canseco. PSA has graded a few more from this set than the initial one, with 156 total, only 10 of which have earned a Gem Mint grade.
The prices for this set are only slightly better – the Conseco pictured above recently sold for $18 at PWCC auctions.
1993 was much the same, with a small exception. Two more cards were produced per set, bringing the number up to 28. This was thanks to expansion in 1993: the Florida (now Miami) Marlins and Colorado Rockies joined the league this season. Within this set were stars like Darryl Strawberry, Robin Yount, and Gary Sheffield. PSA has graded over 250 of these cards, with less than 10% earning a PSA 10 grade.
But the biggest breakthrough came in 1994. This set was made up of 29 cards – one for each team, plus an NNO Reggie Jackson that was distributed separately by each participating Denny’s location.
By now, the setup looked different. “Grand Slam” no longer appeared on the outside of the packs (though they generally are still referred to as “Grand Slam Hologram” cards). In addition, players were no longer chosen by their ability to come up with a clutch homer. In fact, 1994 was the first set featuring pitchers, including Kevin Appier, who had finished with the third-lowest ERA in the majors the season before.
The set also featured, for the first time, stars like Ken Griffey, Jr., Mike Piazza, and Jeff Bagwell.
Those were great and all, but the very best card produced this season was the Jackson. By 1994, Jackson had been retired for seven seasons, but in 1993 was inducted into the Hall of Fame. To commemorate the star’s illustrious career, Denny’s ran its Reggie Jackson promotion, allowing every Denny’s to hand out one Jackson hologram baseball card via contest.
This made the Jackson card considerably rarer than those that were handed out with every qualifying purchase. An eBay search typically yields very little results for the Jackson card, although from time to time one will pop-up available for purchase, recently for as much as $149.99. Compare that price to an ungraded Frank Thomas which can be had for just $0.99.
In 1995, Upper Deck released its final hologram baseball card set in collaboration with Denny’s. The set included star pitcher Greg Maddux and slugger Sammy Sosa.
Denny’s Grand Slam Holograms, Produced by Pinnacle in 1996 and 1997
Although ‘95 marked the end of Denny’s collaboration with Upper Deck, it didn’t quite mark the end of its Grand Slam hologram baseball cards. The next year, Denny’s partnered with Pinnacle to continue its promotion.
In addition to the hologram, Pinnacle included a standard photo of the player on the card (which has helped with identification on the often-cloudy hologram). Maddux once again featured, joined by a young Jason Isringhausen. Rather than refer to the base set as “Grand Slam” cards, Pinnacle’s line were known as “Instant Replays.”
A switch in the manufacturer hasn’t quite changed the long-term value of these cards. A PSA 10 Frank Thomas sold in February 2021 for $39. A Cal Ripken, Jr. PSA 10 sold more recently for just $26 in January, 2023.
The following year marked the end of Denny’s hologram baseball card run. Featuring future Yankees teammates Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez on separate cards, the set also included a 50th anniversary Jackie Robinson commemorative card. Beckett has graded only four Robinson cards, with two earning a BGS 9.5 Gem Mint grade. As for the entire set, Beckett has a pop count of just 55, with 24 earning a BGS 9.5 grade or better.
And just before you thought the “Grand Slam” moniker was dead with the Pinnacle line, instead, it was used for inserts that were introduced and rumored to be randomly inserted into hologram packs at a rate of 1 in 56 packs. Also available are Artist’s Proof inserts from these two series. Even rarer than the Grand Slams at a rate of 1 in 360 packs (and only 10 players were produced in 1996), these cards are barely worth a bit more in a high-grade condition. An artist proof graded PSA 9 Mint of Barry Bond’s 1996 Pinnacle #6, for instance, sold for $14.15 on eBay in January, 2023.
Common Errors with Denny’s Holograms
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Denny’s hologram baseball cards sets came replete with errors. In one example, a Scott Rolen Phillies card from ‘97 featured a back for Detroit Tigers third baseman Travis Fryman. Particularly challenging was the ‘94 set, which included errors like Frank Thomas’ front holo being matched with Jim Abbot’s back-of-card bio.
Upper Deck Baseball Hologram Sets
Denny’s wasn’t Upper Deck’s only foray into the holographic baseball card game. Between 1991 and ‘92, the company produced two sets inspired by comic book characters.
Upper Deck Comic Ball Holograms, Produced in 1991 and 1992
Starting in 1990, Upper Deck began putting cartoon favorites on its cards. The 1990 set featured just nine cards, none of which included actual MLB players. Instead, various cartoon characters dressed out for various MLB teams, including Elmer Fudd suiting up as the backstop for the Cincinnati Reds.
But in ‘91, Upper Deck unveiled a set of cards that included MLB players (and coaches) along with the cartoon characters, known as Comic Ball 2. With a pop count over 306 cards according to PSA, roughly one in three graded cards has earned a PSA 10.
The set only included a handful of players, most of them legends of the game, including Reggie Jackson and Nolan Ryan. Even the Gem Mint graded cards are affordable, with the Reggie Jackson recently going for just $18 in March, 2023.
Comic Ball 3, the set released in ‘92, included the popular Ken Griffey, Jr. receiving a pre-game carrot from Bugs Bunny. Griffey was featured on multiple other cards in the set as well, including the likes of Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, and Sylvester. The most popularly graded card being that Griffey and Bugs Bunny crossover.
1992 Upper Deck Team MVP Holograms
Upper Deck also produced a set of “Team MVP” hologram baseball cards in 1992. Of the 54-card set, the most valuable are Cal Ripken’s #1 ($100 PSA 10 sale in 2021), Ken Griffey, Jr.’s #22 ($180 PSA 10 sale in 2023), and George Brett’s #12 ($82 PSA 10 sale in 2022).
BBM Japan Baseball Holograms, Produced from 1991 – 1994
In 1991, hologram inserts would first surface by a Japanese baseball card brand known as BBM. Card #240 had 12 different variations representing each of the 12 Japanese baseball teams of the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
The subsequent year’s release in 1992 was actually divided into two different base sets. And included in each of those sets were six hologram player inserts — one player for each team as well (similar to Denny’s in that regard).
One of the stars of that ’92 holo set was Hideo Nomo, who would later feature in the Denny’s set after his transition from the Nippon league in Japan to the MLB in 1995.
These cards also came with a “sticker” on the bottom with Japanese text print on it. This sticker is much like the protective film that came on American-made cards like Donruss and Finest (in fact, the language on the sticker is roughly the same).
The following year, in 1993, BBM flip-flopped its approach again. Rather than produce a set of player holos, the company produced 12 team logo holos. And rather than an insert, each holo came standard in every set.
A side note — though it’s not a hologram, the 1993 base set includes an early Ichiro Suzuki card — his 1993 #239 Blue Wave, which generally fetch great prices, even without a Gem Mint grading. A PSA 10 can top $1,500, a PSA 9 goes for around $600, and a PSA 8 almost $300.
In 1994, BBM returned to its player holos, with a trippy twist. While the player was featured vertically, the background (the player’s home field) was printed horizontally.
In addition to Nomo making a reappearance in holo-form, the 12-card set includes future Yankees pitcher Hideki Matsui.
Silver Star Holograms, Produced in 1991 and 1992
Next up, we have the Silver Star (or, if you’re BGS, SilverStar) hologram baseball cards, produced in 1991 and 1992. The first set featured eight cards designed to commemorate the achievements of the players recognized on them. For instance, Rickey Henderson’s card memorializes his place as the league’s All-Time steals leader.
In addition to the hologram, each card also came with a blank-backed ticket which has become known as an “Authenticket.”
Only 122 cards from the 1991 set have been graded by PSA, with around 13% earning a Gem Mint grade. Of these, the Nolan Ryan is probably the most popular of the set, though few have accurate post-pandemic pricing for higher-graded cards.
The Silver Stars set came out in 1992 and only 44 have been graded by PSA (only two have earned a PSA 10 grade). One of the cooler cards of the bunch is a 30th anniversary card commemorating Dodger Stadium.
Ken Griffey Jr. Hologram Sets
Unsurprisingly, some of the most important hologram baseball cards from this era feature Ken Griffey, Jr., arguably the era’s most enduring star. Here’s a few of his early ‘90s holos we haven’t mentioned yet:
1992 Front Row Griffey Holograms
First up is Griffey’s 1992 Front Row holograms, numbered 1-3. This set was a triplicate produced by Front Row, with each of the three cards (and one prototype) featuring a different Griffey hologram. A total of 57 cards have been graded by PSA, with just four (one #2 and three #3s) receiving a PSA 10 grade.
These cards were sold in full sets of three. And to ensure authenticity, the sets were packed with another card certifying that any given set was one of the 50,000 produced.
1992 Griffey Arena Kid Comic Holograms
While the ‘91 Front Row Griffey’s have a traditional hologram feel, the ‘92 Arena Kid Comic holos are a bit more. . .out there. The designs are all cartoons designed to highlight various areas of the game that Griffey excelled at: speed, power, and defense.
With a pop count at 153 according to PSA, the most popular of the nine cards is almost certainly #1, which is simply named “The Kid” in honor of Griffey’s nickname. In 2022, a PWCC auction sold a PSA 9 Arena Kid #1 for $28.80. Similarly, a PSA 9 #4 AKA “Defense” card sold for around the same value.
While the total number of base Arena Kid holos produced isn’t known, we do know that around 1,700 individually numbered cards as well as a series of “Gold Edition” cards were inserted throughout the sets at an unknown rate.
1992 Lime Rock Griffey Holograms
Finally, we get to the ‘92 Lime Rock Griffey hologram baseball cards. What sets these apart from some of the others is the fact that this line included cards with a facsimile of Griffey’s autograph, the base of which in a PSA 8 is valued around $20.
One of the more popular Lime Rock is the #2 silver. Only 38 of those silver cards have been graded by PSA, with just one earning a Gem Mint grade. In PSA 9, it’s valued at around $35. The silver is a parallel, featuring the same design as the base, but with a more reflective (and, by extension, more valuable) feel.
Lime Rock actually bears more in common with the Denny’s Upper Deck set than just a hologram. The set was initially a gimmick: a coupon for a free issue of Lime Rock’s Inside Trade Club Quarterly News magazine was included with each set. And the set appealed to collectors because, more than just putting “The Kid” on a hologram, the set included holos for the entire Griffey baseball family: Ken Griffey, Sr. and Craig Griffey.
And Lime Rock intended these cards to stand the test of time: they were sold in a box that included a folder specifically designed to display the Lime Rock holo set.
One more gimmick worth mentioning: 750 “promo sets” were created specifically for distribution at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlanta that year (those cards had blank backs).
Upper Deck SPx
Finally, we get to one of the coolest, most premium names in hologram baseball cards from this era: the Upper Deck SPx. With production in 1996 and 1997, these die-cut cards featured a few dozen base cards and gold parallels.
1996 SPx Baseball
The 1996 SPx hologram baseball cards set consists of 60 base cards, with stars like Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey, Jr., Derek Jeter, and Randy Johnson represented. Upon initial release, the cards were sold in just one-card packs at a cost of around $3.50 apiece. But for every lucky 75th pack, a Ken Griffey, Jr. commemorative tribute card was inserted; for every 95th pack, a commemorative Mike Piazza tribute card was included. Even rarer: an autographed tribute card was thrown in one of every 2,000 packs.
The set also came with 60 gold parallels, one for each base. Finally, there were 10 “Bound for Glory” inserts reserved for a slate of stars – Griffey, Greg Maddux, Jones, Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Jr., Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Tony Gwynn, and Mike Piazza.
With a PSA pop count over 1,800, the most valuable cards in the set include Derek Jeter’s gold card (average PSA 10 price: $228) and the Griffey gold ($229). Both base cards also are fairly valuable, worth between $55 and $95 in Gem Mint condition.
1997 SPx Baseball
Following the success of the ‘96 set, Upper Deck produced a second SPx baseball set in 1997. But the second year came with a few twists: first, only fifty base cards were produced. But Upper Deck also introduced five different parallels: steel, bronze, silver, gold, and Grand Finale. Only fifty Grand Finale cards were produced per player (even though the cards do not have a print run number on them).
The Grand Finale cards were well-named: 1997 was the last year that Upper Deck used its hologram prints on its SPx cards.
In addition, the ‘97 SPx featured 20 “Bound for Glory” and 10 “Cornerstones of the Game” inserts, as well as five autograph variations.
The pop count for the ‘97 SPx hologram baseball cards sits just under 1,500, per PSA. It probably goes without saying, but the Grand Finale cards tend to be the most valuable, with one PSA 10 Griffey Grand Finale going for $2,225. Even non-Gem Mint condition Grand Finales tend to be worthwhile investments: Greg Maddux’s Grand Finale in PSA 9 sold for $619 (but in 2021), while a Derek Jeter Grand Finale in the same condition sold for $4,650 in October 2022.
Even Griffey’s other parallels are valuable in Gem Mint condition: the silver has sold for $565 and the bronze went for $355.
A few other notable cards from the set include the Barry Bonds #43 gold ($224 in Gem Mint), the Jose Canseco #37 silver ($140 in Gem Mint), and the Derek Jeter #36 bronze ($171 in Gem Mint).
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a hologram baseball card?
A hologram baseball card is one that usually features several different portraits depending on the angle the card is held. Often, it gives the portrait an “in-action” feel.
How does a hologram card work?
Hologram baseball cards rely on “lenticular printing,” which is when a ribbed-like plastic lens is placed on the card that makes the card look like it’s moving when it hits certain light and certain angles.
When did holographic baseball cards come out?
Lenticular cards go as far back as the 1960s, but the modern holographic card started with Sportflics in the 1980s and were popularized by Upper Deck and Pinnacle through their collaborations with Denny’s in the 1990s.
They might not all be a bang for your buck, but there’s no disputing that the hologram baseball cards from the 1990s were innovative. Some, like Hideo Nomo’s BBM Hologram, even managed to transcend traditional geographic limitations. Though the look and design of cards, especially holo cards, has changed dramatically since its debut way back with Sportflics, they continue to be an enduring part of the larger sports cards legacy.