Kenny Hillyard (right) meets his baseball hero Fred McGriff at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago in 2019.
December 16, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
On December 4, when National Baseball Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch announced on the MLB Network that Fred McGriff would finally be honoured with a plaque in Cooperstown, Kenny Hillyard couldn’t hold back the tears.
And that’s perfectly understandable for someone who has dedicated more than 30 years to assembling the largest collection of McGriff cards – over 47,000 and counting – in the world.
Hillyard, who had endured 10 agonizing years of watching McGriff fall short on the baseball writers’ ballot, was overjoyed to learn that this hero had been unanimously elected by the Hall’s Contemporary Era Committee.
“It took me a while to gain my composure because it was something I had been hoping for, for so long,” said Hillyard. “My wife and I were watching the announcement and as the Hall of Fame president was talking, I could just feel my heart beating faster and faster and faster . . . But as soon as he said ‘19-year career,’ I knew it was McGriff and I pretty much lost it.”
Kenny Hillyard celebrates in his home after the December 4th announcement that Fred McGriff had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Since that announcement, Hillyard has gained 200 Twitter followers to his account devoted to his McGriff collection and has received numerous messages from people across North America.
“Most of the people that have contacted me write and say, ‘Hey, I was a McGriff fan and I didn’t know your account existed and I love your account,’ and stuff like that,” said Hillyard. “And a lot of people have reached out to say that they’re happy for me.”
It’s definitely been a crazy few weeks for the quiet IT executive who lives in Midlothian, Texas. Though he was born and raised in the Lone Star state, Hillyard is actually a St. Louis Cardinals fan — something he inherited from his father who is from St. Louis.
So, this begs the question: how does a Cardinals fan living in Texas become a hardcore McGriff collector?
Well, when Hillyard was 17 in 1988, his beloved Cardinals were struggling and rarely hitting home runs.
“Around that time, I was watching a lot of highlights and I kept seeing this McGriff guy hitting homer after homer after homer, and I just liked the way he played the game,” said Hillyard. “He was quiet. He hit a homer and put his head down and he never showed anybody up, so that kind of grabbed me. So I started collecting his cards and it’s just really never stopped.”
At that time, McGriff was an up-and-coming slugger with the Toronto Blue Jays. The left-handed hitting first baseman would eventually belt 493 home runs (29th all-time) with six different teams in 19 major league seasons.
Hillyard believes the first McGriff card he owned was the power hitter’s 1988 Donruss card, and though he lived in Texas at that time, it didn’t stop him from pursuing McGriff’s Canadian cards.
He initially built his collection by going to card shows and ordering through the mail.
“There were dealers that would put player boxes together,” explained Hillyard. “And some of those dealers would have every oddball card that you could think of, but it would take a little bit longer for the Canadian cards to get down to Texas.”
Not willing to wait, the then resourceful teen spotted an ad in Sports Collectors Digest from a Canadian card dealer.
“I found out that if you sent him a letter in the mail of who you were looking for, he would send you a list back of what he had,” said Hillyard. “So I did that with McGriff and pretty much bought all of the Canadian cards that I didn’t have.”
Hillyard has no shortage of McGriff’s coveted 1986 Leaf rookie cards. Here he holds a binder with a full page of them.
Hillyard, of course, also acquired McGriff’s 1986 Donruss rookie and its Canadian equivalent, 1986 Leaf card. These are McGriff’s two most widely collected cards and their values have increased considerably since the slugger’s election.
For instance, a PSA GEM MINT 10 (that means it’s graded a perfect 10 out of 10) of the 1986 Leaf rookie sold for $1,250 on eBay on December 5. In July 2019, a Leaf rookie card in the same grade commanded just over $200.
But while the 1986 Leaf rookie card is McGriff’s most renowned Canadian card, it’s far from the rarest. Over the years, Hillyard has tracked down oddball cards issued by Canadian chip manufacturers Humpty Dumpty and Hostess. And he recently learned that there was a 1991 O-Pee-Chee Premier All-Star Game promo pack that featured a McGriff card that was handed out to advertise the Midsummer Classic in Toronto.
“A lot of my favourite McGriff cards are from his era with the Blue Jays because that’s when I started collecting him,” said Hillyard.
His most cherished Canadian McGriff item is a rare 1988 Fire Safety card that was issued in French (see image above) and handed out at a small number of fire stations in Ontario.
“That’s a card I knew about for a long time and I saw it for the first time three years ago,” said Hillyard. “For Blue Jays releases, I would say that’s the hardest one to get. It was one where you heard about it, but it just didn’t come up.”
Earlier this December, Hillyard finally landed a 1990 Score Promo card (above), which was also distributed on a very limited basis. It was also the oldest card that he still needed for his collection.
“It was just one of those cards that would never pop up and one of them finally did,” said Hillyard. “I was able get that, so now the next oldest card I need is from 1997.”
But those are just two of the thousands of McGriff cards Hillyard has amassed. Outside of his Canadian cards, one of his most prized items is a 1984-85 Dominican Winter League sticker (photo below).
“I had known about the Dominican sticker for a long time, but I didn’t think I would ever see one — just because of its rarity and its condition sensitivity,” he said.
He found one in a collection in 2018.
“A guy was looking to sell his collection and I basically bought the collection just for that,” said Hillyard.
Hillyard’s collection boasts 1-of-1 cards, rare promos and variations. He has experienced some competition for McGriff cards, but for the most part, it’s been an affordable hobby.
“Even back in the heyday of his career, he wasn’t a premium cost-wise,” said Hillyard. “It hasn’t been overly expensive to collect him until the past year or so.”
Hillyard has created an elaborate database for his collection that documents and includes an image of every card. His cards are then meticulously organized in binders and boxes.
“I store pretty much everything in binders just because that’s the way I did it as a kid,” said Hillyard.
Hillyard stands in front of his massive collection of McGriff cards that are housed in binders and boxes.
The veteran hobbyist still regularly scours eBay, trades with fellow collectors and has friends that look out for cards for him.
“I check eBay several times a day for new items,” said Hillyard. “I don’t want that one card that I’m looking for to pop up and it might be a Buy It Now and then it’s gone.”
He started the Twitter account devoted to his McGriff collection two years ago. He shares a photo of one card from his collection on it every day and now has more than 1,200 followers.
“At this rate, I’ll be able to share an item a day for seven years,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s been a lot of fun doing it. I’m not exactly the most people person in the world but meeting a lot of people through that Twitter feed has been great. It has been much more positive than I thought it could ever be.”
And for the record, Hillyard has met McGriff twice. He had a ball signed by the slugger before a game at The Ballpark in Arlington when McGriff was with the Tampa Bay Rays in 1998.
Another photo of Hillyard meeting McGriff at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago in 2019.
He also met McGriff at The National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago in 2019 when the Blue Jays legend was an autograph guest.
“I think he was a little bit late that day, so he was a little rushed, so I didn’t get a whole lot of time with him,” said Hillyard.
Hillyard’s wife, Betsy, has been very supportive of his collection
“I have no kids, so this [collection] is one of my kids,” joked Hillyard. “My wife has been great about it. She’s on board . . . I told her about that  Score Promo card when it was listed and she said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get that. You’ve got to go hard after that! Don’t let it go!’”
And Hillyard has no intentions of letting any of the cards that he still needs go uncontested in auctions. His goal right now is to obtain every McGriff card issued during his playing days (1986 to 2004) and he needs about 100 cards to achieve this.
“If I found all of his playing days cards, I would be satisfied with that,” he said.
And yes, Hillyard plans to be in Cooperstown in July when McGriff delivers his induction speech, and the tears are likely to flow again.
“I still really can’t believe it actually happened,” said Hillyard of McGriff’s Hall election. “It’s just been awesome.”
Note: One Canadian card that Hillyard is looking for is the oversized McGriff card that was handed out at a Vancouver Canadians game in 2017 (see image below) when McGriff was an autograph guest. If you have this card or know someone who might have it, please contact Kenny through his Twitter account or via email at Khillyard@aircanopy.net