I want to say this from the outset. It's probable that Ken Griffey, Jr. is overrated, at least in terms of his actual on the field accomplishments. He's certainly a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer, and one of the 50 or so best players in baseball history. If you want to argue the merits of peak performance versus career achievement, you might even be able to bump him up near the top 25. Of course, if you're feeling particularly generous, you might try to account for all the partial seasons he played, mostly in the 2000s in Cincinnati, but doing so is always a tricky proposition, since Junior isn't exactly the first great player to struggle with injuries, especially in the second half of his career.
Hell, you could even argue that the whole “Griffey saved baseball in Seattle” argument is a bit overblown. Certainly, the performance of the 1995 team did a fair bit to sway public sentiment in favor of a new stadium, and he was in the middle of that, but there were a number of other forces at work. In my opinion, not enough credit goes to the higher-ups with the Mariners for not giving up, even after the voters rejected a tax increase to pay for the stadium.
Ok, so I've got some of the disclaimers out of the way. Now, allow me to throw out a completely subjective statement that you can't possibly argue. Ken Griffey, Jr. was the coolest player in baseball history. Not the best, not the most accomplished, but no one made playing baseball seem as cool as The Kid.
It started with his backstory. The son of a Major Leaguer, a member of the Big Red Machine that won consecutive World Series in 1975 and 1976, he more or less grew up in a big league clubhouse. Heck, he was even born in the same town, on the same day, as Stan Musial. He should have been the no-doubt first pick in the 1987 draft, though the Mariners flirted with the immortal Mike Harkey. Within two years, he was entrenched in centerfield for the club.
Coolness is of course an entirely subjective term, but for an entire generation of kids, Griffey was the only athlete who could even slightly challenge Michael Jordan. It started with the amazing catches in the field, that oh-so-sweet swing, and of course that magical smile. Of course a six-year-old in Seattle is going to latch on to a player nicknamed The Kid. We were too young to recognize that, for the first time, Seattle had a must-see player. By the time he'd hit home runs in eight straight games, or turned his hat backwards (to the dismay of the stodgiest of crusty old baseball lifers) and hit a ball off the warehouse in Baltimore during the 1994 Home Run Derby, his place was cemented in the public consciousness.
From there, it escalated. Ken Griffey Jr. presents Major League Baseball was a staple on the Super Nintendo, and suddenly the Mariners (the Mariners!) were the team random kids coast to coast played as. By the second half of the 1990s, the Mariners were contenders year in and year out, Griffey was hitting 50+ homers and winning an MVP award, and Nike was building ad campaigns around him (including the legendary Hit it Here and Griffey '96 commercials).
Of course, coolness is rarely permanent, and by the middle of the 2000s, it was basically gone for Junior. Sure, he'd hit the major milestones, but his relevance to the game was in the past. Still, he remained the coolest player in baseball history.
Let's examine a few other contenders. First off, while players like Ruth, Williams, and others might have been great, and even beloved, no one would argue they were cool, in the sense that we mean it: unconcerned with societal standards, magnetic, and inspiring widespread imitation. Had the Babe come along fifty years later, he might have been cool, but America was a far different place in the 1920s.
Another would-be cool icon was Jackie Robinson, but he was too socially significant to be cool. Willie Mays (the guy Griffey was most often compared to) might have gotten there, but besides The Catch, he didn't inspire much imiation, just admiration.
After that, you're basically looking at the 1970s and 1980s, which were largely devoid of cool in baseball. Rickey Henderson probably came the closest, but he was always way too concerned with how people viewed him to be truly cool. Rickey knows that Rickey was cool, but I disagree.
Really, the only contender Griffey has is Derek Jeter. He's certainly cool, but in a different way. Throw out all the clutch nonsense, but on the field Jeter almost never looks like he's having fun. His is a dark, intense cool, while Griffey was never afraid to let you know he was playing a game. Plus, the Yankees can't be cool. That's just a fact.
One dark horse in all this is Ichiro, Griffey's teammate for a brief time. There's no doubt that Ichiro is immensely cool in Japan, and for a younger generation, at least here in Seattle. He doesn't have the American profile that Griffey does, in part because he's shown little interest in opening up to, well, anyone, but for those who pay close attention, his is a more 21st century cool: detached, ironic, and a bit gnomic.
So maybe it's fitting that if Griffey's legacy won't be the Greatest of All Time, it'll at least be the Coolest of All Time.