They went to the fourth annual Cubs Convention at the Hyatt Regency Hotel last weekend to rub elbows with beloved Cubs players, past and present, and to bend elbows with Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Caray. But 11 miles to the west, at the Hillside Holiday Inn, they came looking for "Fuck Face."
There were no star ball players at the Chicagoland Baseball Card and Collectible Show. There was no live broadcast on WGN, no pitching clinic with Rick Sutcliffe, no batting seminar with Billy Williams, no roundtable rehash of that fateful 1969 season. Fact is, you can find local card shows like this most any weekend. But this show benefited from some opportune timing.
It was only two weeks earlier that the national media broke the story about the rather shocking 1989 Bill Ripken baseball card distributed by Fleer: the words "Fuck Face" were printed on the knob of the Baltimore Orioles second baseman's bat. "I thought I'd seen everything," said one veteran dealer, "but there's always something else."
The Ripken card is the latest cause celebre in what was once simply a hobby and is now a multimillion-dollar business. Baseball cards are no longer just for flipping or inserting into bicycle wheel spokes. They are a big hit as a financial investment. Cards bought for a nickel a pack in the mid-1960s now command prices up to $500. But that's for the game's greats: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose. Not Bill Ripken.
Bill Ripken, brother of all-star Cal, son of former manager Cal Sr. Last year's stats: .207 batting average, 106 hits, 2 home runs, 54 runs batted in. Without the obscenity, the Ripken card is what's known in the trade as a "common," worth about two cents, eight cents tops. When the news about the card broke, its value skyrocketed out of that ballpark. And the Cardboard Jungle has been in a furor ever since.
Error cards are nothing new. That's a picture of Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo printed on Topps's 1963 Don Landrum card. But while errors on the field can be costly to a baseball team, errors on a baseball card can be profitable for the collector. The 1982 Fleer card showing Saint Louis pitcher John Littlefield as a right-hander is worth about eight cents. The error card depicting him as a left-hander has sold for more than $65.
The Ripken error, though, is a humdinger. There has never been anything like it. While it is hard to tell if Billy Martin is intentionally flipping the bird on his 1972 Topps card, there is no mistaking the "Fuck Face" on Ripken's bat. So when news of the Ripken card made national headlines, a new status symbol was born and collectors and noncollectors alike scrambled to get their hands on one. Or ten. Or a hundred. According to one downstate card dealer, a local grocery-store chain bought $44,000 worth of Fleer cards and resold the unopened cases to an east coast dealer for $200,000.
It seems fitting that the Ripken story broke at the same time lawyers began selecting jurors for the trial of Oliver North. Dealers and collectors speak in hushed tones about a veritable "Ripkengate." Conspiracy hounds, consider these unanswered questions: Was it just a coincidence that the offending phrase appears exactly right side up, not sideways or upside down? How could Fleer's proofreaders miss such an obvious gaffe? Who was responsible? Was it Ripken, a known prankster? Or was it a disgruntled Fleer employee? ("Check the card under a microscope," one dealer suggested. "The words seem airbrushed on, like they're floating on the bat.") Is it all just a Fleer publicity stunt?
We may never know, and the mystery has fueled the card's chutes-and-ladders progress--$20, $50, more than $100 on the east coast, then down to $45. Dealers are understandably stymied. "It's the most erratic item we have ever carried," said Ken Goldin, vice president of the Scoreboard, Inc. in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. "There is nothing close in comparison. It rises and falls hourly. We had over 50 calls a day when the story broke. Finally, we just started answering the phones 'We have no Fleer card packs and Billy Ripken is $75.' Everyone knew what we were talking about. Not one person said, 'Huh?'"
There was no such hysteria at the Chicagoland Baseball Card and Collectible Show. If you wanted a Bill Ripken card, you came to the right place. Plenty were available on both sides of the table. Dealers displayed individual cards alongside cards depicting the lovable TV alien ALF. Prices for the Ripken card generally ranged from $25 to $35. For the traditionalist, single unopened packs of cards sold for up to $1.50 each and boxes containing 36 packs sold for $43.75.
Hobbyists carried their duplicate Ripkens to either sell or trade. Older card enthusiasts mingled with a new, young, aggressive generation of price-savvy, card-smart collectors.
Though vintage cards can now command stratospheric prices, the basics of card collecting remain the same: It takes legwork, or in the case of 12-year-old Mike, a father willing to drive his son to every White Hen, 7-Eleven, drugstore, and pharmacy in town, and to bankroll the purchase of 40 boxes of Fleer cards (containing 36 packs each). The outlay: somewhere between $400 and $600. The yield: 50 Ripkens, which Mike was offering for $20 apiece.
It takes being one step ahead of the competition. Dan, nine, traded his friend Brian a 1988 Topps Ryne Sandberg all-star and an Andre Dawson all-star for Brian's Ripken. "He didn't know about the card," explained the budding Donald Trump. "I found out about it in the newspaper and on TV. I made the trade the next day."
And yes, it takes luck. Kent, 33, a Chicago lawyer, was idly browsing for cards to complete his 1963 and 1966 Topps sets. Kent wasn't too interested in the Ripken card, but when a collector took him aside and offered to sell him a box of Fleer cards for only $27, how could he refuse? In the fifth pack, he found his Ripken. "I've got it," he said calmly. "Now I'm a yuppie."
In the beginning there was the Word, and it is the Word that has attracted children to the Ripken card. It certainly isn't Ripken. "Nah," said a different 12-year-old Mike. "He kinda stinks." Mike doesn't have the big bucks to invest in a box, but he does have an understanding mother, and she stood by while he and his eight-year-old brother Joey bought three packs of Fleer cards. It didn't seem to bother her that they were anxiously hoping to find the Card with the Word.
"They collect baseball cards," she rationalized. "I know [Fleer] stopped making this one, so it would be a good card for them to get." As her sons thumbed through their cards, she said, "This is like playing a slot machine. They'll keep buying until they hit the jackpot."
The Las Vegas allusion is apt. With baseball cards as with playing cards, much rides on knowing when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run. But no one seems to know what to do about Ripken.
Initial speculation about the value of the card is, in retrospect, charmingly naive. Wrote one columnist in Sports Collectors Digest, "Undoubtably, some collectors will want to have copies of the card just to giggle at."
To many harassed dealers and wild-eyed rookie traders, the Ripken affair is no laughing matter. "People are being turned into animals over a swear word," said Mary (who didn't want to give her last name), manager of the Great American Baseball Card Company in Morton Grove. This after a disgruntled customer accused her of removing a Ripken card from a pack that was still factory-sealed. This after receiving messages on her store's answering machine from children looking for "that fuck card."
Other dealers at the show also expressed concern about the card and what its popularity said about the state of the hobby. Said Terry Nordensten, who buys and sells baseball cards from the 1950s and '60s, "It bothers me to see young children spending that kind of money for that reason, the profanity."
Mike Fredey, a dealer with the Baseball Card Shop in Glenview, called the card a "phenomenon" of little lasting value. "The thing that gets me is the parents coming into the store and buying the card for their kids," he said. "It's bad enough when the kids come in and start using the language. It's easier to turn the card over and get rid of it."
The kids, not surprisingly, do not see it this way. The Bill Ripken card is their chance to get hold of a potentially lucrative card at comparatively affordable prices. Who knows how valuable the card will be by the time they grow up and have children? How many people had the foresight to hold on to what are now valuable cards?
"My dad's favorite player was Mickey Mantle," said one 14-year-old. "He had a lot of Mantles, rookie cards, just because he was his favorite player. My grandma threw them out. Today they would be worth thousands."
This is precisely the trouble with the hobby today, according to Wayne Grimm, manager of Jim's Baseball Highlights in Belleville, Illinois. "Nowadays," he said, "people look at how much a card is worth, not the player. People are getting caught up in the money part of it."
Some dealers, like David Hall, co-owner of Hall's Nostalgia in Arlington, Massachusetts, said they refuse to buy or sell the Ripken card. "I deal with a lot of kids," he explained. He blamed the hysteria over the offending card on noncollectors who don't care about the hobby. "We're talking about a kid's toy," he said. "Adults are taking over the business and forcing the kids out."
The shrewder collectors, young and old, recognize the transience of the Ripken card's celebrity. Analyzing the market, 14-year-old Tom said, "It's going to go down real quick. Fleer is making too many, they're mass-producing them."
Wayne Grove, who writes the "Errors and Varieties" column in Beckett's Baseball Monthly, agrees. "All error cards start out higher because of initial interest," he said. "There's a lot of greed in the business right now and people looking to make a quick killing are going to get burned. This Ripken card is extremely common."
"It'll probably be forgotten before the end of this year," predicted Nordensten. "People are going to realize how many of these cards are out there and they're going to be embarrassed that they paid $20 to $40 to get one."
This pessimism did not stop 12-year-old Anthony from spending $35 on a box of Fleer cards. Among his take was a Don Mattingly, a Jose Canseco all-star, and two very hot rookies, the Milwaukee Brewers' Gary Sheffield and the Philadelphia Phillies' Ricky Jordan. But no Ripken. Still, not a bad haul. "Not bad?" he asks disappointedly. "For $35?"
For those concerned that baseball card collecting has been forever sullied, meet Jeff Popper and his friend Josh. They are sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby, their laps strewn with just-opened packs of baseball cards. The wrappers and gum have been placed on the floor, out of the way of the action. Next to them is Jeff's mom, patiently reading a book and unaware of any controversy ("Fill me in. What's wrong with this Ripken card?").
Jeff and Josh thumb through and compare their cards: Ellis Burks, Greg Maddux, Wally Joyner, Mark McGuire. Jeff's favorite player is Minnesota Twins slugger Kirby Puckett, whose card he proudly pulls from the pile.
The hobby is safe with Jeff.