As the 1980’s came to a close, baseball cards were all the rage. Even people who had never collected before were stashing boxes of cards as an investment, hoping one day they’d send their kids to college based on little pieces of thin cardboard.
Because of the influx in demand, baseball card companies mass-produced during this period. Before collector’s could blink, their investments were literally 100 percent worthless.
To this day, people still get crushed when bringing their late-80’s junk to the local hobby shop. Instead of the goldmine they thought they had, they’re laughed out of the shop with the same story just outlined.
Still, this period in sports card history did produce some good. Most notably, the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken card, or as it’s known to collectors, “the fuck face card”.
Coming off a 1988 season which he hit just .207 in a career-high 150 games, Billy Ripken’s #616 card was supposed to be uneventful. However, after the set was released, he became somewhat of a folk-hero to anyone who caught wind of his card.
Standing near the on-deck circle at Fenway Park, Ripken was holding a bat in the typical photo-op pose — bat over shoulder, smiling for the camera. This time around, however, it was anything but typical. Written on the knob in black Sharpie was two words — fuck face — clearly scrawled for everyone to see.
At the time, Fleer was one of the oldest companies making baseball cards, with their first product dating back to the early 1920’s. Their 1989 set would go on to be one of their most legendary products, as it not only featured the ‘fuck face’ error but it also featured the coveted rookie card of Ken Griffey Junior.
As it was, Fleer was not as thorough as they probably should have been. According to Trading Card Database, there were 84 notable error/corrected cards in the set, most of which were easy oversights on player’s birthdays and statistics. Some, however, like ‘fuck face’, were more sinister. For instance, future Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson had his card printed numerous times to blur out a Marlboro advertisement over his shoulder.
Ripken’s card also had several versions printed, all of which, besides the original, blocking out the cuss word. Of course, with Fleer acting quickly to correct their error, the original ‘fuck face’ card was increasingly hard to find and became a lottery ticket among collectors. According to some old-school hobbyists, the original card was selling for upwards of $1,000 at the time.
Like any great scandal, though, the Ripken card was full of mystery.
Why did he even have that written on his bat?
At the time it came out, Billy Ripken spoke to Tim Kurkjan — working for the Baltimore Sun — telling him that he was “targeted by teammates”. He continued by saying that, “I know I’m a little off, but this is too far.”
Looking back almost thirty years, it’s brings to mind a Lance Armstrong or Rafael Palmeiro situation: a professional athlete unable to take responsibility for his actions. This is even more evident because as the years went by, his story changed.
On the card’s 20th anniversary, Ripken laid out the story in great detail to CNBC’s Darren Rovell, who you might recognize nowadays from his work at ESPN. All of the sudden, he remembered how the writing got on his bat…
“I got a dozen bats in front of my locker during the 1988 season. I pulled the bats out, model R161, and noticed — because of the grain patterns — that they were too heavy. But I decided I’d use one of them, at the very least, for my batting practice bat.
Now I had to write something on the bat. At Memorial Stadium, the bat room was not too close to the clubhouse, so I wanted to write something that I could find immediately if I looked up and it was 4:44 and I had to get out there on the field a minute later and not be late. There were five big grocery carts full of bats in there and if I wrote my number 3, it could be too confusing. So I wrote ‘F — k’ Face on it.
After the season was over, in early January, I got a call from our PR guy Rick Vaughn. He said, ‘Billy, we have a problem.’ And he told me what was written on the bat and I couldn’t believe it. I went to a store and saw the card and it all came back to me. We were in Fenway Park and I had just taken my first round of BP. I threw my bat to the third base side and strolled around the bases. When I was coming back, right before I got up to hit again, I remember a guy tapping me on the shoulder asking if he could take my picture. Never once did I think about it. I posed for the shot and he took it.
I tried to deflect it as much as I could. It was fairly easy to say that somebody got me with a joke because people think you’re the scum of the earth for doing something like this. The truth is that there’s a lot of words like that that are thrown around in the clubhouse. They just don’t get out there.
I can’t believe the people at Fleer couldn’t catch that. I mean, they certainly have to have enough proofreaders to see it. I think not only did they see it, they enhanced it. That writing on that bat is way too clear. I don’t write that neat. I think they knew that once they saw it, they could use the card to create an awful lot of stir.
I have no idea where that bat is today. If I were to guess, I would say it probably got lost after someone used it in a game. Probably a guy like Brady Anderson because he choked up so he could use a heavier bat.
Fleer sent me some of the cards out of the goodness of their heart. I autographed them and used them for my gifts to my groomsman in my wedding (which took place that offseason). I figured, at the time, it was better than giving them a set of cufflinks. I think I devalued the cards by signing them though.
When people recognize me, I see the look on their face. They think of the card immediately and, before they even ask, I say, ‘Yeah, it was me.’ I don’t know if it happens daily, but, to this day, it still happens a couple of times a week.”
In his 12-year career, Billy Ripken never really did anything notable. He never made an All-Star team, never reached the postseason, and never hit more than four home runs in a season. The closest he ever came to winning something was in 1990 when he led the league in sacrifice hits. Needless to say, his ‘fuck face’ card definitely defined his career, whether he is proud of it or not.
There is a really cool website dedicated solely to this card which you can find here.