Billy Ripken, a former Detroit Tigers infielder (’98) with a .247 career batting average, might well hit cleanup for the Tigers if he were playing today. But his 12-year career was markedly underwhelming in the eyes of baseball historians.
Many people know of Cal Ripken Jr., a Hall of Fame baseball player famously known as “The Iron Man” for his streak of playing in 2,632 consecutive games. I have a striking suspicion, however, that far fewer fans are familiar with his younger brother
Billy, the star, and culprit, behind the most controversially obscene moment in sports card history.
Admittedly, I have no idea what the 58-year-old Billy Ripken was like as a boy. But I imagine if my father shared his name with my older brother and not me, I would have been a trouble-maker. I certainly would have taken every opportunity to remind my Hall-of-Fame brother that my 1989 trading card was more valuable than his.
We do know Billy is remembered as the clubhouse prankster, a joker, and someone who would routinely stumble up the dugout stairs seconds before the first pitch.
In 1988, when the young infielder was a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he received a Spring Training shipment of defective bats. The carved lumber was too heavy to use legally in a real game, but Ripken deemed the wood good enough to keep for batting practice dingers. As many players did, Billy needed to write something on each of his bats to make them easily identifiable.
Most choose to inscribe their initials on the knobs of their bats. But not Billy.
Later that season when the Orioles were playing the Red Sox at Fenway Park, Billy Ripken woke up from his pregame nap minutes before batting practice was to begin. He pulled himself together, ran through the tunnel and up to the dugout, swiped one of his bats from the clubhouse cart, and joined the team on the diamond with seconds to spare.
Despite his flustered demeanor, a credentialed photographer politely asked to snap Billy’s picture, something that was not uncommon on the field during batting practice. Billy smirked, posed with the bat over his right shoulder, and moved on, never thinking anything of it.
Months later, when sports card company, Fleer, released its 1989 Baseball set, a dirty dialogue detonated in the center of a hobby.
What was initially planned as a 5-cent insert, Billy Ripken’s #616 card shown below, immediately garnered the attention of collectors, hobbyists, and prepubescent kids alike.
If you look closely, you’ll notice the words “F*CK FACE” inscribed at the knob of the bat.
Billy Ripken never realized the photographer who so politely poked him was from the Fleer sports card company. And who would have thought the photographer, and the numerous proofreaders at Fleer, would fail to catch the profanity before releasing the entire set? Or did Fleer know exactly what it was doing when it released the naughty card? Many conspiracy theorists claim Fleer may have even enhanced the text to make it appear clearer.
The backlash Fleer received was heavy, but the error created a stir around their cards more than anything the company had ever experienced. In a bind after it had already distributed thousands of boxes of the product to card shops around the country, Fleer decided to release new sets, updated to show the error scribbled out in various ways.
In fact, many collectors now seek out ownership of the entire set of Billy Ripken “error cards” produced that year. These days, it could cost a pretty penny to complete such a goal at the highest graded level (PSA 10). Below are the cards and their current values:
Original Error Card – Ungraded (“raw”)
Most recent public sale = $28.49 on October 19, 2022
Original “FF Error” Card – Graded PSA 10
Total graded population = 9,726
PSA 10 population = 2,169
Most recent public sale = $355.00 on October 19, 2022
“Black Scribble Over Error” – Graded PSA 10
Total graded population = 1,097
PSA 10 population = 222
Most recent public sale = $425.00 on September 21, 2022
“Black Box Over Error” – Graded PSA 10
Total graded population = 2,774
PSA 10 population = 883
Most recent public sale = $53.99 on October 1, 2022
“Whited Out Vulgarity” – Graded PSA 10
Total graded population = 139
PSA 10 population = 16
Most recent public sale = $1,166 on December 8, 2018
“Scribbled Out In White” – PSA 10
Total graded population = 103
PSA 10 population = 14
Most recent public sale = $2,250 on August 29, 2022
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