Foul Tip

The late 1980s were a great time to collect baseball cards. In 1989, a company named Upper Deck debuted their set, with the first card, numerically, that of a star rookie: Ken Griffey, Jr. Immediately, that card became popular; that popularity has endured. To date, it’s still worth in the $50 to $100 range.

But as cards go — even cards from 1989 — the Griffey rookie isn’t the most famous. That honor goes to Billy Ripken’s Fleer card, colloquially known as the “F*ck Face” card — because he wrote it on the heel of his bat (seen above). When the colorful language came to light — well after the cards had made their way into stores — Fleer, understandably, flipped out. They created a number of “correction” cards: one with the text scribbled out, another with the text erased via white-out, and finally, one with a black box covering the offending words. Each of these, due to their relative rarity, is worth different amounts, with one of the white-out versions fetching over $100 from collectors.

How does a mistake like this happen? It’s not a great conspiracy, unfortunately. Most likely, it’s just a lot of minor oversights. 

Ripken, the brother of superstar Cal Ripken, Jr., was taking batting practice at Fenway Park in Boston right before the picture was taken. He himself scrawled the words on the bat, as a way to clearly mark the bat as his — he wanted to have a way of quickly identifying his batting practice bat as often, as one’s window to get onto the field to take practice swings was short. (Ballplayers also often use heavier bats in practice, in order to make in-game swings seem easier — that’s why you sometimes see players putting weights on their bats.) As he left the field, a photographer asked him to pose for a picture; he tossed the bat over his shoulder and obliged.

The photographer claims he never noticed the words until the cards were in the stores. The necessary elements of the shot — the ballplayer and his uniform number — were obvious, so there was no need to magnify the image. Fleer, claims the photog, was in cost-cutting mode and did not send him full-color proofs or negatives. In normal circumstances, he believes he would have caught the error.

But his mistake is our gain. News of the expletive-laden bat handle spread quickly, even in the pre-Internet world, and many of the “F*ck Face” cards still exist today. If you want one, great news — they regularly sell on eBay for only about $25

Bonus fact: Billy Ripkin, briefly, played on the same pro team as his brother and also, with his father. The photograph for the card above was taken during the 1988 baseball season, a season during which Billy Ripken played 150 games (mostly at second base) and his older brother Cal all 161 (at shortstop).  The Orioles set a record that season — the longest losing streak to start a season. The team lost their first 21 games of 1988, and their manager was fired a mere six games in.  The manager?  Cal Ripken, Sr.

From the Archives: Superstitious Superstar: The odd rituals of one of baseball’s Hall of Famers.

Related: The card in question, replete with obscenity, for about $30.  Or, for under $10, the censored version.