Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Infamous Billy Ripken Card: Peeling the Onion

Famous in Oriole lore is the 1989 Fleer rookie card for Baltimore second baseman Billy Ripken. You know, because the phrase "FUCK FACE" was written on the knob of Ripken's bat. A couple of years ago, Bill Ripken told his side of the story to MSNBC. But the blog "Baseball Card Comes to Life!" has an interview with veteran Fleer photographer Steve Babineau...the man who took the picture.

Before we get to Steve, here's the history of the card. Tim Kurkjian, then at the Baltimore Sun talked to Billy Ripken and Fleer in 1989. Fleer's president Vincent Murray claimed that he hadn't seen the obscenity  before the card was released and that the company was doing all it could to correct the error immediately.

Ripken told Kurkjian he was angry and disappointed. "It appears I was targeted (by teammates)," Ripken told Kurkjian. "I know I'm kind of a jerk at times. I know I'm a little off. But this is going too far."

Fast forward to December, 2008. The story from Billy Ripken then:

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.

So with that background, here's Babineau's remembrance, where he explains how the obscenity was missed:

I shot the Billy Ripken card – it was definitely not intentional. I was at Fenway, and everyone is out there doing BP. Billy is the only one wearing a game uniform with the number in the front. Everyone else is wearing their orange BP top. For everyone else I would need to make sure there was an identifying marker like a glove, or I would take their picture as they walked away to get their uniform number. I didn’t have to magnify Ripken’s card because the number was clearly visible. In the past Fleer used to send us full color sheets, which we would use to check for reverse negatives and other problems with the picture. That year, to save money, they just sent us blueprints that were in three shades of blue. Your eyes don’t focus on something like that. After the card came out, my boss called me and told me to look at the knob of the bat. “Please tell me it says ‘slick face,’” he said to me. I had to look at it with the magnifying glass and tell him that that was not what it said.

The next year the first team I went to see at Spring Training was the Orioles, playing the Expos in West Palm Beach. I went up to Billy and he says “Thanks for making a nickel card into a thirty dollar card!” He told me he started using that bat as a BP bat on a road trip in Detroit or Cleveland before coming to Fenway. He said it was his brother that wrote that on his bat. I heard that he actually started signing that card for kids but had to stop.

So what really happened?

First, the story is waaaayy funnier if Cal wrote that on Billy's bat. Maybe that's why I want to believe it. It also makes a lot more sense than Billy's assertion that he wrote the the phrase on his bat to identify it among all the others. I mean, that's a lot of letters to have to write on the knob of the bat. He could have drawn a star or a circle or just written "BILL" on the knob of the bat for that matter. The effort to write an 8-letter phrase on that small space is only worth it if you're playing a prank on somebody. And Billy would only be motivated to cover up that story to protect the squeaky-clean image of his brother. Billy could cover for Brady Anderson or some other teammate but it is more unlikely that he would.

I also don't believe that Billy or the prankster meant for that phrase to end up on a baseball card. I'm sure that was just an unintended coincidence of a locker room joke that was never supposed to make it beyond the clubhouse.

I also believe Steve Babineau that the error was not intentional on Fleer's part. Fleer went under in 2005 so Babineau is not protecting anybody. If Fleer decided to issue the card after finding the obscenity or even highlight it, it would not hurt Babineau to reveal that fact now. Either it was missed honestly (and the story as to how it was missed seems plausible) or Babineau was not in the loop. My guess is that in 1989, the scandal probably did more harm than good to a company marketing baseball cards to kids.

So Cal Ripken, Jr. wrote the phrase on Billy's bat back in 1988 and everything that happened after was a peculiar series of mistakes. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

h/t to NotGraphs


C. Stone said...

Maybe I just like the tin foil hat version better, but I disagree with your sentiment that Fleer wouldn't highlight the phrase because they were marketing cards to kids. That was true for Topps in the '50s and '60s, but the only reason Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck were even in the business in the first place was because by the late-'80s ADULT collectors were snapping up boxes and boxes of product trying to pull Jose Canseco and other rookie cards that they knew (ha) would be worth hundreds years down the line, much like a 1952 Mantle.

DempseysArmy said...

True but they could have achieved the same demand for "rare" cards by doing a "scribble", then a "black box" with the scribble card being the rare card. They put out A LOT of those F***Face cards and the more I look at it, I don't think they had to highlight that card at all...looks like it was written on a piece of medical tape.