In 1989, there was a baseball card with a swear word on it. This was a big deal.
It had to have been a neighborhood kid who told me about the Bill Ripken card. I should still remember where I was, who I was with, what the weather was like, but I don’t, so I’ll have to assume. It was the older kid, the one whose parents let him watch HBO whenever he wanted to. There’s no sense worrying about how he knew a card like this existed; he always knew.
There was a swear word on one of the new baseball cards, he said. Clear as day. The F-word. Right on the front of Bill Ripken’s 1989 Fleer card.
I couldn’t have believed him. I was always falling for his pranks, always dumb enough to trust him, but this would have been too much. A swear word on a baseball card? That would have been the most lurid event that had ever touched my life, which, in retrospect, is a pretty good way to explain how safe and uncomplicated my childhood was. There was no way this was real. A swear word — one of the worst ones! — on a baseball card, something that formed the foundation of my middle school’s economy. Get out of here.
It had to have been a card show when I saw it for the first time. It’s not like “Beckett’s” was running pictures of it on the front cover. No, it had to have been in lucite, behind a glass case, on top of a folding table, with a grumpy mustachioed dude on the other side watching my every move. I stared at the swear card behind several layers of protection, as if it needed to be protected from me. As if the most dangerous part wasn’t shooting into my eyeballs at the speed of light.
No, but seriously, the card had “FUCK FACE” right on the front. Just look at it:
That’s my own card in that picture, and I’ll tell you how I got it: One day, my mom read yet another article about this card — in a regular newspaper — and thought, “That’s it. We need to have one of these. As an investment.” (Please read more about my mom’s no-risk investment strategies here.) So while I don’t remember hearing about or seeing the card for the first time, I most definitely remember my mom taking me to a card show and plunking down money she didn’t really have for the swear card. I was 11, the same age as my oldest daughter, which really puts it into perspective for me. For the purposes of science, I’m going to burst into the room tomorrow and exclaim, “C’mon, sweetie, put your shoes on, we’re going to get the ‘Fuck Face’ card,” just to see what her reaction will be. Again, this is for science.
The card is 30 years old this year, which means that I have an excuse to dig into the history of it. The incredibly dumb, incredibly ‘80s history of a baseball card with a swear word on it. One of the worst ones!
The Ripken card was a lasting phenomenon, not just a mere fad. This was a milestone of the baseball card industry, the most important relic of our times. It definitely wasn’t just a piece of cardboard with a four-letter word on it that would fade away along with the entire hobby.
(NOTE: It was absolutely just a piece of cardboard with a four-letter word on it that would fade away along with the entire hobby.)
The worst part is that this all made sense at the time. This was, perhaps, the peak of Big, Dumb Baseball Card Collecting, when major newspapers ran weekly columns on card collecting, huge convention centers were reliably teeming with collectors, and people had completely lost sight of why baseball cards were fun in the first place. One of the most popular cards that year was a Dale Murphy Upper Deck card where the negative was reversed on the card. The more I turn that sentence around in my head, the more it reads like a scrapped “Simpsons” gag. The picture, kids, was reversed. Can you even imagine?
People flipped out for the Ripken card. Just go through the classified ads in the newspapers back then. Here’s the Baltimore Sun:
That wasn’t all of them; that was just the longest unbroken streak of Ripken ads on a randomly selected day. All of these people had to call the newspaper, dictate their ad, and pay money. Then they waited by the phone or checked their messages, hoping to get a call, after which they would arrange to meet someone in person to exchange a piece of cardboard with a swear word on it for cash.
Shout out to the guy asking $200, which is roughly equivalent to $400 in today’s money. It’s like Churchill said: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Error cards were a perfect subgenre of the hobby, considering it was all artificial scarcity that didn’t hold up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. Who cares if Al Leiter really isn’t the player on his rookie card? Why do you want a Frank Thomas card that doesn’t have his name on it?
Because it’s rare.
Yeah, but why do you want it?
Because it’s rare.
But how does having Frank Thomas card without the words “Frank Thomas” on it improve your life?
Because it’s rare.
What I hold in my hand is a fingernail. It is my fingernail, chewed off by my own teeth, and there isn’t another one like it in the world. The starting price is $40.
The starting price is $40.
Lemme see that.
Error cards were a thing, with collectors scouring through every new set, looking for fresh ones. Here’s an entire Chicago Tribune article on the trend. This was the year when it was discovered that a standard eraser could take the text off an Upper Deck card, and I may or may not have spent a lot of time trying to convince friends to trade for an Oddibe McDowell with the name rubbed away. An error so rare, it doesn’t even appear in the price guide yet. C’mon, gimme that Mattingly rookie for it.
It’s in this context that the Ripken card came out, so it pushed all the right buttons. It wasn’t just a reversed negative; there was a danged swear right on the danged card. What was Fleer going to do about this? Stop production immediately, of course. Reissue corrected cards. Shops were already starting to forbid sales of packs to minors, and Major League Baseball was ticked, so there was a legitimate PR crisis for a company that was very much not used to the attention. Was there going to be some sort of buyback program? Were cards going to be destroyed?
Instead, Fleer’s response was to make a whole bunch of new error cards. Check this GIF made for the delightful time capsule of a website that is BillRipken.com:
There’s the scribble, the circle scribble, the white scribble, the black box, the black box (rounded left edge), the black box (square left edge) … so many variations that even the website devoted to the card gave up.
Other (versions within versions within versions):
1. Black Box w/ Print Dot(s) – Dots on the Box
2. F-Face w/ ‘Bulls Eye’ Red/Yellow Print Dot
3. F-Face w/ Vertical Yellow Print Line
4. F-Face w/ Various Print Defects (front & back)
5. F-Face w/ Blank Front
6. F-Face w/ Blank Front & B/W back
7. F-Face Progressive Proofs (missing ink)
8. Too many more to list…..
The most valuable version was supposed to be the one with white-out manually applied to the card by Fleer employees, even though 30 years later, nobody is really sure if this story is legitimate, or just apocryphal. This was supposed to be the rarest variation, to be sure. But it turns out that any dingus with correctional fluid can make his or her own version, so it’s almost impossible to tell the frauds from the actual versions. If actual versions exist.
Sales of packs, boxes, and cases of Fleer cards went through the roof, with card shops jacking up prices to meet demand. It’s almost as if … it’s almost as if … it’s almost as if this was an intentional mistake, created at the height of Big, Dumb Baseball Card Collecting. But that couldn’t be, right?
Bill Ripken thought so. The first major newspaper article about the card was from Tim Kurkjian in the Baltimore Sun, and it included this quote from Ripken:
I don’t see how it got through them [Fleer] unless they wanted it to.
I spoke with someone familiar with the baseball card production process in the ‘80s, and that process would have gone something like this:
- Picture taken
- Picture developed
- Picture selected (out of pool featuring several options for each player)
- Picture airbrushed (if needed)
- Mock-up of card put on a flex board (with dozens, if not hundreds, of cards from the same set)
- Notes typed out for each card
- Adjustments made
- Final proofs sent to the printer
I wasn’t able to talk to someone who was working with Fleer at the time, so this might not be the exact process the Ripken card went through, but the overall point is that there were almost certainly a lot of eyeballs focused on the Fuck Face picture before it was a card.
Yet that doesn’t mean it was intentional. For 30 years, I’ve believed in my heart of hearts that this was an intentional error, something to drum up business, but now that I’m thinking about one Bill Ripken card — not magnified — on a flex board with hundreds of other cards, I can see how a detail like this gets missed. It’s like trying to count the number of basketball passes. Nobody is expecting a curse word on the knob of the bat.
Counterpoint: There has never been a card with a baseball player’s zipper down. Statistically, that should have happened by now. They’re vigilant enough to look for the zipper. They should probably have been vigilant enough to read every word on every picture, just in case.
I started writing this as someone who believed in the false flag. Now I’m not so sure.
Bill Ripken hates this card.
Ripken talked to Darren Rovell about it a decade ago, but he’s not a fan of being associated with it. It’s almost as if he wished on a monkey paw to stop being known as Cal Ripken, Jr.’s brother, and the finger curled shut. Oh, no, you won’t be known for being your brother’s brother, don’t you worry.
On the one hand, I get it. Do you know how hard it is to make the major leagues? Even if your dad is the manager and your brother is the superstar, it’s incredibly hard. There’s a baseline level of talent that I can’t fathom. At any point of his major league career, Bill Ripken could have walked onto a D-I field and completely dominated against players who were born and bred to play baseball at a ludicrously high level. It was his life, something he spent thousands and thousands of grueling hours practicing and training for. And now he’s known for a bad word? That’s after years of being known as the brother of one of the biggest legends ever to play the sport. Screw that.
On the other hand, the card is extremely rad, and I don’t understand running from it. There are hundreds of thousands of baseball cards in the world. One of them has “Fuck Face” on the front. That is amazing, and I’m extremely jealous.
A year after this card came out, it was still a hot commodity. From the Baltimore Sun, Dec. 17, 1989:
The lede includes the words, “Although many people still are so disgusted by the card that they are blinded by the impact it has had …”, and it pivots to the popularity of error cards in the industry.
And then it all collapsed.
Not just the value of the Ripken card, but the entire industry. Nobody cared. Imagine a card with a swear word on it today. A superstar who woke up after a night of drinking with Sharpied phalluses all over his face, ready for his closeup, with the resulting picture printed up into a physical form and delivered to children. That would occupy six or seven hours of our attention today. Maybe eight!
Thirty years ago, it was a big deal, perhaps the biggest, for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was a furor that caused my mom to grab her 11-year-old in one hand and her pocketbook in another. It was on local news broadcasts and in national newspapers. Bill Ripken’s baseball card had a swear on it, and nothing was going to be the same.
If you can think of a better metaphor for the baseball card industry actively pushing the children aside to make more money, I’d like to hear it. This was just before I wandered away from baseball cards, never to return, and there’s at least a tiny part of this whole ordeal that whispered, “This stuff ain’t for you, kid. Scram” into my ear.
Still, it’s either the highlight of the Big, Dumb Baseball Card Boom or the lowlight, unless it’s both at the same time. There was a swear word on a baseball card, and for a few months, everyone went wild for it. Thirty years later, we’re still talking about it. It was a transformative moment for anyone young enough to be in the generation that was sufficiently shocked and awed by it. We didn’t have phones to pull out of our pockets to watch Logan Paul giggle and search for corpses in Japan. We had the Fuck Face card.
Bless that Fuck Face card. As I walked through the parking lot of the convention center, with my dad (played by Dan Lauria) tousling my hair and my brother (Jason Hervey) punching my arm, I realized the day that I held that Bill Ripken card was the day I lost my innocence. Unless it was just the day that my mom lost $50.