How would you want to be associated with the phrase “Fuck Face” for much of your professional career?
Billy Ripken had no choice in 1989 when baseball card company Fleer printed a card with him holding a bat that had that phrase clearly printed in ink on the nob. For Ripken he was just marking the bat with something unique so he could quickly identify it in a bat rack, but the coincidence of him being photographed after batting practice with that specific bat in his hands has resulted in a controversy that has lasted more than two decades.
“To this day,” Ripken told CNN recently, “[I am asked about that card] a couple of times a week.”
Despite employing proofreaders and fact checkers, baseball card companies like Fleer have been making mistakes since baseball cards first hit the market. In fact, the highest valued card in hobby history – the T206 featuring Hall of Famer Honus Wagner – was a result of a misunderstanding between the card company and the player. As few as between 60 and 200 cards were ever issued to the public, which is why the card has fetched as much as a $2.8 million in an auction. Wagner did not consent to having his likeness used in cards that were sold along with tobacco and cigarettes.
For many baseball card enthusiasts, Topps is the name in the hobby. when I was growing up, Topps was really all there was for cards. But even Topps made glaring mistakes.
In the 1957 Topps set, Hank Aaron, one of the best players in the game, was shown in his hitting stance on his card. The problem is that Aaron was right-handed and the Topps card showed him in a left-handed stance. The negative had been reversed in production. Sure, Aaron is wearing the block letter “M” cap of his Milwaukee Braves, which can be read the same reversed, but didn’t someone notice that his uniform #44 was backwards?
12 years later Topps made another famous boo-boo, this time with a less recognizable ballplayer. And that was the problem – Aurelio Rodriguez was such a young, unrecognizable professional ballplayer that the photographer misidentified him. When he snapped a photo of the guy he thought was Angels infielder Rodriguez, the photographer’s subject was actually bat boy Leonard Garcia, a teenager. Like the Aaron miscue, Topps was made aware of the mistake but did not correct it, which makes the cards less valuable. When a card is corrected, that results in variations in the market, and the rare card is always worth more.
You’d think the card companies would learn to ask their subjects what their name is, but they were still making embarrassing mistakes in the 1980s when Donruss issued a rookie card for Barry Bonds that actually showed a photo of his teammate, Johnny Ray. Bonds went on to a fantastic and controversial career, and within a few years it would be unimaginable that he would be incorrectly IDed.
Ripken’s infamous card was a result of an honest misunderstanding, but when Billy Martin posed for his card photo for a Topps photographer in the early 1970s he had mischief in mind. Then manager of the Detroit Tigers, Martin is shown leaning on a bat with his middle finger clearly extended. Accident? No. If there was one thing about Billy Martin it was that he knew what he was doing (when he was sober, at least). Martin was never disciplined for the action, but we can imagine what MLB offocials would do today if a manager or player gave baseball enthusiasts the finger.
Topps got some company in the 1980s when Fleer and Donruss hit a fast-growing baseball card scene. But the competition hasn’t necessarily increased quality. Errors still occur, though usually not as blatant as those reviewed here.
Are your boxes of baseball cards gathering dust in the attic or the corner of your closet? Dust them off and take them out, if not only to enjoy the game and bring back memories, but to find some of the errors they probably contain. Some of them might even be worth something.
Ripken’s ’89 card with the offensive remark on it is worth $5, while the card of his Hall of Fame brother Cal from the same set is worth only $1. Revenge of the little brother!