During a time period in which manufacturers were rushing to produce as many cards as possible to keep up with demand, it seems that Fleer became a bit careless with its Billy Ripken #616 card.
When one thinks of the ’80s, some of the cards that come to mind involve Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jerry Rice, among others. But among all these sports cards, there’s one that stands out from the crowd for the wrong reason: Bill Ripken’s 1989 Fleer baseball card.
The son of Cal Sr., once his manager, and the brother of Cal Jr., his teammate, was known more for his glove in a 12-year Major League Baseball career than for his bat. His batting average was .247 and he knocked in a total of 220 RBI. But in January of 1989, Billy Ripken, scheduled to be a five-cent common in the 1989 Fleer set, ignited the hobby already entering its prime with the debut of the very first Upper Deck set. Packs of Fleer hit hobby stores right after New Year's and, within two weeks, everyone had to have their hands on card No. 616, Billy Ripken.
It was the bat that he designated to use only in batting practice. It was the bat that had "F--K FACE" written on the knob, the obscenity in its full four-letter glory. Fleer's president Vincent Murray claimed that hadn't seen it before and that the company was doing all it could to correct the error immediately. Ripken at the time said he was "angry and disappointed."
As soon as word got out of Ripken’s troll-worthy card, dedicated and casual collectors alike were on the hunt for it. It even got to a point where ads were being placed on newspapers that signified interest to buy this sports card.
In such a short amount of time, Fleer was faced with pressure to do something about this fiasco. The card company was caught between a rock and a hard place because they had already sent out boxes of this product to countless shops across the United States. In response, they produced a new batch that covered the part of the card that contained the profanity.
As of the latest count, there are different variations to this new batch of corrected cards released by Fleer. Some have a black box on the said spot, while others have either the white or black scribble on it. Nevertheless, the genie was out of the lamp and there was nothing more Fleer could do to stop the rising legend of this card.
How the obscenity was carved into Bill Ripken’s bat
In an interview with CNBC Ripken stated he was the one who carved it in the bat. Here’s what happened: Bill noticed that the pile of bats outside his locker at Spring Training was a bit too heavy. But he decided to use them for batting practice. Bill needed to write something on one of his bats to make it easily identifiable. He wrote the famous phrase on his.
At Fenway Park later that season, a photographer asked to take Bill’s picture and he agreed, unknowingly holding the bat in question. According to Bill, it was an unintentional mistake on his part, and he couldn’t believe the picture made it onto his baseball card. He ultimately blamed Fleer:
“I mean, [Fleer] certainly have to have enough proofreaders to see it. I think not only did they see it, but they also 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.”
Ripken makes a great point. Ultimately, quality assurance falls to Fleer. The card was their product and therefore, their responsibility. They did not catch the gaffe, however, and it led to one of baseball’s most infamous cards.