It’s May 30, 1980, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Nashville Sounds are at Jim Crockett Memorial Park to take on the Charlotte O’s, the AA Minor-League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. Souvenir programs leading up to tonight’s Southern League contest have billed the game as “WBTV Baseball Card Nite.” Through a partnership with Charlotte’s WBTV Television, “all children 14 and under accompanied by an adult will receive a packet of cards with all the players and Pepper Girls,” the team’s uniformed hostesses.
The 28-card set was a first for the organization under the oversight of pioneering General Manager Frances Crockett. During her 12-year tenure, the O’s set attendance records and won the Southern League Championship in 1980 and 1984.
Baseball’s first female General Manager, Crockett was called a “Gem of a G.M.” in a 1982 Sports Illustrated feature. This was at a time when only two other women held the title of General Manager.
She was named Class AA Baseball Executive of the Year by the Sporting News, the first woman to win their award at any level. Rawlings honored her as the Outstanding Woman Executive of the Year. Twice. In 2006, the Charlotte Knights inducted Crockett to the Round Table of Honor, the Charlotte Baseball Hall of Fame. This past February, the Southern League announced that she would be part of their 2020 Hall of Fame Class.
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“1st Lady of Baseball”
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The daughter of legendary wrestling promoter “Big Jim” Crockett, Crockett used promotions as part of the game day experience. During her tenure as GM, the O’s hosted a variety of promotions including appearances from the San Diego Chicken, ostrich races, kazoo giveaway to form the “world’s biggest kazoo band,” and the world’s largest ice cream sundae. On “All Faith” days, families with a Church bulletin received $3 admission to Sunday contests. During the 1980 season, 32 of Charlotte’s scheduled 72 regular season home games had a scheduled promotion.
Of the 28 cards in the blue-bordered O’s baseball card set, 21 featured players. In addition to the Pepper Girls, there was a logo header card, a team photo, one featuring trainer Doc Cole and others featuring coach Minnie Mendoza, Manager Jimmy Williams, and clubhouse manager/traveling secretary Marshall Hester.
“I can’t recall if a photo shoot was done exclusively for the card set or whether the card photos came from the normal team photo shoot,” Hester told me back in 2006. “There was just one team photo shoot that I remember that season. It was before a game so I was in the dugout doing whatever and the manager, Jimmy Williams called me, ‘Marshall, you’re part of the team – get out here.’ I guess the photographer asked Jimmy if there was anyone else to shoot. I don’t know if the photographer wanted a final shot to finish out the roll, if they had this card set in mind and another shot was needed for the printer’s plate, or if Jimmy was just being nice. When the set was printed I was as surprised as anybody to be in it. Jimmy thought it was great.”
Cat Whitfield, an aspiring infielder in the Oriole system, was competing with fellow prospect Cal Ripken, Jr., for Charlotte’s starting shortstop position out of Spring Training in 1980. A player that successfully fielded 16 chances without an error on August 16, 1980, Whitfield’s only absence during the season from his duties at short came during his wedding and return to Charlotte over the dates of June 7-9.
“I remember joking with my best man at the wedding that ‘if the preacher starts dragging this out you’re going to have to do something to speed it up. I got to get back to Charlotte because Ripken’s playing shortstop’,” he recalled during a 2009 interview.
Whitfield also spoke about the photo shoot for the WBTV set: “I remember them saying they were going to do these cards. Who knew that they were going to end up being what they are today. We were going to put our uniforms on and take this team picture, take individual pictures and the Pepper Girls. I remember contemplating if I should wear my glasses or not. I thought that people always see me in them when I play so I’m going to wear them.”
The Leftover Sets
The combination of firsthand eyewitness reports, historical data, and modern population reports suggest that 40 years later, few sets have survived.
“The night the cards were given out either we had a sparse crowd or there was a distribution SNAFU because after the game there were hundreds and hundreds of unopened packs left around the concourse,” Hester recalled. “The GM wanted everything cleaned up that night before we left and that included these cards. I assume it was the GM because the souvenir manager had orders from higher up to get rid of the leftover cards. A grocery cart was always tucked in a storage room on the concourse. My kid brother, age 13 and my clubhouse rat, got the cart and we went up and down the concourse chunking the cards into the cart. It filled the entire cart, I know, because it was tough trying to push it to the dumpster. Into the dumpster the cards went and that was that. My brother may have stuck a set or two in his pocket but I didn’t take any. It was no big deal.”
Stuart Hester, Marshall’s younger brother, also remembered the night of May 30, 1980. “It was a sparse attendance that night,” Stuart said in a 2007 interview. “As a result, there was a large amount of promotional card sets left over. At the end of the night, the sets were gathered into a large grocery cart. The cart was overflowing and heavy and my help was needed to push the cart to the dumpster. I did manage to keep my one set.”
“The night they handed them out was no different from any other night,” Whitfield recalled. We were all aware that it was baseball card night. After the night was over there were several extra cases and Frances put them in the clubhouse. I grabbed like ten packs just to have it because I knew that I was always going to be where I could hand them out to my friends and my sister and my college team guys. I thought it was some neat thing that I could give away or add to the Christmas present that year. I literally gave them all away. No, I had to have taken more than ten because I remember opening at least four or five packs, pulling my card out, and throwing the rest of the cards away. Then, I would just send my card in a letter or Christmas card to friends to the point that my sister has a pack today that’s opened. My dad has a pack that’s opened and a pack that’s unopened. He brought the opened one to the ’80 reunion and got everybody to sign their card. So he has two packs. One unopened and one opened with signatures.”
Brooks Carey, who currently manages the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Frontier League, roomed with Ripken as they navigated their way through the Oriole Minor League system. Carey’s four-hit, 10-strikeout shutout of the Memphis Chicks in Game 4 of the 1980 Southern League Championship Series secured Charlotte’s first title. Carey, who was referenced more than anyone else in Ripken’s 1997 bestselling autobiography, “The Only Way I Know,” spoke about his memories pertaining to the WBTV set giveaway in a May 2020 interview.
“I was walking out of the stadium with Drungo Larue Hazewood and a couple of other players. I remember a grocery cart. There were a bunch of these cards that were being wheeled somewhere. I didn’t think anything of it. I said, ‘Well, we didn’t have enough people to give all the cards out to’ and then we went to our cars and went about our evening.”
Although some might question why hundreds of packs of trading cards would be thrown away, Carey feels that context is important.
“It was just a local card. We’re in Double A pro ball, and we see a set of cards and they are not the Topps card, which was the big card back then. A lot of guys just looked at them and said, ‘OK’ It was just a local set of cards for the. It was just a promotional card that Frances Ringley (Crockett) and the Charlotte O’s put out. That’s what these cards were. So we didn’t think it was anything more than that.”
On March 16, 1985, a three-alarm fire, later ruled arson, destroyed Crockett Park. Any production records related to the WBTV set were destroyed in “a blaze that left nothing but the poles” according to the Associated Press.
“All of our records burned in the fire,” Frances Crockett told SC Daily last week. “It’s hard to remember how many were ordered.” While others remembered the remaining card sets being wheeled to a dumpster in the ever present grocery card, she recalled that the WBTV sets were retrieved by former Jim Crockett Promotions wrestler and manager turned groundskeeper George “Two Ton” Harris the night of the giveaway and stored in her office closet at Crockett Park, but were lost in the fire. “Pictures and related documents in wrestling and baseball were in my office. They were totally destroyed.”
The Uncorrected Error
Whatever fate the remaining sets suffered, it seems clear they will remain rare—and pretty important. The set that featured the 1980 Southern League Champions included Ripken’s first baseball card, printed two years before he appeared on Topps, Fleer and Donruss cards as a major leaguer.
Not yet a household name, Ripken’s last name was spelled “Ripkin” on the back, although the front of the card has the correct spelling.
“This was the season that made me believe for the first time that I could play in the big leagues,” Cal said in a 2009 interview. “I had a full season in Charlotte and I really loved that town. I had a wonderful season there and a lot of great memories.” When asked about the moment of holding the 1980 WBTV issue, Cal said, “I remember that it was a thrill. I am guessing that the moment of your first trading card is a great feeling for any ballplayer and I certainly fell into that category. I guess it gave me the feeling that I was a professional athlete for the first time.”
Interestingly enough, if the Iron Man recalls correctly, he owns the biggest stash of his rarest baseball card. In the July 2007 Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, Kevin Haake asked Ripken if he ever actively collected his rookie card. “No, I never went looking for them, but I’ve got them all. The card I have the most quantity of is my 1980 Charlotte WBTV Minor League card. This was my first baseball card ever, so I was pretty excited. Somewhere, I’ve got a box full of those sets.”
On the two-year anniversary of the night of the WBTV set giveaway, Ripken took the field at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on May 30, 1982, against the Toronto Blue Jays. Although Cal would go 0-2 with a walk and strikeout, history would forever remember the contest as the first game of his record-breaking 2,632 consecutive games played streak. It was an early milestone in a career that ended with a 2007 Hall of Fame induction. The 98.53 selection percentage received by Ripken ranks sixth all-time.
Forty seasons after the night of the WBTV set giveaway, evidence from the game’s box score and modern population reports provide additional clues about the survival rate of the set with a reported production total of 1,400. The posted attendance from Crockett Park on May 30, 1980, was 2,036 for an O’s organization that averaged 2,757 per game during the season.
As of May 23, 2020, the “Big Three” of card grading (PSA/BGS/SGC) have certified a combined population of 88 Ripken 1980 WBTV Charlotte O’s trading cards (PSA-61 copies, BGS-20 copies, SGC-7 copies). The total population of 88 is an increase from the July 2, 2013, population of 46. It is worth noting that the current population report does not denote cards cracked from their slab, resubmitted, or sent it for crossover services.
To date, no WBTV Ripken has received a “Mint” 9 grade or higher, likely a testimony to the cellophane wrapping that housed each set. Of the 229 WBTV Charlotte O’s cards graded as of May 28, 2020, only a Willie Royster and Brooks Carey have the distinction of a Mint grade, both receiving a PSA 9.
Bill Haelig, nicknamed the “King of Cal-ectors” in Ripken’s autobiography, first became aware of Cal’s WBTV issue in 1984 through an article by the late Bob Lemke. The article, which appeared in the August 1984 issue of Baseball Cards Magazine, featured Cal’s blue-bordered Charlotte O’s card on the cover. “And really, fun is what minor league cards are all about. While it is true that some recent pre-rookie cards, like Cal Ripken, Jr., sell for $3-5, most are worth less now than they cost when new,” Lemke wrote on Page 32.
“This is the first time where the values of this card is discussed,” said Haelig. “Probably explains why I got the set for $6 a couple months later.”
Today, you’ll pay quite a bit more. According to Ripken Jr. supercollector, hobby enthusiast and operator of the “Ripken Rookies” Facebook page, Edwin Anderson, sales prices of the card in the last 12 months have included $9,600 and $4,080 for a pair of PSA 8s and $2,125 for a lower grade card signed by Ripken. Even a graded VG example reached $1,485.
Haelig feels the set has secured its place in collecting history.
“Let’s face it in 1980, the card collecting boom had not yet taken off and since these were cards printed on cheap stock, with the majority of the players being 20-22 year old Minor League players, it’s amazing that any quantity of them were saved by kids at the time,” said Haelig. “Even if one chooses not to believe that a grocery cart full of these sets were thrown away after the game, Crockett Park then literally burned to the ground in the spring of 1985. What’s amazing to me is that it’s now 40 years later and not one ‘find’ of any quantity of these card sets has yet to surface.”