You’re familiar with the numbers he’s known for. Nineteen All-Star games, two MVP awards. Over 3,000 hits and more than 400 homers. Oh, and there was the streak. On September 6, 1995, Cal broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak record. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with the third highest selection percentage in history. His rookie cards are among the few from the 1980’s worth more today than they were 20 years ago. Before all that, though, there were Cal Ripken minor league cards.
In the hobby, supply and demand is key. Ripken related collectibles have brought steady prices during his career and after retirement due to steady demand. When an item is scarce, Ripken related items bring large premiums. Over the past several weeks, the minor league cards created of the Iron Man have been bringing about such premiums, with prices ranging from $2,499 to a remarkable $6,500.
During the 1980 season, Ripken played for the AA Charlotte O’s of the Southern League. Cal helped the O’s with his offense (.276-25-78) and defense (Southern League leader at third base with a .933 fielding percentage). Cal and the O’s defeated the Memphis Chicks to win the 1980 Southern League Championship. He was a 1980 Southern League All-Star and was given the opportunity to play in the Caribbean Winter League. In winter ball, he would earn the first of two consecutive Team MVP Awards with Caugas.
In February 2009, I had the honor of interviewing Cal for the first time. In the interview, Cal had the following to say about his time in Charlotte:
“This was the season that made me believe for the first time that I could play in the big leagues. I had a full season in Charlotte and I really loved that town. I returned there recently for a fundraiser and it was great to be back. I had a wonderful season there and a lot of great memories.”
During the 1980 season, Cal’s first professional trading card was produced. On May 30, 1980, exactly two years to the day before “The Streak” began, a blue-bordered 28-set sponsored by WBTV of Charlotte was given out to fans 14 and under at Crockett Park, the home of the Charlotte O’s.
Marshall Hester was the Traveling Secretary for the 1980 Charlotte O’s. As a 24 year old, Marshall ran the home clubhouse and helped the club on road trips. To his surprise, he was included in the 1980 WBTV set.
“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 said. “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. What a wonderful man, Jimmy Williams. He treated me with the same interest and respect as any of the players. He liked it because I stood at attention during the National Anthem (a holdover from my Naval Reserve time). I don’t know if the photographer wanted a final shot to finish out the roll, or 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. I got out there quick and was being ribbed by all of the players off-camera because by then it was a month or two into the season and I was one of the guys getting in trouble with them and sharing every ball players interest in girls, cars, spitting and more girls. When the set was printed I was as surprised as anybody to be in it. Jimmy thought it was great.”
The 28-card shrink-wrapped set had a production run of 1,400 sets. However, first hand accounts would indicate that far fewer than 1,400 sets are available today thanks in part to a grocery cart and a dumpster. 33 years later, Marshall vividly remembers the night of May 30, 1980:
“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,” he 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.”
Marshall’s “kid brother” is Stuart Hester. An 8th grader at the time, Stuart assisted his brother in the season preparations and the day-to-day responsibilities of running a clubhouse in professional baseball. Stuart also remembers the night of May 30, 1980.
“It was a sparse attendance that night. 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.”
Robert “Cat” Whitfield beat out Cal for shortstop position for the 1980 Charlotte O’s. A member of the Alderson-Broaddus Baseball Hall of Fame, Whitfield handled 16 chances at shortstop without an error on August 15, 1980. Whitfield was so good, the only time Cal saw action at shortstop was when Cat got married during the 1980 season. Cat joked with his 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 is playing shortstop.”
Cat Whitfield also appears in the 1980 WBTV Charlotte O’s set. Cat remembers the post game clubhouse on the night of May 30, 1980:
“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.”
Cal remembers his first trading card. In the July 2007 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, Kevin Haake, Associate Editor of the publication, interviewed Ripken who told them at the time he didn’t chase them down. “No, I never went looking for them,” Ripken said. “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.”
Cal’s name was misspelled “Ripkin” on the back of the card. In February 2010, I had the opportunity to ask Cal if he was disappointed with the error. “I am sure that I was at the time,” he told em. “But looking back it doesn’t bother me in the least.”
The 1980 Charlotte O’s WBTV set brings strong premiums. It is for this reason that Cal’s WBTV carries the most need for caution due to counterfeits on the market. During June 2013, Cal’s WBTV cards saw huge spikes in premiums:
June 6: PSA 6 WBTV – $2,499 (Ebay Buy It Now)
June 11: PSA 6 WBTV – $3,499 (Ebay Buy It Now)
June 14: SGC 40 WBTV – $3,231.25 ($2,750 plus commission, Huggins and Scott)
June 30: PSA 6 WBTV with the rest of the team set – $4,500 (Ebay)
The hot sales continued to the month of July. On July 13, a 1980 WBTV graded SGC 80 sold for $3,500 (Ebay Buy It Now).
Population reports from the “big three” of grading (BGS, PSA, SGC) would suggest that far fewer than 1,400 sets are available. As of July 2, 2013, the three grading services had slabbed a combined total of 46 copies.
BGS: 9 copies
PSA: 34 copies
SGC: 3 copies
Unbeknownst to Cal, his second trading card was also produced during the 1980 season. This card, sponsored by the Charlotte Police Department, featured a design similar to its WBTV counterpart with some exceptions: The Charlotte O’s Police card featured an orange border and did not include the WBTV logo. In addition, the back of the Police card included crime prevention and baseball tips. The 1980 Charlotte O’s Police cards were never collated in set form. During the summer of 1980, Officers from the Charlotte Police Department gave one or two cards out at a time to young people of the Charlotte area.
Cal’s 1980 Charlotte Police card, considered Cal’s “Holy Grail”, is extremely rare. As of July 2, 2013, the “big three” of grading (BGS, PSA, SGC), have only slabbed 21 copies of Cal’s orange bordered Charlotte O’s Police card:
BGS: 3 copies
PSA: 14 copies
SGC: 4 copies
To put the scarcity in perspective, the T206 Honus Wagner, often referred to as “The Card”, has a population of 47 copies as of the July 2, 2013, PSA and SGC Population Reports.
During June 2013, Cal’s 1980 Charlotte O’s Police cards brought high prices in two Ebay Buy it Now listing appearances.
June 11: PSA 2 Charlotte Police – $2,499
June 30: PSA 5 Charlotte Police with 17 singles from the 1980 Charlotte Police set – $6,500
Update: Since December 2013, prices have continued to climb with these recorded sales:
December 2013: PSA 5 (eBay) – $15,000.00
February 2014: BVG 8 (Huggins and Scott) – $22,515.00
March 2014: PSA 2 (eBay) – $6,100.00
Collectors familiar with Cal’s minor league cards are not surprised by the sales data. Collectors unfamiliar with Cal’s minor league issues might be some confused as to how cards produced in 1980 can be bringing such high final prices.
Baltimore Orioles fan James Feagin is Head Writer for Huggins & Scott Auctions. His love affair for the Orioles began in 1984 as an eight year old when his family moved from California to Maryland. When Eddie Murray was traded in 1988, Ripken became his new focus. As the 1990s wore on and “The Streak” came into prominence, Ripken became the focal point of his collecting endeavors. After a serious seven-year search, James acquired a 1980 Charlotte O’s Police Cal Ripken, Jr.
As head writer at Huggins and Scott Auctions, Feagin personally sees millions of cards come through the auction house every year. As a person who sees hobby treasures come and go on a regular basis, James was asked to describe where he feels that Cal’s minor league cards rank in the hobby.
“I’ve handled several thousand T206 cards, dozens of Mantle rookies, countless 1950s-1960s Topps and Bowman cards and even more modern collections. With the proliferation of internet retail sites and auction houses, savvy hobbyists are becoming more wise as to what is really scarce,” said Feagin. “However, it’s equally important to note that rarity is not what entirely dictates the desirability of an item. Sometimes, the only thing rarer than an item is a buyer for it. During my seven years with Huggins & Scott, I have handled less than a half dozen blue border (WBTV) and exactly zero orange border (Police) Charlotte Ripken cards. It is the perfect storm for price escalation being that 1) Cal Ripken is a baseball icon and the overwhelming majority of his collectors have never seen, let alone secured copies of his Charlotte cards; 2) these sets were not manufactured by a major company with artificial print runs and 3) valuable research from websites such as ripkenintheminors have created a story or point of time which further fuels desirability in these cards. It is also important to note that Baltimore is a major hub in the sports card industry and advanced Orioles collectors are more apt to pay a substantial premium for ‘one of their own’. Ripken wasn’t a vagabond like Henderson and that also helps drive sales.”
Bill Haelig is well known in hobby circles as having the most comprehensive collection of Ripken cards and memorabilia in the country. A long time Baltimore Orioles fan and collector, Bill works directly with Cal through Ironclad Authentics. Sports Illustrated named Bill as the “Iron Man of Cal Collectors” in its commemorative “2131” edition. Bill picked up his first WBTV set in 1985 for $10. When he learned, shortly thereafter, that the orange Charlotte O’s Police card existed it took another two years to track one down.
Although information about the 1980 Charlotte issues is more accessible than ever before, Bill feels that the hobby continues to overlook the scarcity. Bill also thinks that the unique circumstances surrounding the distribution of the cards have been overlooked.
“You have the Blue WBTV cards that were given away to kids one evening at Crockett Park in May of 1980, with first hand accounts of many of these complete sets never getting in the hands of children, compounded with the devastating fire that completely destroyed this stadium in 1985,” Haelig explained. “In addition, the orange cards that were never collated as a set, but were to given to kids by the Charlotte Police Department. All of these years later, less than 50 examples of the Charlotte Police Ripken can be accounted for. All of this makes these cards SO much more intriguing. Tell me one other minor league card set in the last 35 years that can compete with this set of circumstances, coupled with the fact that one of the players in that set would eventually become an iconic Hall of Fame player?”
If current trends are a sign of things to come, the minor league cards of Cal Ripken, Jr., will only continue to be a focal point of hobby discussions.
Charlotte O’s Cal Ripken cards can sometimes be found via this link.