Donovan Ryan was a kid in 1989, hooked by the scandalous controversy over the obscenity on the bottom of Bill Ripken’s bat in the now-famous 1989 Fleer card. It was definitely a word not to be used at the dinner table and for millions of kids his age, it only fueled an interest in baseball cards that had been gaining steam for a couple of years.
Early on, the card was selling for hundreds of dollars as speculators jumped in on the resulting frenzy caused by national media interest. Ryan couldn’t afford one then, but these days–with the card still a curiosity but no longer a wallet-buster– he’s made it one of his hobby passions.
Ryan is not out to acquire every single one with the infamous “F” word phrase. He’s convinced the truth about the card is still out there and he knows there are more than the five versions commonly cited in price guides.
“Three years ago I stumbled upon a white proof that later was found to be just a missing ink variation,” said the California resident. “That card reminded me of the famous error I could not afford as a kid in 1989 so the mission began.”
“Slowly I discovered variations not listed by Beckett or any other source. I
dug deeper. Ryan Wehn and Jon Pederson,two other collectors with the same interest and motivation in the FF master set goal, were also a part of it. We started asking veteran collectors whose names we found in old magazines and asked on the internet anyone who seemed like they might know something. Since then we have confirmed over twice the number of versions as Beckett lists and have heard of others.”
Ryan even started a website, www.BillRipken.com, where he shows the variations he’s discovered.
Currently, the obscene version sells for between $5-10 on eBay.
In their quest, Ryan and the other Ripken investigators have searched for the truth about whether the “error” was intentional.
The general concensus has been Ripken was the victim of a joke by teammates and that Fleer’s proofreaders simply missed the obscene phrase. Others speculate that it was intentionally done by Fleer to boost sales and hopefully recover from the poor 1988 results.
“One collector wrote me saying he had received a forwarded e-mail from a Fleer executive stating it was indeed intentional but I have not been able to prove that’s true,” Ryan said.
He and his group have also discovered some facts including:
- The estimated print run. “Fleer printed for two weeks before stopping. Based on previous print runs Beckett estimated in 1989, 80-100,000 of the FF were released. Not rare by any means.”
- The Black Box variation was also not rare having been double printed on full 132-card sheets.
- The whiteout can easily be faked. “I have bought three copies on the internet that were forged. I stopped one seller from selling these after a long battle.
- It’s believed Fleer employed someone to make a small cut into the card to mark them so they would be pulled before distribution. The cuts vary in placement and length.
Vintage collectors may scoff, but it’s this kind of card that helps define a 20-something generation’s memories of a childhood hobby.
“It brings us a unique feeling of satisfaction that today’s cards do not bring us,” Ryan explains. “The discoveries we make and the fellow collectors we aid, helped bring back our interest in the hobby.”
Click here to see 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken cards for sale on eBay.