When I first started working at Topps, a little over four years ago, I was convinced that I’d be fired or laid off immediately. It just didn’t seem like a place I’d work very long. The office was dusty and filled with Ring Pops and desperation, everyone always seemed kind of sick, I didn’t know how to do anything pertaining to my job, and I also usually get fired or laid off pretty quickly, if it’s coming. (It wasn’t, and I lasted a respectable 20 months before layoffs came) But I wanted to ask the place’s resident sages one question before HR came up to my cubicle and told me there’d been a terrible mistake and I had to leave immediately and no, I couldn’t keep that pack of Bowman.
I asked the veteran guys — Butch and Frank, who’d been there for over 40 years between them — about the Bill Ripken Fuck Face card. Which I know was made by Fleer, but which still stands as one of the most inexplicable elements of my card-obsessed youth: a random common card with a crude and obvious profanity right freaking there for anyone to see, which nonetheless was smuggled into my local card store (and consciousness) with seemingly no one noticing anywhere along the line. Or — and this is what I asked the Topps guys — might it have been intentional on Fleer’s part? Some weird desperate buzz-grab from an industry also-ran? Someone there with a bone to pick with Billy Ripken? (The concept of lesser-Ripken beef is as unthinkable and amusing to me now as it was when I was 10)
They didn’t know, really. I guess I was hoping for some implausible 20-minute explain-it-all monologue like Donald Sutherland delivered in JFK — that is, I wanted the story behind the Fuck Face card to involve LBJ and Cubans; I have high standards for this sort of stuff — but they had nothing. Other than that copy-editing and proofreading came weirdly late to the industry, which maybe wasn’t that surprising considering all the dust and desperation and such. And anyway, no one knew how the Fuck Face card happened. For 20 years, no one knew. That’s why — and I am aware that what follows this parenthetical is ridiculous — it was a big deal for me to see that CNBC’s Darren Rovell had gotten Billy Ripken on the record about the card. There…are no Cubans, and LBJ’s involvement is limited. But here’s how it happened:
“I got a dozen bats in front of my locker during the 1988 season. I pulled the bats out, model R161, and noticed–because of the grain patterns–that they were too heavy. But I decided I’d use one of them, at the very least, for my batting practice bat.”
“Now I had to write something on the bat. At Memorial Stadium, the bat room was not too close to the clubhouse, so I wanted to write something that I could find immediately if I looked up and it was 4:44 and I had to get out there on the field a minute later and not be late. There were five big grocery carts full of bats in there and if I wrote my number 3, it could be too confusing. So I wrote ‘F–k’ Face on it.”
“After the season was over, in early January, I got a call from our PR guy Rick Vaughn. He said, ‘Billy, we have a problem.’ And he told me what was written on the bat and I couldn’t believe it. I went to a store and saw the card and it all came back to me. We were in Fenway Park and I had just taken my first round of BP. I threw my bat to the third base side and strolled around the bases. When I was coming back, right before I got up to hit again, I remember a guy tapping me on the shoulder asking if he could take my picture. Never once did I think about it. I posed for the shot and he took it…
“I have no idea where that bat is today. If I were to guess, I would say it probably got lost after someone used it in a game. Probably a guy like Brady Anderson because he choked up so he could use a heavier bat.”
“Fleer sent me some of the cards out of the goodness of their heart. I autographed them and used them for my gifts to my groomsman in my wedding (which took place that offseason). I figured, at the time, it was better than giving them a set of cufflinks. I think I devalued the cards by signing them though.”
By the way, the amazing headline on Rovell’s piece — “Billy Ripken Obscenity Bat” — was absolutely worth waiting 20 years for.