Jets rookie running back Leon Washington recently caused a mini-controversy when his Topps Bowman "Signs of the Future" card appeared to show him flashing double birds to the camera (Associated Press). Washington pleads innocence, but his image has joined the pantheon of naughty sports cards that are the domain of Donovan Ryan.
Collector Donovan Ryan with his son, Jacob.
Ryan, 32, has been collecting sports cards since the 1980s, but he got serious in 2002 when he came across a Bill Ripken card on eBay that was slightly different from the most-famous version. Bill, never nearly as popular or as good a player as his older brother Cal, garnered notoriety in 1989 when a Fleer card was issued with him holding a bat, the bottom of which clearly reads, "Fuck Face." The one Ryan found also featured the obscenity, but "It was missing one of the color plates from the printing process, creating a white background instead of the normal gray," Ryan tells Gelf, so he bought it. "I started looking into it and buying different copies, and before you know it I had eight, then nine, then 10 versions." Pretty soon, Ryan's collection of Fleer '89 Ripkens outshone everyone else's, and he started getting emails from other collectors who pointed him to other cards that feature cursing, obscenities, and other malaphotisms. He now runs billripken.com and the eBay group Adult Sport Card Errors.
Gelf talked with Ryan over the phone to find out more about his strange hobby, what his family thinks about it, and what his favorite cards are among those he's come across in his research.
Gelf Magazine: How do you go about finding more versions of the Bill Ripken card?
Bill "Fuck Face" Ripken
At any rate, we started looking for different Bill Ripken versions and found a whole bunch of articles about itwe have like 30 altogether from magazines. We've contacted the people who used to sell the cards and try to find out what they know.
Our website currently only has about 25% of the info that we know. We've withheld the rest until we find out everything and make sure these claims are true.
GM: Your site counter says that only a few thousand people have visited billripken.com. How do most people get in contact with you?
Washington claims he is making "E"s.
GM: How much time do you devote to the website?
DR: There are three people involved. Me and Ryan and another guy John, who doesn't want to be mentioned for whatever reason. He does all the posting of information and is in charge of all the technical savvy. Ryan and I lookit used to be on average two to four hours a day, and that varies. But I would say two hours a day on average, posting on message boards and looking on the internet, things like that.
GM: Is most of this time spent on the Ripken card?
DR: It used to be just the Bill Ripken card, and then Ryan and I discovered that there were other cards that had adult-related errors on them. That was interesting. It went along with same theme as the Bill Ripken card. It's kind of a side project we do as well: finding other error cards or cards that intentionally or unintentionally have bad things on them that kids shouldn’t see.
GM: Is this a game that professional players play?
DR: Some of them are known to be planned pranks and jokes like that. I think some of them are intentional to see what they can get away with and be the talk of the dugout.
C-3PO's many tongues seem to include the language of lust.
There are other unintentional errors that go along the same line. In 1966 and 1967, Claude Raymond had a Topps baseball card. In both different pictures, he had his zipper down. He sitting there ready to catch the ball and it's obvious that his zipper's down. It's funny that he did that two years, back to back.
GM: Are there a lot of people out there who collect these types of cards?
DR: Six months ago, I started an eBay group called Adult Sport Card errors. There are 55 or 60 people who are on there who actively look there for information and new stuff that I find.
GM: Does the fact that the Jets player just got away with something on a card recently mean that this sort of stuff is going to happen more often?
DR: They might be trying it more but I think the quality control is a lot better than it used to be. It used to be in the '80s you have lots of cards with no back on the card, or no front, or the wrong person on the back, or the centering was really off. There used to be a lot of quality-control issues. Since they're charging people more money and the quality of the cards has really picked up, I think they do more in the screening. I think that players still try to get that stuff past, but I think the editors catch that stuff more. I think the last adult-related error that was similar to that was in 1990 or 1991.
GM: Does your physical collection include a lot of these things?
Relax, it's just a belt.
GM: What's your price point? What are you willing to spend for a card?
DR: That's hard to say. On certain Bill Ripken versions I've spent $500 and I never thought in a million years I would have done that. The significance was that I wanted something bad enough that it didn't matter.
GM: Why do you think the baseball-card industry seems to be in decline?
DR: It's hard to say. Once the Bill Ripken card and other cards came out that attracted national headlines and there was money you could make, the companies followed what the collectors wanted: high-dollar stuff. It's just sad, because there are a lot of people who can't afford $5 for a pack of cardsit puts them out of it.
Nothing to see here.
GM: So you wouldn't think of selling any of your stuff?
DR: Most of my older stuff I've sold so I can fund and afford the things I like to buy now. I buy a lot of unopened '89 Fleer packs, looking for the few versions that I still need.
GM: How much money have you spent so far pursuing these Bill Ripken cards?
DR: I've spent a thousand for two cards. I would say that including magazines, cases, etc., about three thousand would be a fair estimate. It's probably more.
GM: Do you ever have any intention of selling them?
DR: That's interesting. I always collected unopened packs or old tobacco cards and thought, "This is the keeper that I want to hand to my children." All that stuff has been sold now to collect the Bill Ripken. I've been doing the Bill Ripken now for four years and it's honestly something that I can say that I know in my heart that it's something I'll never sell, that I'll give to my kids when I don’t feel bad about them seeing the F-word on a card.
GM: So they don't know about it yet?
DR: They don't. They always make jokes around the house all the time: "Daddy loves Bill Ripken," and, "Why do you have so many?" I just tell them that they're all different. They always try to go in my room and look at my display case, and I just kind of shoo them away and say, "Not yet." But honestly, I would never sell them. It's something I really enjoy and for a long time. Now when I get an email from someone who needs help or someone who's got something I need, it just makes my day. For me, Ryan, and John, it's just something that's gotten us back into collecting. It's really fun. We don’t do it for any financial gain or anything like that. It's the thrill of the hunt.
GM: What does your wife think of this?
DR: Um, I've learned to compromise a little with that and limit my time that I spend, because for a while there I was getting kind of addicted to it and spending way too much time. The money's only an issue when the money's tight and she's thinking about the fact that I have $500 baseball cards sitting there. But she understands, and she's been great about it. In the beginning, she didn't understand, but then she saw how much time I put into it and how happy it made me.