Claim: Bill Ripken's 1989 Fleer baseball card includes a hidden obscenity.
Origins: Not long after Fleer released its set of 1989 baseball trading cards, collectors noticed something unusual about the card featuring Bill Ripken (Baltimore Orioles infielder and brother of his much more famous Oriole teammate, Cal Ripken, Jr.): letters printed in black marker on the knob of his bat. The letters were quite readable upon close examination, and they clearly spelled out the phrase "F**K FACE." This was no case of "well, it kind of looks like it might say that"; there was no doubting exactly which two words appeared on Ripken's bat. After the discovery became public, subsequent printings of the card were issued with the offending words obscured in various ways: first hidden under what looked like a blob of Wite-Out, then apparently scribbled over with a marking pen, and finally covered by a black square. (The original version is now referred to, in diplomatic collector's parlance, as an "error" card.)
How did the words "F**K FACE" end up on Ripken's card? Some observers offered the standard speculation that it was a prank pulled off by a Fleer employee who touched up the photograph and added the obscenity, while Ripken himself claimed that the furtive scrawling of an obscene phrase on the knob of his bat was an antic pulled off by some of his teammates that had passed unnoticed by him at the time. (In the event, many card collectors found it rather implausible that Ripken, the photographer, and the card company all failed to notice what was written on the bat and suggested that one or more of them knew about the obscenity but deliberately allowed it to slip through the production process.)
In December 2008, however, CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell wrote that Ripken had revealed to him that he (Ripken) had written the offending phrase on the bat himself:
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 tried to deflect it as much as I could. It was fairly easy to say that somebody got me with a joke because people think you're the scum of the earth for doing something like this. The truth is that there's a lot of words like that that are thrown around in the clubhouse. They just don't get out there.
Just as others had speculated at the time of the card's release, Ripken suggested that Fleer had not missed the obscenity visible in the photograph used for his card, but rather had allowed it to pass through the production process in order to generate publicity:
I can't believe the people at Fleer couldn't catch that. I mean, they certainly have to have enough proofreaders to see it. I think not only did they see it, they enhanced it. That writing on that bat is way too clear. I don't write that neat. I think they knew that once they saw it, they could use the card to create an awful lot of stir.