“Top-left corner, second pack from the bottom,” my friend told me. He didn’t remember where he had heard it from, or why it worked. All we knew is that he was the proud owner of the Holy Grail of baseball cards: the 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken error card, the one with the expletive bared on the bottom of the bat for all the world to see. It was the ultimate taboo, a premature interruption of adulthood into our adolescence.
Of course, there were plenty of Holy Grails in that era of baseball cards, enough to occupy our feeble attention spans. There were the Gregg Jefferies rookie cards, the Dale Murphy reverse negative, and later, Ken Griffey, Jr. We looked at the numbers next to the names in our Beckett Baseball Card Magazines and dreamed our stock market dreams, anticipating the envy of a new generation the way we envied the adults whose collections hadn’t been thrown out.
It didn’t happen, of course. We became adults, and the forbidden terminology of Bill Ripken’s bat became just another everyday word in the lexicon. Meanwhile, a generation of parents, chagrined by the tales of zealous mothers past, saved those baseball cards in pristine condition, and the supply outpaced the demand of a dwindling base of collectors. Given the wide production of the late 80s baseball card sets, it isn’t a stretch to claim that there’s a Bill Ripken error card out there for everyone who wants one. They currently go for a couple of bucks on eBay.
This didn’t kill the collector’s spirit, however: the search for errors and variations has long lived in the human heart, and is not limited to the baseball card. Witness the 1955 Philadelphia Double Die, or the Inverted Jenny. The search just goes deeper, now.
Although we’re awash in Ripkens, the errors will never go away; we just have to look closer for them. Now prized are new cards, unheard of in our youth. The 1990 Upper Deck Mike Witt, a common card of a washed-up pitcher, occasionally bears a black box that covers half of the back picture, and currently is selling for $200 on eBay. Perhaps the most prized of all, the Frank Thomas 1990 Topps No Name, combines rarity with celebrity, and sells for thousands.
On the face of it, the error card seems fairly arbitrary. We place a premium on a card that is, by definition, inferior. At the same time, the error card speaks to our desire for uniqueness, our desire to ride ahead of the wave of scarcity. But that individuality only goes so far.
Each baseball card in existence is unique, in the sense that it is the only iteration of that card in that place at that time. Being unique in and of itself doesn’t make a thing valuable, or Carson’s NotGraphs painting would be priceless. (It isn’t.) There’s a social contract in the error card, a common standard which bases whether a thing is truly a variation, and whether it’s collectible. There are rules for this sort of thing, and they are tricky.
Random printing errors, it is generally agreed, are flaws rather than variations, and do not command a premium, even if it may be the only card in existence with such a flaw. Blank backs or wrong backs may draw the interest of a collector or two, but at large they, too, are ignored.
Sometimes, these rules come into question, and debates arise. The 1990 Topps Jeff King is such an example; the back of the card in its error form has no white ink, leaving the name the same color as the rest of the background. For years, this card was listed in the major price guides, legitimizing it, and putting it into the “canon” of the complete-complete 1990 set. Since then, collectors have argued that the King card is not a true error, and instead is just a basic printer malfunction, and should be worthless.
I find this deliberation, taking place in the cobwebbed corners of message boards, the most fascinating aspect of the whole affair. What was once a glamorized, overhyped, and commercialized hobby, stripped out of the hands of children, has been taken back by those same children in their adulthood. They collect pieces of cardboard with pictures of dudes on them, and they care about it, and they actively collaborate to make their own meaning out of their hobby.
One might be led to the impression, six hundred and fifty words into this article, that error cards and caring about error cards and writing about people caring about error cards are all kind of dumb. And they are, in the sense that baseball cards and baseball and gardening and writing novels and doing anything to stave off the inevitability of mortality and the eventual erasure of all our memories and achievements are kind of dumb. I prefer to see it this way: baseball cards help me enjoy baseball more, and enjoying things more is better than enjoying things less. And now that I’m no longer a teenager, I no longer have to worry about how dumb I look while I’m enjoying things.
Going back to my original story: I never did pull that Bill Ripken card, and have never owned one since (although I assure you that it is now, barely, within my means). Instead, I own a card that is much rarer.
A different friend of mine, and a far shrewder one than I, talked me into trading him a Will Clark rookie card for a weird card he had found in his common box. “I bet you never seen one like this,” he said smoothly. “The 90 on the front is yellow.”
The card, a 1990 Fleer Dave Martinez, turned out to be so rare that it was never listed in any of the major price guides, even well after the turn of the millennium. Though the internet has finally confirmed their collective existence, it’s still unclear how many copies of the card exist, and they’re sold so rarely that there’s no way to know how much they’re worth. This is the event horizon of the error card: at some point a card becomes so rare that it becomes invisible, and therefore worthless.
And so the card, with its very yellow 90, will sit in my garage, waiting for the day when the remaining collectors convene and decide that it’s worth buying. And when that day comes, I’ll have finally won that trade I made twenty years ago.