Cal Ripken fans are as reliable as the superstar's name on the lineup card during his stellar career. Include Chris Dishman among the Ripken faithful.
But, like a bad-hop grounder to the chest, Dishman received a rude Ripken-related surprise months ago by finding out he spent some $200 on a counterfeit minor-league card of the perennial All-Star. But his pain is the collective collector's gain.
Driven by his sour experience and watching a few other online auctions of bogus cardboard of the early 1980s Orioles prospect, the 28-year-old collector recently created www.Ripkenintheminors.com. The website, with in-depth information about Ripken's pre-major league pro baseball days, contains a section on Ripken's cards from that period - including how to spot known fake ones.
Dishman is convinced that with the announcement of Ripken headlining the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2007, counterfeit minor league cards of the player will surely resurface in greater quantities in the near future.
In 1995, for example, when Ripken approached, and eventually beat, Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record, counterfeit cards of the Baltimore player popped up in larger numbers than most times.
"I don't want anyone to get scammed like I did," said the Tennessee-based sports card enthusiast. "If the information is out there and someone spends lots of money without doing their homework, that's one thing. But the information was not this easily accessible until recently."
There are four Cal Ripken minor league cards spread over two years; one card from each of those seasons has been certifiably counterfeited at times. Here is a look at the foursome:
1980 WBTV Charlotte O's
This card was part of a TV station sponsored team-set ballpark giveaway on May 30, 1980, exactly two years before Ripken started his amazing record setting 2,632 consecutive game streak in the majors.
The front of the blue-bordered ballcard should have a bright-orange O's logo at the bottom right. "When you see the distortion in the color of the logo," Dishman wrote on his site, "it is your first and biggest sign that the card you are looking at is a fake." The logo on the counterfeit version has a dark-orange/reddish tint to it.
Another telltale sign to look for to distinguish an authentic from a bogus 1980 WBTV Charlotte O's Ripken: the top and bottom white borders around the photo of the real card have a slight but noticeable dip at about the halfway mark. This flaw is slightly more evident on the top white border.
Genuine WBTV Ripkens also include a tiny bump about one-quarter inch from the upper white border's right side. The bottom white borders do not have this "rise."
Counterfeit 1980 WBTV Ripkens, meanwhile, not only have "clean" white borders, as in no dips or bulges, but the bottom border possesses thin black lines on each side of the white "frame" around the photo. Also, with the fake WBTV Ripkens the left vertical white border is wider than on the real version of the card.
Bill Haelig, the longtime Ripken collector who pointed out Dishman's first WBTV card was in fact fake, said to consider the card's "feel." "The real ones are on a very flimsy stock," he said.
"If someone is offering the Blue (WBTV) Ripken card," Haelig said, "there is a good chance they should have some of the other cards from the set." The collector, who occasionally assists on projects with Ironclad Authentics, Ripken's own autograph company, noted, "The (WBTV) team set was shrink-wrapped with a header card."
In an October 2006 Huggins & Scott Auction, an SGC 84 WBTV Ripken card, and the other 27 cards in the team set, sold for $1,610 (including the 15 percent buyer's premium).
1980 Charlotte O's Police
Also in 1980, members of Charlotte's police force passed out cards one or two at a time from a separate minor league issue (25 cards) on PR visits to schools.
The Charlotte Police Ripken uses the same photo as on the WBTV set, but with an orange border. Plus, these cards, which were not issued as a team set, have police department info on the back.
Haelig has never heard of any counterfeit Charlotte Police Ripken cards. He theorized that maybe it's such a hard card to find, some call it "The Holy Grail of Ripken cards," that maybe by chance, "the bad guys haven't got their hands on a copy of the card to counterfeit it."
Bill Huggins, co-owner of Huggins & Scott Auctions, said that perhaps the orange border on the 1980 Charlotte Police Ripken is harder to more accurately duplicate than some of the other cards and that has short-circuited the counterfeiters' potential attempts with this particular pasteboard.
In the same 2006 Huggins & Scott auction, this card alone, in grade SGC 80, brought $2,645.
The auctioneer stressed that it only makes sense for his company and others to sell professionally graded Ripken minor league cards. "It would be foolish not to do it," he said. "You have to have them graded to sell well and grading also helps authenticate the cards."
1981 WTF Rochester Red Wings
This is the second of Ripken's minor league cards, another team set offering (25 cards), where occasional counterfeit samples have floated around.
The real WTF Rochester Ripkens come on an off-white card stock, some might say yellow, while the fakes are on a much brighter white stock.
Another good element of these cards to check out is just beyond Ripken's right shoulder in the slanted roof area. The real 1981 WTF Ripkens contain what looks to be a barely visible flag essentially pressing up against the left side of the photo. The flag appears to be mounted on a triangular base of some sort. In the fake/reprint 1981 WTF version, the flag and flagpole are not visible - just the triangular "base."
Where fake cards are concerned, often the dot pattern of the imposters are way off and upon closer inspection are fairly easy to detect because under magnification the dots are not as tightly placed together, making the picture appear less clear. The dot patterns on both the real and fake 1981 WTF Ripkens, however, are similar enough so as not to be the best clue for your detective work on one of these cards.
The real Ripken from this 1981 WTF issue also carries a noticeably heavier weight to it than the counterfeit but if you don't have a fake one to do a side-by-side comparison this pointer might not help much, either.
1981 TCMA Rochester
Distributed as part of a 23-card team set, this minor league Ripken card is a relatively safer bet to buy raw than some of his others from his early pro baseball days.
Haelig said there is an adequate supply of the real TCMA Rochester Ripkens. "There is not a great demand for the card, so the motivation to counterfeit it is much less," he said.
And then there's the "rumor mill."
Huggins said he has heard of fake 1981 TCMA Rochester Ripkens over the years, but had no specifics on what to look for to determine a fake from a real one. So, the question lingers about phony 1981 TCMA Ripkens.
What do Dishman and others recommend to collectors to greatly increase their chances of buying authentic Ripken minor league pasteboards, especially when higher-grade samples can sell for big dollars?
l Keep in mind a solid working knowledge of the real and fake cards.
l If you buy the card raw/unslabbed, try to do it as part of a complete team issue if you can, since the chances of the entire set being faked is much less than it is for an individual card. But again, remember the 1980 Charlotte O's Police pasteboards were only handed out one card or so at a time - not as a team set. Consequently, to find just a "single" '80 Police Rip ken is normal.
l Buy samples of these cards that have been authenticated by the most reputable professional card-grading companies (BGS, GAI, PSA, SGC).
l Consider that with advancements in technology counterfeiters might improve their techniques to better print fakes of these and other cards in the future.
Ripken has been a true ambassador for baseball, both during and after his playing days, and a symbol of what can be very right with pro sports. But unfortunately, sometimes there are those, some unscrupulous, that trade on his good name with bogus inventory. So be on guard whether it's with his minor league cards or some other item associated with baseball's "Iron Man."