Microscopic Analysis of the 1989 Fleer Ripken “Mystery” Card

Photo donated by Sean Sullivan. Card is a mint 'Mystery card' version graded by PSA. They agreed that is was authentic (not a fake or reprint), but couldn't provide a note on the label for an uncataloged version.

September 15, 2012

Sean Sullivan1

Steven McLain2


The 1989 Fleer card of Billy Ripken enjoys extraordinary notoriety among baseball card collectors. According to billripken.com, a website entirely dedicated to the card; there are at least a dozen different versions in existence. These variances range from the significant (covering the expletive on the knob of the bat with a black square) to a slightest “nuance” (some versions of the black square have a tiny, rounded off edge to them; others have four distinctly sharp corners). Although the market value of these cards has fallen considerably from the high water mark of the nineteen-nineties, it is still quite safe to say that, for the last two decades, hobbyists have continued to collect the variations of these cards at a fevered pitch.

Professional Sports Authenticators recognize four variations of this card3; original card with the expletive, black square, white out, and scribble. Similarly, Beckett recognizes five variants4; the usual four, and a “white scribble”. Most of the “nuanced” variants will be lumped into one of these categories if sent to PSA or Beckett for authentication.

Recently, another version of the card has occasionally surfaced that does not easily fit into a major category. This card, coined the “Mystery Card” by Jon Pederson and Donovan Ryan5, appears to be an original, “unedited” version of the Ripken obscenity card. The expletive is unambiguously seen on the end of the bat, and there is no evidence of white out, black out, or scribble of any kind. However, the card has several distinct features that the “standard” FF card does not. These features are thoroughly documented on the billripken.com website. Despite the evident differences, the authors of the website assert that the card looks and feels quite real, and “several aspects of the card are actually ‘better’ than the original.” Is this card authentic? Is it a counterfeit? Is it a test proof? No one seems to know for certain.

I had the opportunity to acquire one of these “Mystery” cards recently via an online auction. The seller told me that he was aware of only six in existence (a figure later repeated to me independently by the owner of the billripken.com website), and I was quite eager to see one for myself. I mentioned the purchase to my friend Steve (also a collector), and he suggested that we could take a look at the card under the microscope. If it was an obvious fake, we should be able to spot it very quickly.

The “Mystery” (hereafter referred to as the “unknown”) card arrived via USPS. Inquiries from the seller as to the origin of the card were fruitless; just like I did; he claimed to have purchased it at an online auction. The card itself was contained in a hard plastic holder. It was apparent that the holder was not meant to be re-opened, and it required a pair of pliers and a knife to finally extricate the card safely. I noted a distinct chemical smell about the card, a possible signal of tampering. But when the card was placed in a fresh soft sleeve and top loader, it became clear that the source of the odor was the hard plastic holder. I selected an original issue FF card to use as a “known” control card; as well as a few other cards from the 1989 set for comparison, and I left for Steve’s house.

The “Unknown” Card

The “unknown” card appears to be a 1989 Fleer baseball card, #616, of Bill Ripken. The expletive is clearly seen on the knob of the bat. The card measures 3 ½ “x 2 ½ “. There is no obvious evidence of trimming, bleaching, or other visible alteration. The color of the player photo, when compared to a “known” Ripken FF card, appears to be darker. Both the Orioles logo and several aspects of the fringes on the player’s jersey appear to be nearer to red, instead of orange. In the “unknown” version, Ripken’s face appears slightly sunburned. In the “known” version, Ripken has a much paler complexion. The trademark “R” just below the Orioles logo is in a dissimilar font; and the typeface of the “MLB” logo on the card reverse is not the same. The yellow highlighting on the reverse of the “unknown” card is darker than the corresponding “known” card. All statistics appear to be identical. Both “unknown” and “known” versions appear to be printed on similar card stock. The crop of the photo on the “unknown” card is slightly (but noticeably) different than the crop of the photo on the “known” card. The triangle of infield dirt discernible by the left shoulder of the player on the “known” card is substantially smaller on the “unknown” card. In the same fashion, the infield grass near the left elbow of the player is slightly less visible on the “unknown” card. These differences (and others) are noted and photographed in detail on the billripken.com website, and therefore will not be elaborated here. Side-by-side raw view comparison of the “unknown” and “known” cards is below:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Mystery Card.JPG C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Known Ripken.JPG

Note the difference, not just in position, but also of the font, in the two circle “R” symbols below the logo:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\unknown logo.JPGC:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\known logo.JPG

Materials and Methods

The “unknown” card was compared to a “known” 1989 Fleer #616 Ripken FF card. The “known” card was pulled directly from a pack by the author, and therefore not acquired via third party. Additionally, sample cards from 1988 and 1990 Fleer baseball sets were selected for print dot cross-referencing. The cards were examined at 30x magnification with a Radio Shack handheld illuminated microscope; and digitally photographed using a Canon PowerShot SX30 IS. The photographs were transferred to a computer, and Adobe Photoshop CS 5 was used to adjust the contrast and brightness of the images. Specifically, the contrast was adjusted in order to make the print dots stand out clearly.

The knob of the bat in the Orioles logo was selected at random for comparison between the “unknown” and “known” cards. At 30x magnification, the “unknown” card produced the following image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Unknown card 1.jpg

The “known” card produced the corresponding image at 30x magnification:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Known card 1.jpg

Starting from the left, print dots from both images were numbered, and surveyed for similarities or differences.

In addition to the “unknown” and “known” Ripken cards, several other cards were examined for comparison. Two Ripken “rounded edge” black box corrections were photographed for comparison to each other and to the “unknown” and “known” (i.e. original issue) cards. Two Jay Tibbs cards (#624, pitcher for the Orioles) were also selected, and finally, two Randy Johnson cards (#381, black box corrected). Images of these cards appear in the Analysis.


The print dot pattern on the “unknown” card matched up very closely to the print dot pattern on the “known” card. The print dots on the “unknown” card were numbered as follows:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Unknown card 1a.jpg

The print dots on the “known” card were numbered in the same manner, as follows:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Known card 1a.jpg

Overall, the print dots in both images follow an analogous pattern. The print dot at #2 in both pictures lies directly at the intersection of the three black print lines; while the dot at #1 in both images lies at the top left crest of the print line arc. Dots #6 and #7 are also located in almost the exact same position in both photos.

In a subsequent examination of the images, another print dot located between and to the right of #4 and #5 was identified. This particular spot was labeled #8 in both the “unknown” image and the “known” image.

Unknown” image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Unknown card 1 fixed.jpg

Known” image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Known card 1 fixed.jpg

Although print dots #1 - #7 share many similarities in size, shapes, and location, print dot #8 has some very peculiar attributes. These features are fundamentally identical in both copies. At the “9 o’clock” position and the “2 o’clock” position on both the “unknown” and the “known” photographs, the ink has “bled” slightly. The result is a distinctive “blob” that was probably the result of a minute amount of yellow ink that seeped out from a slight imperfection in the original printing plate. At position #4 in both photos, a minor amount of ink “bleed” can also be observed at the “5 o’clock” position, although in the “known” photo, this distinction is less obvious. Close inspection of the other analogous numbers reveals that all loci share similar physical features.

Other cards

In order to ensure that all Orioles logos on Fleer cards were not identical, several other cards were cross-referenced for comparison. Specifically, two 1989 Bill Ripken “rounded edge” cards (#569), and two 1989 Fleer Jay Tibbs (#624) were evaluated. Additionally, two cards #381 (Randy Johnson) were photographed to compare the print dots against each other. None of these cards produced print dot images similar to either the “unknown” or “known” cards; however, the images were comparable to each other, although in some cases, logos were slightly “out of focus”.

The picture of the first “rounded edge” black box produced the following image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\rounded.jpg

Note that this card is slightly out of focus, and the “spattering” effect to the left. However, the print dots appear fairly clear.

The picture of the second “rounded edge” black box produced the following image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\rounded edge 2.jpg

Note that this card is more “in focus”, so the print dots are now moved slightly to the right. However, the overall position of the print dots is comparable. A slight “spattering” effect can still be seen at the left of the image. It should be noted here that the print dots on the “rounded edge” black box cards do not match the patterns on either the “unknown” or “known” cards. The “rounded edge” cards were corrections of the original cards; therefore, they would have been created at a later date than the original issue.

The picture of the first Jay Tibbs (#624) card produced the following image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Tibbs1.jpg

Note that the printing in this picture is also significantly “out of focus” (although, to the naked eye, this is almost impossible to see). The print dots, although out of alignment, appear fairly clear.6

The picture of the second Jay Tibbs (#624) card produced the following image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Tibbs2.jpg

The “focus” in this image is much better; as a consequence, the yellow print dots have shifted significantly to the right. Some of the dots appear to have “sunk” into the black line of the bat knob. Exact print dot association is less conclusive in these images. However, neither picture of the Tibbs card appears to correlate to the “unknown” card, “known” card, or the “rounded edge” black box cards.

Finally, two Randy Johnson (#381, black box corrected) cards were also photographed to see if the similarities of print dots were limited to the Orioles logo. The logo of the Montreal Expos appears on this card.

The picture of the first Randy Johnson (#381, black box corrected) card produced the following image7:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Randy1.jpg

The picture of the second Randy Johnson (#381, black box corrected) card produced the following image:

C:\Users\seanms\Desktop\Ripken Mystery Card\Randy2.jpg

The correlation of the print patterns between the two Johnson images is extraordinary. It appears that the two images might be slightly “out of focus”, but if this is true, they look to be “out of focus” in the same particular way. The “open loop” at position #1 is prominent, and the exact correspondence at five other locations is unmistakable.


Without an official statement from the manufacturer or, at the least, a former verified employee who could contribute more information, absolute substantiation of the “unknown” card is challenging. In the absence of further data, our validation of this card relies on the physical data collected in this study and on the information collected at billripken.com.

We possibly speculate that the print dots appear somewhat sharper and more well-defined in the “unknown” card than in the “known” card. The degradation of print dot clarity on the “known” card could be an indication that it was printed after the “unknown” card. However, this could also be an artifact of image capture-angle, or some type of additional light reflection in the photo. Therefore, the idea that the “unknown” card predates the “known” card will remain a theory at this time.

The print dot configurations collected from the other cards leads us to three distinct conclusions. First, we assert that the print dot configuration between separately numbered cards is unique. Second, we assert that print dot arrangements between the same cards correspond to each other. Although the Tibbs card (#624) was less than convincing, we believe that this was due primarily to the “focus” shift on the first card. The “rounded edge” black box Ripken cards and the Johnson cards (#381) strongly support this theory.

Finally, we believe it to be compelling evidence that the printing dots on the “unknown” Mystery card, when microscopically compared to the “known”, original issue version, match up exactly. The peculiar “blob” at point #8 in both versions also supports the thesis that the “unknown” card, even if it was not part of the standard print run, must have at least been printed by the same exact printing mechanism that produced the “known” version. It is our position that no counterfeiter could have possibly reproduced individual ink “bleed” in corresponding print dots. Therefore, it is our conclusion that the “unknown” Mystery card is, in fact, an authentic and original card, produced by Fleer.

1 Address correspondence to: laotzu74@gmail.com

2 Address correspondence to: mrstevenmclain@yahoo.com


4 http://www.beckett.com/grading/pop_report

5 Creators of the billripken.com website

6 The numbers “1” and “2” appearing in the Tibbs photos were added in order to attempt to correlate the print dots.

7Like the Tibbs cards, the Johnson images were numbered for correlation.