Milking Cal for all he's worth

February 27, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

The holy grail of Cal Ripken memorabilia is a 2 1/2 -by-3 1/2 -inch piece of 14-year-old cardboard. It features a bland picture of the 19-year-old "infielder" when he played for the minor-league Charlotte Orioles.

And Bill Haelig of Reading, Pa., the Indiana Jones of Ripken collectors, has hunted one down. The man who bills himself as Cal Ripken's biggest fan -- and backs it up with what is apparently the largest collection of Ripken memorabilia -- recently rejected $4,000 for his card.

The quest for the elusive card -- Mr. Haelig says probably fewer than 100 exist -- separates the really serious collectors from the thousands of seemingly normal adults who covet anything associated with the Oriole shortstop.

But serious or casual, the urge to collect Ripken memorabilia is a wacky phenomenon that seems to know no boundaries -- there's even a Cal Ripken museum in Frederick County. In this age of sullied heroes and people's passion for things, a Ripken fan is likely to be a Ripken collector.

"We admire what he stands for and how he plays the game," says Robert Coleman of Hanover, Pa., who, with his wife, has accumulated more than 2,500 Ripken keep- sakes, compared with Mr. Haelig's 4,000 to 5,000. "But is there a logical and intelligent reason for collecting him? I don't think there is."

Mr. Ripken is one of the most accomplished and durable baseball players in history. By chance, his career coincides with the boom in the sports-card business and athletes' endorsements on everything from ice-cream wrappers to Raisin Bran.

Predictably, with all that stuff out there -- even Fruit of the Loom stuck baseball cards into its packs of underwear -- people collect And items associated with the all-American Mr. Ripken are most desirable.

"Cal is far and away the most sought-after [active] ballplayer at this point in time," says Tom Galik, whose Fielder's Choice store near Columbus, Ohio, caters to collectors specializing in one player.

If Mr. Ripken breaks baseball's iron-man record of consecutive games played, which he's on pace to do next year, then, Mr. Galik says, "he may become the most sought-after baseball player of all time."

The legendary Lou Gehrig holds the record for consecutive games, 2,130. The Yankee first baseman established the seemingly insurmountable mark between 1925 and 1939. Mr. Ripken, who has not missed a game since May 30, 1982, would break it in June 1995.

That doubtlessly would be a mixed blessing. Although Mr. Ripken's on-field achievements commanded a $30.5 million contract for five years' play, he must deal with admirers whose idea of restaurant courtesy is waiting until he's between courses before asking for an autograph.

Mr. Ripken declined through his representatives to comment for this article. His mother, agent, Orioles spokesmen and a representative of his management group make it clear that he increasingly wants privacy.

"As his celebrity status has grown, so has his family life," says JoAnn Peroutka of the Tufton Group, which handles many of Mr. Ripken's business affairs. "Now, more than earlier in his career, he's very much a private individual."

His mother, Vi Ripken, says people often drive slowly by her home in Aberdeen, where Cal Jr. grew up, and sometimes stop when she or her husband are in the garden, or even come to the front door when they're not. The visitors want autographs, baseballs, anything connected to Cal Jr.

When her husband coached the Orioles, she says, he constantly was asked for game-used equipment and collectibles. They receive dozens of fan letters for their son each week, a fraction of what's delivered to the Orioles.

"He gets thousands," his mother says. "It's staggering. . . . He does the best he can, but people think they're the only ones asking, when there are really tens of thousands asking."

The eight collectors interviewed for this story -- one from California, two from Pennsylvania and five from Maryland -- say they collect Ripken memorabilia out of respect for his talents and the thrill of collecting. They say they've never hounded Mr. Ripken or his family.

Mr. Coleman, the collector from Hanover, says his wife, Joan, "has been in love with Cal ever since he put on a uniform. It's his blue eyes, I think. . . . Neither one of us smoke. We drink very little. This is our vice."

He is 46 and retired from a successful business, he says. His wife is 37. They plan on traveling to Florida during spring training, possibly to buy a card that's been advertised for sale: the coveted Charlotte card. The asking price is $3,000.

"We try not to think about the financial aspect of it," Mr. Coleman says. "We might look at each other and say, 'Are we nuts?' But we never say, 'Let's not do it.' Hey, that's what we started it for, to finish it, to have everything."

Marlene DeLugish, who lives in Los Angeles, calls herself the California Cal collector. A lifelong Dodgers fan, she collects several players, but Mr. Ripken is her favorite.

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