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.
"What do I like most about him?" says Mrs. DeLugish, 52, who works in a lawyer's office and attends art school. "Probably everything. What's not to like? . . .
"I became a grandmother last year. And you won't believe this. My granddaughter was born on Cal's birthday. Her initials are the same as his. And she weighed 6.3 [pounds], which was about the same [in millions] as his contract for that year.
"I've gone nuts over him!"
So has Sherry Melhorn, a 37-year-old government cartographer from Gaithersburg. She got hooked in 1992, buying 85 Ripken cards at a flea market. Since then, it's been a blur.
"I've spent $3,400 in 18 months," she says breathlessly. "I have a whole bedroom just plastered with stuff of him. . . .
"My family thinks I'm out of hand. It's getting obsessive. My sister asked me: 'Is this something you're going to need therapy for somewhere along the line?' "
"The other day I was looking in the phone book at the layout of the stadium, because I wanted to order tickets for this year," she says. "Lo and behold, one of the books had a picture of Cal Ripken in it. I said, 'I have to cut this out.' So now I've got a picture out of the phone book as part of my collection. . . .
"I'm hoping he retires in two years so I can stop this."
The volume and variety of Ripken collectibles are mind-boggling.
Carolyn and Don Harrison, who own the Tenth Inning collectibles store in Hampton, Va., publish an illustrated checklist of Ripken memorabilia, and it runs 84 pages.
That's 84 pages of baseball cards, posters, magazine covers, milk cartons, key chains, plastic cups, cereal boxes, computer games, McDonald's place mats, Denny's menus, American Lung Association brochures, calendars, candy bars and souvenir cards from Drake's cupcakes, Jiffy Pop popcorn, Miser light bulbs, Kraft cheese slices, Milk-Bone dog treats and Humpty Dumpty potato chips.
The catalog, by the way, sells for $12.95. And each is individually numbered -- or INDIVIDUALLY NUMBERED!!! as the brochure says -- so you can collect it, too.
Mr. Harrison says he sold 1,400 brochures last year. But Mr. Haelig, Cal Ripken's "biggest fan," was the first to distribute a Ripken checklist. His is a computer printout of more than 30 pages, single-spaced. He sends out 300 to 400 copies every year -- every year since 1991.
That's the year Mr. Ripken was Mr. Everything and the year he began garnering national notice for his consecutive-game streak.
"Up to 1991, I could count the number of hard-core Ripken collectors on one hand," Mr. Haelig says. "Now, unfortunately, a lot of people are buying for the investment, hoping to cash in when he breaks Lou Gehrig's record in 1995. They see Cal as a cash cow."
Mr. Haelig is a likable 32-year-old commercial-insurance underwriter whose return address on his envelope trumpets "CAL RIPKEN JR.'S BIGGEST FAN" and whose license plates read CL RPKN. He says nothing in his collection is for sale. It includes keepsakes of Bill Ripken -- Cal's younger brother and a former Oriole -- and Cal Ripken Sr.
He began collecting Cal Jr. memorabilia in 1983.
"Brooks Robinson is my idol, always was my idol," Mr. Haelig says. "But when I graduated from college, I found out I couldn't afford a lot of the Brooks Robinson stuff. So I decided to start with somebody new."
Like most collectors, he started with the small stuff, a $2 card here, a $5 poster there, but soon got hooked on the bigger stuff. At the national convention of sports collectors in 1984, he paid $100 for a Ripken game bat.
"I was hooked," Mr. Haelig says. "You're like a junkie, looking for more and more to collect."
He owns portraits of Cal Ripken's third- and sixth-grade classes; Cal Ripken paycheck for $1,055.25 from the Rochester Red Wings; unused tickets from numerous games, including ones in which Mr. Ripken hit his first home run and was ejected for the first time; six Cal Ripken bats, including one from Rochester; four Bill Ripken bats; and one Cal Sr. bat from about 1960 when he played in the minor leagues.
"I'm probably the only guy who has a game-used Cal Sr. bat from the minor leagues," Mr. Haelig says. "For that matter, how many people care? That's OK. Those are the kind of things I enjoy collecting."
Mr. Haelig's prized possessions are nameplates from the Memorial Stadium lockers of Bill and Cal Ripken Jr. He asked for them after obtaining a press pass from a friend.
"They're just lousy pieces of laminated cardboard, but they were given to me personally," Mr. Haelig says. "If my house was on fire, those are probably the first things I'd grab -- assuming my wife and kids weren't home."
His wife, Shari, who met him in college when he had only a couple of Brooks Robinson pictures on his wall, shakes her head.
"It's gotten a little out of hand," she says. "There's the money he spends, and the phone calls every day, and he writes letters every night. And some things, like buying those dirty spiked shoes, I just don't understand."
She realizes that her husband is a celebrity among collectors. A teen-age boy from Indiana called two summers ago asking whether he and his dad could stop by on vacation.
"They had to stop in and see Bill Haelig's Ripken room," Mrs. Haelig says, laughing. "It was right up there with Gettysburg."
Mr. Haelig says he has no idea what his collection is worth. But his dream, he says, is for Cal Ripken to see it.
"I've thought maybe after he's retired, when his life's slowed down, I could get him to come here one day," Mr. Haelig says. "It may not be for another 10 years. But I'll tell you what, I'll still be collecting in 10 years."
That is Wayne Radi's dream, too. A 47-year-old retired Army computer programmer, he opened a Cal Ripken museum a year ago above his card store, Signature Shoppe, in Thurmont. It is surely the only Cal Ripken museum on the planet -- and apparently America's only museum devoted to an active Major League baseball player.
He chose to specialize in Ripken memorabilia in 1983 after the proliferation of card companies made collecting everything unfeasible. The choice of Mr. Ripken, then in his second full season in the major leagues, was fortuitous.
He opened the museum for a reason any collector can understand: to arrange and display cherished items that had been packed into closets and drawers.
He assembled the museum with affection. Its five rooms trace Mr. Ripken's career, showcasing about 1,000 cards (but no holy-grail Charlotte card), posters, pencils, programs, glasses, dolls, mobiles, cleats, bats, jerseys and even a copy of a story from the Aegis, a Harford County weekly newspaper, dated May 4, 1978, describing "Calvin" Ripken's no-hitter (he pitched in high school) and 4-for-4 performance at the plate.
The museum is free, and it's open every day except Wednesday. Mr. Radi estimates 100 people come through each week.
Mr. Radi and Mr. Haelig have, however, drawn the line in their quest for things Ripken-related. They have children and, like all husbands, have debated babies' names with their wives.
The Haeligs have two boys. The middle name of one is Brooks, after Mr. Haelig's idol, Brooks Robinson.
Mr. Radi has four children, three boys and a girl. One boy is named Brett, after the retired star of the Kansas City Royals, George Brett.
This begs the obvious question. Mr. Radi answers:
"I really don't like that name. Calvin?"
TOP 10 RARE ITEMS
Collector Bill Haelig of Reading, Pa., ranks the hardest-to-find Cal Ripken collectibles:
1. 1980 Charlotte police set (orange border): Charlotte, N.C., police officers gave away these cards with pictures of Charlotte Oriole players on front and safety tips for children on back.
2. 1980 Charlotte WBTV set (blue border): Cards feature same pictures on front as the police set, but have blue border and TV station logo on front, and biographical information of players on back. Cards were given to children under 14 at Charlotte Orioles game.
3. 1988 Classic red "Ripkin" typo card: The Classic card company caught typo early in production. None were sold.
4. 1984 Stroh's Brewery photo ball: Ball has pictures of Mr. Ripken, Eddie Murray and Joe Altobelli with Stroh's logo.
5. 1992 Donruss Diamond King card: The Donruss company gave this 26-player set of special 5-by-7 cards as gifts to executives of companies that bought large quantities of Donruss cards.
6. Ajax Dog Food card: Ajax dog food doesn't exist, but someone in Texas produced these unlicensed, black-and-white cards of a few players in 1983.
7. 1985 Thom McAn disc: These round cards of 47 players with Thom McAn logo on back were given to shoe buyers.
8. 1985 Kitty Clover disc: These round cards of superstars came in bags of Kitty Clover potato chips in the Midwest.
9. 1985 Jiffy Pop disc: These popcorn cards are common, except ones with message on back from Mike Schechter Associates (MSA) to retailers.
10. 1988 Star Company set: This 12-card set summarizing Mr. Ripken's career was never released to the public.