CAL RIPKEN JR.'S grade school pictures are in a red milk crate
in an upstairs closet. Rummage through the carton and out tumble
musty childhood memories of Picture Day...Mrs. Aaronson's
third-grade class...the books of the school library serving as
the backdrop...a short kid in the front row holding a sign that
reads HALLS CROSSROADS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, 1968-69.
"See if you can find Cal," says Bill Haelig, the owner of the
red milk crate, as he hands you the picture.
This is too easy. There is only one boy with eyes brilliant as a
cloudless sky; he is wearing a burgundy tie, a clip-on. Turn the
picture over and read the names printed neatly in
pencil...Chucky, Calvin, Viven...of course that's him, the one
in the middle, then an iron boy of nine.
"Everybody used to call him Calvin," says Haelig, now shuffling
through the crate for a sixth-grade class portrait.
Who is Haelig, and why is there a sixth-grade picture of Calvin
Ripken Jr., wearing a blue polyester shirt and bell-bottoms, in
his closet? Is he a childhood chum from Ripken's hometown,
Aberdeen, Md.? A Halls Crossroads Elementary alum? No, says
Haelig, "Cal wouldn't know me from Adam."
Haelig is Cal Ripken Jr.'s Biggest Fan. (His stationery tells us
so.) Who else but C.B.F. would place an ad "seeking unusual Cal
Ripken-related items" in Ripken's hometown newspaper? (This was
how he got the grade-school pictures.) Who else but C.B.F. would
have a license plate on his car that reads CL RPKN? (He has had
it since 1985.) Who else but C.B.F. would also collect
memorabilia of brother Billy and father Cal Sr.? (Haelig has
eight game-worn Billy jerseys and nine Cal Sr. jerseys, not to
mention one of Senior's minor league bats.)
In a room of his two-story home in Blandon, Pa., Haelig, a
commercial-insurance underwriter, has an impressive collection
of more than 5,000 Ripken items--bats, balls, jerseys, posters,
pictures, cards, cleats, high school yearbooks, you name it.
There's a bit of everything: baseballs from every year since
1979, autographed by each team for which Ripken has played; a
1981 Triple A Rochester paycheck, endorsed and canceled; a pair
of Adidas spikes, still muddy, and a game-used uniform, both
from the '84 season; a ticket from the Sept. 14, 1987, game in
Toronto in which Ripken's streak of 8,243 consecutive innings
ended; the umpire's lineup card from Ripken's 1,000th
consecutive game, June 25, 1988; a July 19, 1991, game ball from
Ripken's 1,500th consecutive game; and a scorecard from Ripken's
2,000th straight game, on Aug. 1, 1994.
Haelig is the iron man of Cal collectors--or Cal-ectors, as they
refer to themselves--because he has a remarkable streak of his
own: He has collected Ripkenabilia for 12 straight years. "When
I first started collecting Cal in 1983, the words Ripken and
streak weren't even in the same sentence," says Haelig. "I
started sometime around consecutive game 150."
Of all the players to choose from, why did Haelig zero in on a
22-year-old oversized shortstop? "In 1983 the prices for Brooks
Robinson, my childhood idol, were too high, since that was his
Hall of Fame induction year," says Haelig, who at that time was
22 years old. "So instead I picked Cal, who was the American
League Rookie of the Year in 1982. Brooks Robinson was Cal's
idol too, so I felt a sort of kinship with him."
As time passed, Haelig came to admire the man behind the memorabilia. "Cal has achieved the dream: He played for his hometown team, won a World Series, won two MVPs, and he's about to break this record," he says. And Haelig's dedication to his hobby rivals Ripken's love for the game. "My enthusiasm has never waned from the time I first started collecting," Haelig says. "In fact, it's grown."
Among his fellow Cal-ectors, the 34-year-old Haelig is a
celebrity. "Bill is my idol," says Rick Bowlus, who started
collecting Cal in 1986 and also serves as the chairman of the
repository committee for the Ripken Museum, which will open in
the spring of '96 in Aberdeen.
Both Haelig and Bowlus long for the days when a Ripken card
could be purchased for a few dollars. But because of the Streak,
prices of Ripkenabilia have skyrocketed. Since so many
Johnny-come-collecting-latelies have jumped on the bandwagon
hoping to cash in on the demand for Anything Ripken, the
competition for rare items has grown fierce. What's more, the
market is currently saturated with new Cal cards, new Cal
lithographs, new Cal bobble-head dolls. As Bowlus puts it,
"everything Cal touches has turned to gold."
"Right now, the only name in baseball cards is Ripken," says Tom
Mortenson, editor of Sports Collectors Digest. "The value of
some of his cards has doubled in the last year, and it's
continuing to shoot up monthly."
When a collector offered Haelig $4,000 for a coveted 1980 Double
A Charlotte card, Haelig refused. "Some people make me nauseous,
the ones who know what a card of Cal's is worth, but don't know
his lifetime batting average," says Haelig. "I don't think in
terms of what something is worth. I never sell anything. I do it
for the enjoyment."
Haelig has amassed his eclectic collection through ingenuity,
expert detective work and old-fashioned hard work. He has
written letter upon letter, scoured ads in sports-collecting
publications and attended charity auctions. He has petitioned
official scorekeepers, befriended minor league coaches and
relied on the kindness of sportswriters. From these people he
has received what he calls "inner-sanctum-type stuff," such as
scorecards, press notes and game balls.
Haelig also keeps newspaper clippings and magazine stories,
organized neatly by year and stored in boxes in a closet. A
friend in Salisbury, Md., sends him articles. A mole in a New
York City post office informs him if Ripken is on a magazine
cover. Pedestrian Cal-ectors might have missed the April 1995
issue of American Teacher with Cal on the cover, but not C.B.F.
"Thank goodness someone in the area subscribes to American
Teacher," he says. Inattentive Cal-ectors might have overlooked
the July '91 issue of Playboy that contained a photo of Cal Sr.,
Cal Jr. and Billy, but not C.B.F. Says Haelig's wife, Shari, "My
husband is the only man in America who buys Playboy for a
picture of three guys."
Haelig very much wants people to understand, though, that "I'm
not obsessed. My house isn't orange and black. I don't have
number 8 written on my garage door. The perception is that
collectors are big, fat guys who go to sleep thinking, "Cal,
Cal, Cal." I keep my distance from Cal; it's not like some Jodie
He has had only a few in-person encounters with Ripken, fleeting
moments at charity auctions and card shows. In 1988 one of
Haelig's friends, the sports director of a Baltimore-area radio
station, got him a press pass for the last home game of the
season. Once in the clubhouse, Haelig asked Ripken for the
nameplate above his locker; Ripken obliged. "It's just a lousy
piece of laminated cardboard, but it was given to me
personally," Haelig says. "If my house was on fire, that would
be the first thing I'd grab--assuming my wife and kids weren't
Bill Stetka, the Orioles' assistant public relations director,
receives bizarre Ripken-related requests on a daily
basis--"There was the woman who just gave birth and wanted a
press pass so Cal could kiss the baby," he recalls--and so he
speaks from considerable experience when he says, "I've learned
to separate the normal people who collect Cal stuff from the
wackos. Bill is just a normal guy with an abnormal obsession
with all things Ripken."
At times Haelig says things such as, "My goal in life is for Cal
to see this collection. Maybe after he's retired, I could get
him to come here one day." Other times he wonders aloud, "What
if he came here and he thought I was nuts? But knowing Cal, from
what I've read, even if he thought I was a dork, he'd fake it."
Which raises the question, What does Ripken think of all this?
Even if he suspects that Cal-ectors like Haelig are nuts,
Ripken, one of the most fan-friendly players in the game, would
never publicly say so. Ask Ripken his thoughts on those who
collect memorabilia from his career, and a slight frown comes
across his face: "I don't know," he responds.
And so, how to explain the Ripken Museum, which will open next
spring? Somehow organizers got the unfailingly modest Ripken to
agree to the museum and also convinced Ripken's parents, Cal Sr.
and Vi, to serve on the museum's executive board. "It's a little
embarrassing," Vi told the Baltimore Sun. "I think the museum
will mean more to other people than to us. We're just people. We
didn't go out and win a war or anything."
The Ripken Museum will be located just a few miles from Calvin's
boyhood home, right down the block from the pharmacy where he
worked in high school. The street will be renamed Ripken Way.
And get this: The Aberdeen mayor and city officials will
relocate to another building; the museum will occupy what is now
When the '95 season is over, Ripken will sift through his own
memorabilia--his Gold Gloves, MVP trophies, All-Star
uniforms--and decide what he would like to loan to the museum.
"We hope to get Cal's complete uniform from September 5 and 6,"
says Bowlus. "From his dirty socks to, pardon me, his jockstrap."
Bowlus will donate items from his own collection, which ranks a
distant second in size and stature to Haelig's; Bowlus, a senior
environmental scientist for the Army Medical Department just
outside Aberdeen, guesses that his personal Cal-ection is worth
about $25,000. Some of the more offbeat items include Ripken
Slurpee coins, King B beef jerky Ripken discs, a barbecue apron
fashioned as Ripken's number 8 jersey, an Ajax dog food Ripken
card, Ripken milk-bottle caps, you name it.
Before Bowlus moved into his new home in Edgewood, Md., in
November 1994, he had eight showcases of Ripkenabilia displayed
in his family room. His most treasured keepsake is a newspaper
that Ripken and former Oriole Eddie Murray signed, an item
Bowlus procured one day--July 15, 1985, to be exact--when he
spotted Ripken and Murray at the Baltimore airport. "They were
on their way to the All-Star Game. Cal had a polo shirt on;
Eddie wore a Raiders T-shirt," Bowlus recalls, as if it happened
only minutes ago.
The following year Bowlus and his youngest daughter, Meganne,
started collecting Cal memorabilia. "We have all this stuff, all
these pictures around the house--I feel like Cal's one of the
family," says Bowlus's wife, Vicki, a lifelong Oriole fan. Adds
Rick, "Now I feel like I know Cal personally. I've read so many
things about him and spent so much time with people who are on
Does Bowlus ever wonder what it might be like to be inside that
periphery? Does he ever imagine himself touring Ripken's
basement, hunting for gloves and trophies for the museum?
Does Haelig imagine rummaging through the red milk crate and
reminiscing about the Streak with the man who has turned
memories to gold? He wears a contented smile. "That would be
nice," he says.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS USHER BOWLUS (ABOVE) ACKNOWLEDGES HAELIG (LEFT) AS THE KING OF CAL-ECTORS. [Bill Haelig; Rick Bowlus]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS USHER COLLECTORS HAELIG'S GEMS: AN '80 CAL CARD AND LOCKER NAMEPLATES. [Cal Ripken Jr. sports card; Locker nameplates for Cal Ripken Jr., Cal Ripken Sr. and Billy Ripken]