The 14 greatest Cal Ripken Jr. cards of all time

Ripken may have more cards than games played

September 6th, 2020
Tom Forget /

Cal Ripken Jr. holds a special place in the baseball card world. Thanks to the timing and length of his career, he played through the peak of the baseball card industry. He started when cards were still printed on cheap cardstock, with images that pale in comparison to today's photos.

He was a superstar during the baseball card boom of the early ‘90s, when dynamic, bright photos and inserts were the norm and fans lined up outside baseball card shops to get their hands on the newest product.

He hung up his cleats in 2001 when the bubble had popped.

This is all a long way of saying that Ripken has a card in almost every style imaginable. There are probably thousands -- if not millions -- of Ripken cards out there, in binders and basements and boxes and those little plastic top loaders to keep them safe.

There are new Ripken cards still being printed, too. Topps is releasing a special 25th anniversary card set curated by Ripken himself that tracks his playing career and record-setting streak available only for a limited time.

So, as Major League Baseball celebrates the streak, there's no better time to rank the greatest Ripken baseball cards in history, too.

Now, if you’re a card collector, you may know how these lists usually go, with only high-value cards getting their due. And sure, the most historically significant ones will be in here, but baseball cards are also great because of timeless photography, eye-catching designs and a sense of fun and whimsy. Too often, that side of collecting is ignored, so we’re going to have great cards, fun cards, and plain old weird cards that only could have been created during the hallucinatory ‘90s card boom.

Here we go:

1. 1982 Topps Traded #98T

Card via Trading Card Database

Probably the most iconic Cal Ripken Jr. card in one of the most iconic Topps sets, too. Just look at that killer two-color border!

It was even a pretty good photo by rookie-card standards, as Ripken got into his stance and even showed a little attitude toward the camera. If only we knew that this would be a man with roughly 800 batting stances he’d use throughout his career.

2. 1982 Fleer #176

Card via Trading Card Database

Ah, now this is what a rookie card usually looks like. Here’s Ripken standing in what could be your high school field with a chain-link fence in the background.

Still, the photo is pretty good. There’s the young shortstop, on his toes, ready to leap into action. Even if you didn’t know who Ripken was at the time, you could get excited and start dreaming of the future.

3. 1996 Topps #96

You could have been in the stadium when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record. You can watch the highlights on repeat. But you can't hold either of those things in your hands.

With this card, Ripken's record-breaking moment has been distilled into just 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches of cardboard. That's an extraordinary thing only baseball cards can do -- and why digital cards will never quite have the same effect.

4. 1992 Topps #40

It’s hard to picture how people outside of Baltimore thought of Cal’s iron man streak in the days before the internet and only a handful of national games on TV each week.

Still, thanks to this card, we know that by 1992 it had become a big enough draw that Cal's Topps card featured him pictured with Gehrig's statue inside Yankee Stadium's monument park. It’s remarkable to think that he was still four years away from breaking the record after this card was released.

5. 1993 Milk-Bone Superstars #12

Now, this is what I’m talking about. In the ‘90s, seemingly every company wanted to get into the baseball card game with cereal, restaurant and even dog food companies printing their own baseball cards.

What makes this one so good is -- obviously -- the dogs. While all the other knockoff brands were just baseball cards without the MLB license, this one skips all that and gives us the furry, hilarious little wonders we all wanted to see. Plus, check out that sweater Cal’s wearing!

(This Akita’s name is Champagne, as she was gifted to Cal’s wife along with a bottle of the bubbly.)

6. 1992 Upper Deck #82

You can’t tell the story of baseball cards without Upper Deck, which revolutionized the game with premium card stock and brighter, crisper photos. This is one of the very best depicting Ripken in action on the field -- flip-up shades on, turning a double play.

Even better, this card features his brother, Billy, too. Not only did Ripken break one of the game's most untouchable records, but he spent five years of his career alongside his brother.

7. 1994 Upper Deck #240

Card via Trading Card Database

You want cards that show a time and place? You can’t do better than this. Just look at the size of that phone Cal is using in the dugout! Sure, it’s no Rob Murphy using a laptop, but it’s close.

8. 1996 Pinnacle Aficionado #18

Pinnacle wasn’t around for very long, but they had a noticeable impact on the scene. Where Upper Deck started the trend, Pinnacle went even further, making heavier cards, emphasizing action photography, and going all-in on inserts.

That's all crammed into this set. These cards are extra-thick, feature a holographic effect on the front (it's hard to see from a photo) and add a third photo on the back.

This one is particularly nice because while there's a fantastic photo of Cal on the front, there's a very goofy one on the back just begging to be meme’d.

9. 1997 Metal Universe #8

Now we’re really in the ‘90s, baby. Shiny? Check. Metallic? Check. A weird giant claw reaching from off-card to grab Cal for no real reason? Check and check.

Sure, there may be no great reason for this card to exist, but it’s so wild and so fun that it had to be on the list.

10. 1982 Topps #21

This card has value because it's Cal's first rookie card, but it's nice that Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider get to have a place in baseball lore because of it. Bonner and Schneider combined to play in 72 big league games -- just 2 percent of the 3,001 games that Cal played -- but thanks to this card, they’ll forever be tied together.

11. 1980 Charlotte O’s

Card via Trading Card Database

Minor League cards don’t get the respect they deserve. Sure, they lack the fame of brands like Topps and Upper Deck, but they are also the pre-rookie card.

Anyone lucky enough to have attended a Charlotte O's game in 1980 and get their hands on this card has a pretty unique piece of history, too -- there are only 88 known copies in existence.

12. 1992 Score #884

Why is Ripken depicted with a train? Was this supposed to be a take on Gehrig’s nickname of “The Iron Horse”? We may never know. With '90s card companies doing anything they could to differentiate themselves in a saturated market, it's nice that sometimes they tried to create museum-worthy photographs.

13. 2001 Topps #1

Ripken’s final base set card. It’s a fitting sendoff, with Ripken watching his ball soar into the distance, letting us all hope and dream that he had connected with a home run that still hasn't landed.

14. Topps Project 2020 by Matt Taylor

One final card for good luck.

For those who haven’t seen a Topps 2020 card before, it's a new set released this year that lets artists create their very own takes on some of the most iconic cards from the brand's history.

This one from artist Matt Taylor -- featuring Orioles wings, flowers and a muted color scheme -- is proof that baseball cards can look like anything we dream up.

Card layouts by Tom Forget /