Monday, July 24, 2006
Updated: July 26, 1:33 PM ET
A pack of baseball memories
By Eric Neel
I believe baseball cards have magical powers.
That is why, in the summer of 1988, I arranged my Dodgers cards like players on a baseball diamond on the floor of my friend Michael's Berkeley apartment. And I challenged him to do the same with his beloved Giants cards. Just moments before our teams faced off on TV, we would set them out -- starters on the hardwood field, reserves side-by-side in an imaginary dugout -- and sit cross-legged beside them. (And I should say at this point, we were grown men at the time; me in my 20s, Michael in his 30s.)
The cards were voodoo warriors to us, every bit as bad-ass as Chewbacca's holographic chess players. We knew, laid out on the floor, with their energy unleashed and with each of us passing his hands over them like some proud Ouija wizard, that they could make a difference, make all the difference, in the outcome of the game.
I used to put hexes on Michael's Will Clark. He once threatened to tear my Orel Hershiser in half. I mocked him for Kevin Mitchell's sleepy look. He was all over me because Alfredo Griffin's 1988 card actually was shot when Griffin was still with the A's. We thumbed the cards like rosaries. We shuffled pinch-hitters and relievers in and out. We were at war. We were compadres.
When Michael died suddenly in a car accident five years later, it wasn't the eulogies at his funeral, the old photographs or the stories and memories of friends that made it possible to wrap my mind around him being gone. It was a card. Back at Michael's house after the services, I stood in his den and looked at the CDs and books on his shelves, and then I saw it, the Will Clark, perched on the shelf in front of his Coltrane discs, sitting there like some sacred object on an altar. Like Michael, Clark looked like he was jawing at me, like he was having a last laugh, like he was giving me the business. And like me, Clark looked incredulous, too, like he couldn't believe he and I were the only ones left, like this was madness.
I took the little bastard down off the shelf and put him on the floor, in front of the TV, on the first base side. And then I sat down cross-legged beside him. Just sat there. Missing Michael. Feeling good and bad at once. Knowing everything was different. Feeling somehow, just for a moment, as if it were all the same.
Even when you and I were kids, first collecting, baseball cards were about memories. You held Mike Schmidt's card in your hand and you pictured the flight of his last long home run into the seats in left at the Vet. You saw in the close-up shot of Nolan Ryan the steely eyes you'd gotten a glimpse of on TV weeks before, peeking out from under his cap as he racked up another double-digit strikeout afternoon.
Over time, as we got older, the cards -- the collecting, the sorting, the trading, the hours spent in their company and in the company of friends who felt their magic, too -- became memories themselves.
That's what this piece, this collection of pieces, is about. It's about the way some special card opens a door to a particular place and time. It's about the way a card, for whatever reason, stays with you, lingers in the imagination, does some kind of magic.
I asked my colleagues at Page 2 to tell me about a card like that in their lives. Here's what they had to say:
I was the oldest child, and my dad wasn't a sports fan. Nobody in my extended family was. So my baseball card addiction wasn't inherited, nor was it influenced by brothers or cousins.
It all started because I loved playing baseball and listening to St. Louis Cardinals games, which were brought to life via the radio in the bedroom I shared with my destined-to-become-a-famous-chef brother. In Oklahoma City, the voice and conscience of the Cardinals, Harry Caray, came in as loudly and clearly on KMOX out of St. Louis as my little brother telling my mother to make me turn down my bloomin' radio.
As fate would have it, the first card on top of the first pack I ever bought, at the neighborhood 7-Eleven in 1960, was
a St. Louis Cardinal! Well, at least Gino Cimoli had been a Cardinal the previous year. In fact, Gino was a Cardinal for only the '59 season, batting .279 with eight homers and 72 RBI for a pretty lousy 71-83 team.
But all I saw was that Cardinals logo on his chest -- those cartoonish redbirds perched on either end of a bat -- and I was hooked. I began buying more and more baseball cards just for the rush of tearing off the wrapper and slowly revealing each card to see if I got another Cardinal. Stan Musial! Curt Flood! Ken Boyer! Bob Gibson! Bill White!
This became my private little Cardinal lotto game. I somehow thought if a Cardinal popped up in the pack I bought that day, my Little League team would win that evening and my Cardinals would win that night. So after I opened my cards, I was pretty much done with them. Never traded a single one. I just took them home -- including the Mantles and the Koufaxes -- and tossed them in this giant box that would barely slide under the bunk bed.
After that first summer, I tired of playing Cardinal lotto -- but I kept buying baseball cards for several more years. Only now do I realize why.
What I actually got hooked on was the bubble gum. Yes, I lived to smell those flat sticks of pink gum that were almost as wide and as thin as the cards themselves. Ah, that fine white sugar coating that came off like fairy dust on a Musial or a Gibson.
Baseball card gum gave you the greatest initial burst of flavor of anything you could put in your mouth, from Reese's to Nestle's. The problem was, that flavor lasted about 45 seconds before baseball card gum began to taste like asparagus. So you were constantly chucking barely chewed gum in favor of a brand new fairy-dusted stick.
Only now do I realize this was a plot to make America's kids buy more cards. In the end, I must have had 10,000 crammed into that giant box.
Years later, when I realized some of them might be valuable, I called my mom to see if that box was still in her attic. Of course, she had thrown it out when I left for college. Probably justice. I was really no more than a gum collector.
Jim Pisoni played nine games for the Milwaukee Braves in 1959. Nine games!!! So why was his baseball card in every other pack I bought or was given that year? It surely wasn't because of Pisoni's stellar statistics the previous season, because he wasn't even in the major leagues in 1958; and in 1957, he appeared in a grand total of 44 games for the A's. I doubt the manufacturers were flooding the market to satisfy an adoring public's insatiable demand for his card.
I know Jim Pisoni's stats now 'cause I just looked 'em up. He hit .167 in his nine 1959 games in a Braves' uniform. In five major league seasons, including stints with the A's and the Yankees, his career batting average was .212.
Back then, though, all I knew was that he was a nobody, and I seemed to have a shoe box stuffed to the gills with his nobody cards.
We -- and by "we" I mean me and the scores of other Braves fans I presumed to be out there in the big, wide, wonderful world beyond Fairborn, Ohio, who wanted nothing more for our birthdays than a full box of card packs to open -- ached for Hank Aaron's card. Or Eddie Matthews, or Warren Spahn, or Billy Bruton, Lew Burdette, Joe Adcock, Del Crandall, Wes Covington
anybody who played a key role on the Milwaukee juggernaut that won the World Series in '57, lost it in '58 and dropped a three-game playoff series against the Dodgers for the National League pennant in '59.
Instead, we -- and by "we" I mean "me" this time -- always got Pisoni. Over and over again. He played nine games for the Braves that year, and I had at least 20 of his cards. Something's wrong with that picture.
You know what? You go back and look at his baseball card picture now, and you can see what's wrong. In Pisoni's posed photo, he wears the expression of a .212 career hitter. It's the look of a player who suspects he doesn't really belong in a real major league uniform on a real major league baseball card, a player who knows he won't be in that uniform very much longer. He looks worried.
It's the look of a man who carries with him every day the awful knowledge that his card keeps disappointing and frustrating an 8-year-old kid in Ohio, over and over again.
It was a crumpled-up, old grocery bag, bursting at the seams, sporting a few good rips and appearing to be at least 5 years old.
And it contained pure gold.
My jaw dropped as I saw its contents come pouring out onto the carpet.
A '75 George Brett. A '78 Eddie Murray. A '75 Robin Yount. A '77 Andre Dawson. A '78 Jack Morris.
My best friend and I didn't need a Beckett's guide to tell us that we'd just hit the mother lode.
The year was 1986, and my buddy and I spent every spare cent bolstering our baseball collection. We called it an "investment," but that was just a fancy way of saying that girls weren't returning our phone calls at the time.
So, we poured ourselves into our hobby of carefully sliding 3x5 pieces of cardboard into plastic sheets that we kept in a three-ring binder. On weekends, we hit the rummage sales with the senior circuit, hoping to find that shoe box loaded with thousands of dollars of cards, selling for 50 cents or a buck.
Finally, on that spring day in '86, we found our holy grail.
Hearing that a senior jock needed to sell part of his collection, we followed him home from school one day. Maybe he needed beer money. Maybe he wanted speakers for his car. Maybe he needed extra cash to take his hot senior girlfriend to the prom.
We didn't ask questions. We just sat in his living room, waiting for him to come back with the "bag."
Seconds later, we were staring at a virtual murderer's row from the 1970s. Rookies, All-Stars, Hot Prospects, aging Hall of Famers. They were all there in front of us.
Two cards glowed at me like fluorescent needles in that wonderful haystack.
Both from 1975. Both Topps rookie cards. Both the "mini" versions -- rumored to have been only distributed in California (or so the legend went) and worth even more than the full-sized version.
Two of my favorite players: George Brett and Robin Yount.
I didn't care that these cards were less than perfect. The frayed edges and off-center borders meant nothing to me.
This was Brett, the hot-hitting Royals third baseman with the movie-star looks who could do no wrong in my book. (Especially since I had no idea what hemorrhoids were back in 1980.)
This was Yount, the guy who led Harvey's Wallbangers to the '82 World Series (damn you, Willie McGee) and was cool enough to play both shortstop and center field.
"We'll give you 50 bucks," barked my partner as I stood there drooling over cardboard porn.
"Done," said the senior jock, punctuating it with a chuckle as if he were taking a couple of sophomores for a ride.
In reality, we'd committed a felony. But we didn't really care. After all, he had a girlfriend and a car
what did he need with an awesome card collection?
My buddy and I later split up our windfall. He got the Brett. I took the Yount.
It still sits on the mantle in my TV room -- a reminder of the great heist of '86, the good ol' days before eBay taught everyone that even a ripped-up grocery bag can be priceless.
My favorite baseball card of all time is the No. 21 card from the Topps 1982 set. It was labeled "Future Stars" and showcased three rising talents in the farm system of the Baltimore Orioles, my local team when I was growing up.
(In my childhood naiveté, I thought that the "Future Stars" card was some sort of bargain: Three players for the price of one! I only later realized that they probably really put three players on their "Future" cards to hedge their bets.)
Long before touted young players were minted into "rookie" cards the moment they were drafted, they were stuck in a photo array with a couple of minor league teammates, like the card collector was supposed to look at them as if they were a book of mug shots down at the police station and pick out the right one: "Yes! That's the one!"
Each team got a "Future Stars" card, and, if a fan was lucky, you heard about one of them a year or two (or more) later. If you were really lucky, one of the players turned out to be more "star" than "future."
That 1982 Topps No. 21? From the Orioles: Shortstop Bob Bonner, pitcher Jeff Schneider and, in the middle, a third baseman named Cal Ripken Jr.
This would become Ripken's "rookie" card, currently valued around $20 or $30, but it took more than 20 years for me to finally realize my focus on the player in the middle led me to ignore the far more fascinating stories on the "Future Stars" on the margins.
We know what happened to Ripken. What happened to the other two guys? (Well, aside from not becoming stars.) Do you think they have copies of this card? Does it make them smile? Wistful? Frustrated?
Inevitably, one player (at most) of any "Future Stars" trio would make it; the other two faded into obscurity, with their biggest baseball legacy likely being that they were featured on the rookie baseball card of someone far more successful.
As I look back on that card, which for so long for me was all about Ripken, its drama turned out to be just as much about the whiffs as the hit.
In 1989 I set about on a mission that millions of boys my age did that year -- yes, ridding girls of the scourge of cooties -- but also gaining ownership of the Bill Ripken Fleer card in which the words "F--- FACE" were visible on the knob of his bat. Unfortunately for me, I never did get that card. And unfortunately for Bill Ripken, he probably never stopped getting referred to his new nickname by baseball fans due to his .247 career batting average and 20 home runs over 12 seasons.
My disappointment over missing out on the Ripken card was relieved, however, by my first and only quest to compile an entire set. And in my infinite little-kid wisdom I chose the 1989 Topps set, which was made unique by its bland design and lack of valuable rookie cards. After using almost all my allowance to purchase well over $100 worth of packs throughout the summer, I finally got the entire set. Sure, the 1989 Topps set was only worth 20 bucks in 1989, I told myself, but it would be worth far more in the future. And I was right. Today it is worth
let me consult an online price guide here
it's now worth
$26. Twenty-six dollars?! What the
six bucks of value gained in 17 years?! That's horrible. That's below inflation. At this rate, by the time I'm 80, the only thing I'll be able to get with the sale of my '89 Topps set is a delicious glass of orange juice.
But, hey, it's not all bad. At least I have my dozen or so Gregg Jefferies rookie cards. They're like money in the bank. They call him the next Pete Rose, you know.
I began my baseball card-collecting career in 1986, when I was 8 years old. Perhaps that's why I still find the '86 Topps design so aesthetically pleasing, with those large block letters spelling out the team name on top.
My favorite card? The '86 Topps card of my favorite player, Don Mattingly. Now, for the record, I'm no bandwagon Yankees fan. My father grew up a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium on the Grand Concourse. He actually worked for the Yankees, helping handle fan mail, during the famed summer of 1961 (and you can imagine there was a lot of fan mail that summer). I'm a born and bred Bronx Bomber.
And yes, I've been spoiled over the past decade. But I will never forget the desperate teams that the Yankees fielded during the prime of my card-collecting years. Back then I couldn't imagine the Yankees winning a World Series. I still have nightmares about some of those teams, the pitching staffs in particular (Andy Hawkins and Melido Perez ring a bell?).
But I always had one reason to turn on Channel 11, or WABC, or beg my father to take me to the Stadium. And that was No. 23, batting third, playing first base. Oh, that sweet swing, and that slick glove. Mattingly was the reason I kept watching the Yankees. Donnie Baseball is the reason I'm still a baseball fan.
When I got my hands on my first Mattingly card, it instantly became the prize of my collection. It wasn't his rookie card -- heck, Mattingly already had won an AL MVP by 1986. But it was my first
and you never forget your first.
Other fans might scoff at this -- especially Cubs fans, I imagine -- but I actually kinda miss that dreadful Yankee period. Maybe I just miss my dad. Maybe I miss a time when my most important pursuit could be collecting baseball cards. All I know is, I just found my second favorite baseball card. I just spent $24.99 (plus sales tax and shipping) on a Don Mattingly 1984 rookie card. I've never spent that much on a card.
There's no more worthy player. And there never will be. At least to me.
I did it at last. I had to give up a lot, but my ultimate All-Star baseball card collection became complete with the addition of Johnny Bench.
I prefer the action shots for cards. I always liked the ones where you could see Bench's bare-handed swing, or the grease lines under his eyes as he guarded the plate. Too bad his 1978 Topps card was a boring profile. But I didn't care. I had Bench on the team and that's all that mattered.
You'd think his card would be in every pack back then, but not where I grew up. A few of us kids around the block had set out collecting and trading cards that summer. We all had our team of favorites, and now I'd upgraded mine. With so many great players, it was a relief to have the one guy I wanted. It cost me a Rod Carew rookie card, a Tom Seaver card (I had doubles of both cards), a Wacky Packages set and my favorite football-shaped eraser. That might sound like an unbalanced deal, but to me Johnny Bench meant my ultimate goal with trading cards was reached. Not only did I have my favorite catcher, I had all my favorites on the desk, in position, at my fingertips.
These cards were kept separate from the foot-high stack of cards in the storage box in my closet. So separate that when my mom cleaned out my vacated room years later, they found their way into a box for the thrift store. "I didn't take anything from your box," she told me. Urrrrgh. At least I had my team, for a couple seasons.
I went with my mother to a baseball card show at the Astroarena when I was 9 years old. She'd given me 10 bucks to spend any way I saw fit, so I went to town. After a couple of hours of shopping, I saw a table with a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card.
The card, which showed a young, smiling Griffey in his San Bernardino Spirits duds, was the first card in the first Upper Deck set. Junior was on the fast track to stardom, so I really, really wanted this, his rookie card.
Plus, I figured it would be worth a lot of money some day.
But it cost 12 bucks. I had only two. I went and begged my mother for some more dough, but she told me that was too much for a child to pay for a baseball card.
It must not have been too much for an adult to pay, however. Ten minutes later, I came back to the table to find my mother using the negotiation skills she learned in Nigerian marketplaces to get a deal on my card. Mom talked the dude down to 10 bucks and had herself a baseball card.
Needless to say, I wasn't too happy.
My old man swore to me that she was just waiting for the right time to give the card to me, maybe after a good report card or something.
Sixteen years later, the card is still sitting on her dresser in a protective case. And 16 years later, it's still a helluva card.
Everyone claims their mother threw away their baseball cards, but that's simply an unfair stereotype. I don't know why everyone insists on blaming their poor, devoted mothers for such a hideous crime when they know full well the true blame usually lies elsewhere.
For instance, my father threw mine away.
He probably doesn't remember it, but one night when I was 6 years old I had my cards spread all over the living room. My father is a very patient man, but when I ignored his repeated orders to clean up the cards or have them thrown away, he simply stomped in, swept them up in his arms and whisked them away.
For years I searched for those cards, certain that he had carefully hidden them. But I never found them. For all I know, they're buried with Jimmy Hoffa.
But I haven't given up. He took those cards away almost 40 years ago, yet when I was helping him clean out the house to put it on sale last winter, I still hoped to find them somewhere.
I didn't. And the worst thing is, I know, I mean I just know, that there were about four Nolan Ryan rookie cards in there.
I was once, I admit, a baseball card nerd.
Piles of cards, plastic sleeves, price guides, cardboard boxes
let's just say I spent a few hours sorting those 1983 Topps
and 1984 Topps
and 1985 Topps
OK, you get the picture.
(My wife likes to say I was "playing" with the baseball cards. I think she means it affectionately. But why does she laugh when she says this?)
Anyway, this obsession (which, by the way, is long past; I haven't purchased a pack of cards for myself in probably 15 years) began back in 1978.
With George Foster.
It was the season after he hit 52 home runs. For you kids out there, that was a lot of home runs once upon a time. The year before, in 1976, the league leaders had hit 38 and 32. So George Foster, with his black bat, menacing stare, long sideburns and 52 home runs, was a very, very big deal.
Every kid in the neighborhood had to have the George Foster baseball card.
I turned 9 that spring. My birthday was in May, which was an advantage -- back then, you didn't find the packs of Topps cards in the local drugstore until April, so when my birthday party rolled around I told all my friends I just wanted packs of cards as presents.
I ripped through the packs, passed out the pieces of pink gum to everyone, kept getting John Ellis (some stiff backup catcher for the Rangers) and Ron LeFlore
until, finally, there it was
George Foster, NL All-Star OF, bat on shoulder, Reds cap perched on his head. The first kid to have it. They cheered and patted me on the back. It was a big deal.
And better yet -- I now had a whole pile of cards to play with.
You've read our memories, now let's hear yours. Send us a short (no more than 200 words), smart, funny, touching reminiscence of your favorite baseball card.