An Ode to Baseball Cards
Twenty observations, anecdotes, half-truths, non-sequiturs, and sweet, sweet memories of a childhood spent with cardboard.
(Or, one item for every penny a pack cost 30 years ago.)
1. Your favorite set is most likely the one from your first year of collecting or following baseball. For me, it’s the simple, elegant 1978 Topps set, though I was later fond of the overproduced and now utterly worthless ’87 Topps set - you know, the ones with the fake wood paneling that were apparently designed with your dad’s old station wagon in mind. I have a good buddy who insists the blindingly gaudy ’76 Topps set was the best ever produced. Then again, it was his first year of collecting, and he happens to be color blind. Looking at those cards too long is probably what did it.
2. A rare card in your collection allows you to dare to dream of untold riches . . . at least temporarily. I could not have been the only 11-year-old in 1981 who discovered he owned the allegedly scarce ‘‘Craig’’ Nettles Fleer card, immediately got dollar signs in his eyes, and began plotting to buy a new 10-speed, cards by the case, a Cheryl Ladd poster, perhaps a red Lamborghini, and whatever else it is that 11-year-olds desire. (FYI: The Nettles wasn’t so rare after all; it now goes for $2 on eBay. I still haven’t got a Lamborghini, or for that matter, a decent bike.)
3. Other than perhaps a photographic archive at Cooperstown, cards serve as the premier visual history of the sport. And we’re not just talking about classics such as Mays in ’52, The Mick in ’56, or Koufax in ’66. Baseball cards also remind you, for instance, that Barry Bonds once had Kenny Lofton’s physique, a
muttonchopped Ozzie Smith actually made the Padres’ McDonald’s-inspired uniform look somewhat cool, and Oscar Gamble’s ’fro set a hair-raising standard never to be duplicated except possibly on the dance floor of Studio 54 in the summer of '77.
4. In the ’70s, Topps’s graphic artists and air-brushers were hired only after they failed the Tippy the Turtle test for the Art Instruction Institute: Did Greg Minton really look this? Was Mike Paxton actually one-dimensional? And did Andy Etchebarren seriously have a monobrow covering his entire forehead?(Wait . . . he did? That’s not airbrushed? The poor man.)
5. Other than having their own page on baseballreference.com, nothing validates an obscure player’s career more than appearing on his own card. Tom Newell, a personal favorite whose entire big-league life consisted of two relief appearances with the ’87 Phillies, appeared on two major-league cards. Not a bad ratio.
6. Rated Rookies often proved second-rate, and Future Stars more than occasionally turned out to be future insurance salesmen. One example of this phenoms-and-flops phenomenon is the ’87 Donruss set, which rated the top rookies to be Greg Maddux, Mark McGwire, Bo Jackson, Rafael Palmeiro . . . followed in the Donruss lineup by Pat Dodson, Bruce Fields, Ken Gerhart, and Jim Lindeman. But when you’re batting close to .500 in anything, I suppose you’re doing okay.
7. And who am I to judge anyway, for in my occasional attempts at investing in rookies, I proved comically inept at forecasting a player’s future. In a related note, if you know someone who wants a block of 100 1989 Topps Sil Campusano cards, I’m easy to reach. Heck, I’ll even throw in 50 1986 Topps Andres Thomases. But I’m keeping the 25 1986 Otis Nixons.
8. A childhood addiction does not lead to a life of crime: When I was in fourth grade, I got busted sneaking off school grounds at lunch to go to the neighborhood store and buy a hot dog and a few packs of . . . baseball cards. (What, you thought I’d say Virginia Slims?) Instead of confessing, I went with the tried-and-true ‘‘it must have been another kid that looks like me’’ defense, and when that Rusty Hardin-caliber argument crashed and burned, I lied and said I had the okay from my parents to do it. My masterstroke: A forged permission slip scribbled in broken cursive saying something like, ‘‘My sun Chad has permishin to by hot dogs at lunch so you can leave him alone now so he can go by hotdogs at lunch. And baseball cards also. Now leave him a lone. Thanks, Chad’s mom.’’ Needless to say, my scam soon ended with a tearful confession in the principal’s office. My parents’ punishment was both cruel and ironic: They took away my baseball cards for something like a month.
9. The Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card was never my most cherished from the 1982 Topps Traded set. Why? Because on his lone big-league card, an obscure (47 career at-bats) Mariners outfielder named Steve Stroughter appears to be proudly showing off a lovely lime-green booger in his nostril. That’s why. And no, some of us never do outgrow adolescent humor.
10. Growing up on the mean streets of Bath, Maine, I never saw anyone riding their bicycles with baseball cards in the spokes. And if I did, I’d have shoved the ungrateful little punks off their banana-seated Huffys and rescued all the Garry Templetons, Oscar Zamoras, and Felix Millans as if they were my own cardboard children. Because that’s how I rolled, yo.
11. Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card is a legitimately iconic card, as Darren Rovell explained so well in a Slate.com article last month, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The advent of Upper Deck, with its attractive, high-end cards, signaled the official transition from a hobby to a business, driving away countless collectors such as, well, me. I hate to sound like one of those ‘‘Back in my day . . . ’’ grumpy geezers, but it simply became too much for the mind (and wallet) to keep up with all the complicated and expensive Topps Chrome, SPx, Fleer Flair, and SP Authentics sets the companies relentlessly cranked out. And for the life of me I will never understand why a splinter or a swatch from a game-used bat or jersey is so appealing. I guess I’m just old.
12. It’s always a kick to see current managers the way they were as players, 30 or so years and 30 or so pounds ago: You know, back when Terry Francona had a mane, Lou Piniella didn’t yet have rabies, and Joe Torre looked . . . pretty much the same, actually, albeit with fewer nose hairs.
13. Those two cards you needed to complete your set would forever elude you, no matter how many packs you bought. Someday I will get you, Kiko Garcia and Gene Pentz! (Raises fist, shakes it furiously at the sky.) Someday, I will get you! (All right, probably not.)
14. The snot-nosed neighborhood kid who refused to trade you his doubles of Garcia and Pentz when he knew your desperation is now the same jerk-store refugee who just offered you Chien-Ming Wang and Phil Hughes for Brandon Webb and Edinson Volquez in your Rotisserie baseball league. Dude, you really need better friends.
15. The infamous 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken error card was all different kinds of awesome. Me, I always wondered what it said on the rest of his bats.
16. If you close your eyes right now, you can still smell the pink rectangle of gum/cement that came in Topps packs through the ’70s. Sure, the thing tasted about as good as a Jorge Orta card, and with less nutritional value, but to my 8-year-old self, it was a slice of creative genius. It was gum! With baseball cards! Why, of course I chewed it, every single stick from every single pack. In a related note, I’m pretty sure I’ve single-handedly paid for my dentist’s ski getaway in Aspen.
17. Dental reconstruction wasn’t the only downside to the so-called gum. Inevitably, that coveted Rickey Henderson rookie card would end up damaged by the gum’s sticky, chalky residue, while your 328th Mario Mendoza would escape unscathed. Sometimes there is no justice.
18. Like the game itself, they enhanced your bond with your dad. There were few things that brought me more joy as an 8-year-old then when my father would return from a trip to the store with two packs of ’78 Topps, and I still remember him sitting on the floor with me in my bedroom and helping me sort my cards so that traded players were with their new teams. Maybe I’m overly sentimental — okay, I am overly sentimental — but the memory is my version of Ray Kinsella’s catch with his dad.
19. . . . and someday, they will enhance my bond with my own children. Though my collecting nowadays consists of an occasional convenience store impulse purchase — the usual adult responsibilities, the advent of the $4.99 pack, and the realization that it was maybe a little odd for a grown man to hoard pictures of other grown men halted that habit — my tens of thousands of cards are tidily tucked away in the attic and my home office, waiting to be rediscovered by my young children a few years from now. Hopefully, they’ll never notice that Gene Pentz and Kiko Garcia are nowhere to be found.
20. ‘‘The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book’’ is a literary classic and should be taught in all high schools throughout the United States and certain parts of Canada. If you enjoyed reading this anywhere close to as much as I enjoyed writing it — and bless your cardboard-lovin’ soul if you did — then I guarantee you will treasure this nostalgic look at cards of the ’50s and ’60s, written with delightful wit by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris. I’d love to read a sequel featuring cards of the ’70s and ’80s but it’s hard to imagine it would do the original justice.
Chad Finn is a sports copy editor at The Boston Globe and the founder and sole writer of Boston.com’s Touching All The Bases, a blog that takes a passionate but irreverent look at Boston sports. He lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife Jennifer, their children Leah and Alex, and a cat named after Otis Nixon.