SportsProf

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Kids and Baseball Cards

I loved baseball cards as a kid and, regrettably, don't have nearly the treasure trove of cards that I played with as early as kindergarten. Somehow, I have a bunch of Andy Etchebarren cards from the late 1960's, but my first big grouping is from 1973. I used to look at my cards and relish the times when my parents let my sister and me spend say ten cents at the pharmacy near where we lived -- yes, the place with a soda fountain that sold great milkshakes -- and buy a pack or two of baseball cards. The sugar from the flat stick of pink bubble gum would dust one of the cards the way confectioner's sugar garnishes a sacher tort, and we would look at the photographs and see if we got cards of our favorite players.

Kids would flip cards (although I didn't see the logic) or put them in the spokes of their bicycles, not worrying that they'd be bending corners or doing things that would render, say, a '69 Nolan Ryan card worthless. They were toys that were meant to be played with, not collectors items for boys who were unable to keep themselves clean let alone make sure that cards' corners didn't bend. They also didn't have the hard plastic holders that permeate the collecting world today.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and I recall being at my mother's house about nine months after my father died on a cold, wintry February day, stopping by for Sunday dinner. She showed me an article in The New York Times about baseball cards, and the article referenced the ten most valuable baseball cards at the time. One of those mentioned was Mike Schmidt's rookie card, and the peaked my curiosity. I hadn't checked out my card collection in a long time, and I went up to my old room to see if they were still there.

Old rooms are interesting things, aren't they? Sources of comfort and discomfort simultaneously, they're reminders both of the comforts of childhood and the struggles of youth. There's stuff in there that brings warm smiles, and there's stuff that reminds you of awkward times when you were en route to becoming fully formed. Thankfully, my old room contained more good reminders (such as the pennants of pro football teams that my dad used to buy for a quarter and bring me after going to Eagles games with his friends) than bad, and I went to this small closet that was in the midst of a wall unit that had been in my room forever. That closet was always a space for things I treasured, and, yes, in old shoeboxes, my baseball cards were still there. (To my mother's credit, I figured they would be).

I went through the cards, and the '73 set were still of the stripe that saw the full set printed not at once but in series. Roughly translated, that meant that the higher number cards were printed at the end of the year, and there weren't as many of them (which can make them more valuable). At the end of the set were rookie cards, and that was in the day when there were three rookies to a card. As I might have predicted, I had perhaps ten rookie cards that featured current Major League coach Rick Stelmaszek, but what else was there? Would my childhood equivalent of Willie Wonka's Golden Ticket be there? After all, I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, and Mike Schmidt was the man, the best third baseman ever, and, well, as a baseball fan and a loyal Phillies' fan, finding Schmidt's rookie card on this miserable February day less than a year after my father, my best buddy Phillies' fan, had died, would have been some wonderful First Aid for the soul. I needed some succor, some infusion of feeling after a post-mourning period of sadness that hits you once you have to put your life together after friends and family have gone back to theirs. As time passes, the memories of good times make you stronger, but in the year after the loss of the loved one, you can't help but thinking about what you used to do with them at that time. Especially on awful February days, where the rain hits you hard and makes your world seem small and suffocating.

So, I went through the box with care, found some old cards that featured teammates together, Kaline and Cash of the Tigers, Mays and McCovey of the Giants, and even happened on a Denny McLain card. Younger fans might not remember him or might have heard of him because of his post-baseball brushes with the law, but he was the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, and I remember seeing him win his 30th on the NBC Game of the Week and the fans going absolutely bonkers. I think they gave him such loud cheers for a curtain call that they actually summoned him out of the locker room to cheer him again. That's what baseball cards do, when you look at them years later on a rainy day -- they bring back memories of seeing Buddy Bradford hit two home runs in a game for the Cards against the Phillies before a paltry crowd at Vet Stadium or Mike McCormick's winning 20 games for the Giants in the late 1960's, or Randy Jones and Steve Carlton hooking up for a 1-0 affair in the mid-70's in a game that took 1:30 to play.

After going through bunches of doubles and triples, including about half dozen of Carl Yastrzemski, I found the card. Buried amidst the Jim Crawfords, Jim Yorks and Rico Cartys was one genuine Mike Schmidt rookie card. Amidst the gloom of a cold winter's day and a period of my life I'd like to forget, I found that sustenance. Sure, it wasn't like I ran a marathon or struck out the side in high school or accomplished anything through my actions, but nonetheless finding this card struck a chord in me. It represented a piece of my childhood, a time when I went to ballgames with my dad, drank 32-ounce cokes in 90-degree weather on Sundays and heard a guy named Charlie Franks, a hot-dog vendor with a voice that sounded like razorblades on glass saying, "Dogs, get your dogs here." A time when dads just made things right and offered the assurance, however fleeting, that all would be okay. Especially at a time when all was not okay.

Yesterday a bunch of cards I bought at auction on eBay arrived. I purchased a set of 2006 cards for each of my kids, and they had fun poring over them. My daughter expressed glee at getting the rookie card of a Phillie, a shortstop named Danny Sandoval. I responded by saying that I didn't know who he was, privately hoping that he's some phenom that the Phils found somewhere who would offer insurance should injuries befall Jimmy Rollins. Later that night I checked out Sandoval in The Baseball Prospectus, only to review their verdict that only the paucity of talent in the Phillies' farm system enabled Sandoval to make the Phillies' 40-man roster. My son was happy to get Mets, Yankees and Phillies, because his friends in kindergarten root for those three teams. My daughter tried to convince him that he should only root for the Phillies, but my wife and I assured both children that they're free to root for whom they choose.

We went over the cards together last night, again this morning at breakfast, and once again tonight. We talked about Ichiro and why he didn't have a last name listed on a card, we looked at the photo of a mammoth Orioles' rookie named Walter Young, talked about A-Rod and Derek Jeter, Jim Thome and Albert Pujols, whom I advised is the best hitter in the game right now. We laughed at Julio Franco's card, for while the kids were in awe that there's a player older than dad they laughed because the photo focused on the butt of the Mets' back-up utility player. I talked about Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Tommy Glavine. I had a harder time explaining why it didn't look like any Phillies' pitchers will make the Hall of Fame. It's hard, at such a young age, to admit that the team to whom you show your blind loyalty isn't immortal. Kids resonate with super heroes, and the trials of a 162-game schedule and beyond make mere mortals of even a Pujols, whose wonderbat was reduced to a swizzle stick by Boston's pitchers two years ago in the World Series.

We keep the cards in the boxes that they came in on our dining room table. They're a great way to teach the kids the game and who the key players are, and their artistry always seems to work magic. True, the kids won't experience the fun of walking into the corner drug store with a few coins and purchasing a few packs, and, no, there's no stick of gum with the sugar coming off it. Come to think of it, it's hard to find places that sell packs of cards (the Wal-Marts and Targets sell pre-packaged boxes for $9.99 or more), and where packs are sold, they cost at least $1.99. There isn't much that pocket change will buy you any more, most certainly not baseball cards.

I've bought the kids some cards over the past couple of seasons, and I've given them some duplicates of cards that I have, including some good ones. They keep them in their rooms neatly in boxes, and every now and then they look at them. We're going to six Phillies' games this season, and I promised my daughter that I'll teach her how to keep score. Right now, I'm teaching her about the difference between singles, doubles and triples, and how runs are scored. My guess is that I knew this at about five or six, because we didn't have sports leagues for kids that young then, there were afternoon papers that my father brought home that had partial scores of games, and, well, there just wasn't much else to do. Baseball was the national pastime without a doubt, and we all picked it up like a second language. If we weren't playing it, we were watching it.

My heart warmed last night when I saw the glee with which my eight year-old and six year-old opened their cards and the fun they had looking at them. I love their child-like exuberance about the game, innocent as they are about steroids, players telling kids to buzz off when asking for autographs and the seemingly average ownership group that makes the Phillies baseball's perpetual Sisyphus, trying but not succeeding to get to the playoffs. None of that mattered to them.

"Hey Dad, I have a 'Ryan Howard Rookie of the Year' card."

"Dad, how do you pronounce this name?"

"Dad, is Charlie Manuel a good manager?"

"I have A-Rod."

"I have Derek Jeter."

"Is it okay to root for the Yankees? This boy in my class does."

Oh, how I love it so.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometime in the mid-seventies, when I was away for my last summer of camp, my mother threw out all of my complete sets of baseball cards from both 1965 and 1966. It wouldn't bother me so much, but she was otherwise a pack rat and kept everything else. I could buy a new car with those cards now!

11:03 AM  
Blogger Jerry said...

The first year that I vividly remember collecting was the 1977 Topps edition. I was a Cincinnati Reds fan so every card I got from the Reds was exciting.. Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo... even Ed Armbrister.

I think I collected on and off until about the late 80's when it got too confusing with Fleer, Donruss, etc. Then it got worse with all the other brands and the different series within brands. I miss the old Topps days with the pink stick of bubble gum.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Charlottesvillain said...

Wonderful post. There's just something about baseball, isn't there? I've still got small batch of cigarette cards that my grandfather collected in 1907, with the old painted pictures. A couple of big names like Christy Matthewson, Frank Chance. We went on a similar quest through that drawer after reading about the Honus Wagner cards, but alas, we were not as lucky as you were in your quest for Schmidt.

Speaking of Denny McClain, one rarely known fact is that in 1969 he recorded an album of organ instrumentals for Capitol Records. I've never been able to lay my hands on it, although I his cut of "Girl from Ipanema" can be found on Organs in Orbit, volume 11 of Capitol's Ultra Lounge collection.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is an old link so I hope you see it.
3 things: I remember reading that very young kids have photographic memories that they lose.
I collected baseball cards in the late fifites when a good trade was a Mickey Mantle for a Willie Mays..
Besides flipping heads and tails or closet to the wall we would also compaire our decks with friends.

It was simple we would (in no time) flip threw our cards and the other would say "gottem gottem needem gottem needem and so on. Somehow we all new ever card we had or didn't have. Its weird but true.

3:57 AM  
Blogger Rael said...

hi! more gasoline for baseball reminiscin' at the stunning 1952 Topps set, or to this baseball blog. Please do visit my baseball card collecting tips.

1:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice article. I actually found it looking for Charlie Frank. I only got my dawgs from him at the Vet. His wife used to work at our high school as a para-professional (that's what they were called in the mid 70's) and I think I found out from her he used to sell ice cream at the Palestra too. One time at the Vet I asked him for an ice cream and he responded, "Why do you ask for ice cream when all I got is HOT DAHHHHHHGS?" I also remembered getting packs for a dime, the series and flipping, trading, and putting them in our bike spokes. Why now is my rookie Schmidt in plastic? You've convinced me to give them to my 11, 8, and 6 year olds so I can relive the joy watching them. Remember Wahoo Bill? Everybody hits..Wahoo Leave him in there...Wahoo!

12:10 PM  

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