Central among my beliefs is that the 1987 Topps set is the finest collection of baseball cards ever produced. There are no hard facts to support this claim, only my personal zealotry, and though I understand that my love is highly subjective, and the product of timing and circumstance as much as it is of accomplishment in design, I’m unshakable: this is the set, this is the year.
Arguments can and frequently are made for the 1952 Topps set, with its bold primary colours, its painterly portraits, and its Mickey Mantle rookie card, and had I been born a generation earlier I’d likely agree. If I’d been alive to see it first, I’d have been aware that the ‘87s owed much to the 1962 Topps, and so might’ve fallen in love with that set to the exclusion of all others. On the other hand the 1915 Cracker Jack set is iconic for good reason, and our impressions of the white border tobacco card set issued from 1909 to 1911 are necessarily favorable both for the design’s simplicity as well as for its inclusion of the famed Honus Wagner card.
But give me ’87.
Each card presents a photo, either action or posed, with the player’s team’s logo in a roundel in the upper-left corner, and the player’s name in a colored rectangular box with a black border in the lower right, the name rendered in an all-caps font that appears to be a kissing cousin to comic sans. But the background is what distinguishes: faux wood, the unstained grain of a Louisville Slugger running top to bottom, with enough subtle variance from card to card to suggest that real wood was used, or at least consulted, at some point during the design process. The overall effect places the cards adjacent to something real, something natural: wood bats swung through thick summer air, connecting with genuine horsehide balls, which are sent skidding across dirt and grass before settling into the soft, worn pockets of leather mitts.
Career stats—often including minor league numbers, if the player in question has only a year or two of big league experience, and so speaking offhandedly of Kinston, North Carolina, or Syracuse, New York, or Visalia, California—listed on the reverse in blue against a highlighter-yellow background, overtop an unbleached cardboard stock.
In Canada they were branded O-Pee-Chee, and featured what felt like a token effort toward bilingualism, the player’s position in both French and English, as well as the small biographic fun facts, and yet with statistical categories listed only in English. They were otherwise virtually identical to the American originals.
I bought them from convenience stores—Becker’s on Youville Drive, or Mac’s on St. Joseph Boulevard—for thirty-five cents for a wax pack of 17 cards. If my father was sent out in the evening for a liter of milk, sometimes he’d come home with one in hand. My friends collected them, too, and we traded, with an eye toward amassing our favorites. We were not yet victims of the belief that these rectangles of paper would make us rich. This was a couple of years before the hobby became an industry, at least in my part of the world, characterized by conventions and trade shows where children were elbowed aside by grown men with dollar signs where their eyes ought to have been. The card and comic shop down the hill on St. Joseph hadn’t yet opened.
Joe Posnanski has said that baseball is never as beautiful as it is when you’re ten years old. I guess I’m testifying to that—or anyway, to that general time in my life between about eight and twelve. I watched the NBC Game of the Week, scattered Blue Jays games on CBC, TSN, and CTV, and a weekly digest show on CTV called Blue Jays Banter. When a Jays game wasn’t on TV, which was the norm, I listened to the broadcast on AM radio, CFRA or W-1310, on a transistor unit next to my bed.
Around the time that the Blue Jays reported to Dunedin for Spring Training, 1987, I would have started collecting the cards in question, noticing with great interest when the display box appeared on store counters. This was mere months after Boston’s historic Game 6 collapse (“It gets through Buckner!”) and the Mets’ subsequent title; it was two seasons after 1985’s painful memories, which saw Toronto enter the postseason for the first time in their existence, only to lose the ALCS in heartbreaking fashion to the Royals (I have yet to forgive George Brett). Kansas City then defeated their cross-state rivals, the Cardinals, in seven games to earn their first title. Stacked together, along with what would eventually transpire at the end of the ’87 season—Frank Viola and the Twins besting the Cardinals to win their first Series—that might represent the most thrilling three-year run in the game’s history, with three consecutive seven-gamers that’d be hard to imagine if they hadn’t actually happened. It was, I mean to say, a wonderful time to be a baseball-loving kid, and a great time to collect cards.
We’d lived on Rivermill Crescent in suburban Ottawa since the late summer of 1984, when we’d arrived to find our newly built house surrounded by mounds of dirt, open foundations, and unpaved driveways. Across the street, behind the houses under construction, was a great thick forest, a ravine treed with mostly deciduous species—beech and birch and maple—and hatched with trails. In the middle of it wended a silty creek cut deep into banks of mud.
As the neighborhood rose around us, the houses filled with families who presented a tribute to the nascent diversity of Canada’s capital. My new friends’ families came from Hong Kong and Pakistan, the boys my age first generation kids who loved Michael Jordan and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My friend Wil lived across the street. He was a Giants fan—Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell—though what it meant to be a fan of a team on the West Coast, or really of a team from anywhere other than the nearest major market, was not what it means today. Before the internet the scarcity of information, the lack of regular televised games, and the lag between when a thing happened and when it appeared in the newspaper’s sports section, all conspired to illustrate how far away everything was on this enormous continent. Chicago was the moon; San Francisco, and all the West Coast, was Mars. You saw those players in color on rare Game of the Week appearances and then during the playoffs, if you were lucky; otherwise you contented yourself with deciphering box scores, cutting their photos out of glossy magazines, and collecting their cards.
As I preoccupied myself with all this, my older brother and sister wandered the thickets of adolescence, almost completely obscured from my view. Peter is six years older than I am; Robyn seven. For a long time the differences in our ages meant we had very little to do with one another. I sat alone in the backseat on family road trips while Robyn and Peter stayed home and hung out with friends, threw parties, waded neck-deep into teenage dramas.
Robyn had a boyfriend from across the Ottawa River named Yvon. He was dark-haired, stubbly, smoked cigarettes, and spoke with a Quebecois accent. He was always kind to me. Took me fishing once. Yvon drove a 1976 Dodge Colt in a swampy shade of green that had originally been my grandmother’s, but which came into my parents’ possession, which they then sold to Yvon for a few hundred dollars. I remember him paying my father cash, handing over what was to that point the largest sum of money I’d ever seen in my life, thinking that this was the adult world; this was what it was to transact business, to be connected to commerce.
Yvon didn’t know baseball, but he treated me like something other than a child, and he listened to me with patience. On a night in late summer or early fall, he parked the Colt between the street lights on Rivermill, across from the forest, and we lay atop the hood watching the Aurora play across the face of the night. It was astonishing, but what should have made the heavens feel proximate instead made me aware of the terrifying size of the sky under which we huddled.
I had thought, until quite recently, that I had a complete set of the 1987 O-Pee-Chees, but if I ever did I don’t now. The whole set comprises almost 800 cards; I might have a third of that. My stack seemed so large to my young eyes, but now it looks almost pathetically small. This, I take it, is an example of how things from that point in our lives come to assume outsize proportions. We build our own legends and then accept them as facts.
There are complete sets kicking around on eBay, on Amazon, and it’s tempting to go all in, to fork over a relatively small sum in order to capture in adulthood what tantalized and inspired wonder in childhood. But I guess it wouldn’t be the same. Something about this set tells me I could never actually complete it, not in the most important sense. Maybe the trick, or the lesson, is to be happy with what I already have.
There are cards in this set that I can sketch with my eyes closed, so iconic are they for me, so emblematic of that time. For some, they are in fact what flashes into my mind when a name is mentioned.
Texas catcher Darrell Porter in a pair of ridiculously large eyeglasses that may or may not be back in style now, depending on when you’re reading this.
Jack Morris, in Detroit’s home whites, having just released a pitch, his limbs in unnatural degrees of torque, his face a grimace of effort.
Fernando Valenzuela, fresh off a 21-win campaign, in Dodger roads, his plant leg rigid as while he lunges forward to send a screwball toward whatever unfortunate National Leaguer has dug in sixty and one-half feet away.
The Giants’ Juan Berenguer, a workhorse righty, looking imperiously over his left shoulder, above the camera, beyond the photographer, toward the horizon.
The luxuriously mustachioed Keith Hernandez, recent World Series champion, looking light and pleased with life, on a practice field somewhere in Florida.
Sturdy Floyd Bannister in the White Sox’ beach blanket home uniforms, his shoulders wide, his right leg just slightly recessed at the beginning of his motion.
Marty Barrett, the Boston second baseman, whose name in Vin Scully’s mouth during that ’86 Series is a sound indelibly linked to my childhood—Mah-ahty Bawrhit, Scully sang/spoke, inserting diphthongs and pauses where most of us wouldn’t dream of putting them—and whose ’87 card depicts him in bright sunshine acting as the pivot in a double play in what can only be Spring Training, for why else would there be a basketball hoop immediately beyond the wall just barely visible over Barrett’s shoulder?
A trio of A’s captured by a photographer during the same road game, in Tiger Stadium, I think, wearing Oakland’s ’86 green tops, and bathed in similar light: glowering Dave Stewart, in his windup, staring holes through a hitter, who is out of frame; reliever, and possessor of an all-time great baseball name, Moose Haas, warming up along the first base side, the rows of seats beyond him out of focus, receding into the darkness of the ballpark’s overhang; and still-skinny Mark McGwire, depicted during his ’86 cup of coffee, with no way of knowing all that lay before him.
Dave Stieb looking so uncannily like an old gym teacher of mine—same winged haircut, same mustache—who used to lead us in laps around the gym, playing Beach Boys records on a portable turntable perched on the gym’s stage, and who would reward us at the end of class by walking on his hands around the middle of the floor, finally flopping back down, his face red and bulging.
Ernie Whitt, the avuncular and soft-seeming catcher, whose name still causes my father to reminisce over one of Whitt’s late-career stolen bases, an event so implausible that it warranted a headline in the next day’s write-up, or so recalls my father.
Willie Upshaw who, with apologies to Fred McGriff and, even later, John Olerud, and even Carlos Delgado, remains my favorite Jays first-sacker, for reasons that are spongy and unscientific, but which owe much to this very card, with Upshaw’s pose of readiness, crouched, that huge trapper open and waiting near his right knee, and the lingering scent of bubblegum still borne by the cardboard.
A shoebox full of these, many more forming untidy stacks on my desk, and on the bookshelf to my right as I type this. Still others used as bookmarks. The Marty Barrett card pinned to the wall above my workspace.
Looking over them all now, deep in the pre-Opening Day trough of winter, interspersed with other baseball cards that span a forty-year period, what first strikes me is how unique the ’87s are. Shuffle together a deck of assorted cards—O-Pee-Chees or Topps from 1979, or 1983, with some from 2003, or 2013, and some Bowman cards from any given year, a handful of Upper Decks from the early nineties, a few Donruss, a Leaf or two—and then rifle through the stack.
Most every card is bordered in white, but the ’87s stand out immediately. They’re so unlike virtually any other issue. The second thing which occurs to me about them has to do with that wood grain. I notice not how evocative of natural materials it is; rather what I see is how the wood grain is perfectly in tune with the era’s penchant for simulacra. That faux-wood border, veneered furniture, wood panelling, canned sitcom laughter, drum machines, artificial turf—all suggestive of something real but in their deficiencies creating further space between the manufactured and the real. I see not the proximity to realness, but the distance between the actual and the representational. I see the desire to simulate, to contain, to miniaturize. I see the need to recreate something random and unruly using something inexpensive, convenient, safe.
When we weren’t collecting, trading, or memorizing baseball cards, or playing road hockey, G.I. Joe, or DOS-based video games in Wil’s unfinished basement, we were in the forest. We played war there, hiding behind trunks, laying down amid the ferns, using sticks as machine guns. We rode our bikes on some of the trails. We caught frogs and threw rocks into the creek. Gradually, we pushed at the borders of what we knew of the forest, pressing further and further into it, adding clearings and swales to our mental maps, wondering what still lay beyond.
We’d heard of some kids who’d found cattle bones in our woods, and others who’d pushed all the way through to Orleans Boulevard; the edge of the known world. There was a sandpit, somebody told us, where teenagers rode dirtbikes and held bush parties.
Wil and I found a fence one day, or the remains of one. A farmer’s partition, toppled, regularly spaced logs slumping out of their ancient post holes, and strung with rusted barbed wire. I had trouble incorporating this into my understanding of time and space, this echo of a time removed from 1987, the suggestion of a world beyond my own.
Above, nailed to a tree, a sign: NO TRESPASSING, it beckoned.