My introduction to card collecting began in the late summer of 1955, when my Uncle Joe—my godfather and a former catcher in Chicago’s high-level semipro baseball leagues—handed me a special gift: four packs of Topps baseball cards. I was seven years old, and my life has never been the same.
Of course I have no recollection of what specific cards I unwrapped on that warm summery night… Jackie Robinson, maybe, or Gil Hodges, or (in honor of Uncle Joe), the White Sox catcher, Sherm Lollar?
Unlikely; as most collectors will tell you, the odds are much more likely that we will unwrap the images of images of journeymen with names like “Corky” and “Bunky.”
No matter whose images were revealed in the packs, I was totally enchanted with their beauty, and quickly locked into the sheer fun that came from collecting these cards. Clever lad that I was, I even gave Veston Goff Stewart a nickname for his nickname… for me, then and now, he will always be known as “Bunk-Bed” Stewart. As for “Corky” Valentine, who got his nickname from a lovable comic-strip character, Hank Aaron would write about his season (1953) in the Class A Sally League, “There were some ornery pitchers in that league, but nobody was as nasty as Harold Lewis Valentine.” But Hank… Corky looked so nice on his Topps card!
I immediately began collecting as many of these beauties as possible. I even picked up a few packs of cards from Topps’s arch-rival, Bowman… but as I noted in my article about the final year of the Topps-Bowman war, the Bowman color-TV design, innovative as it was, didn’t appeal me like the Topps cards did. Even the Bowman card of my favorite player, Nellie Fox, didn’t grab me the way the Topps cards did.
Bowman would have one more arrow in its quiver, however. Uncle Joe did not present me with his gift of Topps cards until fairly late in the summer, and both the Topps and Bowman baseball cards disappeared from the stores long before I could attempt to put together a set. In their place were the companies’ football-card sets: a 100-card all-time greats college set from Topps and a 160-card NFL set from Bowman; that would turn out to be Bowman’s final card set before being bought out by Topps.
Flushed with collecting mania by then, I bought cards from both sets, but with a strong bias toward Bowman, whose lovely design would be a fine tribute to the company’s glorious run. One of my early collecting memories involves walking proudly into the Nordica Store, our card-collecting headquarters, with 75 cents—three whole weeks’ allowance!—and buying a staggering 15 packs of Bowman football cards. I had to assure the owner of the store, a woman my friends and I knew only as “Mrs. Nordica,” that this purchase was OK with my parents… which it was, I guess, since they never told me it wasn’t. As for the cards, I have to admit that a major part of the appeal was those crazy football names.
Royce Womble? Dorne Dibble? Pudge Heffelfinger? Football must have been invented by Charles Dickens.
When winter set in, the football cards disappeared from the stores as well. By now my collecting urge had reached the point where the cards didn’t even need to be about sports. A short-term diversion for my older brother Phil and me was the 80-card Topps “Flags of the World” set, whose backs included tips on how to pronounce a few terms of the native language.
It was a fun and moderately educational card set, but I was a baseball guy even at the age of seven. And as spring arrived in Chicago, Flags of the World card No. 49, Poland—the Zminda family’s native land—would have been more useful had it taught us how to say, “Gdzie są nowe karty baseballowe?”… which is Polish for, “Where are the new baseball cards?”
Our home base, the Nordica Store at Nordica Avenue and Grace Street, was one of those tiny mom-and-pop operations that would later be driven out of business by the Seven Elevens and their like. In the 1950s, however, the store had plenty of customers—including my best friend Tom, my older brother Phil, and me. The candy counter where we bought our cards and treats was stocked by a man with a red truck named J.J. We would check the store for the arrival of the baseball cards on a daily basis once spring came. If the card racks were bare but J.J. was still on his way, we would sit outside and wait for his arrival. He knew what we were waiting for, and he’d stop before unloading his truck and say, “No boys, not today. But soon.”
Our agony continued for a couple of weeks, until the big day finally arrived: the first series of the 1956 Topps baseball set was here!
I have written about my love for this set—both the attractive fronts and the clever backs, with three cartoons about the player—in a previous article; I was blown away from the moment I opened my first pack, as were most of my friends. The first series included such greats as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron (and Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline and Warren Spahn), along with the usual Topps supply of Babe Birrers and Rudy Minarcins. We wanted them all. I was a five-pack man myself, blowing my whole allowance on all the cards (five cards for five cents) that my money would buy pretty much every week.
Completing the series within our limited budgets was a challenge, but that’s where our neighbor Dave (I’ve changed his name) came in handy. Dave, who lived across the street from Phil and me, had contracted the dreaded disease polio in the days before the Salk vaccine became available. While he still bore some scars, he fortunately was able to recover without suffering the crippling paralysis that affected many polio victims. Dave’s grateful parents were happy to comfort him in various ways—including giving him what appeared to be an unlimited budget for buying baseball cards. If you needed cards to complete a series, Dave was more than happy to trade… although there weren’t many cards that he needed. We’d hand Dave a stack of duplicates, and he would begin riffling through them…
This would continue for several minutes, until—if you were lucky—Dave would finally stop and say, “Need him,” and a trade would be made. Your best bet was to have some New York Yankee cards in the stack, as Dave was the neighborhood’s resident Yankee fan… not the most popular allegiance in Cubs/White Sox country, but Dave was a good guy, and besides, we needed his cards.
With Dave’s help we had at least a fighting chance to complete a series… and soon we would be sitting outside the Nordica Store, waiting for J.J.’s truck, and his announcement that he had the next series in hand. We quickly learned that J.J. wasn’t the most reliable source. One afternoon he got out of his truck and told us, “New pictures, boys, new pictures!” We eagerly bought several packs apiece—only to discover, as my friend Tom put it, “Yeah, new pictures. Old cards.” After that when J.J. announced, “new pictures,” one of us would go to the rack of one-cent cards—those were the days!—and invest a penny to see if he was correct.
When the second Topps baseball series finally arrived, it was Christmas in May (or was it June?) at Nordica Store. Series 2 mysteriously switch the card backs from white to gray (at least in our neighborhood) and included the likes of Roy Campanella and Willie Mays and Duke Snider and my hero, Nellie Fox, along with Mickey Mantle in his Triple Crown year. Even in 1956, we knew that card had some value.
But then it was back to sitting outside the store, waiting for the third series to arrive. Wily devil that he was, J.J. had something to tempt us with in the interim: Davy Crockett cards. The Disneyland TV show had begun broadcasting episodes based on the “King of the Wild Frontier” in late 1954, and they were a sensation from coast to coast… by the summer of 1956, there was as many of us wearing Davy Crockett coonskin caps as there were sporting baseball caps. (Not to mention the legion of Davy Crockett lunch boxes.) Trading cards were a logical next step to cash in on Crockett mania, and when my friends weren’t lining up to buy baseball cards, Davy filled the bill pretty nicely. So who was a bigger hero in the kid world of 1956… Mickey Mantle or Davy Crockett? Let’s say it was close.
We were baseball guys at heart, however, and Topps still had two more series coming out. To be honest, the third and fourth Topps baseball card series weren’t nearly as spectacular as Series 1 and 2. Bob Feller, who would retire after the 1956 season, was probably the biggest name in Series 3. The fourth and final series was definitely rather humdrum—even the quality of cartooning on the backs of the cards was pretty second-rate—but my friends and I still wanted every last card—down to the final card in the set, No. 340, Mickey McDermott.
While I came fairly close, I did not quite complete the 1956 set by the end of the baseball season—even with Dave’s help. It was a little frustrating, but there was always a new card set to collect (including football cards, to be honest). Then in 1959, my family moved to the suburbs, and a lot of things got tossed out… including most if not all of those wonderful ‘56s. “You don’t need all those old cards, do ya, Donnie?” “Um, er… well, I guess not.” Such is life. In the new neighborhood there was no Nordica store, there was no one like Dave to trade with, and after a year or so I stopped trying to collect the new baseball card sets… much less trying to recover the sets I had had lost.
But I hadn’t forgotten those ‘56s. One day in the early 1970s—by which time I was out of college and working fulltime—I got a call from a friend whom I had lost track of after we moved to the ‘burbs. It was good old Dave; he had somehow tracked down Phil, and now me. When we got together, I was not surprised that Dave was still collecting, but he had a new passion: collecting 45 RPM records. Was I shocked that Dave had a room with a copy of pretty much every top 40 hit since 1960? I was not. But what about his old baseball cards, I asked, my voice trembling.
“Yeah, still got ‘em,” he said. “You interested in anything?”
A couple of hours later, I was driving home with a big box full of ‘56s, most of them in near-mint condition… I think he charged me some ridiculously low price like fifty bucks. There were a few Yankees missing including Mantle (no surprise), but I could—and did—get those later. I was back into card collecting, for good.
My rookie collecting year was over at last.