The Cambridge Dictionary defines a collector as someone who collects objects because they are beautiful, valuable, or interesting. While all of that is true, I argue that an alternate definition is someone who collects objects because of an inherited trait, specifically the collecting gene.
My introduction to baseball came at a very young age. I attended my first ballgame at age 2 ½ and suspect I would have gone sooner if not for my father being in the service. But my first visit to Yankee Stadium was not my introduction to the greatest sport on earth. The broadcast of a Yankees game would often be heard coming from a radio in our Brooklyn apartment. And the rare treat of a televised game shone on our wood-encased television set.
Once my father was sure I was hooked on baseball, he introduced me to baseball cards. I was immediately smitten. There was no “What’s the point?” or fleeting attraction, only “When can I have more, Dad?” That question wasn’t asked in a greedy or spoiled-child kind of way. Neither would have been tolerated. I was simply a five-year-old fascinated by those beautiful 3.5” x 2.5” pieces of cardboard! They were a window into the larger world of baseball. The photos, the statistics, the player facts – all helped tell the story of the game with which I had fallen in love. Dad was thrilled that my interest in baseball extended beyond the stimulating sights and sounds of a game. He told me that we’d add to my collection a little at a time.
In those early collecting days, before any baseball chatter tied to newly acquired cards, there was always a lesson about the importance of treating my cards with respect and keeping them safe. I didn’t even hear of flipping or putting cards in bicycle spokes until my family moved to a new neighborhood and I met friends with older brothers. And of course, I was horrified by both practices. By the time I was six, we were examining Hostess boxes to find one with cards I didn’t already have. Even earlier than that came the blind hunt for Kellogg’s cereal cards. New packs were always the most fun, though. Whether they were picked out during a trip to buy the Sunday newspaper on the way home from church, or left by the Easter Bunny or Santa, packs were (and still are) bundles of wonder waiting to be unwrapped. Dad and I would open them together and discuss. The conversations ranged from interesting facts about the players or a ballpark or a team’s history to math lessons using the stats on the card backs.
Dad would often springboard from discussing a current player to a story about someone he saw play when he was my age. So, it was inevitable that an inquisitive child like me would eventually ask “Dad, where are your baseball cards?” His face changed. My father explained to me that he kept his cards in excellent condition with each set neatly arranged. All were organized in shoe boxes – no rubber bands, no miscellaneous junk – and they were always put away safely on the shelf in his closet. He left them there when he left with his newlywed bride for Puerto Rico to serve in the United States Navy. When he and my mom returned three years later with a toddler daughter in tow (me), they temporarily moved in with my paternal grandmother. As Dad was unpacking he noticed the empty shelf in his closet. He didn’t panic at first. He thought that my grandmother had relocated his treasured baseball card collection to make room in the closet for some of my mom’s things. (You know what’s coming, right?) Sadly, he was wrong. My grandmother put the entire collection out with the trash because she didn’t think that a grown man with a family would still be interested in his childhood toys. My heart sank.
I’m certain that Dad would have introduced me to baseball cards even if his collection had survived. And I don’t think I could love baseball cards any more than I already do. But I wonder if I might love them differently had I been able to hold Dad’s ’51 Topps Monte Irvin or ’50 Bowman Gil Hodges or ’52 Topps Mickey Mantle. I’ll never know.
What I do know is that I spent many memorable hours with my father building my baseball card collection. Whether it was searching for a team set at a minor league ballpark or sorting cards at the dining room table, there was always joy in baseball cards. Some of my most memorable card-hunting experiences are tied to the plethora of card shows my dad and I attended in the 1980s and early 1990s. Not only were there players to meet (from Hall of Famers to current stars), but these were my first chances to see the cards from my father’s childhood in person. I still get goosebumps when I’m in the presence of 1950s cardboard.
Last year I started building a 1950s baseball card collection of my own. My first three acquisitions were Gil Hodges cards. Hodges was my father’s first favorite ballplayer and I could think of no more fitting way to start my vintage collection. (It’s difficult for me to identify cards I obtained new as a child as “vintage!”) I still love my Topps Allen & Ginter and my annual factory set and Heritage Minors and so many other modern cards, but I’ve learned that no baseball cardboard can give me the same warm fuzzies as the cards that were ultimately responsible for my collecting gene’s orders being followed exactly as they were. Here’s to my dad and to my new vintage baseball card adventure!