Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 4

One of baseball’s enduring little mysteries arose the day I opened a pack of Topps in 1979 and pulled out a Rick Honeycutt: “Is Rick Honeycutt the son of Korean War veteran, Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, U.S. Army Reserve?” I mused. It was, after all, just the sort of question an 11-year-old experiencing a sugar high from an alarmingly excessive amount of Topps bubble gum would ask himself on a warm spring day. The immediate and obvious answer, thanks to the spelling of the surname, is no. However, such variation in relations is not unheard of, nor are baseball cards free from error, so I decided to delve deeper once I got some free time—which I’d hoped would arrive before the summer of ’79’s conclusion but, unfortunately, didn’t present itself until last Tuesday.

As is well known—or should be, considering the Korean War is little taught in schools, sadly contributing to its lamentable sobriquet, “the Forgotten War”—the armistice declaring a permanent ceasefire (officially known as the Korean Armistice Agreement) was signed 27 July 1953. Although many American troops remained in South Korea until 1954 due to this fragile peace, Capt. Hunnicutt, a surgeon stationed at the 4077th MASH at the time of the ceasefire, was, like many officers, rapidly returned to the United States. (Being an officer, he almost certainly traveled by aircraft. Remember: in the waning days of the conflict, Capt. Hunnicutt got as far as Guam before his erroneous orders to rotate home were rescinded and he was sent back to the 4077th—all in a time frame possible only by air travel.) This means that Hunnicutt would have arrived home in Mill Valley, California, within the first days of August—to the great delight of his wife, Peg, and his young daughter, Erin. (Even had he been shipped home by sea, Hunnicutt still would have walked in his front door before the end of August.)

Rick Honeycutt was born 29 June 1954, in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which means that he was conceived in late September 1953. Baby booms are commonplace in the first weeks and months after wartime, as overjoyed and undersexed servicemen return to their wives or sweethearts. So, Rick Honeycutt’s conception falls right when we’d expect it to occur.

But why would Rick Honeycutt be born in Chattanooga if B.J. and Peg were living just north of San Francisco? One possible reason could be that, sometime in 1954, B.J. decided to honor his parting promise to Swamp-mate, Capt. B.F. Pierce, that they’d see each other back in the States, so he and Peg set out for the East Coast—surely with a stopover in Quapaw, Oklahoma, through which the major highway of the day, Route 66, conveniently passes, to visit Peg’s parents. Yet because this predated construction of the Interstate Highway System, travel by car was significantly slower than by standards of the late 1950s, causing the pregnant Peg Hunnicutt to unanticipatedly give birth to Rick in Chattanooga, either on the way to, or returning from, their easterly destination.

But that is a scenario fraught with geographic variables, and I believe the case to be much more along the lines of B.J. Hunnicutt attending a medical convention at Chattanooga State Community College—possibly traveling there on the yellow 1932 NSU 501 TS motorcycle on which he departed the 4077th (B.J. easily could have bribed an airman to stow it on the cargo plane taking him home). While at the convention, he had a fling with a local woman—a precedent had been set between the supposedly true-blue Hunnicutt and an on-the-rebound 4077th nurse, 1LT Carrie Donovan—and this latter affair produced a son, whose mother, either out of shame or ignorance of spelling, named the boy Rick Honeycutt. If this is the case, then it’s entirely possible that B.J. never knew of the existence of Rick.

As if additional evidence were needed, the 6’1” Rick Honeycutt apparently inherited the 6’3” B.J. Hunnicutt’s height and lean frame. (His 1979 Topps card also displays an extremely high crown to his cap, indicating that Rick likewise inherited his father’s abnormally spacious forehead.)

Honeycutt attended high school in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, so, at some point, his mother up and left Rick’s birthplace, taking her son from the disapproving eyes of Chattanoogans and across the state line, where her sordid past might not be the talk of the town.

After returning to Tennessee for his collegiate years, where Rick developed into a crackerjack first baseman and pitcher, Honeycutt was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pitching well in AA ball, he became the “player to be named later” in an earlier trade with the expansion Mariners, making his major league debut for Seattle in August 1977. This must have pleased Capt. Hunnicutt, a keen baseball fan who, during his time in Korea, had predicted big things from a little-known rookie named Mays, helped fabricate a radio broadcast of a Yankees-Indians game, and whooped it up to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Rick’s years in Seattle, however, proved no better than the stalemate in Korea, as poor teams kept him on the losing end despite an ERA near league average. His frustration piqued during a start in Kansas City on September 30, 1980, as Honeycutt resorted to taping a thumbtack to the middle finger of his glove hand in an effort to covertly cut the baseball. But his ploy was spotted in the bottom of the third inning—as was the gash on his forehead after absent-mindedly wiping his face with his glove hand—resulting in immediate ejection from the game. Honeycutt quickly incurred a ten-game suspension and a $250 fine for his transgression.

Such unscrupulousness lends support to the theory that Rick was a product of an extramarital affair, because Dr. Hunnicutt would not have been around to imbue Rick with the strong moral foundation that would keep him from, ironically enough, doctoring a baseball.  

Whether the thumbtack incident hastened Honeycutt’s end in Seattle is debatable, but an 11-player swap just 10½ weeks later deputized him as a Texas Ranger, where, except for a disastrous 1982, his fortune improved.

Soon after the 30th anniversary of the armistice that brought Capt. Hunnicutt back to the United States, Texas packed off Rick to the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite Honeycutt owning the lowest ERA in the league (which would hold up after the trade, giving Rick the American League crown at season’s end despite now wearing a National League uniform).

The 1980s also, presumably, meant that B.J. now could follow Rick’s sojourn through the majors thanks to the newfangled gizmo known as cable television—a predilection that might have intrigued Peg and Rick’s half-sister, Erin, to see B.J. watching, or eagerly waiting for scores about, Rangers and Dodgers games rather than the hometown Giants.

Honeycutt experienced a homecoming of sorts when Los Angeles dealt him to the Oakland A’s in August 1987. Now just across San Francisco Bay from Mill Valley, Rick could reside close to his parents, or, if the scenario involving an illicit affair were, indeed, the cause of his birth, B.J. could clandestinely attend Athletics games and spend time with his son afterward—either of which made all the sweeter by Rick’s impending appearance in three consecutive World Series (including a championship against the Giants, though I have yet to discover a press photo of a champagne-soaked Rick celebrating with B.J.—perhaps Capt. Hunnicutt found San Francisco’s loss too dispiriting to celebrate and could not bring himself to join Rick in the clubhouse).

Some of this evidence might seem inconclusive, even far-fetched. However, what, for me, cements Rick Honeycutt’s lineage to Capt. Hunnicutt is the message he left the world after his final game, when Rick pitched an inning of mop-up for St. Louis at Shea Stadium in May 1997—a message in rosin bags that conclusively demonstrated Rick to be his father’s son…

My rookie collecting year

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…

“Got him.”

“Got him.”

“Got him.”

“Got him…”

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.

Baseball Card Club

As a child of the junk wax generation, sports cards were just part of the air I grew up breathing. Boxes in every store. Inserted in any product you could think of. Printed in the newspaper. You couldn’t avoid them if you wanted to. Even my baseball-averse sister had a small album of cards that she’d just accumulated.

In many ways though, the thing that most exemplifies this era is the fact that my Junior High had a baseball card club. Yup. Looking through my yearbooks I find pages dedicated to the usual clubs—leadership, student council, journalism, yearbook, band, orchestra, drama, etc.—and nestled in there in the same spread as the chess club is the baseball card club.

The sponsoring teacher was a card dealer. He didn’t have a shop but you could run into him at local card shows (he’d give you a deal if you were a student) and two days a week he’d open up his science classroom during lunch and a couple dozen of us would hang out.

He’d always have a couple dozen singles for sale. Nothing crazy expensive but I still can’t recall anyone buying them. I do however remember him having a box of cards available as well (typically Upper Deck) and there was always someone ripping a pack to two over lunch.

I obviously don’t remember every card that went through that room but these three are all hits that commanded the whole room’s attention. There were certainly other cards that we wanted—we all dreamed of finding that Reggie autograph—but these were the ones kids actually hit.

I kind of like that these cards are as dated as everything else. Yes the Jordan is hot right now but the other two have kind of been forgotten by anyone who wasn’t there at the time. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to explain how big a deal the Ben McDonald error was.

The Joe Montana brings up the fact that since the school year doesn’t overlap much with baseball season, a lot of the club actually functioned more as football card club in terms of the cards that we saw. But Beckett doesn’t stop publishing over the winter and when we weren’t ripping or watching rips we were reading the latest Becketts and staying in touch with the hobby zeitgeist.

My most-enduring memory of the club though isn’t actually something that occurred during school hours. One of my local card shops* got burgled and for whatever reason the police thought that the perpetrator was a member of the card club.

*In those halcyon days there were more local shops than I had time to visit. 

The result, everyone on the club roster received a visit from a police detective and got fingerprinted. Good times. As interesting as it was seeing how the fingerprinting process worked (I was surprised to learn that it didn’t involve ink) the visit was not done with any sensitivity toward the fact that they were dealing with kids. Questioning was very brusque and when he left it was with the vague threat of “hopefully I don’t have to come back.”

We didn’t talk about the police stuff in school but I can only imagine how much worse the experience must have been for a lot of the kids who came from rougher parts of town.

Which brings up one of the things that stands out to me now as I look back on the club. It was one of the few academic clubs which cut across the usual school cliques. The other clubs had certain kinds of achievement-oriented kids from “good” neighborhoods in them.* Baseball cards though were for all of us.

*Or in the case of things like chess or computer club, geeks who wanted to avoid the lunch crowd.

Note

I’ve mentioned the card club a couple times on Twitter. It’s been met with surprise by guys who are older than me but it’s also turned up a couple other instances across the country from collectors my age. Their experiences seem to be similar to mine. Some ripping. Lots of Becketts. But no fingerprinting.

Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

“We still have Henry.”

As we lost Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer last year, this was my mantra. As the calendar turned to 2021, which we might now more correctly call “2020 Update,” and we lost Lasorda, then Sutton, “We still have Henry.” There were mornings I’d wake up and check espn.com for one sole purpose: to make sure Henry Aaron was still with us.

And now, of course, he isn’t.

It would be impossible for me to put into words the excellent life he lived or the greatness of his career. The best you’ll find all in one place is the outstanding biography, “The Last Hero,” by Howard Bryant.

Instead I’ll share a couple stories and some collection highlights as a personal tribute to my favorite player of all-time.

Don’t meet your idols?

When an event sells out in all of about ten seconds there’s no need to publicize it much. Such was the case with the “Chasing the Dream” benefit put on by the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation off and on over the past decade or so.

An afternoon hanging out with Hank Aaron at the ballpark? Yes, please! The first year I’d heard about the event it was of course too late. No tickets left. Try again next year. I did, and I was right about to enter my credit card info when I realized I had a business trip I couldn’t reschedule. Strike two. Still, like the Hammer, I knew to keep swinging.

Come 2016 I had my Google Alerts set up and started “hammering” the Brewers event staff any way I could with calls, emails, calls to see if they got my emails, emails to see if they got my calls, etc. Had the blocked my number and put me on their spammer list, the only fair question would have been “What took you so long?” Instead, one day I got an email from an employee that read something to the effect of, “Jason, I think you are the person who keeps calling us about the Hank Aaron event. Tickets are going on sale tomorrow. Or if it’s easier for you, just let me know how many you need.”

Fast forward to the morning of the event and I’m up at the crack of dawn sorting through my Hank Aaron collection for just the right item to get autographed. Since my wife (then girlfriend) Jodee was joining me, I’d no doubt bring a second item she could have signed. Of course I couldn’t decide so we hit the car with 5-6 articles and, me being me, I worried the whole drive that maybe I left something even better behind.

“Wait, if the event is at 3, why are we leaving here at 11?”

Fair question.

“I want to make sure we’re not late.”

Milwaukee was about 90 minutes from where I lived, so I’d added another hour in case of traffic, thirty minutes in case we needed to stop somewhere, and another thirty minutes for making our way through the stadium. Oh, and another half hour just in case.

“In case of what?”

“I don’t know. Just in case we need it.”

We didn’t.

Not only were we the first car to arrive at the stadium, but the parking lot itself was not yet even open. I would have asked someone why the gates were locked, but we were so early there was not even anyone to ask.

About 45 minutes later another car pulled up behind us, and this was vindicating to me. “Yep, good thing we left when we did.”

Once the gates opened I parked as close as I could to the gate where our event paperwork directed us.

“Why are you running?” I heard a woman call out some distance behind me. It was Jodee. I slowed down.

“We need to hurry so we can get good seats.”

We compromised by speed-walking the rest of the way. There was only one problem. I had no idea where I was going. Most of the directions we were able to get from the handful of employees already working were of the “Hmm, not sure. Maybe up a couple more levels” variety.

Finally we came to a cozy, mid-sized room filled with tables, chairs, a stage, trays of meats and cheeses, and walls covered with Hank Aaron décor. Somehow we were too early. Nobody was here yet but us, meaning there wasn’t even anyone who could help us figure out our table.

When someone did come in, I was a little worried she was there to kick us out. Maybe this was some sort of VIP room, and the actual event I had tickets to was in a different part of the stadium. Damn.

“Are you here for the Hank Aaron event?”

“Yes, is this the right place?” I asked, hoping my Hank Aaron Milwaukee Braves throwback jersey would make me seem a little more VIP than I really was.

“Yes, you’re a little early, but feel free to have a seat.”

“Okay, do you know where?”

“You two are first, so anywhere you like.”

And yes I was gonna be that guy who grabs the table right in front of the stage where he’ll be literally three feet from Hank Aaron the entire time. I had better seats than Billye Aaron, and perhaps I should have offered to trade. Then again, it’s not like she didn’t see Hank Aaron all the time.

The event was unbelievable. Hank Aaron telling stories and taking questions from the crowd for over an hour, about as up close and personal as can be. The ten pounds of cheese and roast beef I ate were awesome too, but that’s another story. I sat there mesmerized the entire time, in the presence of baseball royalty. A true American hero in literal spitting distance from Jodee and me.

At the event’s conclusion there was time for each attendee to shake hands and get their picture taken with the Hammer. Mr. Aaron complimented me on my jersey, which I thought was funny. I had imagined that morning that half the crowd would be reppin’ #44, but it turned out I was the only one not in some variation of Dockers and a dress shirt. How Jodee predicted this I have no idea!

The collection

Hank Aaron had been an idol of mine since I first learned, around the age of 9, that he was the Home Run King. I had a book that included various leaderboards, and there was Hank Aaron’s name above even that of Babe Ruth. Little distracted by sabermetric nuance at that time, I simply figured things this way: Home runs are the best hit you can get, and Aaron has the most home runs. Ergo…

I practically shat myself in 1979 when I opened a pack of Topps cards and pulled a Hank Aaron. A friend at school had Aaron’s 1976 Topps but he would have sooner traded his whole house and family than let go of that card, so an Aaron of my own seemed impossible. And then it wasn’t.

Over the next few years, some friends and I made it to enough card shows and did enough trades that at various times I might have enough Hank Aaron cards to keep one in each of my pockets. This obviously did little for the condition and value of the cards but did wonders for my self-esteem.

With a series of unfortunate events nearly biblical in proportion, my Hank Aaron collection (along with my entire collection) would ultimately dwindle down to zero by high school, only to be rebuilt around my junior year of college when I figured out I could buy some top notch cardboard if only I stopped spending my work-study checks on overpriced textbooks. I proved to be worse at bookless school than I thought I’d be, but my (generous) C in Mathematical Analysis and F in Quantum Mechanics were a small price to pay for the Hank Aaron rookie card that remains in my collection to this day.

Over the next few years I continued to add to my collection through card shows and the Kit Young catalog. Hank Aaron wasn’t my sole focus, but I was slowly working toward a goal of collecting his entire career. This was pre-internet, so I had no idea just how many cards this would entail.

Fast forward more than two decades and I’m 44 (!) years old, sitting on a beat up couch in a small rental where for the first time in forever I open a box containing about 100 cards in yellowed top loaders. Along with my guitar and a coffee mug, this was the only thing I took with me when I separated from my ex-wife. There were some great cards in the box: Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, … but the cards that brought back the fondest memories were the Aaron cards. After making it once through the stack, I went back through it again to pull and sort the Aarons. I had 12 cards from his Topps base run, roughly half his career. Instantly I had a goal.

Hobby Rip Van Winkle that I’d become, my first thought was to look for a card show heading to town. A few web searches later I discovered that cards were really, really easy to buy nowadays. I found eBay too intimidating and ended up at Dean’s Cards where the selection was ample and the searches didn’t turn up tons of reprints and fakes.

It was a very tough stretch in my life but one made far better by the Dean’s shipment that hit my mailbox every week or so. Once I had my base run, I moved on to All-Star cards, off brands, combination player cards, etc. As the want list got smaller but exponentially pricier, I diversified my collecting to include magazines, bobbleheads, artwork, and other Hank Aaron collectibles.

Hell, I even ran Hank Aaron 5Ks!

With the arrival of Hammer’s elusive 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy card last week and his 1969 Topps Super last year, I have finally reached the point where my Hank Aaron collection may well be complete, give or take a handful of League Leader cards. Either way, my love and admiration for Hank Aaron will never fade.

It was a somber thing today to walk through our basement bedroom, affectionately dubbed the Hank Aaron Suite. What was once my Tribute is now my Memorial to the Hammer.

The great Hank Aaron who survived so many other baseball legends in 2020 and early 2021 has now joined them. Henry Aaron is still with us, but only in our hearts, our memories, and our record books.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

UPDATE: Watch Jason’s SABR presentation, “The History of Baseball Cards as Told by Hank Aaron.”

RIP Tommy Lasorda (1927-2021)

Editor’s note: We welcome SABR’s newest member, Brian Kritz, to the Baseball Cards blog. Brian is a longtime Dodger fan and collector who was gracious enough to share this remembrance of Tommy Lasorda literally minutes after joining SABR.

Most baseball-loving kids who grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s likely have a similar story. The day they met the ultimate Dodgers legend, Tommy Lasorda. Yes, the Tommy Lasorda of the career 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA (or for the younger stat heads, a -1.3 career WAR).

But to a couple of generations of Southern California kids, Tommy was the biggest and most important Dodger of them all. Bigger than Garvey, Lopes, Russell, or Cey. Bigger than Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and even bigger than Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. When Kirk Gibson hit his game winning home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, to whom did NBC pan? It was Tommy, trotting in joy out of the Dodgers dugout.

When I was 11 years old, I visited the Dodgers clubhouse before a game against the Atlanta Braves. After meeting and getting autographs from Dodgers greats such as Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch as well as obscure former Dodgers such as Terry Whitfield and Jack Fimple, I was taken to meet Tommy in his office. He was sitting behind his desk, larger than life, with pictures of him with Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan in the background.

He rose from his desk and made me feel like the most important person in the world when he told me to sit in his chair. I was floating on air and asked him to sign my copy of his 1982 Donruss card. He did, and then pulled out a postcard of himself from his desk and signed it To Brian, a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

Being a very literal kid, I pretty much figured that Tommy had just signed me to a contract and that I would play for the Dodgers some day. Tommy would see to it personally. He was Tommy Lasorda, he could do anything. Having collected baseball cards for the last forty years, and having turned my baseball card hobby into a business since eBay came along, I have seen probably three hundred signed Tommy Lasorda items with that same tag line, To [Fill In Your Name], a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

That was Tommy. He made you feel special, he made you feel like you could be a Dodger one day, he made you Bleed Dodger Blue. Rest in Peace, Tommy. Thank you for making us all feel special.

My collecting story

Editor’s note: SABR welcomes new member Dylan Brennan of the Philadelphia area Connie Mack chapter. You can follow Dylan’s wonderful journey through the Hobby at his Twitter page @cardsstory.

For as long as I can remember baseball and card collecting has been a passion of mine since I ripped my first pack as a kid somewhere around the age or 8 of 9, idolizing legends like Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and so-on. It’s always been more than a hobby to me, it’s been a way of life.

My first two best friends and I would run to the closest store that sold cards, which was a K-Mart about 500 feet from our front doors. Whenever we had some money in our pockets it was like Christmas. We’d all run over there. If we had $7, it all went toward baseball cards. We’d go straight to one of our basements and start ripping through pack after pack hoping for the games biggest stars and some hometown heroes.

It’s funny to think back to these times, when one of my biggest worries was when I could go out and play sports with my buddies and what players I was going to pull in a pack of Topps baseball cards, long before the real world inevitably hit me out of nowhere like a freight train. But what I didn’t know during those 30 seconds of ripping through a pack of cardboard, was that I was starting to form my deepest passions in life: baseball and card collecting.

Ever since those first packs I was hooked on collecting, having added thousands of cards in my childhood. As I got older and started high school, I collected frequently until about junior-senior year when I soon discovered that hanging out in the woods with my buddies and having a few beers was slightly more interesting to me at the time.

A few years later, I went away to college which to tell the truth, wasn’t really for me. I did about 3 semesters away at school then came home when I was 18 and went straight to work. (Ah, the American dream!) This is about the time I started getting back into collecting. I collected mostly autographs of any and all Hall of Famers, star players, and childhood favorites that I could get my hands on.

I’ve always had a keen interest in vintage cards. It’s a hard thing to explain, as a lot of things that we love can be. But seeing pictures of cards of legends like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson was like a short tour through the Baseball equivalent of the Louvre. I had to have them. And once I started to add some vintage to my collection, I quickly learned what I truly loved to collect.

There’s just something unique about vintage baseball cards. The feel, the smell of old cardboard that strangely enough has been one of my favorite smells in the world. Small pieces of art that have been passed around for 70, 80 or even 100+ years. I think that’s what makes some cards similar to a painting or any work of art.

Art almost always has a story to tell and often, the artist leaves it up to its viewers to interpret their own version of the story in their mind. Baseball cards are like that in a unique way. The feeling of holding a beautiful T206 card in your hand and wondering where that card has been for the last 110 years is what makes it so special. The hands they’ve passed through. The stories they could tell, I could only imagine.

I’ve been lucky enough add a lot of cards this past year that I never thought I would own. I’ve also been able to meet some truly great people along the way. I’m excited for what 2021 brings for my collection and I look forward to meeting more awesome people in the process.

Editor’s note: You came to the right place!

Oh, Oh, Oh Oh Jackie Blue

Grass cutting money is how it was paid for. One of the kids in the neighborhood knew a guy. He would come to the house with binders of the old stuff. We would peruse through and buy the goods. From this came my 1956 Jackie Robinson. It was a nice example of the last card from his playing days, probably Vg-Ex if you’re grading at home, good color, centered well. I was into card collecting, working on the new stuff and researching the old. It wasn’t as easy as it’s been the last 10–15 years with all the interweb and eBay and Twitter Trading and gargantuan national and regional card shows – once this Covid/Lockdown has run its course, or course, on the latter. Back then a young collector needed his old man’s or older brother’s cards or maybe his older sister’s current flame to possibly be a conduit for getting to the older stuff. Of those options, zippo came through for me. No brothers and since I was a bit of a surprise to my 40 year old parents and soon to be graduating high school sister in May of 1965 that left the mid to late 70’s barren in terms of getting the prized shoe box passed down. Reneta Galasso ad ads in Baseball Digest. Left to my own devices it was the two local drug stores for Topps, the Winn-Dixie for Hostess and Kellogg’s and trading with other kids until word stated to spread about the Binder Guy.  Of course he seemed old in my eyes but was probably in his early 30’s back then and may have ended up being a local owner of one of the card shops that sprung up in Louisville in the early 80’s or worked the shows at the local malls and flea markets we would visit once driving gave the freedom to move around town.  It was those binders where I first saw and handled cards I’d only seen in my Sports Collectors Bible or in Reneta Galasso/Larry Frisch

laminate Back to the Jackie, that card in particular provided my first real hard lesson in life about unintended consequences resulting from poor decision making.  Why I had such a mental block as to the final outcome I cannot understand to this day but you can be sure that I am an ardent supporter of fully understanding a situation before acting. Laminate, that’s what it said “PROTECT Laminate in PLASTIC”, it read like a major advance for scientific progress as I stood there debating between the three choices I could make with my quarter. An NFL Mini Helmet, one of those Horoscope scrolls or the Laminate. starscroll Walking home with a 25 cent investment in the preservation of a then twenty two year old artifact was the act of a person wise beyond his years for Mr. Robinson would be preserved for the ages! There’s no suspense left, by now you have, no doubt, shook your head in disbelief.  This goofball actually laminated that card! Yep, I did it. Immediately the profound and irreversible error of my decision fell on me. A personal albatross around my neck, no need to wait for Iron Maiden’s 13 minute 45 second retelling of Coleridge’sThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1984, oh no! iron_maiden_-_powerslave The experience was mine then and there. Selling my collection of cards, including the entombed Jackie, in the Summer of 1983 to fund a not very exciting coming of age trip to Florida provided no exorcism either. To this day I can’t bring bring myself to fold, staple or mutilate a card. While @HeavyJ28 is doing his tremendous work of currently creating custom cards from existing cardboard to raise funds and awareness for some fine causes and museums, IMG_6738 this sweet Josh Gibson being an example, I “feel that old familiar pain”, to quote Dan Fogelberg, each time I see his scissors on Twitter. But as with baseball in general, there is always a shot at redemption and when our grandson was born on April 15th 2017 I purchased the card again, albeit in a socially acceptable form of sarcophagus this time.

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This one will be passed down in the proverbial shoe box to that grandson one future day along with an explanation of who Jackie Robinson was, the transcendent things he accomplished and why learning from your mistakes can pay greater dividends than the initial loss.  Still wish I would have went with the helmet.bucs helmet

Should a reader happen upon this post and currently have the card which they use as an example of idiots in action, please let me know, it calls to me even now. Which is both a Bob Seger and a Barry Manilow reference, but I probably shouldn’t mention that…

My Favorite Common

It’s early August, 1988. Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” is holding down the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, thanks to regular airplay on New York’s Z100 and countless other radio stations across America. Tom Cruise maintains the right mix atop the box office rankings in “Cocktail.” A gallon of gas costs about 90 cents, but that doesn’t matter to me – seventh graders can’t drive. Milk costs $2.19 a gallon, but again, I’m a month away from turning 12; I don’t control the family purse strings.

What I do control is my pursuit of the 1988 Topps set, and as I’m sorting my collection one more time before my family heads off for our annual vacation in Maine, I find there’s only one more card I need: No. 39, Gerald Perry, Atlanta Braves.

1988 Topps Gerald Perry

I’d been collecting cards casually since 1985, the year I went to my first two Mets games, and increased how much of my allowance went toward 40-cent wax packs in ’86 as the Mets bludgeoned the National League. In 1987, I really ramped up my trips downtown to the Family Pharmacy (still there! Despite a CVS and Walgreens also within a ballpark’s footprint of one another) to buy packs of Topps’ wood-grained design, though I fell short of the complete 792 before the boxes faded from shelves.

So in ’88, I was determined collect the whole set. I’d save up my allowance and money from sweeping a neighbor’s patio and wrap-around porch and purchase a box at a time: 36 packs at 40 cents each, plus tax, came out to $15.26.

It’s a bit unfortunate that the ’88 set is the first one I set out to complete, because I find it the least visually appealing of the late-’80s Topps sets. Though I hadn’t really gotten into the hobby in ’84, I possessed a few of those cards with team names in colorful block letters down the left side, a main action photo of the player and the inset headshot. The ’85 issue featured those bold colors on the lower fifth of the card: the team name in a diagonal box above the player’s name, mostly in team hues. The 1986 set wasn’t that much more appealing, but it did feature the team name in a Napoli Serial Heavy font at the top (and was the set available for purchase throughout that championship season for the Mets). The greatness of the ’87 set and its suburban-basement paneling has been discussed on this blog before.

Mid-80s Topps

But the ’88 design is … OK? There are elements of some of those previous sets in it. The team name across the top is a cousin of the ’84 block font presented horizontally instead of vertically. The player name in a diagonal banner harkens back to the placement of the team ID in ’85, which was also the last year before ’88 with an all-white border. The most notable thing about the design may be Topps’ decision to go back to spelling out “Athletics,” after three years of using “A’s.” This prompted my friend Joe to ask one day, “Hey, did you see there’s a new baseball team? The Athletics?” He was always more of a football guy.

So as I’m packing for our vacation, the Mets are a few games up on the Pirates in the NL East and clear of the Dodgers overall in the NL, thanks to a 5-1 head-to-head record thus far. If things hold and the Mets maintain their success against the Dodgers when they meet in the NLCS, a second World Series berth in three seasons is looking promising!

But one of the toughest parts about the trips to Maine – a place I always loved to visit, and still do – was losing such easy access to baseball. My relatives in Vacationland didn’t have cable, and it’s not like we would’ve spent our evenings watching Red Sox games or stayed inside on Saturday for the national game of the week. There were woods to explore, rivers to plunge into, lighthouses to visit. L.L. Bean is open 24 hours! Only at night could I get my fix, delighted to find that the radio could pick up the Mets on WFAN all the way from New York, and I’d fall asleep to Bob Murphy’s play-by-play or Howie Rose taking calls on the postgame show.

Before this trip, I gave my friend Will the status of my pursuit. He had already completed his ’88 set, so I asked him to keep an eye out for that Gerald Perry card so we could trade and I’d be able to fill in that last box on the duplicate checklist card. Our outings in Maine didn’t usually give me an opportunity to look for cards – souvenir shops aren’t inclined to stock wax packs – so my search was on hold. (One exception came the following summer, when I saw a newspaper ad for a baseball card show in Augusta and got my dad to drop me off for an hour. I came away with a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card.)

A week later, after the long drive home down I-95, I was the first one to step inside our back door. And there, on the beige-blocked linoleum floor of the kitchen, lay this 3 ½ by 2 ½ piece of cardboard depicting Gerald Perry manning first base for the Atlanta Braves.

In hindsight, it’s appropriate that Perry was the final piece to my ’88 Topps puzzle. He had the best full season of his career in 1988, posting a 109 OPS+ and making his only All-Star team (0-for-1, F7). But nothing he did on the field stayed with me – to this day, whenever I flip past any Gerald Perry card, I think back to this 1988 Topps, No. 39, the last one I needed to complete the set. Until looking up his career just now, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which of his 13 seasons was his best or that he played until 1995 or that he spent one season in Kansas City and five in St. Louis.

He’ll always be the first baseman in that grey Atlanta road uniform, manning his position on a sun-splashed afternoon, waiting for me to open the door at the end of our annual summer vacation.

1988 Topps Gerald Perry 39

My Favorite Common

Looking back, the only truly useless piece of information on the backs of my childhood baseball cards was the name of the town where the player lived. It was the one tidbit of info that actually drove a wedge between young me and the player, the card, and the sport.

Sunland, Calif. Wayland, Mass. Spartanburg, S.C. Lilburn, Ga. Scottsdale, Ariz. Spring Hill, Fla.

These were either sun-soaked Southern and Western locales — the sorts of places where a man could take infield drills every day to stay sharp — or suburbs closely yoked to a big-league city where the player was employed. From time to time you’d also see towns in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, which made sense, since that’s where those players came from.

To a kid in the eastern reaches of the Rust Belt, all these destinations seemed impossibly distant.

This was part of a larger pattern. With rare exceptions — anybody remember Dabney Coleman’s short-lived TV host, Buffalo Bill Bittinger? — the communities of western and central New York didn’t possess the sort of glamour that drew anyone’s attention. People didn’t sing about Syracuse on the radio or set movies in Rochester, and Binghamton was definitely not the cradle of shortstops. The region had its glories — apples, autumns, snow days — but mostly it felt like a gray smear from which you gazed out on more interesting locales … like the faraway places ballplayers lived.

I savored the occasional exception. I remember the flash of recognition, while watching The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh one Saturday afternoon, when one of the Pisces’ players let slip that he’d played his college ball at St. Bonaventure. And of course you’d sometimes pull cards that listed minor-league stops in Rochester or Oneonta or Batavia or Elmira — usually when the guy on the front of the card hadn’t gotten up to much at the big-league level.

I was 12 years old when this changed, in the spring of 1986, when I pulled card 514 out of a pack of Topps.

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The front showed Royals pitcher Mike Jones against an improbably aqueous background that suggests, to my jaded adult eyes, the kind of low-budget day-for-night lighting celebrated on Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Either that, or the cover of Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky: It’s broad daylight where Jones is standing, but the dusk is falling on the bleachers behind him.)

But it was the back that counted, with its line of agate: “HOME: PENFIELD, N.Y.”

See, Mr. Jones and me, we shared a town. Not just a region — greater Rochester — but the very same town of about 30,000 souls. And there was its name, in black print on gray, just like all those distant California and Florida paradises where baseball players usually spent their offseasons.

The quiet suburb where I pledged allegiance to the wall, with its four elementary schools and its slushy bus stops and its sledding hills, had ascended to an elusive new level of reality. Penfield, New York, was Topps-certified.

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Of course, just because Mike Jones lived somewhere within the same municipal boundaries didn’t mean I tracked him down for his autograph. It sometimes seems like boy baseball fans sort themselves into two groups — the hey-mister-sign-this screamers, and the please-don’t-hurt-me shrinking violets — and falling firmly into the latter camp, I made no effort to figure out where his house was. There were rumors that our school bus passed it on the way home each afternoon, but I never pursued that lead.

A few years later, during my high-school years, Jones pitched for the hometown Rochester Red Wings in an unsuccessful bid to return to the bigs. (Indeed, Jones’s big-league career was already over when I pulled his ’86 card.) I probably could have obtained his signature at the ballpark with a little persistence, but I didn’t go after it then, either.

It didn’t matter in the end. Nothing he wrote on the front would have been as noteworthy as what was already written on the back.

My Card Collections

All of my collections

I started collecting baseball cards in the late 1970s. The earliest cards I remember having were Brewers from the 1979 Topps set. Unfortunately, though I have obtained them again, I did not hold on to those cards. The card that has been in my possession the longest is a 1980 Jerry Augustine card. And I still remember the first “old” card I got, a 1974 Bill Parsons that I received in a trade in about 1985.

1980 Jerry Augustine and 1974 Bill Parsons

In the 1980s, I bought wax packs, usually Topps, though I did get ‘82 and ‘83 Donruss and ‘85 Fleer. I remember opening the packs and sorting and resorting the cards. Sometimes I sorted them by team, sometimes by position, sometimes by making teams of my favorite players. By the time I was in high school, I started to focus on a collection. I decided that I wanted to collect all of the Topps Brewer cards.

Hunt For Brewer Cards

1979 Milwaukee Brewers

When I started this collection, Topps had four main sets: Main, Traded, Tiffany, and Traded Tiffany. The two Tiffany sets were almost identical to the other two, except they had a higher quality print. I decided to limit my collection to the Main and Traded sets. I also decided to include the ’69 and ’70 Seattle Pilots.

1969 Seattle Pilots

At the time, the only way to get older cards was to go to a card shop or a card show. I spent many Saturdays at card shows rifling through boxes of older sets looking for Brewers that I did not have. I always brought my notebook that had all of the players that I knew were in each set, helped tremendously by the Topps Baseball Cards of the Milwaukee Brewers picture book that was a giveaway at one of the Brewer games. I still remember the TV commercial for that, with broadcaster Mike Hegan having his 1976 card pointed out.

1976 Mike Hegan

It took me close to 20 years to complete the set. Now I make two or three orders a year to collect the Series 1, Series 2, and Update sets. Currently, I am only missing one of the 2019 Keston Huira Update cards (#150). I will pick that up when I get the Series 2 cards this summer.

Collecting The Faves

Jim Gantner

Right around the time I started to get close to completing my Brewer collection, I started to collect cards of my favorite players. I stuck with Topps Main and Update (or Traded) sets. The first players I collected were Ozzie Smith, Jim Gantner, Pudge Rodriguez, and Brooks Robinson.

Of those players, the only cards that I’m missing are of Robinson. I still need his ‘57 rookie card, his ‘67 main card, and a ‘67 checklist that has his picture on it. I have two of each of the Gantner cards, one for my Brewer collection and one for my player collection.

Brooks Robinson

I have since added three other players. I have a complete set of Jonathon Lucroy and Gary Carter, adding to the former when a new card comes out. The other player that I collect is Jose Altuve. I am only missing his 2011 Update rookie card. I’m not sure if I will continue collecting Altuve in light of the cheating scandal.

Gotta Love The Team Portraits

My most recent collection is Topps team portrait cards. They were some of my favorites when I first started collecting. Topps had them almost every year from 1956 through 1981, and then from 2001 through 2007. For some reason, they did not have them in 1969, and some teams were not represented in 1968. Houston had a card in 1963, but did not have another until 1970, when they were renamed from the Colt .45s to the Astros.

1956 Team Cards

The team cards are my favorite to collect right now. All of my other collections are either complete, I’m missing some expensive cards, or are just getting the current cards. The team cards still involve the hunt, trying to find as many as possible in one shop to save on shipping. In all, there are 729 team portrait cards, and I have almost half of them.

Paging Through The Boys Of Summer

There are currently 2,097 cards in my collections, which are currently housed in four binders. I only order cards two or three times a year, but each time I pull out all of the binders and go through them.

1980 Team Cards

Usually, that brings me back to summers spent riding my bike to the store to buy packs of cards. Sometimes it reminds me of a particular Brewer memory. And sometimes I remember being seven years old in the back yard, pretending to play a game with a lineup made up of the names on the back of the team cards.