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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t recall exactly why I walked into Joe’s Department Store on that blustery Saturday afternoon in November 1961. I probably had a dime that was burning a hole in my pocket. But I remember very clearly leaving Joe’s with two very different packs of football cards in my hand—the first packs of cards that I ever owned.
I leaned against the brick façade of the building facing Fenkell Avenue and tried to block the wind while I opened the packs. The first pack I opened was exciting! I still remember three cards from that pack—Minnesota Vikings quarterback George Shaw, who would soon be supplanted by Fran Tarkenton; Detroit Lions running back Nick Pietrosante, one of my father’s favorite players; and Jimmy Brown, the Cleveland Browns’ outstanding running back who even I, at age six, knew was a star player. That card was magnificent! Brown looked like he had been dropped in against a sky-blue background, just having taken a handoff and ready to run. I knew my dad would be impressed!
I shoved these cards—which I discovered later were manufactured by Topps—in my jacket pocket and opened the second pack, which had a completely different design on the wax wrapper. The cards themselves were also very different from the first pack; rather than players posing against a solid background, these cards depicted players on a gridiron that looked like it was on the edge of a forest, with trees and shrubbery in the background. The linemen were depicted charging toward some off-camera target, and the running backs all seemed to be heading straight toward the photographer. I still remember a few of the cards from this pack—San Diego Chargers lineman Ron Mix, Dallas Texans lineman Bill Krisher, and New York Titans running back Pete Hart.
(How, you might ask, can I remember what cards I got in packs that I bought nearly sixty years ago? That’s easy to answer. Those packs were the only ones I bought all year, and I was so enthralled with the pictures that I looked at them every day and read their backs so often that I memorized their stats and details. It was clear that I was hooked on cards within those first two packs.)
I quickly jammed the second pack of cards—which I later realized were made by Fleer—in my other pocket and closed my hands in the pockets so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind on my three-block trip home. (I have no recollection of whether or not I chewed the gum.) When I got home, I quickly showed the cards to my father. As I expected, he was impressed with the Pietrosante card, and upon seeing the Jimmy Brown card, he said approvingly, “He’s a good one!” But when he looked at the cards from the second pack, a puzzled expression came across his face. “Dallas Texans? The Dallas team is called the Cowboys!” “New York Titans? I only know the New York Giants!” I shrugged my shoulders as my dad suggested that maybe these pictures were of college players. Clearly the American Football League had not made an impact on anyone at the house on Patton Avenue in Detroit by the fall of 1961.
After my father handed the cards back to me, I asked him if baseball cards were also sold. Dad said he didn’t know but suspected that some company made them. He said we would have to see when the spring rolled around. I had something exiting to anticipate!
In late March 1962, I was thrilled to discover that Joe’s Department Store and Checker Drugs—just three storefronts down from Joe’s—both carried baseball cards. I loved that 1962 set, and I still do. From the faux woodgrain border to the photo with the lower right corner curled up to reveal the player’s name, team, and position, I thought those cards were perfect. I didn’t have a lot of them, but my parents were generous with their nickels and dimes, and I couldn’t wait to walk down to the store to pick up one or two of those green-wrappered packs of cards. I regularly volunteered to go to Checker’s with a note from my father allowing me to pick up a pack of Pall Malls for him—and to pick up a pack of cards for myself. (Thankfully, my dad quit smoking a few years later. I had to find other excuses to go to the store to buy baseball cards.) I probably had four or five dozen cards from the first and second series—not a lot, but enough to whet my appetite for more. And while I loved the pictures, I also studied the backs of the cards. I enjoyed reading about Roger Maris’ record-setting exploits in 1961, learning that Marv Breeding was the victim of the “sophomore jinx” in ’61 (although I had no idea what that was), and trying to figure out how to pronounce the name of Cleveland utility infielder Mike de la Hoz.
That spring I would go outside after dinner to throw a rubber ball against the steps of my parents’ front porch. I soon discovered that the Brooks brothers three doors down would play catch on the sidewalk in front of their home almost every night. I would wander down and strike up a conversation with Billy, who was in fourth of fifth grade, and Bobby, who was in junior high. They didn’t seem to mind having a little kid talk to them and watch them, and in fact they encouraged it by asking me to play “running bases,” a glorified game of “pickle” where I would start in the middle between them and they had to try to get as close to me as possible and tag me without dropping the ball. Invariably we would all collapse in laughter on the cool front lawn of the Brooks home. Those were wonderful, precious times.
I soon discovered that Billy and Bobby collected baseball cards, just like I did. They collected their cards together and had a lot of the first couple of series of Topps cards in 1962. I did, however, have a few cards that they were missing, and they told me that they would give me three of their doubles for every card I had that they needed. I think I had six cards they wanted, so I got eighteen cards in exchange. That was a nice way to increase my collection. I told Billy that I also collected the cards from the backs of Post cereal boxes and the coins that were in Salada Tea (which my grandmother drank) and Junket desserts. Billy collected the Post cards too but didn’t know anything about the coins. I showed him my burgeoning collection and he looked at them with curiosity, saying he had never heard of Junket. “Really?” I exclaimed. “You haven’t seen the television commercials? ‘Junket rennet custard/The growing up dessert! Helps you grow up, not out!’ Billy stood back from me, eyed me up and down, and said with a grin, “Doesn’t seem to be doing a good job with you.” At first, I thought he was making a cruel joke about my weight, but he nudged me with his elbow and told me he was kidding. We both laughed about it—no harm, no foul.
Once school let out for the summer, the Brooks brothers went on vacation with their parents, and I didn’t see them much once they got back home, but they were my first trading partners and thus had a strong influence on me. I knew that there were other people out there who loved card collecting as much as I did. So thanks, Billy and Bobby, for your friendship and savvy trades all those years ago.
I collected baseball cards throughout the summer of 1962. I probably had about two hundred different cards—a pretty good collection, but not even half of the 598 cards in the set. The cards were issued in seven series, and I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards at Joe’s or Checker’s. I bought one pack of seventh series cards at a drug store my mother visited for a special prescription; those were the only seventh series cards I bought at a store.
By mid-August, baseball cards were supplanted by the new Topps football card set, and I bought those, too. I liked the dark borders but wasn’t thrilled with the small black-and-white action photos that accompanied the larger color still shots. Still, they were cards, and I bought as many as I could.
That fall, my parents bowled in my dad’s Detroit Edison league, so every Friday they would take my older sister and me to my grandmother’s apartment. She would ply us with chocolate pudding and orange slices and let us watch such television programs as “William Tell,” “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster,” “The Flintstones,” and “The Hathaways.” My grandma lived in a second-story apartment above a convenience store, and each visit also included a trip to the store. I discovered that the store sold football cards, too—a product issued by Fleer that depicted stars from the American Football League (about which I had read over the previous year). I probably had half of the small set of those cards and enjoyed the variety between them and the Topps issue.
When spring 1963 rolled around, and the new Topps baseball set was issued, I was excited, but I was a little let down by the cards themselves. They 1963 cards were colorful, but I liked the 1962 set so much that I was disappointed with this year’s design. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but no matter—I still bought as many as I could. And once again, I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards. All that aside, however, I had an experience that has lived with me ever since and which I wish I could revisit and try to do differently.
One afternoon in June 1963, just after school had let out for the summer, my mother asked me if I wanted to go grocery shopping with her. I liked going because I could look at the baseball cards on the backs of Post cereal boxes and Bazooka bubble gum boxes and shake the Junket boxes to hear the coin bouncing around inside. My mom and I headed to the local Packer grocery store “(Packer’s got the meat/Packer’s got the price/That’s why Packer is twice . . . as . . . nice!”). I soon left my mom to shop on her own while I visited the cereal and candy aisles. I saw what I wanted to see and was heading back down the main aisle when something caught my eye and caused me to halt all movement and gasp for breath. There, hanging from the end of the aisle on a metal bar, were rack packs of Topps baseball cards—three stacks of cards wrapped in cellophane and there for the taking. And not just any baseball cards—they were my favorites, 1962 Topps! And not just any 1962 Topps, but as I discovered by looking at the cards on the top and the bottom of the rack pack, they were the elusive seventh series cards, of which I only had five!!!
I quickly put the rack pack back on the metal stake and hustled off to find my mother. When I saw her, I was out of breath.
“Mom!!! They have baseball cards here!!!!! Please come with me!”
My mother looked at me suspiciously but followed me to the display on the main aisle. I took down a rack pack and handed it to her.
“Can I get this, Mom? Please???”
She looked at the package and asked, “Are these from this year?”
“No,” I replied, “But—”
“No,” my mother said forcefully. I’m not buying you old cards.”
“But Mom, I don’t have ANY of these cards!”
“No, I’m not buying you old cards.”
“Stop, Danny. Put them back.”
I thought about throwing a tantrum right then and there, but I figured it wouldn’t be dignified for an eight-year-old to be so immature. So instead, I decided not to talk to my mom at all for the rest of the day. That would show her!
That incident has stayed with me all these years. I sometimes wonder how valuable those cards would be today, when common seventh series cards can sell for almost $100 apiece in nice condition. Of course, in my hands, they probably wouldn’t have stayed in mint condition, and almost certainly those rack packs would have been quickly ripped open, but still, it’s nice to speculate on their value.
Once again, by mid-August, football cards were on sale, and I bought a lot of those cards. I really liked that set—they were very colorful and had strong visual appeal, plus a lot of my friends also bought them and I could trade with them. I remember, though, that some cards seemed almost impossible to come by—particularly the Philadelphia Eagles cards, which nobody seemed to have. Of course, at that time I knew nothing about short prints, but I would soon find out about them. My parents bowled in the Edison league again that fall, and once again the convenience store below my grandmother’s apartment sold Fleer AFC cards, so I had a lot of football cards to look at. The last time I bought cards there was Friday, November 15; a week later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and while my parents still bowled that night, the convenience store was closed, and I don’t remember ever seeing Fleer football cards there again after that.
During March 1964, I began to visit Joe’s and Checker’s to look for the new baseball cards. I was surprised to discover, however, that neither store had them. Late March turned to early April, and still no cards were on sale. Rather than coming home from school and then going to the stores, I started to go right from school. I was desperate for my baseball card fix!
The baseball season started on April 13 in 1964, and a couple of days before that, I went to Checker’s and asked for some baseball cards. The woman behind the counter said they didn’t have them yet. She must have seen my disappointment because she leaned forward on the counter and said, conspiratorially, “Do you want to know why there are no baseball cards?”
I moved close to the counter and didn’t say anything but was shocked and stunned when she said, “It’s because of the Beatles.”
I looked at her like she had lobsters crawling out of her ears. “THE BEATLES??? What do you mean?” How could a show business phenomenon have such an effect on my baseball card mania?
The woman explained to me that the Beatles were such a big box office draw that Topps put together an offer to sell bubble gum cards of the band. Those cards sold even better than baseball cards and led to a second series, which sold just as well. She said that Topps was in the process of developing a third series and that the baseball cards would be issued after that third series of Beatles cards was released.
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but it seemed logical, and later research proved that she had the details pretty much correct. I went home crestfallen, wondering when the baseball cards would arrive in the stores and cursing the Beatles for making me wait for my fix. Of course, I had loved watching the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that February, and I had even begun combing my hair over my forehead, like 90% of the boys in my class at school, so I couldn’t stay mad at them for too long. They were on the radio constantly, and my sister collected their cards (she eventually had complete sets of all six series), so once the baseball cards came out, all was forgiven.
Maybe it was because it took so long for them to arrive, but I really liked the 1964 Topps cards., I still remember the first card that I saw in my first pack that year—Milt Pappas, the Orioles pitcher who hailed from the Detroit area. But yet again the sixth and seventh series were nowhere to be found in my local stores, and in mid-August I was surprised to see that Topps was issuing AFL cards rather than their usual National Football League product. In late August, a new company, Philadelphia Gum, began to distribute NFL cards. I liked the Topps cards but LOVED the Philly product—the pictures looked like they had all been taken around the same time in the same location, and I liked the offensive plays that were diagrammed on certain cards. My friends and I spent a lot of time trading cards from both sets but particularly the Philadelphia set. I think I came about forty cards short of a set, which is about the best I had done with any card set up until that time.
There was no such drama when Topps released their baseball cards in late March of 1965. These cards were beautiful! They were bold and colorful, and I loved having the team name inside a waving pennant near the bottom left of the card. I loved these cards, and I wanted to get as many of them as I could.
I bought most of my 1965 early series cards at Joe’s Department Store. Unlike Checker Drugs, where the cards were behind a counter and the druggist had to get them for me, at Joe’s I could grab the packs myself from a box in a candy aisle. If nobody was looking, I was sometimes able to slide down the bottom of the wax pack and see what card was on the top of the pack, thus assuring that I would get a card I didn’t have. I tried not to abuse that privilege, however, because the proprietor was such a nice man.
Joe reminded me of Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons—short, round, balding, with a bristly mustache. He always had a glint in his eye and a smile on his face; he would see me walk into his store and exclaim, “Hello, young man! What can I do for you today?” He always knew that I wanted to buy a pack or two of baseball cards. Joe’s was called a department store, but it was very different from Sears, Montgomery Ward, or J.L. Hudson. It was more like a small warehouse; it encompassed two storefronts and contained men’s and women’s clothing and various other items but was more like a thrift shop than what passed for a department store back in those days. But it was a neighborhood store, and while I don’t remember buying anything besides candy or cards there, I know that a lot of my neighbors regularly visited the store.
Joe and I got to know each other pretty well that spring—so well, in fact, that Joe and his female assistant granted me special favors. The big privilege was that Joe took a box of baseball cards and put them behind the counter so that he would always have some available for me when I came in the store—even if the packs were sold out in the candy aisle. Maybe Joe just didn’t want me to try to open the packs in the aisle, but I thought it was really cool of him to treat me that way. It also gave rise to an idea that served me well for the rest of the year.
One day in late April, I told my mother that I wanted to discuss something with her and my dad over dinner. She seemed surprised that her nine-year-old son would have some deep thought that needed airing and asked if I was in trouble at school. I told her no; this wasn’t a bad thing. So at dinner, I brought up my idea. I received twenty-five cents a week for an allowance, and I spent virtually all of that, plus a penny sales tax, for five packs of baseball cards. I asked my parents if I could instead get $1.25 per month—a 20% increase—if I did more chores around the house. I said that I would cut the grass and rake the leaves in the fall and handle some of the housecleaning that my mother was constantly doing.
My dad was always reluctant to spend more money than he had to. He grew up during the Great Depression, and I think his attitude toward money was a result of those tough times. He rarely enjoyed spending extra money on my sister or me, and even my mom hesitated to ask for certain necessary things because she didn’t want to make him angry. As a family, we never wanted to anything, but we didn’t live a life of luxury, either. We were solidly in the middle class.
My mother asked me why I wanted more money, and I explained my reasoning.
“With $1.25 per month, I could buy a full box of baseball cards each month.”
My dad didn’t even look up from his dinner. “You get a quarter a week” is all he said.
But my mom asked some other questions.
“how many packs are in a box?”
“At five cents apiece?”
“So that’s $1.20. Plus five cents tax, for $1.25. That works out nicely.”
“What do you think, Mom?”
Dad didn’t even look at me. “You get a quarter a week.”
My mother knew how important this was to me, though, and she said, “Let me discuss this with your dad.” Only then did my dad lift his head from his dinner; he looked at both of us and repeated, “He gets a quarter a week.” The look my mom gave me, however, implied that the decision was not yet final.
A few days later, when there hadn’t been any obvious discussion about it, I asked my mother where things stood. She said that she would talk to my dad about it that night.
The following day, when I got home from school but before my father arrived home from work, my mom took me aside and said, “Dad and I have discussed your idea and we have agreed to try it.” I must have been grinning from ear to ear because my mom quickly said, “On three conditions: One, that you do some more chores around the house; two, that you don’t ask for extra money for individual packs; and three, YOU DON’T CHEW THE GUM!” I laughed and quickly agreed to all those conditions. In fact, I told my mother that I would cut the lawn right then. “That can wait until tomorrow,” Mom said. “First, let’s go to Joe’s and get your box of cards.”
When I walked into the store, Joe saw me and started to say, “Hello young man–.” But then he saw my mother behind me and quickly changed his tone to sound more professional. “Hello madam, welcome to Joe’s. What can I do for you today?” My mom looked down at me, and I said to Joe, “I would like to buy a box of baseball cards.”
“Certainly, young man. How many packs would you like?” Joe headed back behind the counter to grab some packs from my special box.
“I would like the entire box, Joe. All twenty-four packs.”
Joe looked confused and glanced at my mother, who smiled and nodded her head. Joe then cocked his head to the side, as if to say, “This is different!” He told me to wait a moment while he went in the stock room to get a full box. When he came back, he opened the box and began shoveling the packs into a bag for easy carrying. I quickly stopped him and asked if he would leave the cards in the box and let me take the box with me as a souvenir. He smiled and said, “Of course!” He also complimented my mother on raising such a polite young man. My mother and I both smiled broadly. I thanked Joe and told him that I would be back for another box when the second series was released. Joe looked a little surprised and said, “I hope you’ll be back before then, even if you’re not buying baseball cards!” That man was a total sweetheart.
When we got home, my mother reminded me not to chew the gum and told me to have fun as she left my bedroom. I then proceeded to open all twenty-four packs and put the cards in numerical order as I opened them to extend the excitement as much as possible. For me opening those packs was like Christmas morning—new pleasures with each pack. As I reached the end of the box, however, it felt even more like the end of Christmas morning, when a kid realizes that he didn’t get everything on his list. I noticed toward the end of the box that I was getting a lot of duplicate cards, and in fact I was about two dozen cards short of the entire series when I was done opening the packs. But I had lots of friends at school who collected cards—Chuck and Rusty in my class, in particular—and I had lots of doubles to trade, so over the next few days I traded for the cards I was missing. Buying cards by the box was really going to pay off!
I relied on Rusty and Chuck to tell me when succeeding series of cards were released, and when that occurred my mother and I would walk or drive to Joe’s for a fresh box. The next few series were smaller in number than the first series, so I was missing substantially fewer cards after opening the boxes, and I was able to trade for everything I needed. Through the first four series, I had the entire set of 1965 Topps cards, and I had a good start on the fifth series when I bought a box of those cards. After trades, I was missing only one card—number 424, Gary Bell, a Cleveland pitcher. None of my friends had this card, and they didn’t know anyone who had it. My mom even broke her own rule and let me buy a few individual packs to try to find it, to no avail. I was stumped.
Then my mom had a suggestion. “Why not write a letter to the Topps company asking them to send you the card? I’ll give you a dime that you can attach to a letter explaining that you have tried hard to find the card but have been unsuccessful.” I thought this was as good an idea as anything I could imagine, and I sat down to write. I don’t remember my exact wording, but it went something g like this:
I am a ten-year-old card collector who has been assembling the 1965 Topps baseball set. I have every card in the first five series except number 424, Gary Bell. I can’t find it anywhere, and none of my friends have it. Could you please send this card to me? I have enclosed ten cents for your trouble and have also enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Thank you in advance for your attention to my letter. Sincerely, Danny Marowski
A couple of weeks later, my mother came into my room with a large envelope and said with a smile, “You have mail!” My jaw dropped when she handed me the envelope that had the Topps Chewing Gum address in the top left. I carefully unsealed the envelope and discovered three life-changing things inside.
First, I saw the Gary Bell card. They had sent it!!! I was ecstatic and yelled out to my mom, “They sent me the card!!!” She was very happy, too. Next, I pulled out a short letter from someone at Topps. I wish I had kept the letter, but I pretty much remember what it said.
Thank you for your letter. While we don’t sell cards to collectors, we were very impressed by your letter and are happy to help you complete your collection of 1965 Topps baseball cards. We have also returned your SASE and your ten cents and have enclosed a catalog for The Card Collectors’ Company. You can buy cards from them for this year and previous years’ sets at reasonable prices. Feel free to contact them for all your collecting needs. Good luck in your pursuit of the full 1965 Topps set, and keep collecting!
I quickly looked at the catalog, and I caught my breath as I realized that I could fill in my sets from the past few years for pennies per card. I ran out to show my mother the catalog—actually, more like a small bifold pamphlet—and said that I wanted to try to complete my older sets through The Card Collectors’ Company of Franklin Square, New York. My mother reminded me that I was spending all of my allowance on current baseball cards, but I noted that the season was almost over and that I probably wouldn’t be able to find sixth or seventh series cards in stores, so I would save my allowance in the fall and order cards through the catalog. Little did I realize the impact that catalog would have on my collection over the next few years.
I waited patiently for Joe’s to have the sixth series of baseball cards, but as in previous years they never arrived, so I figured it would be football card season soon anyway and gave up my pursuit of the Topps baseball set. Imagine my surprise, then, when Chuck told me that a store near him was selling sixth series cards! I quickly hopped on my bike and rode the eight blocks to Chuck’s house, then walked down the street to a small convenience store named Connie’s Corner. Connie was indeed the proprietor, and she welcomed us with a broad smile. Chuck asked for a couple packs of cards and opened them right then and there. Sure enough, they were from the sixth series! We went back to Chuck’s house, and I called my mother to let her know that a new series was out. She told me that we would have to wait until the next day to buy the box, and I worried all night that they would be out of stock by then. My worries were unfounded, however; I bought a box and completed the entire sixth series without needing to trade with Chuck or anyone else. My pursuit of a complete set was still alive!
I never expected to find seventh series cards anywhere in my neighborhood, so I figured that I would have to mail away for them through the CCC catalog. A couple of weeks before school started that fall, however, I began visiting another classmate. Jon was different from most of my other male friends. He wasn’t into sports, concentrating instead on fascinating electronics and oddball devices. His parents were older, and his father worked either in the government or in some science-based position. Their house was full of things I had never seen before, and they were clearly wealthier than most of my friends’ parents. Also, their house was north of Grand River Avenue, a main artery in Detroit that separated middle class residences from old, moneyed families. While most of my friends and I would attend public high school in a few years, Jon attended Assumption, a private academy in Windsor, Ontario. Jon’s world was very different from mine.
I must have visited Jon at his home three or four times over a ten-day period. To get to his house, I had to cross the massive Grand River Avenue, and to do that I crossed at a street that had a traffic signal. On the southwest corner of that street was a drug store named Schnellbach’s. I had never gone in there before because it was a Rexall drug store—noted by the orange sign above the door—and they were notoriously kid-unfriendly, at least in my neighborhood. But after one visit to Jon’s home, I was parched, so I stopped in to Schnellbach’s to get a bottle of orange soda. Before I got my drink, however, I noticed behind the counter a box of baseball cards. I also noticed a small banner on the front of the box that stopped me in my tracks. The banner read, “FINAL SERIES.” There it was! The elusive seventh series!!! I forgot about the soda and rode home as quickly as possible, exploding though the back door to tell my mom that we needed to go to the drug store to get the cards. Mom was making dinner and told me that she would take me after we ate. That night I probably ate my dinner faster than I ever had before.
As my mom a I prepared to go out, my dad asked where we were going. Mom said that she was running an errand with me. My dad looked puzzled and asked if he needed to come along, and my mom told him no, it wasn’t necessary. It hadn’t dawned on me until right then that my dad didn’t have any idea that I was buying baseball cards by the box! On the way to Schnellbach’s I asked my mom if dad knew what was going on. She smiled, said no, and said she wanted to make this decision herself. I gained newfound respect for Mom that day but also wished I could share my excitement with my dad.
When we got to Schnellbach’s and I asked for a full box of baseball cards, the salesperson gave me a box without the banner on it. I pointed to the box behind the counter and asked, “Do you have any boxes with the Final Series banner?” She checked the back room and came out with one such box. “Last one!”
When I got home, I opened the packs and found myself three cards short of a complete set. Oddly enough, two of those cards were of my hometown Detroit Tigers—Jake Wood and Joe Sparma. But Rusty told me that he had found seventh series cards at Connie’s Corner and that I could have his. That left me one card short—I was missing Howie Reed, number 544, a Dodgers pitcher. Neither Rusty nor Chuck had the card, but Chuck told me that a friend of a friend had it, and a connection was soon made. The boy with the Reed card came to Chuck’s, and I told him he could have as many of my doubles as he wanted in exchange for Howie Reed. I think he took a couple of dozen cards away with him, but I didn’t care—I had Howie Reed, and I had the entire 1965 Topps baseball set!!!
That was a red-letter day in my life. I was excited; my mom was happy for me; my friends were thrilled as well. Even my dad found out that I had completed the set and was impressed—although I think he thought I had traded for the majority of my cards. What this did for me personally was give me a hunger for completing future sets and going back and completing older sets as well, first through services like the Card Collectors’ Company and later through hobby magazines and conventions. I remember attending national shows in Troy, Michigan, in the early 1970s and picking up amazing deals on older cards for prices that couldn’t be touched today. Those sets have stayed with me all these years; I have a complete run of Topps sets from 1955-1990, Bowman 1948 and 1954-55, and Fleer 1960-63, plus most Topps football sets from 1955-1990, Fleer football 1960-63, Philadelphia football 1964-67, and my favorite, a Post cereal football set from 1962, as well as hockey and basketball card sets. I took quite a few years off from collecting to pursue work and raise a family, but I’m happy to be scratching the collecting itch again and trying to fill some older sets, including 1950 Bowman baseball and 1961 and 1963 Post cereal baseball.
1965 was the final year that I collected cards though packs. During 1966, I discovered that another Checker Drugs a few miles away sold cards in a vending machine—six cards (or more—sometimes as many as eight) for a nickel. My mom would drive me to the store with a dollar’s worth of nickels, and I would spend them all on the machine. My 1966 and 1967 sets were completed like this; beginning in 1968, I ordered the complete set from the Card Collectors Company, and I kept up that method for many years.
I lost touch with Jon and Rusty over the next couple of years, but I just recently reconnected with Chuck after more than forty years. Unfortunately, we have very little in common anymore. That said, I think back often to those wonderful days when our only worries were whether we could complete a baseball card set. Would that our lives could be like that again!
Just a few days before the opening of “Home Base,” my exhibition about the history of baseball in New York City, I received an email from a woman who had been steered my way by the esteemed official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn. The content of the email was, mostly, something I have seen before. A family had inherited a baseball card collection. They believed it had some value but were looking for assistance as to which way to best navigate a sale.
In the few years I have been assisting people in selling their collections, I am, at best, usually approached with cards from the 1970s. Often, it’s even more recent and pretty worthless. I’ve disappointed many a soul when I told them that the five Wade Boggs rookie cards they hoarded as a kid weren’t going to make them a millionaire. I’ve reached a point where I understand that such collections aren’t worth the many hours that go into what it takes to inventory, organize and sell a collection, and I pass on the opportunity.
But, this email had two distinctive features. The first was the recommendation from John, who has the wisdom to know if something is the real deal. The second was that this family had already done a considerable amount of inventorying and research in the eight months since their uncle died. They sent me a series of handwritten lists they had created, which told me which sets they had and which cards were missing from each. It was intriguing enough that last week I decided to meet with them to see it in person.
I met the three sisters, Karen, Lynn, and Mary, and their mother, Gertrude. They made me a splendid breakfast and regaled me with stories of their uncle, Johnny Gould. Johnny (the handsome fellow whose picture is at the top of this blog) was born in 1940, was single for most of his life, and was living in the home that belonged to his parents when he died. He was remembered by his family as one who was both “salty and sweet,” a kind soul who was a bit of a reclusive loner. He was also a sports fanatic. All sports. He was a Redskins fan who was the quarterback in many a neighborhood pickup game. He liked basketball and was an avid watcher of golf. But, the true passion of his life was baseball.
As a youth, he pursued a professional career. Among the things he left behind in his collection were an interest letter from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the business cards of John Whalen and Walter Youse, scouts for the Indians and Orioles, respectively. He signed with the Indians, as a pitcher, and was in their minor league system when an arm injury derailed his fledgling career. After his dreams of major league glory were dashed, he continued to channel his love of the game into collecting. It was an intense romance that resulted in a collection that has brought me to pen this little missive.
I am in the middle of inventorying the first five fifty-gallon storage tubs, and those represent just a portion of the collection. The cataloging process will likely take me several more weeks and as a result, I can’t accurately represent the sheer enormity of it, not just yet. However, I have seen enough that a story is starting to emerge.
Johnny began collecting baseball cards in 1950, when he was a ten-year-old boy. His timing was synchronous with the explosion of the hobby, which had been mostly dormant during World War II. Johnny began with Bowman, the only real game in town at that point. That 1950 offering included what we now think of as key cards for Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Yogi Berra. The nickels that Johnny paid for a pack of five cards (or one-card packs for a penny), resulted in him having multiple copies of those legendary players, and more, in this relatively affordable vintage set.
After he experienced the photo-based, lushly painted wonder of the 1950 Bowmans, he clearly became hooked. For the next 13 years he purchased every set that Bowman and Topps produced, with the seeming exception of 1960. The quantities he bought would vary, year to year. He was missing fewer than 50 cards that were produced by Bowman from 1950-1955. From Topps, he had a complete set of 1957, was missing only one (ironically inexpensive) card from the 1956 set, and was only a couple dozen cards shy of completing the sets from 1952-55.
Among the many, many cards that Johnny collected in his teens are some of the most iconic ones in the hobby. He not only owned the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, perhaps second only to the famed T-206 Wagner in terms of desirability by collectors, but he had two 1951 Mantle Bowmans. There are multiple rookie cards for all of the biggest names of baseball’s golden age: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, and Sandy Koufax are all represented, just to name a few. Johnny also, at one point in his life, started collecting pre-war cards, too. There are 1934-36 Batter Ups and Diamond Stars, 1935 Goudey 4-in-1s, 1933 Eclipse Imports and a fair sprinkling of 1939 Play Balls, including both the Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio rookie cards.
The conditions of the cards vary. At some point he trimmed the ’52 Mantle so he could fit it into his wallet, according to the sisters. Most of the wear is more traditional. It’s clear from the ones dating back to the early years that Johnny loved his cards with a little boy’s enthusiasm. But, as he matured, he started to take better care of his collection. The borders of the 1962 Topps, with their dark faux woodgrain, are remarkably sharp and unchipped.
One habit superseded any desire he may have had to keep his cards pristine. Johnny went through a phase in the mid-’50s where he wanted to learn how to sign an autograph, just like his idols. What better arena in which to learn than on the cards themselves, where manufacturers frequently provided a facsimile signature? Johnny had nine copies of Hank Aaron’s 1956 Topps. Five of them feature what I believe are the sixteen-year-old’s florid attempts at replicating the tight signature of Hammerin’ Hank.
His habit of copying signatures almost made me miss a group of 1953 Bowmans that contain, what I now believe to be, legitimate autographs. At first I was working under the premise that they were also fakes, largely because the Mantle autograph looked so different from his more familiar style, with the half-moon M at the front of both parts of his alliterative moniker. Then, I took a second look. On the cards that were obvious forgeries, Johnny’s youthful attempts at copying the signatures weren’t very good. Not only did they look nothing like the real thing, but they were all obviously written in the same hand. The ’53 Bowmans not only seemed to be by different hands, but the cards themselves do not contain a facsimile to inspire his practice. That realization then triggered the memory that Mantle’s signature, like so many others, evolved over the years. With the help of sportscollectorsdigest.com I found a version of Mantle’s autograph from a similar era. I leave the comparison to you.
Gertrude confirmed that Johnny started taking the bus to Griffith Stadium when he was thirteen. All of the signatures on the ’53 Bowmans, seven in total, were guys who played on American League teams, four of them Yankees. As such, there would have been an opportunity for Johnny to connect with each of them. I’m firmly convinced these signatures are real and will be keeping an eye open for even more examples as I inventory the rest of the collection.
Autographs became very important to Johnny, ultimately overcoming his collection of baseball cards. While he appears to have mostly stopped buying cards around 1962, that year also marks the beginning of when he started a new hobby. Included in the collection are three boxes of envelopes, with approximately 150 envelopes per box. The dates on the postmarks span the years 1962-’97, and come from around the United States. It seems that Johnny wrote the ballclubs (and later in life, professional golfers), and sent them a SASE filled with blank index cards. The teams returned them, signed, with mixed results in terms of player participation. Often, only one player responded, signing multiple cards. Anyone in need of 12 copies of Charlie Spikes’s autograph?
Some of the envelopes, however, have taken my breath away. One postmarked from San Francisco in 1965 contained the autographs of six Hall of Famers, including Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn and Willie Mays. Another contained almost the entire starting squad of the 1969 Mets, including Tom Seaver. A third featured many of the 1969 Pirates, including one signed by Roberto Clemente. I had never touched anything that was also once held by Clemente, a personal idol, and the experience left me shaken.
The contents of the card collection itself are a rare experience for many hobbyists. A chance to dive into so many of these legendary pieces of cardboard is a precious opportunity indeed, and I expected to be moved by my discoveries along the way. But, I’m normally not an autograph guy. Even as a child, I found something awkward in asking a player to sign something for me. It felt like an invasion of their space, like I was a thief trying to steal their names. So, it is with no small amount of irony that I find myself most captivated by this collection of envelopes. The sisters did not have time to inventory their contents, so each is a surprise to me, and some of the names I am stumbling across are humbling.
The envelopes have also given me a chance to better understand Johnny Gould, the man. It is one thing for a ten (or twenty) year-old boy to spend a few dimes on packs of baseball cards. But to practice a habit for thirty-five years, carrying it through until well past middle-age, speaks to a particular mind. Lynn pointed out that while many of the cards were stored in literal shoeboxes, the envelopes lived in the top drawer of his dresser, always close at hand. Each one of those envelopes, all of them containing the same D.C. return address written in the same, neat, steady hand, is a testament to a passion I readily recognize. For Johnny, those index cards were transformed from simple squares of paper to direct links to the game that he gave his life to, in his most singular way. I, and likely most of you reading this post on this particular blog, can certainly relate.
I am excited for what the next few weeks hold. There are still plenty of treasures to discover as I prepare to help the family sell their uncle’s legacy. There’s more I’ve already uncovered that I didn’t even mention this time around. Maybe I’ll have to write more about it as I journey down the path. In the meantime, if any of you might be interested in purchasing items from the Gould Collection, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com. I’ll be over here, touching history.
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.
Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”
My parents come from large families. My mom is the second oldest of seven children and my dad the youngest of seven. Hordes of grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunts, uncles, and cousins made for wonderfully chaotic family parties and holidays in my youth. But it is with my mom’s younger sister Debbie that I share a unique bond.
As a kindergartner in 1978, Aunt Debbie took me to the Cubs’ home opener, my first ever baseball game. At five years old, I was generally aware of Cubs baseball and had watched ballgames on WGN; however, my parents were not particularly avid sports fans (we prefer to bond over pizza) and with three kids under six, a trip to Wrigley Field was not necessarily on their radar.
I wore my red coat with race cars on it. I held her hand as we navigated the crowd, climbing the winding ramps up to the bleachers. And just like so many others, my first view of the field was absolutely mind-blowing—it was impossibly green and vivid and huge—so unlike the dark, grainy broadcasts of the day. I had a hot chocolate and she bought me a Cubs helmet and the Cubs won the game on a walk-off home run by Larry Biittner in the ninth. I was hooked. It is my Aunt Debbie I thank for my lifelong love of baseball.
In the summer of 1979, Debbie and her good friend Judy spent their summer at Wrigley Field, taking in close to 30 games in the $2.00 bleachers (roughly $7.00 today and considerably less than that same ticket would cost you today). They would take the bus up Austin from Oak Park and transfer over to the Addison bus that would take them right to Wrigley Field’s doorstep. After grabbing a doughnut and coffee at Yum Yum Donuts, they would get in line for the (general admission) bleachers to enjoy the sunshine and cheer on her favorite, Cubs’ slugger Dave Kingman, in left field.
Over the years, she took me to several games, including a “Crosstown Classic” match-up at a time the White Sox and Cubs used to play an exhibition game or two against each other in the early 1980s and another home opener with her then-boyfriend, who later became my Uncle Dan. It is one game, however, that led to my obsession with baseball card collecting.
In 1981, Dodgers’ pitcher Fernando Valenzuela took the nation by storm with a hot start that included an 8-0 record after his first eight starts, with five shutouts and eight complete games. Perhaps you recall Fernandomania? When Aunt Debbie called to see if I was interested in going to the Cubs game with her on Saturday, June 6—in front row seats along the first base line—I was thrilled. When I later learned it was going to be a Valenzuela start, I was over the moon.
As Fernando warmed up in the visitor’s bullpen, we stood along the wall and watched. As much as I loved the Cubs at that point, seeing him in person was tantamount to witnessing Babe Ruth in the flesh. Valenzuela might be the greatest pitcher of all-time! When Aunt Debbie took me to the souvenir stand, my allegiance wavered, and I insisted on a Dodgers’ helmet. (Hey, I was eight, swept up in Fernandomania, and simply had not realized how silly it was to ever root for the Dodgers.)
I received some praise from a smattering of Dodgers fans as I proudly wore my new helmet. The game got off to a good start for Los Angeles, who knocked Cubs’ starter Bill Caudill out of the game in the first. After the top of the second, the Dodgers led 4-0. In the bottom of the inning, Hector Cruz took Valenzuela deep for the Cubs’ first run.
The score remained 4-1 as the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Jerry Morales began with a triple off Valenzuela, Cruz walked, and Carlos Lezcano singled home Morales. Ken Reitz flew out and Jody Davis singled, scoring Cruz. Light-hitting infielder Mike Tyson hit a three-run bomb off Valenzuela. After a walk to Ivan DeJesus, Valenzuela was lifted in favor of Bobby Castillo. Steve Dillard flew out. Bill Buckner, my favorite player at the time, doubled to drive in DeJesus. Morales, batting for the second time in the inning, grounded out. The Cubs led 7-4. And Valenzuela was mortal. I was no longer interested in donning Dodger blue.
As I took the helmet off and placed it under my seat, Aunt Debbie asked me what was wrong. I expressed regret for my impulsive helmet purchase. She graciously offered to take me back to the souvenir stand to replace the helmet with a Cubs item. We went back to the stand and after looking over the items, I decided on the 1981 Topps team set. (Geez, I acted like a spoiled punk!)
Now back at our seats, I rifled through the cards looking for all the players I had seen so far in the game. Bill Buckner! Mike Tyson! Ivan DeJesus! While it seemed that only half of the starting lineup from that game was represented in the team set, there was something downright magical about looking down at a baseball card and then up at that player on the field. (It was probably telling that the only two All-Stars in the set—Kingman and Bruce Sutter—were no longer on the team.)
The Cubs won the game 11-5 and hung seven earned runs on Valenzuela, causing his ERA to swell from 1.90 to 2.45. Mike Tyson would never hit another Major League home run. Just a week after this game, the players went on strike. I was blissfully unaware of the labor strife or how awful the 1981 Cubs team was. I took those cards everywhere with me.
That Dodgers helmet was imposed on opponents in backyard Wiffle Ball games for years to come. I still have it, along with a good portion of the cards from that original team set. I have no idea whatever happened to my Cliff Johnson or George Riley cards from that set, but the ones I still have symbolize the formation of my baseball allegiances, represent the starting point for my love of baseball cards, and are a tangible reminder of the special bond I have with my Aunt Debbie.
Time flies. Debbie is now retired and has raised four children of her own. She remains a passionate fan and even got to throw out the first pitch before a Cubs game in 2004 (jealous). We had quite a time celebrating the Cubs’ championship over Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. And catching up recently about those games of the 1970s and 1980s has been a blast. Thanks Aunt Debbie for my favorite commons!
In case you missed it because of the holidays, the Hall of Fame announced last month that Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the former major league ballplayer and professional golfer, was selected as the recipient of the 2020 Ford C. Frick Award. The Award is given out annually for excellence in broadcasting.
The flamboyant Harrleson started his broadcasting career with the Boston Red Sox back in 1975. He left the Boston booth after six years and joined the Chicago White Sox broadcasting team in 1981. He was a fixture in the White Sox booth for 33 years. However, those years were not continuous as he did a couple of short stints as the White Sox general manager (end of 1985 to 1986) and then a broadcaster for the Evil Empire (1987). He retired at the end of the 2018 season.
The announcement on December 11th brought back memories of my brief encounter with “The Hawk” back in the summer of 1968.
In August of 1967 a bidding war for the Hawk ensued after he was placed on irrevocable waivers by Charlie “Cheapskate” Finley for calling the impulsive A’s owner “a disgrace to baseball” after Charlie O fired Alvin Dark, the A’s manager. The boneheaded move by Finley turned Hawk into a free agent. After mulling over multiple offers, he agreed to join the Red Sox for $150,000 (he was making $12,000 at the time).
Harrelson, the first major leaguer to don a batting glove (it was actually a golf glove), officially joined the Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team on August 28, 1967. The Sox were in a very tight pennant race and needed a big bat and outfield help after the beloved Tony Conigliaro was almost killed by an errant Jack Hamilton fastball on August 18th.
Hawk Harrelson soared in Boston, and with the fans and media behind him, helped the 1967 team capture the AL flag in what has been called the greatest pennant race in the history of baseball.
In the summer of 1968, the Hawk was in full flight mode and having a spectacular year. One in which he socked a carrier high 35 home runs and led the league in RBIs with 109. The Fenway faithful cheered him on the field, and we dug his Nehru jackets and dune buggy.
The Card and the Story
I briefly met “The Hawk” after a game in the summer of 1968. I was a chartered member of the Hawk fan club and desperately wanted his autograph.
The best place to get autographs after a home game was on the Van Ness Street side of Fenway Park along the chain link fence that outlined the area where the players parked their cars. That summer day the area was jam packed with kids trying to get autographs.
Hawk came out, signed some autographs, got into his car, and left. Determined to come away with his autograph I decided to run after his car and hope that he would have to stop at an intersection. Luckily, he took a right on Jersey Street which meant he would have to stop when he came to Brookline Avenue. I was a pretty fast runner back in ’68 and caught up to the car at the intersection. I tapped on the passenger window which startled the Hawk. He smiled, leaned over and rolled down the window. I asked him to please sign my baseball card. I handed him my 1966 Topps card which featured him as player on the Kansas City A’s and a ballpoint pen. I was embarrassed that I did not have current Red Sox card of him and said – “I am sorry about the card, but it is the only one I have.” He said that was OK and signed my card. I thanked him and he drove off.
In this excellent post back in 2017, Tim runs down all of the Hawk’s cards and points out that that Topps NEVER issued a card of the “The Hawk” in a Red Sox uniform!
Two weeks into the 1969 season the Red Sox broke my heart and traded the Hawk to the Cleveland Indians. I am still not over it.
Something else you may have missed since it did not get the promotion it deserved is Ken’s very informative and entertaining autobiography titled –Hawk I Did It My Way that was published in 2018. I highly recommend it.
Editor’s note: We normally reject any “Favorite Common” submission featuring a Hall of Famer, kindly of course, but when we saw the condition of the card…well…see for yourself! 🙂 Plus, it’s Pudge’s birthday!
I still have this damn card.
97 or 98 percent of it, at least. Some of it has disintegrated. God knows where that black mark in the lower right edge came from. If you hold it at a certain angle, the creases either look like lightning bolts or rivers on a map.
It’s the first Carlton Fisk card that came into my possession. The first of 2,000 or so (I really need to get an exact count) Carlton Fisk cards in my collection.
Carlton Fisk is my all-time favorite player. This card had something to do with that. Did anyone wear catcher’s gear with such authority? No. Nobody ever looked better with the chest protector and backwards helmet. Carlton Fisk was the best. Still is. Has a cool name. Wore number 72! Who the hell wore 72?
He was a star player on my favorite team. His cards had several lines of stats on the back. His career went back to the 1960s! I was fascinated by cards with many lines of stats. So many that they had to make the print smaller.
The 1983 White Sox are my all-time favorite team. Even if I don’t remember anything about the games of that season. But you see, that doesn’t matter.
I had a plush “Ribbie.” And a hat signed by “Roobarb” (and Rudy Law).
And a pin that says “Winnin’ Ugly.”
And White Sox Pizza Hut placemats (okay, those were from 1984).
And the 1983 White Sox Yearbook.
And a bunch of 1983 Topps* White Sox cards. My mom says I learned to read with these cards – at age three.
Including this 1983 Carlton Fisk All-Star #393.
I have at least 20 additional copies of this card (including the O-Pee Chee version). But I will never get rid of this card. If I were to send it in to PSA to get graded, they’d suspect me of pulling a prank (or laugh at me, or both), but there is no card in my collection with more nostalgic value.
On the heels of Nick’s suggestion, I thought I’d take a stab as well. If you’re one of the blog’s more avid readers you may recall I’ve already done two pieces on “Uncommon Commons,” the first on Ohtanian Texas League pioneer Dave Hoskins and the second on football player-artist Ernie Barnes. At present my cards of Hoskins reign supreme over the tens of thousands of commons in my collection, so much so that they get their own shelf in my memorabilia room.
Neither Hoskins nor Barnes will be the subject of this post, however. More in line with the spirit of the “Favorite Common” series, I’ll highlight a favorite common or two from my formative years as a collector, long before I had ever heard the names Dave Hoskins and Ernie Barnes.
Having come of age as a collector and fan in late-1970s Los Angeles, I went to bed each night with the transistor radio glued to my ear, faithfully tuned to the play calling and commentary of Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Jerry Doggett on KABC 790. You’d be forgiven for not noticing from the outside, but inside Dodgerland there was a great chase afoot as dramatic and legacy defining as Mantle, Maris, or Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.
The great Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo (SABR bi0), whose full name was sometimes used by Scully out of reverence, was on the verge of becoming baseball’s all-time Pinch-Hit King! With every plate appearance came the question of whether he’d pull one hit closer to the immortal (or at least centuries old sounding) Smoky Burgess.
Many fans today know Scully’s famous call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. From my memory, perhaps faulty but not wholly unreliable, that radio call was every Manny Mota at-bat in the year of our Lord 1979 as well as half the times Manny could have come up and didn’t.
So yes, your VCPs, Standard Catalogs, and Beckett Monthlies might regard Mr. Mota as a common, but I am here to correct the record. In Greek mythology some gods assumed common form, but this was 1979 Los Angeles, not 2000 B.C. Athens, and Mr. Mota’s assault on immortality made his 1978 and 1979 Topps cards anything but common in my collection.
Mota had entered the 1979 season with 132 pinch hits, a dozen short of the record. With roughly six months of baseball to play, barring whatever type of injuries befell pinch-hitters, Manny would need to average two hits per month to tie Burgess and of course just a hair over that to claim the crown for his own. Sure Ty Cobb once banged out 67 hits in a single month, but old Ty had the advantage of everyday play and competed against inferior talent. Let’s call it a wash, shall we?
Sure enough, Manny Mota began the season on perfect pace to match Burgess. Two hits in April followed by two hits in May. One one occasion each month, Mota drew a dreaded base on balls, the record chasing equivalent of a prom date with your cousin. Forgive us for we did not yet know walks would someday be hallowed above even RBIs among baseball savants, meaning at the time that the only response our amygdalas could produce was, “Pitch to the man, you bum!”
I don’t normally use this blog to shame anyone, but here are the bums in question. A pox on both your houses, Frank Riccelli and Mike Tomlin!
With two months of the season in the books, Mota’s average was a “Peachy” .364, but then came his dreaded June swoon and a slowing of Manny’s assault on Burgess. Only one hit in five at-bats prompted the question: Like Aaron in ’73, would Mota fall just short of the mark and be forced to carry its full burden into the off-season?
As it turns out, not a chance! Channeling Kobe’s final game, it seemed every time a Dodger hitter stepped to the plate in July it was Mota. I remember his plate appearances that month as 100 though the record books now tell me they numbered a mere dozen. Perhaps I’m counting all the times Scully wondered aloud whether Mota might be making his way to the bat rack.
“And look who’s coming up…”
Still, 12 at bats for a pinch-hitter is like a million for anyone else. Mota made the most of his trips to the plate, connecting for four hits and closing out the month with 141 pinch-hits. With two full months remaining, there was little doubt Mota would soon claim the crown.
Hinting at the role Fate had played in his career, Number 11 came to the plate 11 times in August. His first four times up resulted in three singles against only one out. He was now batting .375 on the season. More importantly, his career total for pinch-hits was now 144. The man was Ty Cobb meets Tie Burgess.
As was the way in ancient Sparta, there were now two kings. This we expected. What we didn’t expect was that the diarchy would drag on as long as it did.
As hot as August began, a rash of cool summer nights followed:
August 9: ground out
August 12: ground out
August 16: sacrifice bunt
August 20: ground ball double play
August 24: line out
August 25: fly out
August 28: strikeout
The wear of the season had caught up with Mota. While everyday hitters could match Manny’s hitless streak and barely blink an eye, they also cycle through seven plate appearances every two games. For Mota, the drought represented a full one eighth of the baseball season, which is quite an o-fer for a .375 hitter!
The Dodgers gave Mota the rest of the month off and didn’t call his number again until the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at home against the Cubs. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning on September 2, 1979, Manny Mota replaced Ken Brett in the Dodger lineup. On the mound for the visiting Cubs was card-in-every-pack northpaw Lynn McGlothen, who held a 1-2 count on Mota.
On the next pitch…history was made, or in the immortal words of Topps, “Basehit to Rightfield Does It!”
The king is dead. Long live the king! Let the history books (or at least the SABR Baseball Cards blog) show that this common was no common common but a common who one day ruled them all.
A couple years back I was staying with a friend in the Bay Area, and he brought out his old baseball cards. Seeing my reaction to his 1970 Manny Mota card, he was kind enough to give it to me. The front featured a beautiful image of Mota waiting his turn at bat, ready to deliver his trademark single to right. His gaze seemed affixed beyond the mound or batter’s box, almost heavenward, as if to let the baseball gods know, “Yeah, I got this.”
Flip the card over, however, and I’m actually thankful that I didn’t have it back in 1979.
“Considered by many to be the best #4 outfielder in the NL, Manny proved his value to the Dodgers in 1969 with timely hitting.”
As a kid who listened to Vin Scully more than his own parents and teachers, I saw Mota as a superstar. It had never once crossed my mind that Mota might have simply been the fourth best outfielder for a lot longer than most players, many of whom eventually became the third, second, or even first best. I was cheering a prize for bench warmers all those games, all the while thinking I was witnessing the toppling of the Bambino.
Who was Manny Mota then? Was he an immortal carving out his own slice of baseball’s record book or was he a glorified bench warmer? I prefer to remember him as the former, not just because it’s how I experienced him at the time but because such a portrait inspires me in my own life.
In so many parts of life, we are not the stars, the best, or even in the top three. We are the helpers, the ones who wait their turns, and the ones who much rejoice in small victories. We fail more than we succeed, and we don’t always know when our next opportunity will come, if at all.
We aren’t Hank Aaron or Mike Trout (unless one of them is reading this column…HOLY SMOKES!!!), and nobody will ever collect our baseball cards. Still from our benches there are glories and gratitude as we aspire humbly not to be heroes to millions but on a good day, to those around us, a Favorite Common.
Author’s note: Manny Mota fans and baseball fans in general might enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s short story, “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record.” It’s in “The Essential W.P. Kinsella,” among other places.
Trite, right? Here’s the twist: I let her. Every year, or maybe more sporadically than that, my mother would ask if I wanted my cards. I told her no. It’s crazy looking back at it.
That all ended for me at the close of 1971. What remained was a small stack, part of that year’s baseball set, and all of my football, basketball and hockey cards. I kept everything from that moment on.
As the ‘70’s wore on, and my local reputation was built on, or ruined by, my penchant for cards, friends would give me their collections as they grew out of them and I remained stuck. My 1971 baseball cards piled up, but, as they were not my originals and cared for as such, condition was a hodgepodge.
Rich Morales, #276 in the set, #1 in my heart, always stuck out as a reminder of the grief I suffered by not keeping my own cards and the joy I incurred by getting everyone else’s.
What a wreck. If a card has anti-gloss, this is it. You can almost feel the texture by looking at it – rough, grainy, dirty, as if a card had driven over it multiple times. Creases, paper loss, a real PSA -7. The back is less gross, but not very nice.
When I discovered a few years back that I was pretty close to finishing a 1971 set, I decided to complete it in somewhat consistent condition, somewhere between VG and EX. I got it done and am pretty pleased with it. All of a sudden, this Morales card was less comfortable in its surroundings. With some mixed feeling, I upgraded.
In the past year I’ve completed my 1968-70 football sets. As I’ve done so, I’ve sold my crappy cards in bulk from those years. Weirdly, there’s a market for poor condition cards.
Those can go. In fact, so can my extra baseball cards of that era, and I’ve moved over 1,000 to a Facebook collector. Rich Morales is safe though. I’ll never get rid of him.