Not Cool for Katz (1979-1984)

Steve Wynn sang about it on The Baseball Project’s 3rd album.

Tyler Kepner and I talked a bit about it over dinner and cards in Cooperstown.

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I experienced it myself, from 1979 – 1984.

Did you?

I can tell you that cards became, if not uncool, then put in forced hibernation, before my senior year of high school. Up to that point, I wasn’t shy about having people know I collected cards. Kinda late, now that I think about it. Why were baseball cards (and other cards) something to be proud of, well, if not proud of then unashamed by, through 11th grade, but not 12th?

I have no idea. I do know that bailing on cards when I did bit me in the ass, at least when it came to hockey cards. I bought the complete Topps set every year until 1979. Yeah, 1979 was the first year I stopped buying complete sets. Yeah, 1979!!!!!

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I missed cards during those years and I could have very easily kept up on the down low. No one needed to know but me. Still, there were a lot of things that went on during those years – leaving high school, having first relationships, going to college, graduating from college, getting a job. Looking back, cards would have provided me some much needed comfort, very similar to what they give me these days.

I’m not sure I thought they were uncool. Despite my vaunted record store running background, I was never the cool-type. I had my aesthetic, and that appealed to some and worked for me. Actually, staying with cards would have enhanced that image, not taken away from it.

Hard to say how I felt then. All I can remember is my first inching back, my toe-dipping into the pool.

It was September of my senior year at SUNY-Binghamton and a bunch of us were driving to Cornell to see Graham Parker. It was his tour behind The Real Macaw.

Right out of campus, we stopped for gas and I bought a couple of packs of 1983 Topps baseball. I don’t know who I got in those packs, but I was stirred, though not moved enough to go all in.

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I graduated in May 1984, had a job and lived with my parents in Staten Island. I needed all the comfort I could get and dove back into cards, catching up on the sets I’d missed (Topps, Fleer and Donruss) but only baseball. (My second, and last chance, at the Gretzky rookie!). Lucky for me, I started piecing together some older sets I had started pre-1979.

Though my card interest has had its peaks and valleys since then, it’s never gone away and there isn’t much I missed that I regret (maybe 1986 Fleer basketball, but that’s more monetary than emotional.)

Nick Vossbrink’s recent post about his kids and their joy in the hobby is a wonderful read. I hope they stick with it as long as they love it, and not be influenced by what others may or may not think is cool or worthwhile. Most of us have failed that test at least once, with cards or without.

The Whitney Houston Dilemma (or, How Will I Know?)

When do you know?

I have 15 of 66 cards from the 1965 Topps Soupy Sales set. I’m not there.

I have 6 of 88 1957 Topps Hit Stars. Not yet.

I have 6 of 24 1968 Topps Posters, off condition donated by friends. I’m uncommitted.

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1960 Leaf second series. I’m all in.

I wrote about the 1960 Leaf set in December. Soon after I posted, I grabbed a Harry Brecheen.

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Then I picked up Henry Mason and Earl Torgeson in a COMC order. I told myself I was casually working on the set. That’s even in my name for the spreadsheet I created.

But am I? I bought a Faye Throneberry at COMC (not in hand yet), and then five from one eBay seller.

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Now I’m 1/8 of the way there and going for it. (By the way, all the cards are standard shiny white. Not sure why they photographed so dingy. They’re nice, though not as nice as my first series.)

At less than $9 per card in EX to EXMT, I could happily acquire more commons, though this condition at that price is a challenge. The second series cards are out there, but tend to be listed for more. I’ve been lucky so far. Some cards will set me back – Sparky Anderson, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Bunning, the two Hal Smiths (one card), maybe Curt Flood.

I’m happy to be swept in by these cards. It’s a good, manageable project that crept up on me and, all of a sudden, I was in for keeps.

How do you know?

UNCOMMON COMMON: Ernie Barnes

Author’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.

The common understanding of the term “Renaissance Man” is of someone with many talents or areas of knowledge. Ernie Barnes fits this description. Less correct but truer to the origin of the word renaissance would be a man reborn. Ernie Barnes fits this description too.

“Song of Myself”

Raised in segregated Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was chubby, nonathletic, and bullied by his Hillside High School classmates. He mainly kept to himself and drew in his sketchbook to pass the time. Tommy Tucker, a teacher at the school, noticed the drawings and took an interest in Barnes. A bodybuilder, Tucker sold Barnes on the positive impact weightlifting could have on his life. By the time he graduated, Barnes was state champion in the shotput and captain of the football team. He also had scholarship offers to 26 colleges.

“Sunday’s Hero”

At North Carolina College, Ernie Barnes played tackle and center on the football team while majoring in art. As a kid, despite his interest, Barnes was never able to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art. Blacks were not allowed. In college, however, Barnes made a trip to the recently desegregated museum with one of his art classes. The answer when Barnes asked where he could find paintings by Negro artists? “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

“Friendly Friendship Baptist Church”

Twenty-three years the work of Ernie Barnes would fill this same museum, and today his work hangs in Halls of Fame, top galleries, art museums, and the homes of the art world’s top collectors. If you love Motown and grew before everything was digital, there’s a good chance you even have an Ernie Barnes sitting in your music collection.

“Sugar Shack” painting used for Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover

You might even have several!

That’s great, Jason, but what does all this have to do with baseball cards? Well, let me at least bring it back to sports.

“Fast Break”

Barnes was selected in the 8th round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but his Redskins career lasted only a few minutes. Then the team found out Barnes was black. Two rounds later, the Baltimore Colts called his name but ultimately cut Barnes at the end of training camp. In 1960 Barnes played five games with the Titans of New York, who later became the Jets.

“Football Pileup”

Barnes spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons as a San Diego Charger and the following two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Barnes never approached All-Pro status or even started a game, though he picked up the nickname “Big Rembrandt” for the sketches he did during games, including in huddles.

I suspect when you think of football players turned actors, Barnes is not the first to come to mind.

“O.J. Simpson” (1984)

Nonetheless, Barnes acted in numerous television shows and movies, highlighted by his portrayal of Josh Gibson in the 1981 Satchel Paige biopic “Don’t Look Back.”

There is another connection Ernie Barnes has to baseball, one shared with me by Lawrence “Dan” D’Antignan, owner of Chicago’s historic Woodshop, longtime institution and early commercial epicenter of African American art.

As Dan tells it, his wife had made a trip to Los Angeles to meet with Ernie Barnes and discuss the selling of his work when the meeting was interrupted by a woman hoping to show off the work of her teenage son who 100% lived up to the hype.

Perhaps you’ve tasted the back of some of his artwork…

Or been greeted by it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City…

“Safe at Home” (2005)

There’s also a very good chance you’ve run across his book.

Of course, you didn’t come here to read about Kadir Nelson or even art! You want CARDS! Well, luckily I aim to please.

While an Ernie Barnes painting would easily set you back five figures if not six, it turns out any motivated collector can add an Ernie Barnes to his or her collection for the price of a bad ham sandwich.

As the title to this post suggests, Ernie Barnes, one of the great artists of the 20th century and an absolute icon in the African American art world, is a mere “common player, starting at around $2 on COMC and eBay.

1964 Topps Football card #48

Common though he is in the price guides, Ernie Barnes is the only man on the set’s 176-card checklist certain to remain relevant not just decades but centuries from now. Somewhere in a museum a young visitor will ask the docent where the works by African Americans are kept. And then, long, long after all 11 Hall of Famers in the 1964 Topps set have faded from memory, the visitor will happen upon an Ernie Barnes and neglect the rest of the day’s plans for a brush with greatness.

“Hook Shot” (1971)

So Cool, So What

Cool card, right? Hall of Famer, glove on hip variation, rare back, sharp corners, a real beauty.

Why do I have it? Well, around 20 years ago, I decided that it would be awesome to try to get a card of every HOFer from their playing days. I started accumulating some, but knew, in my heart, I’d never get there. Expense, rarity, fluctuations in income and time would prove me right. This was a pipe dream.

Pipe dreams can be fine; having a Holy Grail has its merits. It’s not for me. I like to collect sets, manufacturer ordained sets. I’m not a Personal Collector, looking for every Max Alvis card (though I’ve thought about doing that), or a Team Collector, or a Type Collector. Great pursuits all, not my thing.

So now I’m left with a bunch of nice pre-war cards that, because of my nature and the reasons I acquired them, have no emotional hold on me. Mark Armour and I spent a long time on the phone last week talking about emotion and collecting, and how, for us, they’re inextricable. I think we all know this. The cards in our collection that we’ve known since we were kids feel different to us than the cards we’ve purchased along the way. I can assure you that the 1977 Burger King Yankees set that I got last week brings me more joy than ol’ Muggsy’s T206.

You’ve read about my travails in grading and I can report that I sold the Ruth and Cobb for about as much as I think I can, based on lots of offers and auction results. I only had a little post-partum blues, but they faded fast. The main reason I sold those was to buy a nice 1956 Mantle, which I did.

What’s interesting to me is that a 1956 Mantle is about equal in my mind (and heart) to the McGraw. Mantle retired around when baseball started to blossom for me and, even when I started collecting cards in the early 1970’s, he was never a guy I dug. So why, in effect, trade a Cobb Domino Disc for a ’56 Mick?

I think I do have a reason. When I was first buying old cards, I fell in love with the 1956 set. For years, it was the vintage set I had the most of (about 40 cards). I started pursuing the set in earnest a couple of years ago and needed Mantle.

Rather than bringing me back to my youth as a pack buyer, which, I have to say, finishing low value insert Football sets – 1970 Super Glossy, 1971 Game and Posters – did in spades,

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the 1956 Mantle brings me back to my youth as a collector. I can see 12-year old me with his first ‘56s, remember buying beautiful Pee Wee Reese and Whitey Ford cards, and there’s a certain pang that comes with those cards.

We’ll see where this all goes. In reality, there’s a limited amount of cards from my growing up that I don’t have, or still want. In retrospect, I should’ve bought the 1979 Topps Hockey set instead of this McGraw card. Maybe that’s my next deal, selling Little Napoleon to buy The Great Gretzky’s rookie card.

 

Jewels in the Dross

Soon after we moved to Cooperstown, a neighbor, now knowing I liked cards (or assuming Joey, then 8, liked cards), gave me (or us) boxes of mid-1990’s basketball cards. The neighbor’s son clearly saw gold in them thar hills, loading up on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf cards, but, as we know, all that came crashing down.

I hadn’t looked at those cards since, other than to combine them into as few boxes as possible. A couple of days ago I dragged them out. Nothing of monetary value there, but, I have to say, I was struck by how nice nearly all the different sets and subsets were. The 1997-98 Fleer homage to 1934 Goudey is so nice that I pulled it out of the pile.

Tucked into the scads of hoop cards were some other sports. Very little baseball though, but I stumbled across these two, both Eddie Murray.

They’re from the 1997 Donruss Limited set, a fancy 200 card series that were $4.99 a pack twenty years ago! (And you only got five cards.) Some thoughts:

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  1. I was struck by how incredibly wonderful the Murray/Jefferson card is. It’s super-glossy on the front, without being as noisy as a lot of refractory cards tended to be. They feel good too, not overly slick.
  2. The “Exposure – Double Team” card is also very nice, though less so. Simple, not as shiny, but solid.
  3. Eddie Murray as an Anaheim Angel in the Disney togs is something I’d forgotten long ago. Seeing him in that vest, which I kinda love, is a surprising treat.
  4. In various blog posts/Tweets/Facebook comments, we’ve engaged in the idea of “junk wax.” I, like others, deplore the name. They are fairly worthless dollar-wise, but the cards of that era (maybe 1986ish-2000? I don’t’ know that anyone has bracketed the period in detail) are almost always beautiful, in all sports. In a highly competitive market, innovation in design was a must. Some fell flat, others soared, but because they aren’t sellable, fantastic looking cards have been left behind. I don’t believe I have ever seen a 1997 Donruss Limited card until now.

Now that I’ve seen these cards, I’m not sure what to do. As a die-hard set collector, it’s all or nothing for me. Usually. Sure, I poked around eBay to see if I could find a set, but nothing is listed right now. I saw a complete set of 200 sold for somewhere less than $100.

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Maybe it’s that I don’t feel like having to store another late-‘90’s box, or that, perhaps, the glow I have from the two cards won’t hold through 200. Or, maybe, I’ve fallen victim to the “junk wax” tag and have a subconscious resistance to buying any set from the time, unless it’s $5-10.

Regardless, nothing will get in the way of enjoying these two cards. I like them so much I haven’t put them away yet, keeping them close by to sneak an occasional peek.

Waxing elegiac: a century of cards in memoriam

Author’s note: I really enjoyed two posts from fellow SABR Baseball Cards Committee writer Jon Leonoudakis (jongree). His “Death Comes for Active Baseball Players” and “Death & Baseball Cards” inspired me to attempt a catalog of all 20th century baseball cards honoring the fallen. As the boundaries can sometimes be blurry in this work, I limited my scope to cards that came out within a year or two of the player’s death.

Okay, friends, here come the cards that really put the “rip” in ripping wax, the cards that turn requiescat in pace into requiescat in pack, and the cards you should never buy autographed on eBay. Among their numbers you’ll see Hall of Famers and guys you might not have ever heard of. You’ll see some familiar sets, and you’ll see some obscure ones. And you’ll even see some hockey guys. There really is no greater equalizer than death.

1994 Conlon Collection

These cards don’t count in the same way as the others featured in this post as the players honored had retired many decades earlier. Still, I thought they warranted inclusion, if for no other reason than to show how blessed we were to have these great players still among us not that long ago. Plus, when’s the last time a Charles Conlon photo ruined a page?

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1992-1993 Conlon Collection

Similar to the above, the 1993 Conlon set included In Memoriam cards for Joe Sewell and Billy Herman. The 1992 set included an In Memoriam card for Luke Appling, though they got the Latin a bit wrong.

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1990 Bart Giamatti cards – various

Topps, Donruss, Score, and O-Pee-Chee all paid tribute to baseball’s poet-commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who passed away on October 1, 1989. The card fronts make no mention of his passing, though his very inclusion in these sets would have been unusual otherwise. Card backs include his date of death.

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1978 Frisz Minnesota Twins Danny Thompson

Danny Thompson died from leukemia on December 10, 1976. While he did not appear in any 1977 sets, he was given card 46 in a regional Twins release. The card back includes his date of death and changes “bats and throws righthanded” to the past tense.

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1977 Topps Danny Thompson

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Hat tip to fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Keith Olbermann (you may know him from other stuff too) for this one, including the image.

As the Reggie card probably alerted you, these are Topps proof cards. The Thompson card is particularly unique in that he had no card at all when the 1977 set was finalized. Topps essentially acknowledged his passing by erasing him from the set. I’m not sure what stage of grief this suggests Topps was in. Denial?

1972 O-Pee-Chee Gil Hodges

At first glance the 1972 Topps and OPC issues for Gil Hodges look pretty much alike, at least until you read the fine print. “Deceased April 2, 1972.” I have to imagine the card prompted a number of Canadian youngsters to ask their parents what “deceased” meant. Overall a classy move by O-Pee-Chee and one I wish they repeated the following year for Mr. Clemente.

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1964 Topps

Ken Hubbs died so young that this card’s almost hard to look at. Still, Topps really went the extra mile in modifying their card design to honor the Cubs infielder.

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As noted by jongree in both of his posts, Hubbs was not the only baseball death in 1964. Houston pitcher Jim Ulbricht died on April 8 from a malignant melanoma at the age of 33. Topps noted his passing on the bottom of his card back.

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1956 Gum Inc. Adventure (R749) Harry Agganis

I type this one with a lump in my throat as I nearly died in 2016 from the same thing that killed Harry Agganis. The 26-year-old Red Sox first baseman died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism on June 27, 1955. A rather oddball trading card set whose subjects ranged from porcupines to sunburns included Agganis, Boston’s Golden Greek, as card 55.

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Honorable Mention: 1955 Bowman and 1952 Topps

While there is fortunately no death to report, hence the mere honorable mention status, the 1955 Bowman Eddie Waitkus card back must be one of the most unique in the history of the hobby, right down to his story’s final sentence. His 1952 Topps also makes mention of his near-death experience, which inspired the Bernard Malamud novel “The Natural.”

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1949 Leaf Babe Ruth

First off, yeah, I’m one of those annoying guys that refuses to say 1948 Leaf or even 1948-1949 Leaf. The Ruth card in this set makes no mention of his August 16, 1948, death. However, there are reasons to at least view this card as Leaf paying their respects.

  • Ruth is the only retired player in the set.
  • The set would have been planned right around the time of his passing.
  • Leaf even gave him card number 3, his famous uniform number with the Yankees.

Now read the back. It’s hard not to read it as an epitaph. RIP Sultan.

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1941 Harry Hartman set

Following a late season slump, Reds backstop Willard Hershberger took his own life on August 3, 1940 and to this day remains the last active player to have committed suicide. His card back is rather unique in that it relays to us the emotional impact of his death on his Cincinnati teammates. (Thank you to Chuck Ailsworth for alerting me to this card that was 100% off my radar!)

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1937-1938 World Wide Gum V356 Hockey

I know, I know…this is the BASEBALL card blog. But shoot, this one was too good to not include. And the card design is a complete clone of the V355 baseball release so what the heck. The first thing to know is that a Montreal Canadiens player named Howie Morenz died on March 8, 1937. His card back acknowledges as much.

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If that was all the World Wide Gum set did, I wouldn’t have included it. However, the set took a particularly unique move that I think gives it an important place in any write-up of in memoriam cards.

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The first time I saw this card while digging through a mixed baseball/hockey stack at a card show I assumed it was just a baby-faced player from back in the day. I had no idea it was a nine-year-old kid until I flipped it over. If I wrote blog posts back then I would have written about it, so here you go!

1911 T205 Gold Border Addie Joss

Addie Joss had the shortest life of any MLB Hall of Famer, dying from meningitis at the age of 31. Though he pitched in a very different era, his 1.89 ERA is nothing to shake a stick at. And if you did try that, you’d probably miss anyhow.

All the cards in the Gold Border set are works of art, but Addie’s takes on a special poignancy given the tragedy of his recent passing, noted in the lead sentence of the card’s reverse. The final paragraph of the bio is worth a read as well.

“He was a faithful player, liked by the team mates and respected by the public, many thousands of whom attended his funeral.”

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1910 Doc Powers Day postcard

From the “Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards…”

“To announce to fans the forthcoming Doc Powers Day benefit game, the Philadelphia A’s produced this standard sized (5-1/2″ x 3-1/2″) black-and-white postcard. Front has a photo of the late A’s catcher and information about the special events to be held June 30. On back is a message over the facsimile autograph of Connie Mack asking fans to remember the widow and children of their fallen star.”

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Quick aside: The great-granddaughter of Doc Powers is hoping to nab this card on the extremely slim chance you have doubles.

Dedication

This article is dedicated to young Simon Tocher. Cause of death: Collecting. Source: Boston Globe, August 25, 1910. RIP, young lad. You’re among friends here. I promise.

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Still can’t get enough?

If the real cards profiled in this post leave you wanting more, the “When Topps Had (Base) Balls blog has you covered. Click here to visit its “In Memoriam” gallery, which features a mix of custom cards in the style of the ones here along with other tributes to baseball personalities who have passed away over the years.

A tip of the hat to you, Gio, for all the great work you do keeping this hobby fun and filling in the essential holes in our collections!

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Baseball cards for the end of the world

“Everyone under your desks, now!” was the loud command from the front of the room. “Fully covered, arms and legs too! Heads down! Away from the windows!”

Gax didn’t mind. He knew it could have been real. He knew someday it might be real. On the walk home a plane passed overhead. A line of kids on the sidewalk ducked instinctively. Gax speed up his gait.

The Woolworth had some gum cards on the shelf. It would be fun to get a card of Roy Campanella or Jackie Robinson. One neighborhood kid said his friend got a Babe Ruth from a pack of Look ‘n See. Still, it felt more important to be prepared. Gax went with the plane cards instead.

“Friend or Foe?” Russian MiG-15? Definitely foe. It was 1952.

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“Take cover! Get down, under your desks! Away from the glass! Stay under until we hear the bell.” These drills were old hat by now, second nature for Gax and his schoolmates who had been doing them as long as they could remember. It was 1958.

Gax still slept with the light on just in case. It was hard to sleep knowing the world could end all of a sudden. Countless nights were spent flipping through the box of cards he kept tucked under the bed. A favorite was the Mick posing with Hank Aaron. They looked like friends in the picture. They were not. Foes. Definitely foes.

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The world was dangerous. Conflict was looming. The drills continued. It was 1959. Foes were everywhere, including among us.

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It was hard to imagine the world being any scarier. And then…

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll excuse the fact that I am out of breath, but about 10 or 15 minutes ago a tragic thing from all indications at this point has happened in the city of Dallas. Let me quote to you this…I’ll… you’ll excuse me if I am out of breath. A bulletin, this is from the United Press from Dallas: ‘President Kennedy and Governor John Connally have been cut down by assassins’ bullets in downtown Dallas. They were riding in an open automobile when the shots were fired.” — Jay Watson, WFAA-TV, Dallas

1963

And less than two months later…

“Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” — Tonkin Gulf Resolution, January 7, 1964

1964

For better or worse Gax expected war. He had prepared for it. It was as if he’d been waiting for war his whole life. Gax had never heard of the places where he might get sent. He only knew that the foe was real, and the war was better there than here.

“There is little reason to believe that any level of conventional air or naval action, short of sustained and systematic bombing of the population centers will deprive the North Vietnamese of their willingness to continue to support their government’s efforts to upset and take over the government of South Vietnam.” — Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, August 25, 1967, to United States Senate

As opposition to the war grew at home, there was an effort to step up our firepower abroad. Topps obliged.

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We knew the ending we wanted, but there were questions about whether that ending was possible or had ever been possible. For Gax’s family, just having him back home alive would have felt like a championship.

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My dad never collected baseball cards as a kid, but these were the years of his youth, 1952-1967. It was an America of sirens and “duck and cover” drills, an America of missile crises and military action, an America of assassination and division, and an America of kids who didn’t come home.

But it was also the Golden Age of Topps; of Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays; and wax packs filled with gunners, bombers, belters, clubbers, and–most of all–foes.

The cards I collected growing up were different. Aside from a lone 1982 Donruss card, they spoke to bridging divides…

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…embracing our commonality…

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…finding brotherhood…

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…and seeking reconciliation. (Take that, Red Menace!)

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Like my dad, my son isn’t a collector. If he were, he might notice the cards of his era looked a lot like the ones from his grandpa’s. And the cards wouldn’t be the only things they had in common.

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“Everyone under your desks, now!” was the loud command from the front of the room. “Fully covered, arms and legs too! Heads down! Away from the windows!”

It’s 2019.