This is a chapter from a book I’ve had in progress for more than 15 years — one day I may finish it, but for now, here is my tribute to fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and fathers’ friends, all of whom help us craft poetry out of our allegiances. Hat tip to Cory Doctorow who provided inspiration along the way.
“..so the cards stayed in the glass cases in Eddie’s…And after a while I no longer opened my shoe boxes…And the surprising thing was that I never really missed them. Or even thought of them in any special way. And very gradually the memory of it all faded….And that is the way you always lose your childhood.”
– Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book”
“It all made poems…when I spread them out in front of the TV, and arranged them just so, they made up a poem that took my breath away…A thirtyish bachelor trying to spend half a month’s rent on four glasses so that he could remember his Grandma’s kitchen was a story and a poem.”
–Cory Doctorow, “Craphound”
My childhood was never lost, not with the passing of Willie Stargell and not with university commencement and not when my baseball cards were thrown away, because my Mom never thought to dispose of the briefcase in which they were safeguarded. My childhood retreated and went subsurface, only to be reeled back into current events with my own kids. Collecting sports memorabilia, especially sports cards, is the cornerstone of that rebuilding.
I love collecting things with a past. They form a jigsaw puzzle, missing some center pieces, telling most of a story with only a few salient details left to be discovered or invented. I have an entire box of world coins, collected by uncles in various tours through Europe, stamped with mint dates between the World Wars, in currencies or from countries that no longer exist. The older, more worn coins have history encoded in fingerprints and scratches. Their person to person circulation stopped when pocketed by someone like my Uncle Ziemel, saving a coin from every country where he had a cup of coffee and told his own stories.
Coins were something to be studied and tucked into cardboard albums; baseball cards were the circulating currency of my youth. I remember the smell of the bubble gum inside the wax paper packages, the slightly gritty feel of the card unlucky enough to be riding shotgun with what passed for gum but had the taste and consistency of an ill-fated marriage of gum rubber and sugar. Baseball cards arrived in my hands from a number of sources: cards won in flipping contests with classmates; payment for some nerd oriented activity – my biggest haul being payment for the home-made Phillies jersey t-shirt that eventually ruined my friends’ laundry; a reward after a Little League game long before the snack bar became a staple of the 60-foot diamonds.
I sorted, arranged, cataloged and read my baseball cards with interest ritually required for rabbinic interpretation, fearing that I’d overlook some subtle nuance or fact that might prove useful later in life. It’s how I learned that Willie Stargell was from Oklahoma; that he owned a chicken restaurant that was his off-season occupation; or that some baseball players took time off for military service before resuming their careers. Baseball cards were the intersection of nerdiness and sports; they let me be a student of the game without actually playing the game. They were a view into the game; they elaborated on players’ lives off the diamond one sentence at a time; they were a mass of statistics and numbers and checklists and other things to thrill a budding engineer. I never had the urge to collect famous players or complete sets; I had what I had and was happy to pick up the occasional extra Willie Stargell card as well as additional Pirates or Mets. Too young for Mickey Mantle, too old for baseball cards as a serious business. Cards were the harbinger of elementary and middle school springs, pre-dating televised spring training games or fantasy baseball magazines on the variety store shelves. An old business-suitable briefcase served as safe haven and predictor of their eventual value in someone else’s business, and prevented them from suffering in the periodic childhood closet pogroms.
Somewhere between 7th grade and having kids of my own, sports cards went from “my business” to Big Business. Collectors fret over the nuances of a card in mint condition and look at the quality of the image on the card stock. Price guides abound and cards represent a brisk business on eBay, creating a stock market for childhood memories. Sports cards don’t have the well-traveled history of a 1923 Czechoslovakian coin. They go from sealed pack to plastic holder to eBay or memorabilia retailer, untouched, unworn, maintaining their “near mint” status but losing some ability to carry the memory of touch. The sports card industry has somewhat made up for this by embedding pieces of game-worn jerseys or equipment in the cards themselves, so our associations with the cards are through experiences with the literal sports thumbnails wedged between the pasteboard slices.
Before commercial interests established formal systems for card ownership, my own grading system went something like this:
- Pack Fresh. Smells of bubble gum, and minor nicks where the glue that holds the wax packs together leeches onto the face of the cards. They last approximately 36 seconds in this state before being shoved into pants pockets, thrown into boxes, or deemed fit only for spoking. Should a particularly interesting card surface in the wax pack, the lifespan of pack fresh cardboard increases correspondingly, but eventually the goods have to make it back to your bedroom.
- Unlaundered. Rescued from pants pockets before the washing machine could bleach ink from the paper, corners slightly damaged from last minute shoving out of a teacher’s line of sight, but reasonably legible.
- Game worn. Today “game worn” means the card has that small slice of a jersey, bat, glove, stick, or other equipment wedged between the front and back faces. It is a bit of the game reduced to trading size and delivered to the collector. In middle school, “game worn” meant that the card had seen its share of flipping, trading, last-second jamming into desk trays in home room, and any other signs of having been played with by pre-teens.
- Spoked. Shows clear signs of being clipped to the fork holding a bicycle wheel. Spoking a card, or a set of cards, meant that your bicycle made a cool thwack-thwack-thwack sound as you raced up and down the street; if motorcycle mufflers were filled with papier-mache you’d get the same sound effect. Much of the ink on the front is worn off, and at the atomic level card is barely held by the weak nuclear force. There are definitely times when, as fans, we feel we’d like to take one of our less favorite players and administer a virtual spoking, but as kids we did it symbolically and regularly. I humbly apologize to the man in the Pittsburgh hot corner, Richie Hebner, for spoking him. Multiple times. Not my fault he showed up in wax packs with the alarming regularity of the telephone bill.
Most of my baseball cards – and one errant pack of basketball cards, whose story figures prominently into my little sports montage – lead back to Grandpa Herman’s general store. The prime funding timing and sources for my little cardboard empire were spring and summer afternoons spent at my grandparents’ house. Each invariably brought a trip across the street to the general store, where the candy assortment seemed to stretch from the front door to the darker regions where the meat cases began and younger interests faded. Grandpa Herman’s store evolved from a carriage stop; Smithburg is midpoint – the way the crow flies or the carriage is drawn – between New York City and Philadelphia. A disorganized mosaic of office supplies, hardware, cold cuts, and engine parts defined the boundaries of the store, only Grandpa knew everything’s true location but you never had to ask twice for any item. You could get a tank of gas pumped and the same person (frequently my father) made you a sandwich, tossed in a bag with carriage bolts and some oil (sandwich or crankcase, your choice). The shelves ran floor to ceiling; the days ran dark to dark o’clock.
Somewhere near the front door, just to the right, where the grandchildren could look up at Grandpa, and he would look down over the counter to his grandchildren, were boxes of Topps baseball cards, seated proudly on the candy shelves next to the Necco wafers. On Sundays when the family congregated at our house, Grandpa brought an all-star selection from his general store along in the trunk, a true grab bag with all of the younger cousins bobbing for whatever goodies we chose without visual cues. The unmistakable feel of a pack of cards in your hands, the promise of what lay inside, is a juvenile lottery ticket on which there is no way to lose. Even if you get your fourteenth Richie Hebner card.
One Sunday in the late 60s, several of us – the kinder, as our grandparents referred to us in Yiddish – popped into the store. In the floor, near the register, was a small trap door that functioned as a safe at one point. Inside were all of the trappings that didn’t quite make the candy aisle, including a dusty box of Topps trading cards. We were handed several unidentified wax packs of cards, with Grandpa’s shrug indicating that he didn’t know what they were either, but his smile said that he was happy we’d take them. We tore into the packs that afternoon, realized that they were basketball cards of some unknown vintage. Faced with players who looked like our parents in their wedding pictures, from cities of uncertain basketball heritage (Syracuse? There were professional teams in Syracuse?) they were shoved into a back pocket while we hoped for another dip into the paper goody bag once we had crossed back to the house side of the street. Those hoops cards were dumped into the big briefcase along with the rest of my cardboard memories, where Willie Stargell, Ted Williams, and a collection of Pittsburgh Pirates (including a pristine Richie Hebner) sat protected from the elements. Most men will tell you that their baseball card collections died a more pitiful death than transit through the washing machine – they were thrown out during some room purge; my parents simply insisted that I clean out my room, and the briefcase moved with me to Massachusetts where the pieces of the Topps jigsaw puzzle would finally slide together.
It’s necessary to fast-forward to adulthood and my own married life. Taking a hint from the numismatists, sports cards today are slabbed and graded; once they become an investment they are no longer something you can touch to enjoy. That robs you of the feeling, of the connection, that this was little cardboard token was part of someone’s life, perhaps part of your own. I adore my old Willie Stargell cards that are far from mint condition with perfect centering and sharp color because they survived four tours of duty in my favorite school pants. Willie Stargell went to science class with me and sat where wallet and car keys sit today. The briefcase full of cardboard wonder came to rest at our house in Burlington, Massachusetts, where, between moves, I decided to examine its contents more thoroughly and was again caught blindside by sports tradition.
One of the advantages of living in a major east coast city is that the sports teams tend to have long histories, so it’s easy to pattern match childhood possessions against popular culture. Those nondescript wax packs of cards from Grandpa Herman were a set of 1957 Topps basketball cards, the first year such a set was produced. In the middle of the pack was a man in a kelly green uniform, sporting the #14 of the Boston Celtics: Bob Cousy. In my single-digit years this never registered with me; he was another guy with the wrong ball in a strangely lit picture. With the briefcase open, and the business of my cards displayed before me, I immediately recognized one of the saints of Boston sports. Gently slipped him into a plastic protective sleeve, then and ever since that afternoon Cousy runs above my desk, frozen in time dribbling toward the hoop, evoking the voice of late Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most with “a notion, going right to left”. Cousy’s backstory doesn’t involve basketball for me; it’s about my grandfather, a first generation immigrant to America; the humble beginnings of a major sports derivative business; boys and the little swatches of youth that we cling to forever. Or at least until we decide to part with them via eBay.
Fast forward to early 2005 when I am stuck at home with a broken leg, battling cabin fever, making it time to once again dip into my cardboard history. If the cards don’t hold my interest, there must be someone else who can put a time and place to a face, a quote, or a number left open on a checklist. Turns out that 1957 Topps basketball cards have a following somewhere north of ice hockey in Florida but less than current all-star baseball players; there’s significant activity and action as I lovingly photograph, describe and post most of the cards. Cousy watches the whole thing, immobilized in his plastic trap, as my trading business gains critical size and momentum. I am momentarily in middle school again, and thanks to the crutches, just as clumsy.
Riding shotgun in the wax pack with Cousy was a player named George Yardley who set the single-season scoring record in the 57-58 season. Yardley was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and is enshrined at the other end of Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even if you follow basketball, it’s likely you didn’t know that much about George Yardley, or any other NBA baller from that season. They were, and are, in the words of someone who met most of those players, “very nice, humble men”. Nice and humble don’t trump “valuable in this condition,” and my eBay transactions continue. This results in the hobbyist’s own worst enabler: more money to spend on the hobby.
Sales of old basketball cards fuel purchases of hockey cards. This dates back to the beginning of our family love affair with our favorite New Jersey Devil, Patrik Elias, when I asked Ben “What if we try to collect every Patrik Elias hockey card?” It seemed a simple way to get him interested in one of my childhood pastimes, a simpler diversion in a day of video games and movies on demand. Simple questions have complex answers. Obvious simple questions have very complex, difficult, expensive answers. “Every Patrik Elias” card tops out at close to a thousand unique items, ranging from the simple rookie card printed before anyone in New Jersey knew that the terminal, accented Czech “s” sounds like an “sh”, to cards highlighting milestones and carrying the ever-popular slices of game equipment. A first approximation of buying all of them would make it the most expensive hobby that didn’t land me in the hospital.
When they became big business, sports cards also lost their childhood. They became a stock market in their own right, with the card companies annually creating new products with ever-decreasing print runs. Today, sports cards are about numbered editions, jersey cards, game-used equipment cards, short-print (fewer than average) run, and rookie cards. They are about acquisition and ownership, not knowledge and collecting. However, they still have the ability to make adult men think about days spent looking at the faces of heroes, arrayed before them in a system that only made sense at the time, gazing back at us.
Starting with current cards selected from packs, and adding small “player sets” picked up on eBay, we had a good starting point. A year of more precise searching, bidding and research brought us more than halfway through An Illustrated History of Patrik Elias, in full color and mint condition. At that time, Ben and I hit what most collectors think of as the “hard ones” – the difficult cards were what remained as empty spaces in our collection; the easy finds were found and now equal combinations of money and luck were required. Immediately after becoming flush with hobby funding from I discover the existence of the Elias “Country of Origin” card. With some mix of bravado and stupidity, I decide I’m going to find one.
Sadly, there may only be one to find. The Beckett Price Guide, de facto authorities on sports card values, doesn’t list a price for it due to scarcity. This puts its value in collectors terms roughly on par with the Hope Diamond, with only a slightly better chance of finding one in the wild. Supposedly there are a dozen that have been printed, but I’ve only seen proof of two in existence; a picture on a web site and an eBay auction that I managed to misjudge. I search eBay listings and online catalogs to no avail; there are no more Elias Country of Origin cards than in-the-wild large bore diamonds to be found in New Jersey. That’s when luck comes into play, as one of the two is re-listed on eBay and I simply bid until it’s mine. I exchange the price of a good dinner for a small rectangle of high-gloss paper, an inch-tall picture of Patrik Elias on the side, and a square inch of jersey real estate wedged in the middle. Without eBay, I would have been forced to go to card shows, trawl through dealer inventory, and simply hope that a 3 ounce card and a 250 pound man crossed paths with a “do you know” radix of no more than two. The minor miracle urged along by good obsessive-compulsive online shopping habits lets me have a daily reminder of a great day involving two generations of heroes.
Three winters earlier, Ben and I attended the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It was a magic weekend of “guy time,” watching hockey, talking about hockey, glimpsing athletes in and around the hotel, going to parties and generally celebrating in a city known for celebrations. Elias was voted onto the All-Star team, wearing a maroon jersey for the World Team, facing off against teammates Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur skating for the North American All-Stars. During the pre-game warm-ups, Ben ran to the glass, watching the players skate without helmets, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elias as he sped by. Before the game started, the 1980 Olympic hockey team was introduced. My heart jumped up into my throat, nearly a quarter century of my own hockey memory looking back at me, waving again from the ice, this time in person. I quickly and quietly explained the Miracle on Ice to Ben, letting the video montage and the rink announcer provide the details. Two weeks later, at the opening of the Salt Lake City Olympics, we smiled again having seen this hand tipped as the 1980 hockey team lit the torch. Those are the moments that forever bond a father and son; not the winning or championships; just seeing heroes as men, made human without helmets or equipment, smiling for all to see. During that warmup period, when the players and the fans were all smiles as well, I captured one badly focused picture of Ben looking back at me, Elias looking back to the blue line, both of their blond curls in the frame, with a red, white and blue Czech flag jersey patch on Elias’ shoulder visible just past Ben. If you know countries of origin and hairstyle, you can figure out the puzzle, otherwise it’s another blurry picture taken in a major sports arena by an enthusiastic father. I love that picture for both reasons.
When the bubble envelope containing my personal Honus Wagner equivalent arrives, I wait for Ben so we can open it together. Nestled deep inside the mailer is a smaller package, wrapped with card protectors and tape, a hard shell inside the soft outside. We peel it open, and I show Ben the card with a jersey patch segment in the middle, a tiny window on a Czech flag waving to us, having gone from Elias’ shoulder to our kitchen through a card manufacturer. The look on his face tells me that he gets it immediately; he’s seen that player in that jersey with that patch, and we have the picture to prove we were there when the jersey and patch were game-worn. There’s a soundly reassuring circular logic to it, value in a shared memory far greater than the price tag. Even though our Elias cardboard mosaic now contains hundreds of little rectangles, there’s only one that sits out on display in my office. It frames a small lineup of a plastic-cased Bob Cousy, a well-worn Willie Stargell, and a flag-waving Patrik Elias. It’s the poem of multiple family generations, a haiku tinged with regret that I didn’t know my grandfather well enough, but hope and promise for what and who comes next.
Ecstatic with this happy end, I still have cards to mail out as payments trickle in, completing the flow of funds that funded my mental excursion back to Los Angeles. On the way to the post office with the George Yardley card, I notice that it’s addressed to someone with family name Yardley. This cannot be a coincidence, so I email him as soon as the bubble mailer is en route, asking if he’s related. The buyer returns stories of professional basketball players who are nice and humble and a George Yardley card is his own Country of Origin: his father is pictured on the front. He was putting together sets of his father’s sports cards for each of his kids. My grandfather’s desire to clean up his safe area, followed many years later by my desire to clean up piles of old trading cards, will connect another generation of Yardleys to their grandfather. I’ve returned whatever karmic balance in the universe that caused the Elias Country of Origin to re-appear out of the wild, as both Yardleys and I have bridged generations with a story told in pictures of our childhoods.
The value of memorabilia is the tensile strength with which it ties a thing to a point in your or your family’s life. I doubt Nick Swisher will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his photograph on my wall of signed pictures reminds me of the summer of 2009 when daughter Elana and I watched the Yankees together en route to a World Series win. It’s more Richie Hebner than Reggie Jackson, but it makes the memory tangible as well. The artifacts make poems, the poems tell stories, and the fire of those stories forges family tradition.