There aren’t a ton of guys my age who still collect trading cards. Maybe that makes me weird. I prefer to think it makes me special.
I’ll go back to the beginning, just over 40 years ago. I knew some kids at school collected baseball cards, but I didn’t have any myself. This changed one day at a school carnival where I was able to buy a huge (to me back then) rubber-banded stack of 1974 Topps cards for 50 cents. I still remember things about the stack.
There were 83 cards. None of the players were superstars, though the Mets manager card featured Yogi Berra. There was also a guy on the Yankees named Hal Lanier who I erroneously believed was either a Hall of Famer or the son of one. (There was no internet back then, and I was six…easy mistake! Plus, he looks important on the card.)
The other 81 cards were what are known in the hobby as “commons.” In spite of the lack of star power, this stack immediately became my most prized possession. I sorted it by team, then by number, then by team again. Then by number again. I sorted the cards by position and made a 25-man roster for Yogi to manage. I built a second team for Cards skipper Red Schoendienst, who was also in the stack. You can probably tell I didn’t have a lot of friends.
That same year I bought my first pack. It was 1977 Topps, with change I “borrowed” from the parking meter fund in my mom’s car. I got a Rod Carew all-star, my new best card, which I carried around in my pocket till the washer and dryer destroyed it. Fifteen cents later, which took a while back then, I tried to buy another pack. The season, which I oddly took no interest in, had ended. Come back next year.
1978 was my big year. I staked out the neighborhood 7-11 multiple times a day from about March 1 onward. Somewhere around the middle of April boxes appeared. We won’t discuss the source of my funds, but I was ready. Within a month I had nearly all the all-star cards, which were the big prize back then, along with other hometown notables like Davey Lopes, Dusty Baker, and Manny Mota.
Trades were hot at school, and I found making lopsided trades was a way to get in good with the other kids. I let a Johnny Bench go for a Ted Martinez and friendship. My cards had kept me company when I didn’t have any friends. Now my cards were making me friends. There was something magical there.
Life at home wasn’t great. But life in my room was a different story. The whole world there was my cardboard kingdom. Sorting and making teams, talking to the players, filling in the boxes on the backs of checklists, memorizing player stats, wondering if some of the pitchers were girls–normal kid stuff.
A great innovation that year was a game on the back of the cards called “Play Ball.” The directions simply read, “Played by two.” I devised numerous ways it could be played by one. Tony Armas had a funny card. It said “Strike ut.”
By season’s end, I’d completed the entire 726-card set. I still hadn’t ever seen a baseball game, not even on TV. But I knew an awful lot about baseball and even life. From books at the library, I had memorized the entire 300 Home Run Club. I could tell you about Babe Ruth’s called shot. I could (easily!) name all the players with Topps All-Star Rookie trophies. I could compute batting average, win-loss percentage, and a handful of stats I made up myself. I knew quicker than most people that 726 equaled 6 times 121, the number of cards on a checklist. I even taught myself how to write neatly so I could make my own cards look like the real thing.
I spent all my money on cards. All of it. I stopped buying candy. I asked for milk money that I never once converted into milk. My mom often wondered why she was a little short for the parking meter. Every now and then, I even thought about (but never attempted) robbing a bank. There are collectors out there who collect to make money. Meanwhile my goal was to spend as much money as possible. I despised every month from October through March.
Fast forward 36 years. I open a small cardboard box with about 150 baseball cards in it. Along with a mug and guitar, it’s all I took with me. The 1957 Topps Brooklyn Dodgers team set I nearly completed after college. Twelve of Hank Aaron’s 23 regular issue Topps cards, including his rookie. Old Goudey cards of Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. Memories. A lost love rekindled.
Cards used to keep me company. Now they provided an escape far cheaper and safer than drugs and alcohol. There were stats on the back also. The last time I bought a baseball card was more than twenty years earlier. I was just out of college making a few nickels above minimum wage. I had to think hard about whether I could afford to spend $6 on a 1952 Topps Gil Hodges. at a card show (No worries, I bought it anyway!) Now I had a real job, money in the bank, and eBay was open 24/7.
I finished my Dodgers set and hung it on the wall. It felt great. I worked through the eleven Hank Aaron cards I still needed and kept going. I devised a plan to collect and frame one card each of the 50 greatest players from the 1930s to the 1980s. Then I changed it to 100. Net54 Baseball became my support group as I signed up for more and more sessions of cardboard therapy. I even tried dragging my kid in.
Before I actually became a father, I always imagined someday handing my card collection down to my son, who would instantly forgive all shortcomings and deem me the best father on the planet. What I didn’t imagine was that I’d have a son who had zero interest in my cards or even (back in 2014) baseball at all. Of course he was only 6. His thing was physics.
As part of his birthday present for the year, I ordered 1952 Topps “Look ‘n See” cards of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Galileo. He liked them. Newton was his favorite, so I found him a few others. Soon we had enough to fill a small frame. Then I learned about a Belgian collectibles site called delcampe.net. Now we had enough to fill a large frame.
Just last month we filled a second large frame. My son is ten now and possibly has the largest Isaac Newton collection in the country–maybe the only one! Somewhere along the way he decided he’s more of an Einstein fan. (“Newton was totally wrong about gravity.”) Still, he enjoys having the Newton cards above his bed, and he corrects me if I refer to them as our cards. He has a handful of baseball cards–just a small set I got him when his Cubs won the 2016 World Series. I’ve never seen him flip through them. And I guess it would be kind of boring to make a team.
2019 – ?
My “Top 100” baseball collection is nearly finished. Several months go by without seeing an Isaac Newton we don’t already have. And on top of that a life I was trying to put back together is now thriving. So am I still collecting?
I think I am. I don’t know what I’ll be looking for, but just about any hobby goal sprinkles a little extra purpose into a collector’s life. A true collector is never bored. Broke? Sometimes. Bored? Never. And too old for this? Not really. In my mind it’s always, at least a little bit, 1978, and the spring beckons.