Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on April 7, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.
In the spring of 1967 I tagged along with my mother on a routine trip to the grocery store, a six-year-old put in charge of pushing the cart. As a reward, or to keep me quiet for a little while longer, Mom bought me a “rack pack” containing 36 Topps baseball cards, which might have set her back 29 cents, plus tax. We were not rich, and Mom did not buy her children gifts every time we were in a store. But on this day she told me I could pick out something.
The baseball cards caught my eye, for reasons no longer known. I brought them home, unwrapped the packaging, and began thumbing through the 2.5 by 3.5-inch pieces of cardboard. With an occasional break for a year or three to live a productive life, I have been organizing baseball cards ever since, which would make this day one of the most significant of my life. This seems sad when I write it out like that, so let’s move on.
My card collecting, it must be said, did not spring from a love of baseball. On the contrary, I would not have recognized any of the players depicted on the 36 cards, nor any of their teams. I don’t recall that I had ever watched the game, or played the game. I did not own a glove or a bat. I learned to appreciate baseball in no small part because of baseball cards. When I showed my stack of cards to my father, he informed me that this Willie Mays person was very good at his job. My education into this greatest of games began right about there.
Some months before this blessed occurrence, soon after the 1966 holidays, our family had driven from our home in Connecticut to Vallejo, California, where (due to my father’s job assignment) we would spend the next six months. Mom and Dad crammed three kids and a bunch of luggage into our 1967 Ford Country Squire station wagon, and handed me a road atlas. By the time we reached the Pacific Time Zone, having had little else to occupy my time, I owned a collection of maps and was able to regale my family with “interesting” facts about all 50 states. A few months later, my ever-growing pile of baseball cards served a similar role—objectively beautiful, they were also crammed with information that I could endeavor to make sense of. They were like reading a World Book encyclopedia or a dictionary.
On the front of the cards, Topps clearly emphasized the name of the team, directing schoolboys everywhere how the cards should be organized—it is, in fact, the way actual baseball players are organized in the real world. To make this admonition as clear as possible, Topps even color-coded the team names—the word GIANTS was green, while PIRATES was purple, RED SOX was orange, etc. This was my first step in learning about the real teams, the ones that were playing games every day, in real cities that I could locate on their state maps. My father brought home a newspaper every evening, and I rearranged my team piles to conform to the league standings of the 20 real-life teams. The 1967 American League pennant race, one of the classics in history, caused a lot of pile shuffling for me that summer.
The backs of the cards elevated the endeavor to something higher than mere “collecting”—these weren’t ornamental objects, like stamps or coins. Look at what I could learn about Pete Rose here: his physical dimensions (rather normal), how he held the bat and threw the ball, when he was born (younger than Mom and Dad!), and where he lived (which I could locate on my map of Ohio). There were two fun cartoons, several sentences about Pete, and a grid of numbers summarizing his professional batting record through the years. Depending on how long his career was, Topps would have more or less room to describe the player.
These numbers meant nothing to me at first, but as I began watching occasional games on TV I could associate an event on the field with a “2B,” which was actually a “double.” The rest soon followed, eventually leading to the calculations of “AVG,” and (for pitchers) “ERA.” Not surprisingly, this was both more reading and more arithmetic than I was learning in school.
Armed with a stack of a hundred or so cards, one day I might separate all of the tall guys (Frank Howard), or all the switch-hitters (Don Buford), or the players with at least 200 career home runs. Or I might arrange the cards by what state they lived in or, in many cases, what country. Luis Aparicio lived in Venezuela, it turned out.
In July we packed up the car and drove back across the country to our real home in Connecticut. I was kept busy with my map collection (growing, as we took a different, and slower, route home) and my baseball cards (also growing). My favorite team, briefly the local Giants, inevitably became the local Red Sox, following a multigenerational family tradition. Carl Yastrzemski, a name I felt duty-bound to learn to spell and pronounce, became my favorite player (not a particularly bold choice that summer), and I cheered for all of the other gloriously ethnic names that the Red Sox seemed to be filled with: Petrocelli, Conigliaro, Santiago, Smith.
Although my card collecting was basically a solo endeavor in California (my brother humored me for a year or two), back home my neighborhood was filled with baseball-crazed kids, many available to trade cards. Mickey, a few years older, owned cards (very different looking cards) from previous years—helping me to understand that baseball, and baseball cards, had a past (and presumably a future).
The 1967 Topps baseball set consisted of 609 cards, although this is not something I would have known at the time. I probably ended up with 200 or so of them. Kids normally bought them for a nickel a pack for five cards, and I probably bought a few packs in a good week. This summer was the first time, though by no means the last, that I longed to have a few more coins in my pocket.
The next several years would follow a familiar pattern. Opening the first new packs in March was an extraordinary rush, taking in the new designs, the new colors, the new players. My summer buying became more expansive as I got older and had more nickels and dimes and quarters to spend. I delivered TV Guide door-to-door for a few years and then had a daily paper route. Baseball cards were by no means the only thing I found to blow my money on, but they remained a staple of my childhood. By the age of 12 most of my friends had sensibly moved on to more mature pursuits, and I gave it up a few times, but I eventually found my way back.
In 1976, at age 15, I bought the complete Topps set through an ad in a magazine, which, honestly, is a much easier (and less expensive) way to go about it. After the hobby exploded in the 1980s I kept at it for a while, attending shows, buying stuff through the mail, but eventually I stopped buying the new cards and traded much of my newer stock for the old stuff. I have put my cards away many times, but eventually I pull them out again. Along the way, I have filled in all the missing cards from my childhood seasons, and these cards remain the core of my collection and interest. In the past few years, I have taken all of them out of their unsightly and antiseptic albums so that they can, once again, be held and sorted and organized. My cards have never been more alive than they are today.
Over the next several weeks, I will present the story of collecting baseball cards, centered mainly on the quarter century (1956 through 1980) that Topps effectively held a monopoly on the market, and dealing with how the baseball card hobby was experienced by the boys who were its intended audience. At the end of the series, I will anoint the best 10 card sets Topps ever made.
If you want to read about how valuable the cards are, or which cards are difficult to find today, or how to turn your memories into money, I will not judge you but I will be of no help. Instead, I will try to channel a 10-year-old child, spending a lazy afternoon rifling through a box of cardboard, falling in love with a whole new world.
Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.
Next week: Topps takes over the market, and creates two of the more iconic baseball sets of all time.