To me collecting has always been about amassing and organizing, maybe a little displaying, definitely learning, and combining those last too a little bit “I know something you don’t know,” which is by all means a mature enough reason to start this story when the bug first bit, age 6.
My entry into the world of collecting came as it did for many kids, and in the case of my generation most of their fathers too: baseball cards. Oh, they’re so boring today with so many more exciting items having become accessible for collectors, but if you’re a six year old boy and it’s 1979 then there was nothing more accessible to collect than the baseball card.
Looking back, as with most memories of childhood, it was very pure. To be quite honest if you took my computer away and I wanted to take up baseball card collecting today I wouldn’t know where to go to get started. But I remember where I got them back then, often it was the five and dime, sometimes the grocery store, but what sticks out most as I write this, perhaps because it seems so unusual to me now, was the ice cream man. For some strange reason I can recall like yesterday peeling open a wax pack and pulling out a Mickey Rivers card, maybe because Mick the Quick was the only beloved Yankee I got, who knows.
My 1979 Topps baseball cards were interactive. I can recall keeping my cards sorted by team and laying them out in front of the television when a game was on. I’d place the 9 fielders in the appropriate positions and one by one bring the opposing batters forward as they came to the plate on TV. And sure I’d advance the batter base to base when appropriate as well. This led to my Yankees being the most beat-up of the entire bunch, but guess what, we didn’t care about condition then.
The cards were educational too, of that I have no doubt. I learned long division once I figured out dividing hits by at bats yielded a players batting average. That led to a fascination with math which filled the hours by my inventing my own stats for my own baseball career which probably often wound down when I was over the hill in baseball years by, oh, right about now.
Eventually I had amassed enough cards to presume I had the full set of 726. I took to sorting them and pulling the doubles out for trade later. I actually remember sitting on the back porch with Dad one day as he did most of the work putting everything in order and actually using the checklists for their designed purpose–marking each empty box with a sharpened pencil. I can also remember how red his face turned when I became distracted and knocked the table over, but the less said about that the better.
Now I didn’t buy my cards for the gum, but don’t think that that slab of pink didn’t offer some small inducement. I’ll even confess to growing nostalgic many years later and popping a 15 year old piece of gum in my mouth–the corners were sharp and it tasted like pure sugar. It didn’t last very long. About all that had held up was the familiar sweet aroma.
Finally I can recall the day the purity was drained from my newly found hobby. My buddies and I used to flip and match cards, winner taking the amassed stack, and while a small form of gambling that was all right, it was still pure. No, the day everything changed was the day one of us picked up one of the earlier editions of Beckett’s annual price guides.
I still remember the trade and since my guy eventually made it to the Hall of Fame I still hold that I won the deal on talent. If I didn’t know now what the price guide told us back then I’d still do the trade and I’d be right every time.
I was going to get a Rollie Fingers card, who besides being the top fireman of the day with World Championships in Oakland behind him and already us kids whispering in reverence, “He’s a Famer,” also had/has one of the best mustaches ever and it was captured firmly on cardboard for all time to the owner of this particular baseball card. This was quite an inducement, especially at a time before any us could grow our own mustaches.
The price was Bump Wills. Why did my friend want a Bump Wills card? I’m not even sure if I’d heard of Bump’s father, the much more successful ex-Dodger Maury Wills, at the time, but if I had I’m sure I used it as evidence. There was nothing unusual about this card. His stats read mediocre. The rookie card craze of the mid-80’s had yet to hit, but even so this was Wills’ second card anyway. My friend peered into the Beckett book, his brother leaning over his side snickering in a way that as I recall it makes me want to find them right now and play some cards.
Why? Now there’s no time limit on a deal, but still after several minutes of deliberation we were obviously reaching the critical juncture. Finally my friend and possessor of the Fingers card asked the fateful question: “Deal?” A deep breath on my part before responding, “Deal.” And so it was done.
Immediate laughter, and I apologize for all of the detail, but you’re not yet familiar with Bump Wills’ significance in the world of late 1970’s baseball cards you’re about to discover just why this was so traumatic, so very horrible, that I still believe I can recall every single detail on the 30th anniversary of the harrowing event, unembellished, of course.
“What is it?” I asked, knowing I’d had to have, in some way, goofed. They showed me the Guide.
The 1979 Topps cards had a pretty full photo of the ballplayer taking up most of the card’s space with a banner running along the bottom edge of the card spelling out the player’s team. Bump Wills was a Texas Ranger and my card said “Rangers” just as it should have across bottom. But this was the corrected version of an error card which in all other ways was the same as my card but read “Blue Jays” across the team banner, pre-supposing a rumored trade which never did occur if I recall the story correctly.
But the error card was only worth about a dime, which was fine, Rollie Fingers booked about a quarter. My memory is a little foggy here, but I believe the corrected version, the rarity which I had just dealt off, booked three whole dollars! Now in 1979 there wasn’t much booking for 3 bucks, at least not a lot of what we had, we were dealing in the cents column most of the time.
I’d been had! I’d dealt the prize of my budding collection without even knowing it!
From that day forward no deal was completed without consulting “the Book.” No more were deals based on wants, needs or even likes. Trades were balanced except on the rare occasion somebody would overpay for a card they needed for a set, or to complete a team set, or just a random hero Yankee–very rare times. Those deals still retained some of what made collecting so much fun, but the almighty dollar, or more accurately an otherwise unknown third party’s stated value, became the rule of the day across our childhood.