What is it that opens a welcome portal to your past? What is it that reminds you vividly — and perhaps fleetingly — of a particular time and place you’re always pleased to revisit, if only in your mind?
Maybe it’s a lyric from a song you heard in the Buick during a road trip with your folks. Or the visceral way the smell of grilling food jostles memories of family cookouts from summers come and gone.
It could be as simple as the way the August sunlight hits at dusk, a signal when you were a kid that the day’s Wiffle Ball game was approaching its last innings, and summer itself was getting down to its last few outs.
For me, variations of those examples are tucked away in the scrapbooks of my mind, some in Kodachrome, others sepia-toned, too many fading with the relentless march of time. But there’s something else that does it too.
For most of my life, baseball cards have been the bookmarks to my memories.
How it started
My first year following baseball and the Red Sox was 1978. I know, that’s like booking your first seafaring adventure on the Titanic. No child, especially one raised by a couple of devout Bill Lee fans, should be exposed to the managerial malpractice of Don Zimmer before they can develop a coping mechanism or two.
The cruel ending did not matter. Yaz, Jim Ed, and Looie … Pudge, Butch, and Boomer … the Rooster and Scoot, Eck and the Spaceman, Freddy and Dewey … they were larger than life and hooked me for life, long before an autumn of aching commenced when the final out settled into Graig Nettles’s glove in Game 163.
That was also the first year I started collecting cards, something I’ve done with only occasional pause ever since. The habit was started and fed by my sports-nut dad, who would come back with two packs of Topps — always two, 20 cents a pack — whenever he’d venture to the nearest convenience store in our hometown of Bath, Maine.
On other days, my mom would send me to that same store, Magoo-eyed old Joe Avery’s place exactly a mile and a half away from our front door, to pick up a loaf of bread or a half-gallon of milk, and always two packs of her unshakable habit, Salem cigarettes. Store owners would let kids be the middlemen if you had a note or they were copacetic with your folks. I’m not sure I’d believe the ’70s were real if I didn’t grow up in them.
Mom would let me spend the leftover change from those cigarette sojourns on cards. There was usually only enough for a pack or two, which I didn’t think was nearly enough of a payoff for a 3-mile round-trip walk. I’d argue, at maximum whine, that my friend Jay sometimes got a box — 36 packs! — from his grandparents. My envy touched every shade of green, but I was always left blue. I kept getting my two packs, no more, after handing over the note and getting mom her two packs.
So in fourth grade, I came up with a plan. I was certain it was foolproof, and you know what happens to foolproof plans: They often prove the alleged mastermind a fool.
When our class would divide up into hot- and cold-lunch groups — they ate in separate cafeterias in different buildings for some long-forgotten reason — I’d take the buck-fifty my mom had handed me that morning to pay for the lukewarm shepherd’s pie and sneak off school grounds to a different convenience store.
There, I’d hit the jackpot: a hot dog, chocolate milk, a Star Wars or Kiss comic book (their real blood is in the ink!), and a pack or two (or three) of cards.
Genius plan, right? You know it. I would have gotten away with it, too, if only I’d recognized the need for a disguise. After I’d sneaked off a few times while my sucker classmates were left behind with their mysterious American chop suey, one of my teachers, headed back from her lunch break, spotted me walking along the street. When she later confronted me about what I was doing off school grounds, I told her she was surely mistaken and that it was another kid that looked like me who was wearing the same shirt.
She somehow resisted laughing at the brass stupidity of the lie, and said that if I had a note from my parents — I’m telling you, you could buy a scud missile or get yourself inside the door of a speakeasy with a parental note in those days — that it was OK.
I knew my folks wouldn’t go for that — that’s why I was sneaking! — and with my plan in danger of no longer being foolproof, there was only one logical course of action. I went to the boys’ bathroom, closed the stall door, took out my notebook, and began writing what would surely be a binding document: “DEAR MRS. GRANGER … MY SON CHAD HAS PERMISHIN …”
If you find me poor at grammar and spelling now, you can imagine how that sad forgery went. After brief deliberations between my teacher and parents, I was convicted unanimously on all counts. My baseball cards were taken away for a month.
A big year
The set from a collector’s rookie year as a fan almost always produces the warmest lasting sentiments — a you-never-forget-your-first-love-or-first-Yaz-card sort of thing. So it should come as no surprise that I consider the 1978 baseball set to be the loveliest Topps ever produced. Don’t bother with a counterpoint. My mind has been made up and correct for 43 years.
Oh, I knew those ’78s front and back. Still do. The stats on the cards’ orange backs proved the most satisfying game of concentration imaginable. They were flashcards for learning who was who in this game that had enthralled me. (Card No. 155, Butch Hobson, 30 homers, 115 RBIs, .265 average for the 1977 Red Sox … Card No. 270, Carlton Fisk, 26 homers, 102 RBIs …) There is no better way to learn about baseball than the flip side of a baseball card, with the possible exception of Strat-O-Matic.
And the fronts of those ‘78s, the picture side? Some stand as permanent memories of what one would think would be evanescent moments, here and then gone for good.
I remember the card of Padres outfielder Gene Richards poking out of my plaid lunchbox on a frigid expedition of a field trip to the Robert Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College. And there’s speedy Tigers outfielder Ron LeFlore leading off a pack one morning, picked up when my dad made a pit stop for gas while driving me to school.
I can visualize every single Red Sox card as if I’d opened them today, including an airbrushed image of pitcher Mike Paxson that is either hilarious or criminal. All these years later, I’m still not sure.
I probably couldn’t tell you how the Red Sox acquired every current player on their 40-man roster. But off the top of my head, I can effortlessly remember three trades I made with my buddy Kevin in 1983.
This dope of a general manager dealt a 1980 Rickey Henderson rookie for a 1976 Mike Norris, an A’s pitcher of brief excellence whose golden right arm was abused by Billy Martin; all of my 1981 cards of Walter Payton for all of his cards of a Falcons running back named Lynn Cain, who broke off a crazy run one Sunday that convinced me he was, uh, the next Walter Payton, I guess; and a “Thriller” cassette for a 1975 Keith Hernandez rookie card.
Kevin was the Red Auerbach to my Ted Stepien in those first two swaps, but I like to think I won the third one, since everyone knows “Off The Wall” was really Michael Jackson’s best album.
I could shrug and feign bewilderment and say I don’t know why these details, the instances and images of certain childhood cards, stick with me. But of course I know why. They were there, with me, when life was innocent and easy, and happiness shimmered through my days like fireworks on the fourth of July.
They’re avatars of the good times, and such reminders became vital as I grew older. My parents split up when I was in junior high. In school, I was just popular enough to be devastated when I wasn’t invited to something. As friends faded or found other things, baseball, and those companion cards, were a consistent comfort, something uncomplicated when everything else was.
As I grew older and continued to collect, I was sometimes sheepish about clinging to a supposedly childish thing. But that’s one of the small blessings of growing older, if not up: Self-consciousness can be shed like an old shell. Turns out that doing silly things that make you happy is a lovely and liberating way to go through life. The wise tell us this when we’re kids, of course. But life experience is required before we can hear it.
How it’s going
During the sports card boom in the late ’80s and early ’90s, even a dedicated nostalgist like me could not resist the investing aspect of the hobby. I can hook you up with 100 1989 Topps cards of Blue Jays outfielder Sil Campusano right now if you want to know how that went.
At another point, I was sure the 1981 Fleer Graig Nettles card, which spelled his name “Craig” before quick correction turned it into a phenomenon of perceived scarcity, was going to pay for my college education. By the time I was in college at the University of Maine, it was barely worth enough to pay for a $1.25 pitcher of low-quality beverage on a Thursday night at Geddy’s.
Reporting on the frenzied, greed-fueled state of the sports-card industry over the last few months only confirmed that the current zeitgeist — encased graded cards, ripping packs in search of scarcities while discarding commons, cutting up genuine baseball artifacts to wedge shards of them into cards, pricing out kids — is not my scene. Authentic memorabilia will never be as valuable to me as an authentic memory.
Fortunately, there’s a secret that people who love collecting as a hobby rather than a soulless wealth quest share among themselves. You can make it whatever you want it to be.
Yeah, I have some that have monetary value. The smartest thing I’ve ever done — other than marrying my wife and sending my clips to the Globe on a whim — was buy 55 packs of 1980-81 Topps basketball cards out of the discount bin at Grand City in Brunswick, Maine, sometime around 1981 or ‘82. Total price: $5.50. A dime each. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s co-rookie card, also featuring Julius Erving, is worth somewhat more than that.
I still have the Larry/Magic/Dr. Js. I still have almost every card I ever collected, thousands upon thousands, some in the attic, some in my home office. The ones that mean the most have sentimental value rather than book value.
My favorite is a signed 1978 Hobson, its corners rough (fine, I get it, sort of like how he was at third base) and an autograph barely legible, but a timeless reminder nonetheless of the unforgettable words my first baseball hero spoke to me when he signed the card at a minor league game: “Here’s your pen.”
That card is framed on the wall to my left as I write this, along with 79 other ’78s. It’s still the greatest set, I tell you. I knew it when I was 8, and I know it now. They’re right here with me every day.
My collecting nowadays is limited to the satisfying and inexpensive routine of buying single sports cards of players I liked for a buck or two on eBay — a 1977 Jerry Remy here, a 1979 Stan Papi (the obscure player the Red Sox received for Lee, and my most recent purchase) there.
I’ll buy one or two single cards most weeks. When a package arrives, the final leg occurring when my wife brings it into the office and plunks it on the desk without comment, it brings the same jolt of happy anticipation as opening a pack all those years ago.
Know what might be the best part? When you collect as an adult, turns out there’s no permission slip required other than the one you give yourself.