Baseball Cards as Life
This week, Josh Wilker puts a sweet and sour blend of nostalgia on to simmer in “Cardboard Gods.” All of us remember the ritual of opening a fresh pack of cards. This task could only be handled with held breath and a pair of rubber gloves to ensure corners remained perfect and legends’ faces un-fingerprinted. There is a reason Wilker is careful as well. These cards are his life, and his cards couldn’t stay in mint condition very long. Wilker delicately removes one card, one chapter at a time from its pack.
1. There’s nothing like the bliss of opening a pack of cards.
“For a long time, I knew how to find happiness,” the author writes. “All I needed was a quarter.” (7, Cardboard) Nowadays, happiness comes closer to $1.50 or $1.99, but the thought still resonates. Topps 1975 #533 features the Angels’ Rudy Meoli looking skyward with a bat in his hand. What is he looking at? What’s going through his head? Would he have a good season that year? Who knows, but the pose alone is enough to send a youngster zooming through worlds of past, present and future in an instant.
2. Baseball cards teach lessons about finding identity like nothing else can.
No. 5 in the 1977 Topps set featured 1976 Victory Leaders Jim Palmer and Randy Jones. Palmer is a guy you know. The right-hander won the Cy Young three times, and in 1990 he earned 92.6 percent of the Hall of Fame vote. You may even recall that Palmer acted as spokesman for Jockey underwear. Randy Jones? Jones finished his career with a 100-123 record. But for one year, Palmer and Jones shared the same status.
About the same time, Wilker felt like he too could socialize in Palmer-like circles. Soon enough reality returned to Jones and Wilker. After his 1976 season of 22 wins and 14 losses, Jones never again won more than 13 games, nor did he finish better than .500. Wilker’s popularity also went by the wayside, leaving him as an outcast. One look at Kent Tekulve’s 1980 Topps card was all Wilker needed to find a kindred spirit. Tekulve appears as if he is literally moving to the beat of a different drummer. Indeed Tekulve joined the Pirates after the “We Are Family” glory, and in the bullpen he must have felt like a second cousin once-removed.
3. For Wilker and many collectors, baseball cards offered constants that were nowhere else to be found in the rest of life.
In the free-wheeling 70s, almost anything went in the world at large. Close in on the baseball ranks, however, and little had changed. One hundred RBI meant a player ranked among the best of the best, as did 20 wins. A sub-.500 record or a .200 batting average was and always would be bad. That’s why, Wilker says, as the world swirled around him, there was nothing quite like the normalcy of baseball.
Heaven forbid these hallowed relics ever end up in bicycle spokes.
Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.