it is, from my seat off in the bleachers, a game of which i am solely an observer. what’s on the field, what i’m taking in, is an extraordinary rite, a passage, an entwining of father and son.
and you get in, you join the club, with a single 3.5 x 2.5 cardboard card that often smells of bubblegum.
or at least they did, back in the 1960s, which is where this story and this club begins.
back then, in a little town along the jersey shore, a long-legged skinny boy somehow got his hands on his very first baseball card. i imagine him pedaling to the five-and-dime. can see his little hand sliding across the counter. ponying up the change, in buffalo nickels and maybe a dime. sitting on the curb, tearing off the wrapper, breaking into the smile that i love, that i married. a boy does that, breaks ear-to-ear in grin, when he gets a card he’s pined for.
i know. i’ve been watching. we are living deja-vu all over again over here. if we were a radio station we’d be all-baseball, all-the-time.
like a light switch, it just flicked on one almost-bedtime ‘bout a week or two ago. the little one was in the big one’s bedroom, when he spied the big fat binders on the shelf.
somehow, the little boy and a big fat binder got together on the floor, and as he flipped the see-through plastic pages, the ones with all the little slits for the baseball cards to line up, at full attention, i saw a light go on in his little boy eyes.
i believe i saw the turning on of the gene that, for a few short years, lives for baseball cards.
i’ve seen it once before. i can only imagine its beginning. because the boy who started all the collecting, the boy whose parents just five or six years ago climbed the steep attic ladder, unearthed the banged-up rusty red tin, the tin filled to brimming with a couple decades of the best that baseball offered, and a smattering of football, and somehow elvis too, was far away from where i was a little girl with four brothers and a father who i don’t remember being so over-the-outfield-wall for packs of cards with bubblegum wedged inside.
but in new jersey, in the white house that was once the gardener’s cottage on some grand estate, there was the little boy up in his room, ordering and re-ordering his every blessed card.
each one spoke to him. the guy in batting pose on the front. all those teeny-tiny numbers on the back. the little biographical notes, like the one that mentioned, on a football card he still could show you, that ben davidson, a defensive lineman for the oakland raiders, worked construction in the summer.
“they’re cultural artifacts,” he told me just the other day, driving down the highway in the midst of a reverie on what the cards are all about. “no one in the NFL is working construction in the summers any more.”
it’s been getting awful thick in baseball cards around here of late. the little one has his stash of 31 cards. hauls them to the kitchen table, tucks them right beside the cereal bowl, making certain not to splash. has stood outside the comic book store with a sweaty dollar bill in his fist, waiting for the man to unlock the door so he, like his papa long ago, could slide the money across the counter and get a fresh pack in return.
the two of them, father and son, suddenly talk baseball all the time. they shuffle through the cards. they read books about the cards. they watch the game, the two of them lined up like hotdogs on the rug, beneath a blanket, their curly heads sharing a single pillow.
i’ve seen it all before. last time, it was a second through fourth grader who talked baseball all the time. who collected upwards of 3,000 cards, including the old red tin hauled down from his daddy’s attic. who lived and breathed for the trade. who got to know a guy named bob whose belly jiggled as he eased behind the counter, at some far-flung card shop where father and son made frequent pilgrimages.
it is a rite that once again needed some explaining, so i took notes while the original collector steered down the highway.
“first of all there’s the suspense of who’s in your pack,” he told me, just warming up. “and the bubblegum. in the old days, the bubblegum was right next to the cards. the cards even smelled of it. they were called bubblegum cards.”
he talked a bit about the bubblegum, how it’s back now, after a hiatus that left the packs stark naked, the cards without the gum. but now, he tells me, the pink slab of sweetness is wrapped in cellophane and sugarless besides. how emblematic of these times.
“baseball is a game of numbers and statistics. the back of the cards…”
“tell you how many home runs or strikeouts or hits,” chimed in the little one, from his back seat booster, easily completing his daddy’s thought.
“the other thing, the really big thing,” said the one with hands on wheel, “is baseball is a game of memories. and the cards are part of the layer of memories.
“they’re touchstones to things that happened when you were a kid, a teenager, in your 20s, your 40s. they evoke all these memories. cards are fragments of moments in time.
“all those things are wrapped up in a little piece of cardboard that’s two inches by three inches long. it packs a lot of memory.” he drove without saying much for a minute or two. then he started in again.
“it’s also part of a chain. passed down from one generation to the other. my collection started, i don’t even know. my oldest card is from 1950. i was born in 1957. one of my cards is johnny ‘red’ kerr, who’s one of the announcers for the bulls. it’s a card from when he played for the syracuse nationals. that’s like ancient history in the NBA.
“it’s called memorabilia for a reason.”
he talked about how cards teach trading skills and the value of something. mentioned that of all the voice messages saved at work, including one from 9-11, he’s still got the one of the now-8th-grader who called long, long ago to tell him his best friends matt and charlie had finally given up the shawn green card, his baseball hero because he was jewish and in the big leagues, where at the time, he hoped to land.
that told me plenty. that of all the snippets of all the years, one of the ones worth keeping always, was the voice of his young son, triumphant, having scored big in the game of baseball cards.
it is a game, it is a club, for which i am happy to be a front-row fan. even if i don’t yet have a card to let me in.
boys, your baseball stories? your trading tales? girls, what are the games in your house for which you watch but do not play? is there any such collecting that a mother and a daughter are wont to do? i haven’t got a little girl, so i am off the mound in that department.