My First Love
I fell and fell hard. I was only ten years old, but the first great love of my life became an all consuming passion: baseball cards. 1980 was the last year that Topps held its monopoly on production of cards. Fleer and Donruss began producing them the following year after winning a lawsuit against Topps.
My allowance was $1 per week. That wasn’t much, but what expenses did a ten-year-old have? And $1 bought me four packs of Topps baseball cards, 15 cards in a pack and wretched bubblegum. The worst part about the gum wasn’t the taste or the fact that you really couldn’t blow bubbles with it. No, the worst part was that more often than not it stained the back of the bottom card of the pack. If that card was Bert Roberge or Bake McBride, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. If, however, that card was Rickey Henderson, Nolan Ryan, or Reggie Jackson, there was no getting around the feeling that you got cheated.
The 1980 Topps set was 726 cards, including checklists (although you needed them to complete a set, finding a checklist was as disappointing as finding a gum-stained card). Collecting the entire set became a summer-long obsession. I wrote every number from 1 to 726 on loose leaf paper so I could track which cards I needed. Early in the game it was easy. I needed nearly every one of the 60 cards my $1 bought me. But soon another irritation appeared alongside the gum and the checklists: doubles. But at least doubles had a purpose. Other boys were trying to put together an entire set as well, so doubles made trades possible. If they were commons, a one-for-one swap was standard. If you wanted an all-star, its owner didn’t mind having more than one and could demand multiple cards in exchange — which in the card-collecting game functioned as the equivalent of the “Advance to Go” card in Monopoly. So boys were completely reasonable in their trade demands. Others were ridiculous. One kid’s mother made him write his name on the top right corner of every card so no one would rip him off, which of course destroyed both the value and the aesthetic beauty of the card. The real morons clothes-pinned them to their bicycles to generate that clacking sound as they flipped through the spokes. Even the most ordinary player didn’t deserve that ignominy.
I finally reached 725 cards. One card remained: Mike Cubbage of the Twins. Another boy had also reached 725. His white whale was Dick Ruthven of the Phillies. Neither of us held either, and it seemed no matter how many packs we bought, we could never find them. It was maddening to blow my whole week’s fortune on 60 cards I didn’t need.
That summer, we traveled back to Philadelphia to visit my grandparents. While I was there, I bought several packs of cards as I always did at home in Minnesota.
And I finally found him.
Well, not him exactly, but a card that would give me leverage: Dick Ruthven.
When I returned from vacation, I was startled to discover that while I was gone, Jeff had found my card: Mike Cubbage. Both commons, both desperately needed, easiest trade ever.
With the entrance into the market of Donruss, Fleer, and eventually Upper Deck in 1989, collecting cards became more complicated. I personally didn’t like any of the sets issued by any of the companies in 1981, but I did continue to collect baseball cards of all sorts for at least another decade. By then it had become a big business. Packs of cards weren’t 25 cents anymore. With the advent of “premium” cards, the number of cards in a pack dropped, the gum vanished, and the price per pack went up $2–3 — sometimes even more. Businessmen would walk into card shops and slap thousands of dollars onto the counter and ask the dealer to build a card portfolio as an investment. They didn’t love the cards like I did; they were just hoping to make a quick buck. It sucked all the fun out of the hobby (which it really wasn’t anymore) and priced the average kid out of the action.
The bubble burst eventually, as it does for all collectibles suffering the fate of attracting the attention of hucksters and Wall Street types. Prices went through the roof for a 1980 Rickey Henderson rookie card or the 1984 Fleer Update set with the first Roger Clemens card (the set sold for as much as a couple thousand dollars at its peak, if memory serves), then one day people woke up and realized that they’d invested in cardboard after all and nothing more.
I actually still have some of my cards. I don’t have the actual 1980 Topps set that I painstakingly put together 40 years ago, but I asked for and received the set again on my 30th birthday, and I still have it. Not too many people collect cards anymore, and I certainly don’t -- at least not actively. The benefit of that is that all those cards I lusted after as a teenager but could never afford, like a rookie Steve Carlton, I can find and buy on eBay on the cheap. I don’t buy the card because it’s worth something. I buy it because I loved Steve Carlton and his devastating slider, and holding the card reminds me of a simpler, more innocent time. A time before the internet, before Atari (I still remember playing “Pong” on a rabbit-eared television set. Do you?), before airwaves were flooded with cable television channels as alternatives to NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS, a time when the highlight of my day was rushing to read the Minneapolis Tribune in the morning and Minneapolis Star in the afternoon to read the latest box scores.