The bible of baseball cards
Long ago, when children were allowed to wander from their parents’ side for more than 15 minutes, I spent much of my free time accumulating baseball cards.
After school, my buddy Adam Rogers and I would stroll to the candy store and buy multiple packs. We’d sit on a stoop near his apartment, tear open the wrappers, and debate the merits of each player until it grew dark.
We didn’t fret about the cards’ condition or whether we could complete the set. We just loved holding them, making up games to play with them, breathing in the crystally smell of stale bubblegum as we looked to the next card. Who would it be: Willie Mays (pleaseohpleaseohplease) or yet another Horace Clarke?
It was my first obsession, and it cost only a dime.
In 1973, when Adam and I were 11, Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris published an odd-shaped, graphically groovy volume titled “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book.” Instantly, it became our favorite book in the universe.
Boyd and Harris were twentysomething baseball geeks who worked together at a Boston bookstore. The idea, Boyd remembers today, came when a customer requested a book about baseball cards and he and Harris realized that there was none. After the store manager, Richard McDonough, left to become an editor at Little, Brown, he signed the pair to write their baseball card book
At once irreverent and nostalgic, “Great American” is a hybrid of Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” and Mad magazine. The first section is devoted to Boyd’s memories of collecting cards in the 1950s and early 1960s, at “corner stores that were never on corners. Variety stores completely lacking in variety. They were generally owned by middle-aged men with psoriasis -- paunchy citizens with sallow complexions and sour outlooks, who wore plaid woolen shirts no matter how hot it was and little felt hats that had repeatedly been stepped on.”
Boyd even makes a pilgrimage to the Topps Chewing Gum facility in Brooklyn to interview Sy Berger, the company’s irrepressible president, and to chronicle the evolution of baseball cards.
The majority of the book, however, is devoted to images of baseball cards, some 253 of them, accompanied by alternately reverential and sarcastic blurbs from Boyd, a Red Sox fan, and Harris, a native of Philadelphia.
There are star players in the book, including Don Drysdale and Minnie Minoso, and one page memorializes Jackie Robinson and “Bob” Clemente (both of whom had recently died). But the authors preferred to pay homage to the obscure, the forgotten and the absurd. Here are players memorable only because of their silly names, like Whammy Douglas and Choo Choo Coleman and Sibby Sisti and Clyde Kluttz.
Here are the marginal players who never made it to stardom, like the Angels’ flame-throwing reliever Ryne Duren, who “wore milk-bottle-thick tinted glasses and used to warm up before each inning by throwing a series of particularly nasty overhand fast balls into the ground in front of home plate, over the catcher’s head, against the backstop, and into the stands.”
“This may have been the first book to celebrate the guys who were just names on a bubble gum card -- not the household names or the game’s mythical figures,” says Terry Cannon, executive director of the Pasadena-based Baseball Reliquary. “Obviously, these guys were easy to poke fun at -- like pitcher Don Mossi, ‘with his loving-cup ears and the dark hulking presence of one newly dead or resurrected’ -- but I think the authors make a strong case that these are the guys who make the game great.”
According to McDonough, a retired literary agent now living in Irvine, the book succeeded because the authors were so un-alike.
“Boyd was a professional wise guy whose first impulse was to be clever,” he says. “Harris had a penchant for precision. He was better with facts.”
Back in 1973, my pal Adam and I didn’t understand every snarky joke in the book: What did it mean to be an “aging acolyte at the altar of Stan Hack”? But we could feel the love of the card on each page, and we diligently followed the authors’ advice. We sent away for catalogs and purchased cards from dealer-collectors who advertised in the Sporting News. We attended a card show in the basement of a Manhattan hotel and bought vintage tobacco cards of Christy Mathewson for, like, $7.
We were too inexperienced to know we were witnessing an epochal moment in the history of baseball cards. In the years immediately after the publication of “Great American” -- as well as Bert Randolph Sugar’s encyclopedic “The Sports Collector’s Bible,” first published in 1975 -- card collecting (and sports memorabilia in general) shifted from small-change hobby to big business. Several competitors challenged Topps, and card shops sprouted in every mini-mall.
In 1991, the so-called Mona Lisa of all trading cards, a Honus Wagner card from 1910, was purchased for more than $450,000 by then- Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and his star player, Wayne Gretzky. Today, it’s worth millions.
Boyd went on to contribute the text for “Racing Days,” a book featuring Henry Horenstein’s exquisite horse racing photography. He also wrote the novel “Blue Ruin,” about the fixing of the 1919 World Series. He was a pop music and financial columnist. Today, he is working on another novel.
“I’m proud of the baseball card book, but it feels like it was written by a different person,” he says. “A lot of people thought I was interested in baseball cards, but I was really interested in the cards as a way of talking about childhood.”
Harris owned a store in Boston called the Great American Baseball Card Company until, he says, “baseball cards stopped being about fun. The whole money motive got disgusting.” He now works in IT analysis and writes a blog.
The legacy of both authors -- and of “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book” -- is secure. Their book may be out of print, but it’s a cult classic, the most astute piece of writing about baseball card collecting ever produced. According to Cannon, it remains one of the essential titles from the 1970s explosion in hardball lit, alongside “The Boys of Summer,” Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” and the anthology “Baseball I Gave You the Best Years of My Life,” edited by Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger.
Indeed, the same irreverent spirit that Boyd and Harris brought to the national pastime infuses Cannon’s Baseball Reliquary, founded in 1996 at the intersection of baseball and art. This summer, the Reliquary will present an exhibition celebrating baseball cards past and present. Featuring the defaced cards of artist Paul Kuhrman, “Cardboard Fetish” will be displayed at the Pasadena Central Library from July 6 to 31. (See the organization’s website, www.baseballreliquary.org, for more information.)
I stopped collecting cards in my teens, as prices soared past my allowance. But I’ll always cherish my small stash, from Willie Mays to Clyde Kluttz.
“Who doesn’t love baseball cards?” asks Bert Sugar. “It’s the ultimate memory of youth.”
Davis is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine.
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