How To Collect Baseball Cards
Some people think baseball is boring. As if nothing were more wretched than an afternoon watching a professional sport where doping is so widespread yet the only physical contact deemed essential are the few congratulatory butt slaps. So I wonder what would make baseball more exciting, more bedazzling to television audiences across the country. There’s gotta be something better than a pretentious Kenny Powers’ firework display.
The only real solution that comes to mind is players need to wear microphones. If the players were all mic’d up, viewers could more easily hear the taunting and chatter coming from the infield and dugouts: “Nice hack OJ!”, “Hey pitch, I’ve seen better arms on a bean bag!”, “Unhook the plow!”, “Is it Ladies Night out there or what!?”, “I know you’re blind ump, I’ve seen your wife!”, “Heeeeeeeey batteh-batteh-batteh-batteh, suh-wing batteh, kennedy-kennedy-kennedy-kennedy-ken suh-wing batteh!”
Every kid between the ages of 8 and 12, living in rural America, plays baseball over summer break and are all keen for these heckles and cries of derision, they are as much a part of the game as creatine and Big League Chew. It breaks my heart to see television censorship sucking all the life and tradition out of our national pastime. But when I think back to those Little League years, the one thing I remember most fondly are the baseball cards.
It was always fun to see the accomplishments of the game’s greatest athletes abbreviated into pocket-sized, rectangular pieces of cardboard, and any desire to collect such small treasures was probably some caveman instinct for hoarding still imprinted in our subconscious minds. But oh man were the mechanisms of card acquisition inefficient. We had to buy cases of wax packs, continuously throwing away duplicates in endless searches for cards we actually wanted because Topps, Donruss, and countless others all created artificial scarcity by deliberately limiting production of their commodity so there wasn’t enough relics, refractors, parallels, serially numbered, or autographed inserts to be divided equally among all collectors.
Normally, this business conduct would be seen as exceedingly rude and entirely unacceptable, but in the case of baseball cards, a contagious zeal is thus added to the game from the limitless possibilities contained within the obscurities of a sealed wrapper. To kids and impassioned collectors, an unopened wax pack glimmers with an untamed, humanly-divined beauty that can only be understood by holding a pack of cards in your hands. For inside each packet lies the heart-pumping prospect of attaining the impossible, finding that “one” which makes your hair stand on end, your bowels empty, and your eyes stare in disbelief at your sheer dumb luck.
However, like all things we insist on owning, the value of a baseball card could only be measured by our perceived value of the thing. And while some of us had the means to collect a great many cards, we all had that one we couldn’t find.
The Elusive Joe Shlabotnik
Back in the 1950s and 60s when money was worth more, kids could buy 1-cent, 5-cent, and 10-cent packs of bubble gum from vending machines or the local five-and-dime. Each pack contained a single or varying number of randomly inserted baseball cards which could be collected, traded, or clamped to the rear of a bicycle frame so when the spokes of the back wheel turned, it sounded like a kick-ass dirt bike.
For those who collected the cards, the joys of deliberate scarcity and inequitable distribution left us with immense frustrations from the extended searches for specific cards. This chagrin of card collecting was illustrated with a minimalist proficiency by Charles Schultz in a Peanuts strip published on April 12, 1964.
Readers played witness to Charlie Brown’s wishy-washy attempt to unwrap a picture card of his favorite ball player from a heaping stack of bubble gum packets. The strip opens with Charlie Brown striding down the sidewalk as determined as ever, waving a fistful of dollars at Lucy van Pelt’s presumptuous face. “See this five dollars?” he says. “I’m going to spend it all on bubble gum cards! I’ve got to get a picture of Joe Shlabotnik!”
At the nearest variety store, Charlie Brown purchases 500, one-cent penny packs and opens the heaping stack under Lucy’s curious gaze. His anxious little hands tear through to the bottom of his purchase, perspiration and distress flourishing anew with each opened pack cast aside. In the end, the card isn’t found. Charlie Brown’s most ambitious attempt fails. All he can do is throw his fat, little arms into the air and wail, “Five dollars’ worth of bubble gum, and not one Joe Shlabotnik!”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What the hell, right? Five dollars in 1964, for a kid, was probably the six-months allowance he stockpiled over winter. To blow it all in one shot and fail so miserably must have felt like a kick in the balls.
Why didn’t Charlie Brown just post a newspaper advertisement for the Shlabotnik? He could have traded the card for a dollar and spent the rest of his stash on peep shows and ice cream cones. Well, of course that was an option, but understand that the greatest joys gained in collecting baseball cards are found in the hunt, not in the cards.
There’s immeasurable excitement in the unknown. Walking out of a store with an armful of wax packs holds an indescribable thrill for kids. The suspense vibrates throughout their little body and shakes their conscious being with the knowledge that there is more to life than just cold cereal and staying up past bedtime.
A Card Collection is a magic carpet that takes you away from work-a-day cares to havens of relaxing quietude where you can relive the pleasures and adventures of a past day — brought to life in vivid picture and prose.
Humans crave experiences. We want to live our lives in anticipation, collecting stories and fond memories along the way. Charlie Brown’s failure to unwrap his coveted baseball hero becomes a good story, and it’s this slice of life, defined by his lavish card shop purchase and balloon popping emotion, which endures in his memories, forever.
If we’re to learn anything from Charlie Brown’s failure it’s that each day should be lived to maximal fruitfulness, searching for life’s brief moments and those alluring episodes which moisten our unquenchable thirst for adventure.
The passionate pursuits of our Shlobotniks will always grant us great stories to tell, but a card collection as an aggregated, living whole represents more than just mere adventure. When done correctly, a proper collection will forever twinkle with all the charm, charisma, and character found in the unique individuals who made the conscious efforts to collect each card.
The Cardboard Connoisseur
Being yourself in a world of industrialized conformity is the hardest battle we as individuals will ever have to face. All societies, for better or worse, push civil obediences upon their people. Consequently, the single members of a community grow into scared little copies of each other, too fearful of any dissenting thoughts, feelings, and opinions, their sheltered lives relinquishing all independence to the chronic groupthink of crowds. But when they deny their own individuality they are, in effect, denying the right of individualism in others as well.
It was only after Beckett published its first Baseball Price Guide book in 1979 that kids and collectors conformed to the mindless footsteps of economic growth and could only acknowledge the diversity of baseball’s illustrious cardboard in the lowly material sense, as tasteless property that should appreciate. As a result, we saw a barrage of cookie-cutter collections of repetitive and uninspiring bodies of work.
When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else you surrender your own integrity and become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.
The ultimate freedom each and every one of us has is the freedom to be an individual. The standardization of lifestyle and habit is a miserable proposition only suitable for farm animals. Uniqueness, the whole essence of being human, is perhaps the only thing worth sharing with the world. And a baseball card collection has this incredible potential to reflect that invaluable quality with a wistful beauty.
So, let go of any investment, financial, and cultural expectations you might have and focus on want you want to find in a baseball card. If you corral yourself into a general purpose search for complete sets, teams, or players, that’s fine, but don’t comply with another’s approach just because you can’t discover your own way. Just keep hunting.
Spend hours sitting in card shops riffling through boxes of common players in search of that “one” which increases the merit of your own collection. Attend sports cards shows and autograph conventions. Meet other card collectors. Trade cards and stories. Cross state lines if needed. Give all your being to your collecting.
Become a cardboard connoisseur, an admirable collector whose passion for finding the “right” card has turned him into an eccentric authority on baseball cards that goes beyond just Honus Wagner, Mickey Mantle, and Ricky Vaughn. His probing mind recognizes order and majestic beauty in the chaotic medley of each year’s photographic captures. He sees a baseball card as a precious work of art, the creative marriage between photography, graphic design, and typography, each piece of cardboard conveying both an aesthetic and intrinsic beauty.
He might fill one 3-ring binder with just bunters, another with before and after picture cards of steroid use, and another with players only chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles. Why? Because for him, the cards conjure up fond memories of playing baseball in his youth and for the simple reason that there’s a hidden playfulness that others might not “get” when they flip through the quirky pages of his binders.
Few can go transcend the philistine compulsions of profiteering and put together a collection that symbolizes something meaningful, the individual. A great card collection will always speak of individuality, and that, my friends, is how to collect baseball cards.