Saturday, August 15, 2015

Once I Was Very Rich

I was once filthy rich, among the one-percent. I lost it all, not to the stock market or the Nigerians emailing me weekly. My fortune vanished when my mother got tired of picking up my baseball cards, strewn all over the house and threw them away.

Indeed, given the fact that earlier this month a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card sold for $401,000, my net worth as an eight-year-old would have been in the Trumpisphere. There’s no doubt in my childhood memory. I probably had twenty Mantle rookie cards spread from my bedroom through the living room, under couches, tacked to my bulletin board, or clothes-pinned to the spokes of my bicycle.

It was the mid-1950s. Baseball was our “national pastime.” Dad had played semi-pro baseball in Texas and passed along his love of the game. We had no idea who owned that vacant lot next door, but it was our Ebbets Field. We played ball there every night until it was so dark you couldn’t see the ball. We played Little League and collected baseball cards as well.

My brother and I had about a qazillion-quzillion baseball cards. We added to the collection each Saturday morning when our parents gave us our weekly allowance. In those days a quarter bought something.

We lived four blocks from the Cole Shopping Center. With that quarter held tightly in our sweaty little fists, we marched off to Ben Franklin’s, laid it on the counter and got a couple of more packages of Topps Baseball Cards.

Each package contained an orangey-red square of stale bubble gum packed with 6-8 cards.  The gum stained the cards. We didn’t know it then, nor did we care, that the stain would considerably reduce the card’s value among collectors who one day figured out these 2 and 5/8th by 3 and three quarter inch pieces of cardboard could be worth a lot of money.

The 1951 Topps set was a deck of cards, 52 in a set. Each featured a player’s picture and a game event. One card might say “fly-out,” another “single,” or “triple,” or so on. That was our “fantasy baseball.” No team played in the Cheyenne time-zone. We couldn’t even get last night’s scores for a day or two because of the time differences. There was only one televised game per week, which is, I guess, why they called it “The Game of the Week.”

Cards gave us a way to “play ball.” Friends took turns turning cards over pretending to play a baseball game.

The 1952 cards were different. There were more of them, 407 cards. Each included a player’s photo with a facsimile autograph. On the other side were his stats. We learned as much math studying those cards as we did in school. Calculating a hitter’s batting average or a pitcher’s earned run average meant solving complex math problems. We used that information in long debates with friends about who was the greatest player.

The cards had squared corners. Not many stayed square, which is why one alone was worth $401,000. To us ‘50s kids, that meant nothing. We put rubber bands tightly around stacks of cards. Turns out the square corners will round off if you don’t put the cards immediately into a protective sleeve.  Rubber bands leave small nicks on the cards at the outer edge of the stack. The cards didn’t survive at all when secured to the spokes of our bicycles. They made the bike sound like a car engine running without oil. It was worth it then. But it was a little like clothes pinning an original Apple stock certificate to those spokes.

Who knew? We weren’t investors. We were kids. We used baseball cards to dream. It’s how we got to know our heroes who played the game. We looked at those cards and imagined Mickey Mantle hitting another home run. What made the hobby richer back then is that we couldn’t imagine that little card selling for nearly half-a-million dollars.

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