On baseball memorabilia

“And that is how childhood ends.”

- The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book

I stand in the aisle waiting to pay for diapers, staring at the box of card packages. My two-year-old daughter points and squeaks out the word “baseball.” I reply, “Yeah, kid. Those are baseball cards.”

Cards aren’t for kids anymore. These packages are wrapped in wax paper, with three or four color ink. No photographs, only drawings. I flip a package around in my hand. There is hard gum inside. They’re like I remembered them, but clearly packaged to exploit any nostalgia that may linger in me.

*    *     *

The highway split the town I grew up in into two halves. Most of my friends lived on the south side; I lived on the north. In the summer, when I wasn’t playing baseball or riding bike or thinking about girls (or thinking about baseball or bikes), I’d bring my box and binders of meticulously organized baseball cards to my friends’ houses to trade, or to merely admire the cards.

At the time, most kids my age primarily collected basketball cards. Basketball was flashy. The photos on the cards exuded a sense of movement, that something important was happening. Hell, I didn’t even like basketball, but I had a Micheal Jordan poster hanging in my room. Baseball cards were pretty stodgy. Usually mugshots or “action” shots of a batter completing his swing.

The Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner Card

The Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner Card was last sold for $2.8 million.

Then something happened. Wayne Gretzky bought a baseball card and sold it. The mint condition T206 Honus Wagner was one of the rarest in the world and it was shrouded in mystery. It was rare because Wagner, who chewed tobacco, didn’t want to force kids to buy it to get his card. Or he was holding out for more money from the tobacco company. It depends on who you ask. Regardless of the origin story, only about 50 of these cards survived time’s passage.

It sold for an obscene amount of money at the time: $451,000. Baseball cards hit a frenzy. You couldn’t throw a rock into a barn full of baby boomers without hearing someone say “If my mother hadn’t thrown out my shoebox of cards, I’d be rich.” But that’s the point: Their mothers had thrown out the cards. They were mass produced and only held any value because they’d become rarer. If mothers everywhere hadn’t thrown out the cards, nobody would have made ridiculous amounts of money flipping cardboard later.

Gretzky sold the card to Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment, who went on tour around the country with the card. Some sort of baseball card revival, I guess. Some lucky person would win the card in a drawing on Larry King Live. I watched it with my parents. It was my first experience with Larry King’s Giant Head.

The effect of this hullabaloo was to turn children into hustlers. It wasn’t about the cards or the players or the sport. It was about the money. Cards were an investment that would make us all rich some day.  That never  came, of course, but how could anyone expect kids to understand economic supply and demand in the secondary market. Most cards lose their value, assuming they had any beyond the value of the paper they were printed on, as soon as the player stops being the flavor of the month among fans. It’s cutthroat, market timing is lightning quick and collectors are forced to wade through dozens of gimmicks.

One day, I held up traffic on the highway. A gust of wind had scattered my cards across the pavement. I scrambled to pick them up, knowing that every gust would send my perfectly mint condition cards down in value. Eventually I found them all and continued on to a friend’s house.

I left them at his house. I don’t remember why exactly, but I left my cards there. Maybe we decided to ride bikes or play baseball or talk about girls. And then I went home.

A few weeks later, he and his family moved; My cards moved with them, I assume. I didn’t care. It never even crossed my mind that I’d simply moved on (to better baseball leagues, cooler bikes and, of course, girls).

*     *     *

Some days, like today, I wonder how rich I’d be if my friend’s mother hadn’t thrown my cards out. Most days, I don’t care, doesn’t even cross my mind.

I set the pack down in its box. $4.99 for a pack of cards and a stick of tasteless, rock hard gum? Too rich for my blood. My daughter has lost interest and so have I. It’s time to move on.

I don’t own more than a Twins baseball hat and I didn’t even pay for it. It was given to me by a friend. Baseball is about memories; flawed, fuzzy and indulgent memories. You can’t purchase those. At best, memorabilia can only bring your mind somewhere in time.

And you know what? Box scores are free.

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