Friday, September 2, 2011

Time traveling, part 2

My education in baseball began in the mid-1950s, most likely around the summer of 1958 and again in the summer of 1959.

That makes me 7 and 8 years old, respectively.

And I can thank Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., for that obsession. You see, they're the people who provided us baby boomers with the wildly popular baseball trading cards that now, more than 60 and 70 years later, are so much in demand by collectors. Especially the Mickey Mantle cards.

Who would have thought that cardboard could be so enticing? Well, it certainly was back in the 50's. If memory serves, you could buy a pack of cards for a nickel. The pack usually included five cards and a flat little rectangle of sugary pink chewing gum that had an indescribable saccharine aroma. And it might as well have been hardtack. You'd pop that puppy in your mouth and start chewing. It took most of the day to actually get it malleable enough to call it chewing gum — in the mean time, mandibles locked and teeth rotted. But the gum wasn't the point. The cards were.

You could earn money to buy the cards by crossing the street to get to the playground in Fountain Hill and hunt for soft drink (hereafter known as "soda") bottles, for which you could redeem at the local corner market for actual hard cash. A penny per bottle, I think. Sometimes we'd have a wagon load of bottles, which we would redeem for packs of baseball cards. The bottles were as good as cash. We were pint-sized entrepreneurs.

During those two summers, I collected enough cards to fill several shoe boxes from end to end. The shoe box was a surprisingly effective container that seemed specifically designed to hold baseball cards. This was a perfect filing system. The more common players were kept up front, the more highly prized players, like Mantle and Yogi Berra, were kept in the back.

The 1959 Rocky Colavito Topps card.
The front of the cards showed photographs of the players — important in an era before mass television exposure — and printed on the back were their statistics for either the previous season, or for their career to that point. That's how I learned about baseball. That's where I learned to figure batting averages, on base percentages and earned run averages. It was the only arithmetic I understood.

Thinking back on it now, those baseball cards could have been the seed germ that began my career as a sports writer.

The cards offered other sources of creativity beyond looking at the players' profiles. They had value even then. You could trade them; say, for example, five Pumpsie Greens for an Al Kaline. You could trade with total strangers at the playground and feel satisfied with a deal well consummated.

Another way to get cards was to flip for them. You and a friend would take your shoe boxes full of cards, kneel about nine or 10 feet from a wall, and alternately take turns with precise wrist snaps flipping the cards against the wall, until a flipper's card landed on top of another card in the growing pile. When that happened, it was winner take all. You'd quit when your stash of cards was running low.

The reverse side of the Rocky Colavito Topps baseball card.
It was a little riskier to buy a pack of cards and flip for them on the spot, right after purchase, but that sometimes happened, too.

Sometimes, we'd take the cards of the more common players — never a star like Mantle — and attached them against the spokes of our bicycles. This made a really neat sound like a motorcycle — or so we imagined — while giving the card a half-life of about five minutes.

A subplot to all of this was a game I was taught by a neighbor — Dice League Baseball. You'd take a pair of dice and assign baseball results to each potential role of the dice. If you rolled snake eyes (two ones), it was a home run, a three was a single, a four was a double, everything else was either a strikeout, ground out or pop out, except for an 11, which was a base on balls, if I recall. No stolen bases, no passed balls, no errors.

I used little blue composition notebooks to record these games, playing an entire 154-game season, listing each player in the batting order of all eight teams in each league. I'd keep each player's batting average, RBIs and home runs. I spent hours each day doing this. It was an awesome thing for an 8-year-old, if perhaps a little twisted, to be playing paper games and keeping stats instead of actually playing real baseball, like Little League.

But I even tried that one time. The playground had a pre-Little League youth program, where I got to wear a uniform and everything. My dad, who was a school teacher then, spent one summer as playground director and thus served as the plate umpire for the league. I often just stood at the plate, watching the pitches lob by without swinging the bat, and he would call me out on strikes. I think those strikeouts were designed to be character-building lessons that showed me that family connections weren't always keys to success. I think.

Anyway, in the fall of 1959, dad quit teaching and joined the American Red Cross. He was sent to Portsmouth, N.H., and thus began another great adventure in my life.

But it was a traumatic experience. Somewhere in the moving and packing process, those shoe boxes of baseball cards were, well, discarded. So long, Yogi. Good-bye, Mickey.

The next time I bought baseball cards, I was in my 50s, and it cost me hundreds of dollars to recapture my youth. By now, there were not enough soda bottles in the world to redeem for baseball cards.

I even remember holding one of those 50-year-old cards to my nose, hoping against hope, to see if it still had the scent of bubble gum. But all I got was a whiff of stale cardboard and a heavy dose of ancient memories.

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