Today is National Baseball Card Day. I figured it was a great day to re-publish this story. This was originally published on my personal blog (www.drpaulsem.com) and it is found in my book of essays titled Impossible is an Illusion.
A few weeks ago, I took out my old set of 1977 Topps baseball cards because I wanted to find a card to use for a blog post. I enjoy creating unique visuals to use on my blog (www.drpaulsem.com).
This particular card was of Thurman Munson, the Yankees All-Star catcher.
When reminiscing about those late 1970s Yankees teams, the ones that helped me fall in love with baseball, my mind often turns to Munson. Thurman was the Yankees Captain and his grit and determination helped define the team. He was the leader on the squads that won the World Series in 1977 and 1978.
When you are young, days can seem like lifetimes. In a way, every day is forever…
(One reason life passes so quickly when we mature is that we are often looking to the responsibilities of tomorrow. As adults, we have lost the fascination with our todays.)
The lifetimes of my childhood revolved around the Yankees. Thurman Munson, by definition, was a large part of my life. And Thurman Munson’s tragic death on August 2, 1979, was an event that, in some way, signaled the beginning of the end of my childhood.
I was eleven years old when Thurman’s plane crashed.
Before Thurman Munson died, there was a certain invincibility of baseball players in my mind. Sure, I knew that Babe Ruth was dead. And Lou Gehrig. Ty Cobb. Players like that. But they were from long ago. The players I was watching, my heroes… they couldn’t die.
I had a poster of Thurman Munson hanging in my bedroom. It was one of those old Sports Illustrated posters, with Thurman’s name across the top and a large photo of him just after he smashed a line drive (presumably for a base hit). This was the first baseball poster I ever owned. Posters of Sparky Lyle, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, and Reggie Jackson would follow, but ol’ Thurm was the first.
I still have that poster, carefully rolled up and stored in a box in my attic.
If I were a bachelor, it would probably be hanging in my living room.
But Thurman did die. I think, somehow, knowing that Thurman Munson was dead made me begin to realize that big league baseball players weren’t super heroes. It made me realize that other people in my life could die, and sure enough, they did. My grandfather died a little over a month later.
I think once one realizes that death is part of life, the innocence that is at the core of childhood begins to erode. When a kid’s heroes and loved ones pass, they start to consider their own mortality and begin to wonder about their own place in the world – even if they are only eleven years old.
Still, children are resilient. I didn’t grow-up over night. The change wasn’t that dramatic. (My parents would say that it took me a long time to grow up.)
I wasn’t necessarily thinking all of this as I held that Thurman Munson card in my hand. My main thought was originally, “I need to put this card away, back in the plastic sleeve with the rest of my 1977 set.”
I don’t look at my old baseball cards very often. For the most part, they just sit on a shelf in a binder. Except for when I took that card out, I probably hadn’t looked at any of those cards in more than a decade – or longer.
But then, there I was, flipping through the plastic pages that contained my 1977 Topps collection.
As I looked for the page to put Thurman back in place, I lingered on a few cards that I passed.
Johnny Bench caught my eye. The Graig Nettles home run leader card too. I loved Thurman, of course, but Graig Nettles was my favorite player. I noticed Steve Carlton and Rico Petrocelli. My dad always loved Rico Petrocelli. I saw Lou Piniella, Fred Stanley, and Glenn Borgmann.
Glenn Borgmann was the first Major League baseball player I ever met. He gave a talk at my father’s school, and my dad took me to see him. I remember Borgmann teaching all the kids how to properly hold a baseball in order to throw it straight. I also remember getting his autograph. Yes, I still have it.
As I flipped the pages, other names passed – Rudy May, Greg Luzinski, John Stearns, Rod Carew, Al Oliver, Mike Schmidt, Tom Seaver, and John Milner. I remembered an old New York Daily News cartoon of John Milner batting with a hammer rather than a bat.
The players I lingered on weren’t all superstars, but each had a story to tell.
And then, knowing I didn’t have the complete set, I began to notice the gaps in a few of the sleeves – the empty places where cards didn’t lie. There were only four open spots. I was four cards away from completing the set – a task I started in 1977 and obviously never quite finished.
I wondered which cards I was missing so I looked them up:
#285 – Brooks Robinson
#434 – Turn Back the Clock – Carl Yastrzemski
As a child, I wasn’t always the best student. I didn’t always put much effort into my school work, but early on I resolved to learn how to spell Yastrzemski. There is some research that says that when kids are forced to memorize things, they don’t remember them. These experts say that memorization doesn’t lead to long-term memory. I don’t believe it. I have never forgotten how to spell Yaz’s name.
#480 – Carl Yastrzemski (now wait a minute…)
#640 – Carlton Fisk
An astute baseball fan might notice something peculiar about that short list above. Three of the four cards feature Red Sox players.
I was a Yankees fan. The Red Sox were our arch rivals. Yaz and Fisk were two of the Red Sox’s greatest players. The reader, right now, might be jumping to the wrong conclusion. It does seem awful suspicious that most of the cards I was missing were of Red Sox stars.
I looked up the cards on eBay, and seeing their likenesses realized that at one point, a long time ago, I had owned all four of those cards. I knew if I looked hard enough in my boxes of old cards in the attic, that I actually might be able to find the cards. I had a hunch where they might be.
This might sound strange, but the fact that they were not with my collection in these sheets, made me proud of my ten-year old self.
There is one part of this story that I haven’t shared. My father is a Red Sox fan. A die-hard Red Sox fan. Even today, he can rattle off the Red Sox line-ups from the 1940s and 1950s. And, of course, my dad loves Ted Williams. Theodore Samuel Williams. The Splendid Splinter. Teddy Ballgame.
I realized that most of the cards I was missing, the Red Sox at least, were ones that I had given, as a kid, to my father. Those cards became part of his collection. In my eyes, Carl Yastrzemski was the closest player I ever saw to Ted Williams. They were both Red Sox. They both played left field. They both batted left-handed. They were both superstars. In fact, in a way that only a kid’s brain works, I may have thought, at least for a time, that they were the same person.
Realizing that my set was incomplete without those four cards, I resolved to purchase them. eBay can be a wonderful thing. A few “Buy It Now’s” later and four cards from my childhood were instantly on their way to my home.
I didn’t order cards that were in mint or even excellent condition. In fact, I got the cheapest ones I could find. After all, these cards would be joining the ones I played with as a child. There isn’t a mint card in the set. Each has flaws – small bends, rounded corners, maybe a frayed edge. Each of those cards was touched probably hundreds, if not thousands, of times. They were laid out on imaginary diamonds and stacked in fictional batting orders. They were part of original games I invented as a child. I read those cards time and again and studied the statistics. Adding mint cards to this collection would just be wrong.
One of the two Carl Yastrzemski cards I ordered was marked down because it had some writing on the reverse side. I thought that made the card perfect when I ordered it. It’ll fit right in with my collection.
There is something about items that are loved, and worn, that make them special.
There is also something about items, like baseball cards, that can instantly bring us back to the past – and that can be a wonderful thing. Through my baseball cards, I was able to remember parts of my childhood – the players and the real-life people who were my heroes. I also got to see my ten-year-old self again and be a little bit proud of who I was.
I was able to purchase all four of the cards, four Hall-of-Famers no less, for less than eight dollars in total. That seemed to be a bargain for cards that are almost 40 years old.
One might say that those old cards have very little value.
I’d have to disagree.