Archive for A History of Dumb Baseball Cards

Let’s Open a Bag of Baseball Cards Amid Our Tears

We all have our reasons for mourning the inevitable heat death of NotGraphs. Not the least of these (for the present author) is the opportunity it affords to buy random bags of baseball cards in thrift stores, write third-rate witticisms about them, and somehow be reimbursed in some twisted, neo-Bolshevik parody of capitalism. One could make the case that this, not the newspaper, is the real tragedy of the modern media revolution. But we must continue on. Join me. There will be time to mourn when the work is done.


One of Ken’s favorite activities, according to his 1990 Topps card, is bicycle riding. I can imagine this. I can imagine Ken on a windless day, his face utterly placid, bicycling impossibly slowly into an empty horizon.

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Little Giants


The year was 1991, and Americans needed more sports cards. They’d ripped open all the Upper Deck foil they could find, pressed down on the translucent plastic of the Score packaging to read the faint name of the bottom card of each pack. They filled three-ring binders with Jeff George’s mustache and Dikembe Mutombo’s teeth, and even attempted to figure out what a Pavel Bure was.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Impatient to sell the next big rookie card, companies followed the concept to its natural limit and invented the pre-rookie. They released thousand-card sets full of players no one had ever heard of. The process had been distilled to the point where a collector need only buy a pack of unrecognizable players, put them in the closet, and wait. It’s no small irony that an increasingly cynical hobby turned to youth for its speculation.

In truth, there have always been minor league cards. These were generally confined to the merchandise booths of the local team stadium or the local gas station, a stack of grainy photographs sold as team sets. They were little more than a glorified program that kids could play with after they got sick of the game four innings in. It was one such set I found a while back, in an old familiar thrift store baggy, memorializing the nearby 1991 Everett Giants.

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Let’s Open a Pack of Baseball Cards In Our Gnome Pajamas

Assuming, as our market research suggests, that you are a card-carrying member of the bourgeois, you most likely spent at least some of your time during the holiday season tasting the fruits of capitalism. The pinnacle of such a lifestyle is that faint glint of reflection that arises as you surround yourself with your new physical possessions, struggling to appreciate how much happier they make you in the few moments before you adapt to your new standard of living. Eggnog is optional during this process, but pleasant.

As a member of the faux riche, I too am not immune; even as age and responsibility have replaced shiny, unassembled toys with gift cards and unsolicited career advice. So it was fortunate that my dear, sweet mother, in the process of unironically buying me white socks at the local Target, made the impulse purchase of one of those blister packs of old baseball cards near the registers. As sort of a belated Boxing Day, it’s my turn to re-gift my own new-found wealth to you, in the form of vaguely diverting content. Think of it as the trickle-down economics of Christmas.


On the back of Steve’s card, an anonymous source at Topps added the following factoid: “Logged his 1st big league Stolen Base: 9-12-85.” What this person could not have known, though he could perhaps have guessed, is that despite eight more years in the majors, it would also be his last.

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How Your Baseball Card Investment Is Doing

The date: the November 14, 1989.
The place: your idyllic childhood neighborhood, teeming with family owned drug stores, people who say hello to each other on the sidewalk, and Richard Marx cassettes.
The scene: you, begging your parents for a couple of bucks to go to the baseball card store. “They’re not toys,” you cry in a reedy voice that betrays a luckless adolescence. “Baseball cards are an investment.” You show them your Beckett Baseball Card magazine, revealing a series of numbers with arrow signs pointing up.

The date: November 14, 2013.
The place: a Value Village. People still talk to strangers, except now they kind of mumble things and smell slightly off. Richard Marx cassettes still present.
The scene: Your partner is looking at baby clothes that said baby has, in the time it takes the human brain to process visual information, already outgrown. And as you’re glancing through bright, plastic, potentially deadly toys, you find this:


Your baseball card portfolio has been underperforming.

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A Piece of Trivia Only I Find Tragic

For children of the eighties, it was the glint of hope amidst the mud of the gold pan: the blue, angled text of the Rated Rookie.


It’s easy, with our hindsight and our endless, self-perpetuating cynicism, to recognize the Rated Rookie as an early intrusion of branding into our idyllic childhoods. We were taught to salivate at the first sight of #53B6D6, and salivate we did, despite the fact that the inaugural crop of Rated Rookies included such luminaries as Mike Stenhouse and Doug Frobel, while omitting guys like Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, and Pete O’Brien. It didn’t matter. The Rated Rookie was a mark of distinction, an epaulette that denoted membership in an elite circle. It whispered a secret promise, sometimes false, always interesting.

And Billy Beane was not among the chosen.

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The Saddest Greatest Baseball Card I Own

I’ve collected baseball cards since I was a kid. When I use the word “collect,” I really mean that I don’t throw away the ones I have. I’m not the sort of person who can justify a heavy investment in luxury items like baseball cards, lottery tickets, bottled beer, or plus-rated gasoline.

yazFor someone who grew up at the rise of the junk wax era, my collection is and was pretty decent. When one of my father’s co-workers gave me a crumbling December 1987 Beckett Magazine, I sorted through my card and found that I owned the rookie card of a guy named Tony Gwynn. I took it to church to show my friends, and lost it. Later, I traded a ton of cards for a 1963 Carl Yastrzemski, which I always found difficult to look at because of the patch of sunlight on the tip of his nose, and which made him look like an elf. The card was worth $75 at the time. I took it to a card show, and had it stolen. Later on, in 1992, I pulled some fancy insert rookie card of Shaquille O’Neal, and it, too, was stolen. That one is hard to feel upset about now, given that it’s probably worth 20 cents. Still, I was a pretty stupid kid.

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We Are Dwarves Among Giants

Sometimes it might feel like we are mere dwarves among the giants that play this game. And, if you’re standing next to Jon Rauch or Giancarlo Stanton, you’re probably right. But, sometimes the players themselves are rendered tiny by this beautiful game.


Thanks to Joe Frisario for the big bat pictures.

Let’s Get Depressed by a Box of Baseball Cards

This weekend, in what has become a self-compensatory tradition, I went to my local sports cards merchandiser and purchased a large box of baseball cards. Sadly, I learned that this particular box contained special types of baseball cards called “football cards” and “basketball cards”, some bearing titles like “Beam Team” and “X-Cite” and “Sky Pilots”. Needless to say, I gave these cards the attention they deserved, stacking them neatly on the curb outside a Seven-Eleven while waiting at a red light.

Reaching home, I took a seat on the couch, threw on the soundtrack to the 1980s version of Metropolis, and prepared myself for a healthy dose of Opening Day nostalgia. Instead, my cards slapped me in the face with the force of a hundred Bob Hamelins. Among my prize were such Debbie Downers as these:

ft ft2

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The Error Card: A People’s History

“Top-left corner, second pack from the bottom,” my friend told me. He didn’t remember where he had heard it from, or why it worked. All we knew is that he was the proud owner of the Holy Grail of baseball cards: the 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken error card, the one with the expletive bared on the bottom of the bat for all the world to see. It was the ultimate taboo, a premature interruption of adulthood into our adolescence.


Of course, there were plenty of Holy Grails in that era of baseball cards, enough to occupy our feeble attention spans. There were the Gregg Jefferies rookie cards, the Dale Murphy reverse negative, and later, Ken Griffey, Jr. We looked at the numbers next to the names in our Beckett Baseball Card Magazines and dreamed our stock market dreams, anticipating the envy of a new generation the way we envied the adults whose collections hadn’t been thrown out.

It didn’t happen, of course. We became adults, and the forbidden terminology of Bill Ripken’s bat became just another everyday word in the lexicon. Meanwhile, a generation of parents, chagrined by the tales of zealous mothers past, saved those baseball cards in pristine condition, and the supply outpaced the demand of a dwindling base of collectors. Given the wide production of the late 80s baseball card sets, it isn’t a stretch to claim that there’s a Bill Ripken error card out there for everyone who wants one. They currently go for a couple of bucks on eBay.

This didn’t kill the collector’s spirit, however: the search for errors and variations has long lived in the human heart, and is not limited to the baseball card. Witness the 1955 Philadelphia Double Die, or the Inverted Jenny. The search just goes deeper, now.

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