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.
For 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.
The Holy Grail of baseball cards back then wasn’t the T-206 Honus Wagner or even a Babe Ruth; those cards were from the pre-war era, weren’t catalogued by Beckett and therefore didn’t exist. Instead, the ultimate prize was the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.
There’s a glow of fifties nostalgia imbued into that photograph, with the light dancing on the young man’s cheeks, the cloudless sky, and his eyes lifted skyward like a senior photograph. Nowadays, of course, one can glimpse at the face of any baseball card in existence with a browser and a few short keystrokes, but in those days it was often a rumor, or at best a cloudy reproduction on newsprint. While we kids haggled over our Cansecos and Ruben Sierras, the adults had cards of the legends of yesterday. We could only hope to gain access to that past age one day.
The hobby died, and the torch never passed. A Barry Bonds rookie card is still not worth the cost of shipping, and those rare old cards disappeared, or sat under glass display cases, the old prices yellowing but constant. I found a few cards here and there, a Hank Aaron or a Joe Nuxhall, but nothing much. But I do own one Mickey Mantle.
This entity tests the boundaries of what it is to be called a baseball card. Undersized, printed on flimsy card stock hardly thicker than paper, featuring a grainy black-and-white photograph, it looks more like a hand-made photocopy than a card. It dates from 1969, Mantle’s final year, and portrays the slugger, balky knee raised, about to roll one over to second.
But it is a real card, barely. It was made by a company named Globe Imports, who sold them for some unimaginably scant sum in gas stations in the rural south. Mantle’s card was removed early on in production, making it somewhat of a rarity, in the sense that Carson’s NotGraphs painting is also a rarity. Even so, on the barest of technical grounds, I own a Mickey Mantle baseball card. The eight year-old version of myself with his Mark Grace cards would have been impressed.
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