The glory days of card collecting

Remember when collecting baseball cards meant something? And by “something” I mean anything but money. Cards were collected for no reason at all except because you wanted to—which, of course, is the best reason of all.

I hadn’t looked at or even thought of my old card collection in years, until recently that is. I began collecting as a 6-year-old in 1981. My first pack had a Neil Allen card in it. (No, I don’t know why I remember that.) But I stopped around 1990. It was a gradual decline by the end. Glancing at them brought back both memories of childhood and questions of why I stopped.

Well, I kinda knew why I stopped: it ceased to be fun anymore for me. In fact, even when I looked through the cards, though it brought back pleasant reminisces, there was a distance between me and those thoughts. I certainly had no interest to get back into collecting. That’s weird because I really did enjoy collecting them, too.

As a kid, I remember comparing my baseball cards to those of White Sox Fan Brother. There was a marked difference. He kept his in immaculate condition. I would open his plastic sports collectible box (not a book with the laminated pages—those were in the future) and see all the cards perfectly crisp with corners in mint condition.

Then I’d look at my cards. They were all worn out, beat up, and chewed up (in a few case literally chewed up—oh shut up, I was six years old). I remember telling myself I should try to take superb care of them like White Sox Fan Brother did, but it never stuck.

There was a reason it never stuck. While I might appreciate the result of how my brother kept his card (namely, they were in great shape), I didn’t understand the process. To keep cards like that you had to just put them away and keep them away.

What was the point of that? I wanted to goof around with my cards. I don’t remember what I did with them exactly, but when you’re a small kid you can figure out a way to play with just about anything.

But people who collected cards but didn’t goof with them? Man, what weirdos. Boring weirdos. (Pause for a moment so anyone and everyone who knows me can contemplate the magnificent irony of the kid who spent his time looking at baseball stats complaining that others were boring weirdos.)

I do remember one way I would goof with (and ruin) my baseball cards: build card houses. There was no point to it, but it was fun. I don’t know why, but it was fun. My favorite card-collecting related memory from childhood involves making card houses.

One day in the summer of 1985, myself, my friend Jeff, White Sox Fan Brother and his friend Tom (mostly Tom and I) spent far too much time building The Card House That Ate the Living Room. We used baseball, basketball, football cards. This was one occasion when even my brother’s cards came into play. We may have even used some of Jeff’s cards. There were a lot, as you can see below:

In front of the couch

The side of the couch

Behind of the couch (this was destroyed to take the first photo).

Many hours to put together. God only know how many weeks to sort the cards afterward. But only a couple seconds to destroy. And worth every blessed moment.

But stuff like that doesn’t keep cards in the best of shape. Instead, it hinders their value. Since the whole fun of cards was using them, in my own weird way, not being able to use them took the fun out. Putting cards in plastic sheets and having fun are two diametrically opposed things.

There’s an obvious direction into which this column is headed. Namely, that collecting was fun when it was done purely for the joy and experience of it, but then the money—that great evil—came in and corrupted it all. Call it the Avery Brundage approach to collecting cards. Perhaps I could conclude the column by scanning my 1982 Topps Trading Series Cal Ripken Jr. card, then utterly defile it and scan it again, just to make the point of how money ruined everything in card collecting.

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But what am I, stupid?

More importantly, the Brundage approach doesn’t really hold true. Hell, my favorite period for collecting cards came after I found out that they had some value and started attending card shows.

Personal interest and money made an intoxicating mix for a while there. (I suppose it’s the degenerate gambler in me.) I began going to card shows in the mid-1980s (a little before the Card House That Ate the Living Room was made). That was a lot of fun because I could see and occasionally buy cards I otherwise wouldn’t get a chance at. Heck, no one I knew had cards older than 1979 Topps. At these places, you could buy packs of cards from the 1970s.

I still remember buying a half-dozen packs of cards—still in the original wrapper—from 1979. This would’ve been around, oh, 1985. (Why the Topps cards were still in their wrappers, I have no idea, but I wasn’t complaining.) I bought them just for one reason: the gum. Usually that slip of gum was frankly rather sub-standard. Thus I couldn’t wait to see what a half-dozen pieces of half-decade old gum looked like.

The ancient gum didn’t disappoint. There was so much white dust on it you could hardly see the pink of the gum. Naturally, I had to chew it all at once. When was I ever going to get a chance to eat gum from the 1970s again? It was awesome. Well, yeah, it tasted terrible and all that, but it was just so weird: I was chewing on something old enough to be in first grade. That purchase was well worth it. I loved chewing that disgusting stuff.

Yeah, I was a weird kid. (Weren’t you?)

Those early card shows were also how I became aware that you could collect entire sets of cards. Sure, I’d always seen the number on the back of cards, and noticed the checklists, but that never meant anything to me. I never had nearly enough cards to think about getting a set, until the conventions.

I still remember trying to get the 1986 set. I went for it pack by bloody pack, and it took virtually the entire baseball season to pull it off. By inching my way there I became more attuned to the cards in that set than was healthy for anyone to be. To this day I can tell you that Alvin Davis was card #440. (Checks.) Hey, I’m right—a fact that both delights and mortifies me.

Things started to change in 1987. That was the year Topps began selling baseball cards in January, instead of waiting for the season to begin. That was awesome, but something unexpected happened. My friend Jeff did something that had never even occurred to me before: he bought the entire set in one swoop at the year’s first convention. BOOM! There was still snow on the ground and he was done.

I tried to get the set the old-fashioned way that year, but with a sense of embarrassment. Why was I spending so much time on it if it could be done so quickly? I felt like a kid with a box of eight crayons when the kid down the way had the 64 box (plus crayon sharpener). After that, I just bought the sets the first chance I had in 1988 and 1989. I put them in cases right away and to this day have no idea what they look like.

OK, so collecting sets was no longer fun, but cards themselves were still fun. I had plenty of older ones to goof with. Besides, seeing the older cards at the shows was still cool, even if it was rarely possible to purchase them.

By the late 1980s, the fun was ebbing from collecting cards. Part of that was just getting older. I was 10 years old (or so) when I attended my first convention. That’s a good card collecting age. Obviously I wasn’t going to stay that age forever.

The fun was declining, but hadn’t fully faded out. I stored the cards I thought were valuable, but kept a bunch of junk cards around for purposes of goofing with (though I was dong that less and less often as I got older). So what was it that caused card collecting to lose its fun?

Like most of the 20th century’s crimes against humanity, the blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of the Upper Deck Company. Their cards were so regal and pristine, you didn’t dare have fun with them. Their cards were so regal it felt like they should be receiving diplomatic briefings.

They were so immaculate you felt like you should spruce the place up before going out and getting a pack. You wanted to say to them, “Oh hey, pack of cards. You guys can stay here. I’ll go sleep in the guest room.”

After Upper Deck, all the card companies had to snazzy up their brands. The point of cards had already been transforming from enjoying to storing them. The purpose of cards had always been to enjoy them, and now that seemed as profane as holding a farting contest in a cathedral. Screw that. I was done with cards.

About 10 years ago I thought I’d get back into the card collecting game. Forget the money, just do it for the fun. I realized I had a better idea what team rosters were like in the mid-1980s, the heyday of my card collecting craze, than at any other point in my life.

So I went in the store and asked for a pack of Topps. “Which kind?” I was asked. “The main series” I responded. I knew I was in trouble when the kid behind the counter looked bewildered by that question. He hesitatingly asked if I wanted Series Whatever-the-heck-it-was and I accepted. Half the guys in my pack were stars, something impossible in the old days. But the old days of a 792-cards series are done, though. The cards are worth so much, it just doesn’t pay to make them from scrubs.

A certain irony exists in what happened in the late 1980s. My friends and I put our series in books, thinking they would be worth a lot someday. However, since everyone did that, none of those series we collected are worth anything. I didn’t have any fun collecting the 1988 and 1989 Topps sets, and it turns out they have no value either.

As an added bonus: the cards I put off to the side to build card houses with or whatever are the ones that are worth something. They were oddball series like Famous Feats and Baseball Immortals. Never heard of them, so I assumed they weren’t worth anything. They have value because people like me didn’t bother putting them in books. Mine would have value, except they’re all in terrible shape. I’m not at all upset. I love the beautiful irony of it.

Anyhow, the reason I was looking at the cards was to see which ones I wanted to keep and which I wanted to give to White Sox Fan Brother. A crime against my childhood? Hardly. I haven’t looked at them in a decade, and most ain’t worth much. My days of card house construction are done. And I never did get the point of keeping cards just for the sake of storing them. Like I said up top, while I enjoyed the memories that came back, I felt a distance from them.

Most of the ones I kept were the valuable ones. Plus I wanted ones of future managers. (I got a 1982 Expos Future Stars featuring Terry Francona.) A select few, however, I kept just because they seemed like fun cards. For example this one:


Ghastly, isn’t it? Print that up, blow it up to life size, stick it on your door and scare the trick-or-treaters away come Halloween.

Ross Grimsley had a reputation as someone who would let his personal hygiene go when he was on a winning streak. He must’ve been bucking for Carl Hubbell‘s record when this photo was taken. It looks like you could contract the 1970s strand of swine flu from standing too close to him. I know it’s a 1981 card, but he looks like he hasn’t showered since 1973.

In ancient times, they said the gaze of Medusa could turn men into stone. Back in the day, making eye contract with Ross Grimsley could cause cases of smallpox.

That’s a fun card, but there’s not many like that. Looking a little closer at Grimsley, that’s not entirely a bad thing.

Card collecting: it was fun while it lasted, but it’s done.

References & Resources
My brother’s friend Tom took the card house photos. That’s a photo of White Sox Fan Brother on the shelving unit on the right on the far side of the room. (Not to be confused with a photo of my great-grandfather also on that shelving unit.)

That should be White Sox Fan Brother’s foot on the right side of the foreground. It can’t be mine, as it involves wearing shoes. And socks. Indoors. I just don’t understand some people.

In a column I wrote late last year I tallied the articles for pretty much everyone here at THT. Based on that, this was my 99th column. Looking backwards, I miscounted then, though. I thought I wrote 40 last year when I actually wrote 41, hence this is #100. Unless I miscounted again somehow.

To the three people who might care: I wanted to fit in the story of the time I accidently bought 100 Steve Carltons, but it just didn’t fit in without being excessively awkward.

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That Grimsley card really is something. Are you familiar with the 78 as well: