Brooks, Yaz, and Carlton Fisk

A few weeks ago, I took out my old set of 1977 Topps baseball cards.  I wanted to find a card to use for a photograph for a blog post.  I have been having fun creating unique pictures to use with this blog.

This afternoon, I finally got around to putting the card I had picked back into the plastic sheet where it had been housed for many years.

The baseball card I had chosen for the photograph, and was holding, was a card of Thurman Munson.  Thurman was, of course, the Yankees All-Star catcher.

When reminiscing about those late 1970’s Yankees teams, the ones that helped me fall in love with baseball, my mind often turns to Munson.  Thurman was the Yankees Captain.  His grit and determination helped define the team.  He was the leader on those squads – teams that won the World Series in 1977 and 1978.

When you’re little, days can seem like lifetimes.  In a way, every day was 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 hit 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, rolled up 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 one’s heroes and loved ones pass, they start to begin 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 just 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 these thoughts as I held that Thurman Munson card in my hand this afternoon.  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 a few weeks ago, 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 housed my 1977 Topps collection.  I started to reminisce.  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, I believe 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 a good amount of research that says that when kids are forced to memorize things, they don’t remember them.  They say that memorization doesn’t lead to long-term memory.  That might be true, but 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 realized, after seeing them, that, at one point, a long time ago, I had owned all four of those cards.  I knew, if I looked hard enough in boxes of old cards, that I might be able to find the Red Sox players.  This might sound strange; 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 hadn’t shared.  My father is a Red Sox fan.  A die-hard Red Sox fan.  Even today, my father can rattle off the Red Sox line-ups from the 1940’s and 1950’s.  And, of course, my dad still loves Ted Williams.  Theodore Samuel Williams.  The Splendid Splinter.  Teddy Ballgame.

I realized as I noticed the gaps in my collection 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.  They became part of his collection.  To me, Carl Yastrzemski was the closest player I ever saw to Ted Williams.  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 get them.  eBay can be a wonderful thing.  A few “Buy It Now’s” later and four cards from my childhood should be arriving in the mail within the week.

I didn’t order cards 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 were 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.

The Carl Yastrzemski card 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 makes 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 and I got to see my ten year old self again and be a little bit proud for who I might have been.

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.

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