Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Turn Back The Clock: 1980s Baseball Card Memories by Mark Hughson

I moved out of my mom’s house the summer before I was married. Since that time my belongings have moved with me, sometimes in large hauls, other times in small doses.  At this point, thirteen years later, nothing of mine is left there except my baseball card collection. 

It’s not that big. It only takes up the space of about three large bins, and yet, it remains at my childhood home.  Part of me feels like it belongs there.      

When I went back to my mom’s to look through my collection, it felt like little time had passed. The motion with my hands was still automatic—deck of cards in one hand, push with my left thumb, pull with my right middle finger so each card whisks by and the deck moves to my other hand. However, I didn’t just see cards and players and lines of stats. There were memories attached. I suppose that’s why the cards stay in their current location, and maybe why I’ve kept them all these years, rather than selling them for the cost of a pizza or using them as fire-starters while camping.

The collection is organized chronologically and by set, and within each set by card number. Not only does that make my essay easier to write, it speaks volumes about me as a child (and the anal retentive adult I would grow up to be). 

1980—Being only four years old at the time, I have no recollections about this year, but the 1980 Topps set did contain my white whale, Ricky Henderson’s rookie card.  By the time I was seriously collecting, it was too old and too pricey to enter my collection.  I just checked eBay to find that I could probably snag one near-mint for twenty bucks. At the height of the card craze, there was an extra zero on that twenty! 

1981—It all started with the Pete Rose card.  That guy’s head was huge! I mean, look at that noggin. My older brother told me he was the best. His hat was red. He was larger than life. Might as well have been a superhero.  These cards were a great introduction to baseball.  They seemed to comfort with simple text and primary colors, and to entice with those hats (nonspecific as they were). 

The Fleer cards by comparison looked bland, with an even more generic baseball graphic and washed out pictures. But I did have the Danny Ainge card, which is significant on several fronts. I liked Danny Ainge because he came up through the Syracuse system, which led me to liking the Blue Jays. (My first MLB game ever was at the Sky Dome.) Furthermore, about a decade later when I started watching basketball, I chose to root for the Phoenix Suns because of Ainge! Two-sport athlete! 

Best card: Pete Rose

1982—At this point I was familiarizing myself with players and teams. I still had little clue who was good, just who was cool. The card that means the most to me now is Charlie Hough. I remember my dad seeing this card and saying, “Charlie Hough? He’s a knuckleballer.  I remember him from years ago.” I didn’t realize it back then, but the idea of baseball connecting generations couldn’t be clearer now.

I really like the look of the Topps cards. Team and player names are simple but in nice coordinated colors, and I love the sports cars-eqsue “speed lines” on the side that curve down around the bottom corner. The other great thing about these cards is they had the player signature on them. 

Fleer on the other hand didn’t come off so well. Usually this brand has a bit of spice to the design, but this year they looked pedestrian in comparison to Topps. A somewhat unfocused picture of Dan Quisenberry doing stretches just about sums it up.

Coolest signature: Jim Kaat

1983—A leap forward for Topps.  Not only did they have a main “action” picture, they also had the portrait in the corner.  So if one were to say “Hmm, I wonder what Mike Scioscia looks like under that catcher’s mask?” the card would solve that mystery.

Most treasured card: Ryne Sandberg (rookie)

1984—This is around the time when I started following my favorite player, Rickey Henderson.  He had regular cards, and “Record Breaker” cards for his base-stealing prowess.  I wasn’t a huge Oakland fan yet but I did really like Henderson. Considering 90% of the cards were pictures of hitters or dudes just standing there, seeing someone on the basepaths was cool and different.

Choice card: Richie Zisk! And not only that, it’s an O-Pee-Chee card, so on the back I get to read his career highlights in French!  I’m kind of amazed at the joys these cards can bring all these years later.  Back then it was about collecting players, and then at some point it was about collecting cards that had monetary value. As I comb through these now though, there’s lots of oddball details that bring a smile to my face.  Sure it might all be built on nostalgia, but I’m ok with that.    
1985—This is the first year I remember watching the playoffs and the World Series. My Cardinals and Royals cards were given special attention. I could see the players on television, and then hold them in my hand. It was a miniscule tether, but the fact that I owned a piece of a superstar was thrilling. I remember laying them on the carpet, basically reenacting the game as I put players into position on the field, and at the plate when they hit. 

Best Decision: Topps and Fleer went with “Dennis.”  Donruss made the right choice and printed “Oil Can Boyd” on the card!

1986—It was a bland looking card back then, and it hasn’t aged well since. It looks like the work of two 10-year-olds in their “Hey, let’s design our own baseball card set” phase. They looked big and blocky. Not even Pete Rose’s huge skull could save these cards.  I’m pretty sure at some point I got the Athletics team set but the rest just passed me by.

Best Name: Mookie Wilson

1987—Ahh, ’87. The “home team” had won the World Series the previous season, my interest in baseball cards was high, and my card collection exploded. This was also the year I most likely started my subscription to Baseball Card Monthly. I wish I had saved an issue or two if only to be reminded how they managed to fill an entire magazine with baseball card articles. I do remember there being a price guide included, which was an extremely important reference when trading with friends. It was sometimes used as a checklist but more often it became a wish list.
But wow, those Topps cards with the wood paneling border! So soothing, so unique! (Note: My card collecting rarely went backwards, the cards of the 1960s were outside my realm for the most part.)  I devoured these cards. I remember a game I would play with my friend.  He’d show me the card and cover up the name and I had to say who it was. Obviously the stars were easy, but at 700+ cards, it was a great game to wrack my brains with.  I also really liked those Rookie All-Star cards with the little trophy on them.
Looking at my collection now, I’ve got twice as many 1987 cards as any other year. At some point you’d think I’d say to myself, “Hmm, I guess I have enough.”  Maybe I’m underestimating/misremembering the 11-year-old-me’s obsession with collecting these cards.

Card I had a hard time finding for some reason: Ray Knight

Funniest Name: Paul Assenmacher

Card with the smallest text on the back: Phil Niekro

1988—Topps exec: “Hey guys, remember 1986?  Let’s go with a similar attitude, but update it for the modern collector. They definitely want to see more block letters and plain banners.”  Not the best of decisions and Donruss didn’t fare any better. Even back then those Diamond Kings cards gave me a “hrrmm” feeling, but looking back now I’m just amused. I like baseball, and I like art, but the combination here looks like paint-by-number Dogs Playing Poker, except that not even ironic hipsters would want to partake.

That being said, I still have a bunch of these cards too, so either my tastes were different then, or I was too addicted to gaining cards to bother to think about how ugly they were.

Nerdiest Looking All-Star: Tom Henke

1989—I was entering my teenage years and had allowance to blow. The baseball card craze was in full effect. There were five major companies making cards (Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Score, and Upper Deck). Put this together with the fact that Topps had a cool design once again and it was the perfect storm for me acquiring a ton of cards (Note to self: Weigh collection some time.) I’m pretty sure I completed this set, and even got the Topps Traded bonus set, with Rickey Henderson in the A’s uniform.  The Bash Brothers were hot, and I liked Eck, Dave Stewart, and Bob Welch.  Throw in Carney Lansford, Walt Weiss, and veteran Dave Parker and I began to really root for this team. Henderson’s amazing performance during the playoffs pretty much cemented my love for the Athletics. When they won it all I was on top of the world. 

Best card to play “Caption This Photo” with: Braves Leaders

Having a favorite player or team is a natural part of being a sports fan, but during the late 80s and early 90s baseball card boom, it was a great way to focus one’s efforts.  Sure those Stadium Club cards looked cool, but I didn’t really need them all (especially at the price they were asking).  I only needed Henderson.  Then of course there were cards and sets that I didn’t want at all: Sportflicks, Bowman cards, Kay Bee Toys All-Stars, minis, stickers, and whatever else could be found in random pharmacies across the state. It all could be skipped over, as long as I could scrounge Henderson from the card shop or one of my friends.  Eventually the bubble was so big I couldn’t even grab every Henderson card, but I was happy while on the chase.

A few years went by and my interest faded in the cards.  They started to look better (and today, with my punk rock standards fully embedded in my psyche, I’d say they look too good) and got more expensive.  By 1994 I was in college, out of the baseball card game, and literally have not looked back until now.  It’s crazy to think that all the players that I loved and collected as a kid are now retired.  I’m sure I could get online and look up all their stats (some of which could be presented in weird, Sabermetric ways that were never near a baseball card during my era) but I’d rather look at the old cards.  Having spent some time with them recently, it’s like looking at a scrapbook.  Worthless to anyone else, but to me, the value is incalculable.

Player that for some reason I always got multiple copies of, infuriating me to no end: Rob Deer

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