The 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ time machine

Next spring will mark – God help me – fifty years since I bought my first pack of baseball cards. I was winding down fourth grade at the time; by then, I had already been walking the three blocks each way after school from St. Therese to Allie’s Grocery in Schofield for a couple of years. It was a different world back then, of course – one where a kid in second grade could make such a walk unsupervised without anybody giving it a second thought; such was life in the small town back in the sixties. I did not make the trip often – maybe three or four times a year; things had to line up properly for it to happen. I had to be assigned to the late bus in order to have enough time for the run (there was an early and a late route; at various points in the year your route would go from early to late, or vice-versa); the weather had to cooperate, of course, and – perhaps the hardest part – I had to talk Dad out of a nickel. Yeah, a nickel; even in those days – when a dollar would get you what takes over seven bucks now – that was not a lot of money…but, at the same time, we did not have a lot of money, and that nickel was nothing short of precious. And up until that spring day in 1966, it would go toward a candy bar…a rare treat for me.

And then, one day, I saw the red wax-paper pack under the glass, and it piqued my curiosity…and just like that, I had acquired a new hobby. Dad was not thrilled, to put it mildly; I was informed in no uncertain terms on numerous occasions that baseball cards were a waste of money. That I would have something to show for my nickel the next day besides an empty candy wrapper was lost on him; I now find it a bit ironic that a guy who preached the value of saving would prefer that his son should take the instant and fleeting gratification of a Hershey bar over the pursuit of a hobby. There was no chance whatsoever of me completing the set, of course; four visits to Allie’s, six cards for a nickel each time…hardly a drop in the bucket. But then, one day that summer, my neighbor Harlan brought over a stack of cards that he did not need for his collection (as they were duplicates) and my collection suddenly tripled in size – and I felt like the richest kid in the world, even though I realized even then that there was not so much as a dream of completing the set…or of even acquiring a significant fraction.

I bring all of this up thanks to a prize I won in a drawing a month or so ago – a sampling of ten sports cards from Larry Fritsch Cards, just for liking a Facebook post. Among the cards, one especially caught my eye.

I first heard of the Topps Heritage sets several years ago; the sets consist of current players being represented on a Topps card design from a season long gone. I did not give it much thought up until the Yadier Molina card showed up in my prize package – and I realized that this year’s set was based on the 1966 design. Yeah, 1966…the set that I had no hope of filling back in fourth grade. I looked at the Molina card closely, front and back. There were a few extremely subtle differences – the omnipresent-in-this-day-and-age ® symbol appearing front-and-back next to the team name, a small white band at the bottom of the back side of the card carrying the fine-print legal disclaimers, a barely-noticeable “Topps Heritage” watermark in one corner of the picture, and the designation of the team as the “Cardinals” rather than the “Cards” as was done in 1966 (which, I am sure, had to do with the ® thing). But those were minor annoyances to me within the Grand Scheme of Things. That one card triggered something in me that I had not felt in years.

I really had not pursued a baseball card set in over twenty years, for many reasons. There was a noticeable change in the basic Topps set in 1994; the cards that year were printed on a high-gloss stock for the first time, and the price per card at the retail level shot up accordingly. As somebody who proudly built his sets from scratch, the price of putting a complete set together became almost as prohibitive to me at that point as it had been for that nine-year-old kid. Beyond that, baseball cards had turned into a commodity in several ways – which was not what I was about at all.

But now there was this. And I knew what I had to do. The order went out this past weekend, and I picked it up on Tuesday. And I was not disappointed. True, there were a handful of things I wish they would have done a bit differently within the set. The dedicated checklist cards were gone; the team portrait cards now featured a lot of high-fiving instead of the traditional team pose (and the backs now served as surrogate series checklists); the “rookie stars” cards now featured a lot more mixing of teams, producing a slightly different look with both team ID bands on the front of the card. And there is the tiny – but despised, at least by me – “RC” logo in the bottom of the corner of some cards, officially designating a “rookie card”. But, again, these are all things I can live with; overall, this set is phenomenally true to the 1966 set in look and in feel, both in a physical and an aesthetic sense.

There is one thing, though, that – as a collector rather than an “investor”/speculator – really did get my dander up. Topps short-printed about a hundred cards altogether; the sets that I bought did not include these cards, as the price would go through the roof were they included. As it is, I now have the base set and the basic high-number set, with the gaps to be filled in the future, most likely on a piecemeal basis.

But I knew that going in – and it did not stop me. You see, everything in life has its price.

Including magic.

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