Last Sunday I spotted a box of 1976 Topps cards at a garage sale on the way to the farmer’s market. I tried to walk past them but couldn’t. My wife and ten month-old son would have to wait a few moments while I hunted for a steal.
Dick Pole and Pete LaCock! Say it three times fast!
Admittedly, they are among the set’s most valuable cards but it wasn’t just resale value I was after.
My relationship with baseball cards is a complicated one. I was 6 when the 1976 Topps set came out but didn’t start collecting cards seriously until 1980 after the Phillies won the World Series. I never thought of it as a hobby so much as a way of life. I played baseball; I collected cards. It was only natural.
The joy of opening a fresh pack of cards was an obsession. I almost always chewed the stale, pink gum, which left at least one card stained in each wax pack. I distinctly remember digging pennies out of the floor boards and couches to reach the 15 cents I needed to buy a new pack at the corner store. Often I would go back three and four times, sometimes with the change I taxed from the pockets of any pants I found hanging on the chair in my parents’ bedroom. Picking out the Phillies and favorite stars while gagging on huge wads of gum was my favorite occupation.
When my father re-married I was 13 and I merged my collection with my new step-brother’s cards in a gesture of bonding. We grew the collection together over the next decade, asking for sets as birthday and holiday gifts. In the 70s Topps was the only set you had to have but then came Fleer with the newly crowned Phillies leading off the set. Donruss appeared next, then Score and Upper Deck and soon it seemed there were more sets than players. I spent what little pocket money I had on them. We collected nearly every major set from 1978 onwards. This went on until we both reached college in the early 90s.
College changed everything. Wanting so much to be an adult, I set aside childish things like baseball cards. But when a dispute arose during my junior year about who was going to own the massive baseball card collection going forward, I reacted emotionally to ominous suggestions that I no longer held any sway over them. So I took matters into my own hands and simply took my share of the cards.
It was as if I set off a bomb in the house.
My father threatened to have me arrested, forgetting in his rage that you can’t steal something if you already own it. I only took what I was sure I deserved but it inflicted a wound in my family that never fully healed.
Just after I graduated college, as I was making plans to spend a year abroad, I realized I needed to return the cards to my dad’s house. I never felt good about what I had done, regardless of what was fair or not. I may have saved my cards and defended my rights but I didn’t feel at peace with it. It was bad form on my part. Fences needed mending. Besides, I just knew the cards weren’t safe at my mom’s house, where my ten year-old brother was raiding closets and destroying everything he touched. So I called my dad and returned every last one of the cards, including some more I had collected in the meantime.
That’s where the cards remain to this day, including most of the 1976 set.
My wife huffed with impatience and took my son to the market while I lingered with the cards, lost in time. There are many wonderful cards from this set, but the two I coveted most as I thumbed through them were yet to be found.
The Rose card is iconic for the era. He was my brother Pete’s favorite player and when the Phillies signed him we shouted and danced for joy. Like my brother, my favorite player shared my first name: Mike Schmidt. To have Pete and Mike starring together on the Phillies was almost too good to be true.
Once at a card show I met Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt signing autographs together. That same day I bought the 1976 Rose card with nearly all the money I had. I also met Bob Feller, who’s hands were so gnarled with arthritis from years of gripping a baseball that I was struck dumb with shock when he took my hand. He tussled my hair with those Hall of Fame hands and soon became one of my favorite all-time players. He had big, coke-bottle glasses and genuinely seemed to enjoy my presence, unlike the younger Rose and Schmidt, whose lines were much longer and whose wrists must have burned with the effort.
It was my dad who took me to this card show. He arrives next week to meet his grandson for the first time. He wasn’t a baseball dad, per se. German born, he never played growing up. He bought a glove for himself that was the wrong hand — he wanted to catch with his good hand and figure out throwing later. Soon we outgrew his awkward attempts to play. Julsan Kamara he was not.
My father enjoyed collecting for the sake of collecting. Completing sets was all that was in it for him. When inputting the card data into his home database, the condition of the card meant more than the name of the player. Aside from Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt, he didn’t know one player from another. He never watched the games except for the handful he took us to see at the Vet. His emotional connection to the players just wasn’t there. The difference in values bemused him.
The Brett card was elusive during my collecting years. We ached to find one worth buying. Either the corners were soft or the image wasn’t center-cut or the ink had faded or was spotted. Brett was an amazing player to watch. Besides teaching me the meaning of the word hemorrhoids at 10 years old, he had the decency not to break my heart by beating the Phillies in the World Series that year. Whenever he stepped to the plate, everyone in the ballpark expected him to do damage.
Here’s a Brett!
And no George Brett.
Still, I paid 40 bucks for the shoebox just as my wife came back from the market. My son grinned up at me.
Where did the time go?