The coolest card so far

Baseball cards are a cheap buzz for me. It goes back to when I was six or seven years old, when my dad gave me some change and told me I could go into the store by myself and buy a pack of baseball cards. It was the first thing I had ever purchased on my own, and it had an effect on me that I still remember all these years later. Needless to say, baseball has been important to me all through my life.

There’s a thing I do, sometimes, when I find myself in a Dollar Tree store. Up by the registers, they offer a variety of trading cards and stickers for sale. Sorting through them takes some time, but there’s a company that packages 30 cards together, of all years and brands, for the grand sum of one dollar. Somebody once got the idea that these things had some intrinsic monetary value, and as a result there are now billions of them, sitting on the shelves in Dollar Tree stores everywhere, waiting for someone like me to help relieve the oversupply.

The collective value of 30 old baseball cards isn’t even 30 cents, so it’s not a financial proposition for me. These things cost a penny apiece when I was a kid, because that’s all the value they have. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

But each pack of these things is a chance to find something interesting. The cards are old enough that the “promising rookies” who petered out and never got a whiff of the major leagues can be identified. Every player is a story that’s as easily discovered as a trip to google or 30 potential stories for a dollar? It’s hard to beat that.

So yesterday I found myself in a Dollar Tree store, and I picked up a pack of old baseball cards. The cheap buzz comes in from tearing open the plastic, looking at the cards inside, and enjoying the rush of potential discovery. It’s probably what heroin feels like for some people, but without the side effects like addiction and the risk of an OD. It’s the lowest grade rush that I’m willing to look for.

Yesterday’s pack contained the most unusual and unexpected card I’ve ever run across. The pictures of the front and shown above, but basically the Score company, in 1991, put an American flag on the front of a card, and a prayer for the safety of soldiers in the first Iraq war (and for world peace in general) on the back. There was no has-been (or never-was) baseball player shown, but a reminder that baseball is the American game, and some things are far more important than being able to hit a curveball (or to throw one, for the pitchers of the world).

I thought of my friends who went to Iraq, and those who have served our country in uniform. Having never done so myself, I am grateful for those who do. I don’t like wars, and I’m critical of politicians who send soldiers into battle for reasons that later turn out to be false and misleading.  But that doesn’t mean the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform is lost on me. Far from it.

This piece is written to honor those who serve, and to recognize that the 30 chances to tell a story in each pack of outdated old baseball cards can sometimes lead to something much more interesting than I ever thought possible.

Back to Baker Street


I had a dentist’s appointment tonight, and when I went into the room to sit in the chair, I heard the familiar saxophone line of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. It’s as recognizable as any hook that’s ever been recorded, and I enjoyed hearing it again. But it also took me back to the last time I heard it, on a snowy day in early February of this year.

I had read that the new set of 2013 baseball cards was out, and since it was snowy and cold, I stopped at a place that sold them to remind myself of spring. And an observation I made led to a story that got published online and in print, and then it bounced all over cyberspace for 24 hours, and then it went away. But hearing the song reminded me of a connection that I initially made with Baker Street, and I wanted to share it here.

I made the point that baseball cards that refuse to acknowledge Pete Rose felt wrong to me. It seemed as if someone was trying to remove the saxophone solo from Baker Street. It wouldn’t be the same song that everyone recognizes the second they hear those notes. Baseball cards and Pete Rose went together for me back in 1978, and probably for thousands of other kids just like me.

So the Topps company decided to tell everyone that someone got 4,256 hits in his baseball career, but that someone must remain nameless. I thought it was dumb then, and I still think it’s dumb now. Pete Rose is as essential as the saxophone notes to Baker Street, as far as I’m concerned. And hearing that song will probably always remind me of this.

The baseball card time machine


Donruss was a company started by two brothers named—you guessed it—Don and Russ. More specifically, Donald and Russell Weiner from Memphis, Tennessee. They made trading cards in the 1960s for such TV shows as the Monkees, the Addams Family, and the Flying Nun. In the 1970s, they released trading card sets for both Elvis and KISS. And in the early 1980s, if you wanted to have The General Lee, Daisy Duke, and Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard on trading cards, Donruss was there to set you up.

But baseball was where the real action in trading cards was. Topps had that market cornered, as they signed baseball players to exclusive contracts while they were still in the minor leagues. In 1975, Philadelphia-based Fleer–a competitor of Topps and Donruss—sued Topps for the right to produce baseball cards of their own. After years of litigation between Topps and Fleer, the summer of 1980 was a watershed moment in the card collecting hobby. Topps’ monopoly on baseball card production was ended by court order, and Fleer was given the right to produce a baseball card set of their own.

Donruss was not directly involved with this litigation, but the language of the court’s decision also allowed them to get into the game. During the final half of the 1980 baseball season, Donruss scrambled to get enough images to produce a set in time for the 1981 season. The resulting set was panned by some for its poor quality, but the end result allowed Donruss to establish a toehold in the lucrative baseball card trade. And, more importantly, it gave us many enduring images from another era of Chicago baseball history. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to call this “the Chicago set” of baseball cards.

To get a sense of how this happened, it helps to remember Chicago’s standing as a two-team baseball town. Both the National and American Leagues came through town during the season, and the nature of baseball’s schedule allowed Donruss to photograph players on the visiting teams. Baseball’s scheduling was different in 1980 than it is today. Back then, every team—regardless of which division they played in—travelled to Chicago twice during the season. So the Seattle Mariners, who had already played in Chicago in the middle of May in 1980, returned to Chicago again in early September. Baseball’s scheduling today means that Seattle, and the other teams in the A.L’s Western (and Eastern) division, come to Chicago only once each year. If you missed the Mariners in Chicago back in early April of this year, you’ll just have to wait until 2014 to see them again in Chicago. But baseball’s scheduling certainly worked to Donruss’ advantage in the summer of 1980.

When the Mariners came to town, a player like Juan Beniquez could be posed for a photo, with Comiskey Park’s double-decked bleachers in the backdrop behind him. Fred Patek of the Angels and Rich Dauer of the Orioles also received this treatment when their teams passed through town. And when the Yankees came to town in the middle of July, Bucky Dent was photographed taking batting practice, and Oscar Gamble was posed outside of the batting cage.

The players were the photographer’s real interest, but Comiskey’s green seats, grandstand portals, and upper deck billboards successfully photobombed their way into the images, as well. If you remember the old ballpark, as I do, this is the closest you can come to going back there today. Standing at the marker where home plate once was, on the other side of 35th Street from the current ballpark, doesn’t do much to bring back the old park, what with all of the asphalt nearby.

The Donruss Company also captured some elements of Wrigley Field which no longer exist. For example, Randy Moffitt’s card shows what Wrigley’s scoreboard looked like before the video board was tacked on at the bottom. It also reveals that the red bars indicating the scores for the Chicago teams’ games have not always been located at the bottom, as they are today. Instead, these scores once appeared in the middle of the scoreboard. Having gone to games in Wrigley since 1987, I would have assumed the present location at the bottom of the scoreboard was where they’ve always been. But thanks to Donruss, I realize that this is not the case.

A shot of Moffitt’s teammate Gary LaVelle, also posed at Wrigley Field, reveals some more historical details. The rooftop bleachers on Waveland Avenue are gone, and a door in the outfield wall that is now covered by advertising was once painted red and left unadorned. The green ivy and red door somehow coexisted in the outfield back in 1980, but the empty red door is now long gone. San Diego’s Steve Mura also helped to demonstrate what a rooftop-less Sheffield Avenue looked like, and the card for the Giants’ Bob Knepper now shows us that the batter’s eye in center field was once just a green board of some kind. Let’s say that the restaurant now in that spot represents a huge visual improvement over what used to be there.

But maybe the most revealing card of all is the one for the Mets’ Mike Scott, shown above. As a September call-up in 1980, Scott pitched only six games for the Mets, but one of them was a start against the Cubs in Wrigley Field on September  23. Both the Cubs and Joe Torre’s Mets were out of contention, and school was back in session, so the lack of interest in an afternoon game is understandable. But as Scott is delivering a pitch–with a sparse crowd of 1,936 looking on in the background–it becomes clear just how empty Wrigley Field was in those days. It also looks as if once you bought a ticket, you could sit as close to the field as you wanted to. That’s quite a change from the Wrigley Field that I know.

I can understand why some baseball card purists look down at Donruss’ 1981 set. It was printed on a flimsy white card stock, and the yearly statistics that Topps and Fleer provided on their cards were missing from the Donruss edition. What’s more, Donruss didn’t have the distribution network that Topps and Fleer did. Retailers had to buy the cards in bulk and then collate them by hand. As a result, a kid in the hinterlands like me didn’t even know there was a Donruss baseball card set available back in 1981. But now that I live in Chicago and know about this set, I’m happy that Donruss had to lean on the city and its teams so heavily back then. It produced a visual time capsule that probably means little to anyone outside of Chicago and under the age of 30, but is absolutely priceless to someone like me.

A weird and wonderful baseball card


I have written about baseball cards on this blog from time to time, because they inspire me on occasion. But I’m not at all a believer in the idea that they have any actual monetary value. They’re fun to have, but they aren’t worth the cardboard or cardstock that they’re printed on, either.

Yesterday at an estate sale, which has been another recurring theme in this space, I came upon a metallic tin filled with old baseball cards. I didn’t even bother to go through it, knowing that whatever was in there, something of interest would be found. And was it ever.

The card itself was printed as part of a collector’s set for the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s birth in 1995. This would have been right on the edge of the Internet age, so I don’t know if anyone has ever commented on this card before. It wouldn’t surprise me either way, really, but it’s so unique that it does demand a few words on my part. I’m all about the unusual and the unique, after all.

I love this image of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig–teammates during the season– having some fun together in a realm entirely outside of baseball. If two big baseball stars went fishing together today, I wouldn’t care too much about that. But these are the greatest 1-2 hitters the game will ever see, and they’re hauling in fish together. That’s very cool to me,

And the color of the photograph is also something special. This has probably been colorized by somebody somewhere, because I don’t think that color film existed in 1927. But the idea that I have that life itself appeared in black and white back then is upended by this image. And I like having my assumptions–wrong though they may be–challenged like this.

Finally, I wonder who the guy lounging on the rail behind the Babe Ruth logo is. He seems like a kid or a teenager, and he must have felt like the luckiest kid on Earth to be spending time fishing with two of baseball’s legends. And he’s the only one who seems to be aware of the camera’s presence, which makes the image even more interesting to me. I think I would call this one “Baseball Immortals Catch Fish, while One Very Lucky Kid Smiles for the Camera.”

I think the tin filled with cards cost me a dollar at the estate sale. This one card alone made it worth that, from a storytelling perspective.

Me, quoted in the Times

Topps card

A number of years ago, I would travel for work on a regular basis. The usual destination was Seattle, and to take the edge off of that long flight I would treat myself to a copy of the New York Times. It would help me to pass the time, whether waiting in the terminal or up in the air. The Times writes stories nobody else would write, and uses words nobody else would use. That’s why they’re the one newspaper everyone knows about, whether you live in New York or New Delhi or anyplace in between.

So when I recently got a call from Stuart Miller, a writer for the Times, for a baseball card story he was working on, I gladly shared my thoughts with him. The nine year-old kid who once spent all of his allowance money on baseball cards was awestruck at the situation playing out for the middle-aged man I have become.

The story is here, and I’m referred to by my pen name of R.Lincoln Harris. Most importantly of all, the blog that I started almost two years ago is now cited in the Paper of Record. I hardly know where to begin with that.

I’m grateful to Stuart Miller for writing the story, to Josh Wilker for suggesting that he call me up, and to the Topps Company for giving me an entry into following baseball. It’s been a big part of my life over the years, and without baseball cards it wouldn’t have happened.

I hope that everyone reading this eventually does something their inner kid would be impressed with. I can assure you it’s amazing feeling.

The ivy’s the thing


I recently got a 2013 baseball card for David DeJesus in a trade through the mail with Brian at 30-Year-Cardboard. I saw the card (not shown here) and realized that Wrigley Field’s ivy is probably Exhibit A of what makes the park unique. It’s been the backdrop of hundreds of baseball cards over the years, and I’m sure that it will be on hundreds more. But it’s never been part of the action before, before this card appeared. Check it out if you have a chance.

Things I keep at my desk


I’m a baseball guy, and a storyteller, too. And old baseball cards are just right for me. So I keep a couple hundred at my desk at work. Some I’ve written about already, and for some others I may yet do that. But most will just sit in a stack, waiting for a moment when I sort through them, looking for something interesting. And when that happens, this blog will know about it.

Something I once enjoyed


By 1984, the year that this baseball card came out, I had moved away from my boyhood interest in baseball cards. I had moved away from baseball toward videogames in the early 80s, and by the middle of the decade I had shifted to drinking beer instead. Of course I was 21 and fully legal when I started. Nobody ever drinks when they aren’t of age, do they?

Anyway, the sight of a baseball player wearing a hat/umbrella made entirely of Budweiser logos would have once struck me as a very cool thing. And the eight and nine year olds pulling this card from of a pack of them might have received the same message. Do with that whatever you will.

I hope Jay Johnstone got a nice holiday card from Budweiser, at least.



The reason that I started acquiring baseball cards–three decades after first doing so as a child–is their price. Thanks to what is probably a very large glut of these things, I can walk into any Dollar Tree store, find a display near the front of the store, and buy either 20 or 30 of these things for a dollar. They aren’t worth 50 cents, collectively, so I have no delusions that I’m getting any added value. What I am getting, though, is many opportunities for telling a story, which makes them a tremendous bargain to me.

The baseball career of Arquimedez Pozo is much less interesting than his name. In the long history of baseball, I’m willing to bet that no player has ever carried the name Arquimedez before. It’s a variation on the name Archimedes, one of the Greek thinkers whose contributions to our world are almost beyond comprehension. In the realms of science and mathematics, his name will live forever, and with good reason.

But I’m not a math and science guy. Whatever part of the brain that makes people think in those terms was lost on me. I’m more of an intellectual wanderer, as the scattered nature of my blog suggests. But there is one story about him that I like and, but for the Arquimedez Pozo baseball card shown above, I never would have learned it. So here it is.

Archimedes was taking a bath one day, however that was done in his Greek village of Syracuse, when something occurred to him. He noticed that when he got into the water, some of it splashed out of the bathtub. Archimedes reasoned that the volume of his body was equal to the volume of the water that he wad splashed out. The water and his body could not occupy the same space, and so the water was displaced to make way for him to get into the bath.

When Archimedes realized what this meant, he shouted “Eureka!” and ran through the streets of Syracuse in the altogether, telling people what he had discovered. That word, Eureka, is associated with him today, thousands of years after he first said it. It means that  something great has been discovered, and I can’t think of a better legacy than that. The state motto of California, where gold was discovered in 1848, is “Eureka.” I can imagine whoever once found gold in California shouting out the same thing that Archimedes did.

Dozens of places in this country are named Eureka, presumably with the purpose of suggesting that something great and wonderful had been discovered in each of those places. One of these Eurekas, in Illinois, is the home of Eureka College, the alma mater of President Ronald Reagan. And if there’s a more fitting name for a college than Archimedes’ cry of discovery, you’re going to have to tell me what it is.

There were 29 other baseball cards grouped together with the one for Arquimedez Pozo, but none had the same sort of, well, Eureka! factor as his did. Googling him, and then his apparent namesake, led to a moment of great discovery for me. And that was the sign of a dollar well spent.