Franke: Baseball Cards — the Currency of Youth

April 10, 2023

by Mark Franke

Ah, spring has returned to northeastern Indiana. The grass has turned green, the trees are budding and will soon flower, and the bluebirds are nesting in our backyard. God’s creation has reawakened once more in what will shortly be a panoply of color.

But let’s cut to the chase. The major league baseball season started two weeks ago. Now that is proof positive that God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.

I can’t help but fade slowly but surely into the mists of time and boyhood memories when baseball was everything.

My family did not get our first television until later in the 1950s, which coincided with my experiential awakening to the national pastime. The Saturday afternoon “Game of the Week” was my portal into a magical world of televised baseball and my uncontrollable addiction to collecting baseball cards.

A pack of six (or was it five?) baseball cards came with a concrete-like flat piece of bubble gum that wreaked havoc on a youngster’s teeth in those pre-Crest days. Each pack cost a nickel but that was OK since my weekly allowance was a quarter. By the end of the summer, I could almost, but not quite, complete the collection of players from all 16 teams.

Being a budding entrepreneur, I parlayed my ingenuity into getting an extra pack every other day or so by walking to the small neighborhood grocery store to buy a pack of cigarettes for the neighbor lady who tipped me a nickel for you know what. The owner sold me the cigarettes in good conscience knowing I had no interest whatsoever in anything other than that gorgeously wrapped pack of Topp’s cards.

The cards were a wealth of information in those pre-internet years. Each player’s stats were lovingly printed on the back side, providing an educational experience for an anal retentive like me trying to recalculate all the averages. At least I wasn’t as nerdy as that boy on “I’ve Got a Secret” who had memorized all the stats on every card.

Every year the photo design changed. I liked 1959 best. These weren’t action photos like one sees today but carefully posed stills that enabled me to mimic how to hold a bat or follow through on a pitch. I had the form if not the execution.

Collecting meant trading and trading meant carefully husbanding “doubles.” No desert souk has seen more intensive haggling than that of a group of adolescent boys negotiating deals to get their missing cards. I think I was scarred emotionally for life one afternoon when I failed to get the 1961 Whitey Ford I was missing.

Eventually I snap out of those reminisces and find myself back in the present day, almost unrecognizable until the first pitch is thrown. Then the universe once again finds equilibrium.

One juvenile skill I learned was how to score a game. I tried several different systems and still use one when I attend my hometown TinCap games. I can’t walk into a ballpark without getting a scoresheet. I carry a special clipboard with extra pencils and storage for the scoresheets from previous nights. Those seated next to me at the ballpark know that interrupting me during a play has consequences, and not pleasant ones.

At home I watch games when I can and listen to many more. Baseball is a game made for radio and good announcers are a joy to hear. I usually turn off the TV announcers and combine TV video with radio audio. With all our modern technology the video and audio don’t quite sync but who cares? See the play and then talk about it, just like when at the ballpark in person.

This year is special for MLB. The commissar of baseball, I mean the commissioner, finally made a decision that benefits fans. Rule changes are in place to speed up the game by removing the excruciating dead time when either pitcher or batter or both are just simply stalling. Tell the batter to get in the batter’s box, and the pitcher to get on the mound and throw the ball. Obvious, unless your $17 million-per-year salary blinds you to such simplicity.

That’s all the grousing I will do this season. It’s time for a backyard tradition of watching the first afternoon game of the season that pits the Philadelphia Phillies against the New York Yankees. We, my neighbor and I, pretend it’s really baseball weather by cooking brats on the outdoor grill. Cracker Jack and peanuts in the shell are provided as well as typical baseball park beverages.

It just doesn’t get any better than this . . . except in our memories. And as we get older, those memories become even more vivid if that is even possible. I assure you, it is.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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