BASEBALL CARDS and
The fabled 1941 baseball card
with a special place in the memory
of two youngsters.
A very peculiar collection
of rare baseball cards
By DAVID ZINMAN
The main reason Richard and I have stayed such close friends is because we share boyhood memoriesmemories that have lasted over three-quarters of a century.
You should know that Richard and I are cousins. We both came into the world in 1930 in New York City. We were born only a week apart. Our mothers, who were sisters, liked to call us "twin" cousins.
Richard and I were on the same third grade class at P.S. 166 on Manhattan's upper West Side until Richard moved away to live in Queens.
He went on to become a successful Madison Avenue ad executive. But in our salad days, it was baseball that really bonded us. We were consumed with the national pastime.
As kids, we played on the same sandlot team. On Sundays, we rode the subway to see the Giants play double-headers in the old Polo Grounds where Mel Ott pulled most of his 511 career home runs down the short 257-foot right field foul line.
But most of our interest in the game centered around baseball cards. Those 2½ by 3 ½-inch sets of cards had colorful names like Play Ball--America, Big League, and Diamond Stars.
The other day, Richard told me a story about his long lost card collectiona tale that made me chuckle. And yet it had a sad edge to it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. You be the judge as to whether it's a funny or sad tale.
The stiffback cards that were popular in our day had a photo of the player. His vital statistics were on the back side.
The stax told you everything. They gave you the player's birthplace and his height, weight, and age. They told the way he hit and threw, and, most importantly, his batting average and career highlights.
After memorizing all that data, you almost felt like you were his teammate.
Best of all, the cards were a bargain. They cost only a penny a piece at the neighborhood candy store. Each came in a waxed wrapper with a paper-thin stick of bubble gum. The gum was usually old and rock-hard. No matter how carefully you opened the wrapper, it usually broke into a hundred pieces.
Even so, every kid had his own collection. The cards were numbered and printed in sets of maybe 200 or 300 or more.
You never knew the exact number. In fact, no one I know ever collected a complete set. Later, I found out even the manufacturer was not always sure of the number of cards he made.
One year, an ad by Gum, Inc., the firm that put out the Play Ball set, urged kids to get "all 250 pictures" of the leading players. I found out later that Gum issued only 162 cards. And it left out number 126.
Nevertheless, some of those penny cardslike the rookie cards of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantlenow sell for hundreds of dollars.
Anyway, Richard and I met at a restaurant for lunch recently, and he told me about his cards and a day he has never forgotten.
One day, Richard said, he got sick and had to lie in bed and stay home from school. Like me, he was an only child.
His mother, my Aunt Helen, saw how lonely he was. To cheer him up, she went to the neighborhood candy store to get him some cards. Kids usually came in with a few pennies and got one or two cards at a time.
But Richard's mother did something unheard of. She bought an entire box. A box held 100 cards. So Aunt Helen had to shell out a whole dollar.
When she brought the box home, Richard was beside himself. "It was the happiest day of my life (up to then)," he said.
He had only about two dozen or so cards in his collection. Now, he would have over 100, cards of players from all the teams in the Major Leagues, pitchers and catchers, outfielders, and infielders.
He would almost certainly have the biggest collection of any kid on the block, maybe in the whole neighborhood. He figured he would be king of the baseball card collectors.
Richard carefully opened the first wrapper. His eyes popped open. There was "Indian" Bob Johnson of the last place Philadelphia Athletics. It showed Johnson, who was one-quarter Cherokee, posing in the act of making a one-hand catch of a fly ball.
Johnson wasn't as famous as sluggers like ole "double X" Jimmy Foxx of the Red Sox or Hank Greenberg of the Tigers. But he was no pushover either.
He played in the Majors from 1933 -1946 and belted 288 home runs. He was the fifth player to have nine straight seasons hitting 20 or more homers. One of those clouts
spoiled a no-hit game by Yankee ace Lefty Gomez in 1937.
Johnson never had a super year. But he had a lifetime batting average of .296 and put in one dependable season after another like a guy punching a time clock.
So Richard was thrilled to add "Indian Bob" to his collection.
Now, he opened a second wrapper, wondering what other colorful player he would find. It was the same card. It showed Johnson going through the motions of leaping for a phantom fly ball. Richard was a little disappointed. He wanted to see his meager collection grow.
But that's okay, he figured. He would have a duplicate. Maybe, he could trade Johnson for a card he didn't have.
He unwrapped a third card. It was Johnson again. He opened a fourth and a fifth wrapper. Johnson again and again. Now, the awful truth emerged. Every card in the box was Johnson's card.
That meant that even though he had gotten 100 baseball cards, his collection had grown by only one player. Suddenly. his dream of becoming monarch of the baseball card collectors vanished. Instead of cheering him up, Aunt Helen's gift had boomeranged.
"That's the story," Richard said. "It was one of life's darkest moments."
"What did you do?" I asked.
"I think had a relapse," he said. There was a silence. Then, he laughed and so did I.
As we were getting ready to leave the restaurant, he started shaking his head.
"You know it's funny," Richard said. "Thinking about those cards again, I might be having another relapse right now."
I looked at him, wondering if he were serious. There was a another silence. Then, he winked.
As the man says, time heals all wounds.
©2008 by David Zinman. The Zinman caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Dec. 22, 2008.
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