1.08.2009

GABCFTBGB: flipping in the modern world.

"What I did with my cards was flipped them. You drew a line in the dust or on the pavement and flipped your cards from this line towards a wall. Each player scaling his own card in turn, the winner of the previous round goes last. The card closest to the wall won the pot. No leaners or doctored cards allowed. I spent sixty percent of my youth in this practice. Drilling daily and searching diligently for pigeons. Bent over cracked asphalt driveways in total silence. Scaling slivers of colored cardboard towards old garages. And I was moderately successful at it, also. Amassing three shopping bags full of cards. Not a particularly creative way to spend a boyhood but not a completely misspent youth, it seems to me. Wafting cards out across shadowy schoolyards. Seeing them float and rolling gently through our minds. The happiness of having your card inch out another's, the agony of losing a lucky Billy Pleis. The joy of watching your stack of cards increase. The knowledge that your youth would never end. Eighteen Lou Kretlows. Twenty-one Frank Malzones. A stack of Johnny Logans as thick as a Snickers. More Gary Roggenburks than the mind could comprehend. And over it all, the sweet smile of Spring Byington. Assuring us that nothing could possibly go wrong. "






That sweet prose is from our favorite baseball book, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred Harris. We had this around the house--I don't even recall how or where we picked it up--and happened to read it right around the time that our daughter Lucy, then 7, began showing interest in the New York Mets. The next thing we knew, the family collected baseball cards. So our reason for enjoying the hobby stems in large part from the askew view of cardboard in GABCFTBGB.

We are probably not alone. When facts and frets about card value amount to nothing in decades hence, people will still find gems in the observations of Boyd and Harris.

GABCFTBGB is the first and best, never to be equaled, before the internet was anything, sign that baseball card blogs were on the horizon. It contains the seed that led to all baseball card blogs. These are the section titles:


Where Have You Gone, Vince DiMaggio? Some Reflections on a Baseball Card Childhood

This Kid is Going to Make It

Here's A Collection of Earlier Cards

Profiles

Some Final Observations on Trading, Hoarding, Collecting, and Other Aberrations of the Baseball Card Life


Back when we ran a vote about ABC's and Subject Coverage, GABCFTBGB soundly won your votes over Ball Four. We were a little surprised about that, but happy. We too wanted to know more about the authors, the book, and the mystic chords of cardboard.

Here is what we learned.

In 1971, lore has it that Brendan C. Boyd and Fred Harris worked in a bookstore in Boston. Puzzled that there were no books about baseball cards available, they decided they would each find their old cards and write that book themselves. Boyd centered on American League players and Harris on National League players.

Once Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer became a bestseller and increased focus on 1950s baseball nostalgia, Harris and Boyd were able to publish their Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book in 1973. In our view, this work is to baseball card appreciation what The Origin of the Species is to people who saw something in turtles.

As for baseball card flipping, we believe the modern version is...baseball card blogging. What's a baseball card blog if not a way to play with, share enjoyment of, and intensely trade baseball cards? What we at Dinged Corners appreciate most is that the authors make learning card-ways-gone-by (flipping, stacking with a rubber band, making bike spokes noisier, obsessively reading newspaper sports pages to build expertise on players, storing flipped cards in paper bags) come alive and seem more than relevant.

The player profiles. The players whose cards are dwelt upon in this book are not exactly Hall of Famers. In fact, of the 221 baseball players mentioned, only 15 are in Cooperstown. The text is quirky and appreciative and yet includes facts about players that may have been lost to time had the authors not focused on them.

In a laconic manner, Boyd and Harris often unleash difficult truths--such as describing Ernie Banks as a truly great player who had the misfortune of playing with terrible teams, or wondering if Satchel Paige might be considered the greatest player ever if he'd been given a fair chance. And although the book does not discuss Hank Aaron, his brother Tommie is featured because he had the chutzpah to play on the same team and at the same position as his brother.

Or that on page 125 of our 1991 Ticknor & Fields edition (pictured in punkrockpaint's A&G portrait at the beginning of this post), Gus Zernial's 1952 Topps card shows him holding up a bat with five baseballs attached to it.


It doesn't matter what great accomplishments Mr. Zernial may have achieved in any other aspect of his life, because he will be remembered for what Boyd and Harris ask about him:

How do you suppose they got those baseballs to stay up there anyway? Nails? Scotch tape? Postage stamp hinges? And why do you think Gus is giving us the high sign? Is he trying to assure us that everything is ok? Is he trying to indicate to us that he thinks the Athletics are a big zero? Does he want a cinnamon doughnut to go? And why is he wearing a pink undershirt?

Horn-rimmed humunculus. He's another random character that the authors choose to focus on: Earl Torgeson. It's fortunate that one of the authors collected Bowman cards because many of that company's best examples of cardboard art are showcased--such as this 1954 Bowman card of Torgeson, in which he resembles a burlier version of George Reeves' Superman:

The authors claimed that Torgeson's favorite activities included "fist-fighting and breaking his shoulder." Boyd and Harris add: "He is probably also the only left-handed hitting first baseman over 6'2" who ever stole 20 bases in one season."

Not many pinstripes. It probably should be noted that Boyd and Harris were Boston Red Sox fans, so there isn't much emphasis in the book on the Yankees. Some people--for instance, those collectors exhausted by the Yankee Stadium Legacy cards--may find this a selling point. Others may feel left out. There's a Bubba page. A Johnny Unitas card. An umpire page. An insane major league nickname page. But no Mickey Mantle cards are shown in the book. We leave it to you to find the mention made of him. Jim Bouton appears, too, with the only caption being: "Jim Bouton is a big mouth."Phil Linz also shows up, although not in a particularly good way. The Mets don't come away unscathed either, with a page devoted to cards under the title echoing the memorable words of Casey Stengel: "Can't Anybody Here Play this Game?"

As for the genre of commentary, it is a progenitor of all baseball card prose that ever goes beyond price guide and straight history. Personal stories are included, too, such as the time Harris walked a great distance with young friends to a store to meet Red Sox players only to have Billy Klaus give him a "benevolently malicious" sneer through the Thermopane window. Kids weren't allowed in the store because they didn't have funds for the minimum purchase required to get an autograph. A statement follows about disgust for the "commercial proclivities" of certain athletes.

Real-world view at Topps. There's a riveting, historically significant chapter that describes a visit to Topps' offices to see Sy Berger, designer of the 1952 Topps set and, when visited by the authors, head of the Topps Chewing Gum Sports Department.

Topps' headquarters at 254 Thirty-Sixth Street is in a remodeled and starlingly whitewashed six-story warehouse. The building itself resembles a goiterous vanilla torte that someone has laid open with the dull edge of a spatula.

The 1973 Topps set was in production at the time of the Berger interview. Collectors either criticize, or are quirkily intrigued by, the action shots in that particular set because sometimes it is hard to tell which player is being featured. Occasionally the confusion ran rampant...such as in the case of Joe Rudi's 1973 Topps card, which shows three Oakland A's celebrating a home run--but the person being congratulated is actually Gene Tenace, not Rudi.

Whither Joe? Here is a thorough and excellent background on and appreciation of that card.

Also included in the interview is the Topps bubble gum recipe, straight from Sy Berger:

We bring in all the ingredients in tank trucks and railroad cards and store them in custom-designed silos and bins. All the mixing and blending is done automatically--with huge consoles and present weighing systems. The gum is then taken to the seasoning room where the flavorings are added to the base. The basic ingredients are sugar, dextrose, and corn syrup. After that it gets pushed and pulled through our specialized forming machinery, cut and circled with a Bazooka comic, or shaped into various novelty items and then wrapped and sent to the shipping department. The whole operation takes just a couple of hours. But we are extremely careful about every single step. We have 118 steps of manufacture and 23 separate quality checks. We take great pride in the quality of our bubble gum.

In those days, of course, the bubble gum didn't come inside a wrapper, and it gave not only a distinctive odor to the cards, but a powdery smudge to the topmost one. Back to the book's card sensibility:

"The career of Toby Atwell as player was secondary to the career of Toby Atwell

as baseball card,

and if you needed him to complete your set too, you'll know what I mean."

Harris and Boyd also comment extensively about player poses. For instance, Bob Cerv's 1958 Topps card not only exhibits poor printing and absent background, but darned if Mr. Cerv isn't hitting himself in the head with his bat:


In 1991, Boyd and Harris came out with a new edition of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book: it reprinted the 1973 edition intact but with updated introductions by each author. In his 1991 foreword, Boyd acknowledges changes in the hobby and then states that his baseball card collection, the entire basis for the book, had been stolen along with his car. He says he never quite mustered the same level of fervor about cards after that incident.

Boyd went on to write a baseball novel called Blue Ruin: A Novel of the 1919 World Series,

wherein a Boston grifter and numbers runner tells his version of the 1919 scandal in which the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series.

Ultimately, the point of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book may be that the authors simply answer the question, "Why collect baseball cards?"

"To see what Marty Marion was going to look like this year.

To see if any of the old uniforms had been altered. To see if everyone was still as young as before. And the sweet pleasant smell of the bubble gum, and the sweet pleasant melting of it in your mouth. And the secure feel of the cards in your pocket, and the knowledge that they were yours and yours alone.The prospect of all the packages to be opened, the thought of all the new cards to be flipped. The possibilities of wheeling and dealing and pyramiding. The notion that maybe the Red Sox could win the pennant. And above all their splendid physical presence. Their sturdiness. Their symmetry. Their artful grace. The way they looked all stacked up on your dresser. And the mysterious things we knew they really meant."

Perhaps not much has changed after all.

Oh. This baseball card blog has one more thing to say:

Goodnight Sibby Sisti,

wherever you are.

We appreciate Greg A. providing his associations with the book, which appear in the post that follows this one. And Travis of punkrockpaint, thank you for the beautiful image of the most meaningful Allen and Ginter baseball card never made.

7 comments:

night owl said...

Wow. Just wow. Too much great stuff to comment on here, except:

Yes, I agree. Absolutely, one hundred percent. To everything. What a great book, and especially, what great writing.

(an aside: I have indeed thought of my blog as my baseball card book over the last few months. And over the years, I have often thought of writing a book about cards. And so I am).

deal said...

Great book. It resides on my nightstand along with a Phillies Media guide. I was fortunate enough to find one at a used book sale for like a dollar.

Great day I got a great book and the $$ benefited my local library.

Oftentimes the best stuff I read in the card blogosphere reminds me of GABCFTBGB.

Gellman said...

I have seen that book a few times in my cardboard travels, but never picked it up. I may have to go on amazon and see if I can get a copy.

capewood said...

It is available on Amazon for under $5 including shipping. Your description of it was so glowing that I just ordered a copy.

lonestarr said...

All I can do is smile after reading this post. :)

Word Verification: catic

Matt F. said...

Here's my recent experience with the book:

http://heartbreakingcards.blogspot.com/2009/01/alternate-cover.html

Matt R. said...

I love this book. My dad got it for me back in 1975 and I still have it (taped cover and all). One of my long-range collecting goals is to collect every card pictured in the book. Some of them will be quite tough, but it would be fun.