"By the time I got this 1976 Steve Garvey card, my identity outside of baseball was as an outsider and a weirdo in my own town."
Recently I was contacted by Seven Footer Press to see if I might like a review copy of a new baseball card book. I'd perused the author's website so felt confident it would be a literate account of 1970s baseball cards, and I was right. But it is also more.
Josh Wilker, the author of Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, had a complex youth in which he sought a sense of belonging but rarely found it except in cardboard. That is, he found a steady connection to the world at large through baseball cards, which came to represent to him constancy and serve as an unbreakable link to his older brother.
The author also has a website (Cardboard Gods) and some of the book's narrative appeared first there, such as in his posts about Rowland Office
or Mike Cosgrove. But the book does quite a bit more than refine his card bloggery. In this unusual memoir, the author pulls together stories of his growing up through talking about baseball players from 1974 to 1981 using baseball cards as touchstones. Mr. Wilker's signature style is to draw an emotionally intelligent direct line from a particular card and what it represents in the narrative of his own childhood.
We all have our own reasons for enjoying baseball cards. What got me started on collecting them was not a specific card or set, but a book. To many people, including me, the best baseball card book ever written is The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum book by Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd. All card blogs on earth certainly owe a debt of gratitude to these pioneers who simply looked at baseball cards and wrote about what they saw.
Cardboard Gods has a welcome, familiar Flippingesque ring, such as in Mr. Wilker's ruminations on players named Cy, or fantasies brought on by characteristics such as the usually-off-center appearance of 1975 Topps cards:
That sounds almost like Boyd and Harris, doesn't it? However, then comes this:In years to come I'd wonder if the process of making cards that year was not standardized and mechanized at all but instead one that relied on the judgment and dexterity of a nineteen-year-old Coast Guard dropout named Smitty who'd just spent his break smoking a joint out by the Dumpster.
But when they first came into my hands, the mistakes riddling the 1975 set made the universe captured by the cards seem to my seventeen-year-old self to be homely, disheveled, approachable, as if my Mount Olympus was as close at hand as a bake sale advertised by mimeographed page tacked to an elementary school bulletin board. I needed to feel this closeness that year more than any other.
Reading reviews of Cardboard Gods on Amazon, one fleeting criticism I noticed is that more baseball and less personal narrative might have been preferable for some readers. In the first 30 pages or so I thought that also, but soon became drawn in to the seamless connection that Mr. Wilker makes between collecting baseball cards and building an emotional anchor in a tumultuous life.
One beauty of Mr. Wilker's approach is that it connects the reader back to something that's truly been lost: the importance of baseball cards to kids. Remember them? Kids?
Before amassers, before eBay auctions, before high-end collectors, before hyping Honus Wagner, kids handed sweaty quarters to small shop proprietors and tucked packs of cards into their back pockets. Then they went and opened those packs of cards hoping to find favorite players, seeking cards they didn't have yet. Sometimes they were disappointed and found mostly doubles. Sometimes they found their favorite player or a major star. They traded cards, flipped them, spoked them, created games around them. These kids' main card containment units were shoeboxes and rubber bands. The purity and simplicity of the card collecting past almost brings a tear to my eye. Mr. Wilker skillfully draws from this lost power.
I won't reveal the full poignant scope of this memoir because it will diminish your enjoyment of Mr. Wilker’s enviable talents as a storyteller. But here's a hint. He knows well that baseball cards mean more to many fans and collectors than the game itself, than the act of collecting. What better way to build connections than with people who have a shared interest? When Josh Wilker looks at baseball cards, he sees a web of shared experience, heritage, history, and hope, and thanks to his writing skill, we know exactly what he is saying.
The final page includes a hat tip to Harris and Boyd, the latter of whom even surfaced briefly to provide an appreciative blurb for Wilker's Cardboard Gods, which is now my second favorite book of all time about baseball cards.