George FosterOctober 23, 2006
My family, minus my father, moved to Vermont in 1974, when I was six and my brother was eight. We house-sat for a year in a town called Randolph Center for a family spending a year as Christian missionaries in Korea. Randolph Center had many big white houses with immaculate lawns, and a college with brand new tennis courts, and a ski hill that in the summer became a place where hang-gliders launched themselves like bright-colored ponderous birds that seemed somehow simultaneously prehistoric and futuristic, and a big pond called Lake Champagne with a sun-drenched wooden dock in the middle of it and a building nearby with pinball machines and air hockey tables.
Kids were friendly in Randolph Center, a few of them coming by to basically welcome my brother and me aboard. One of these kids was a farmboy named Buster Olney, who even as a preadolescent had contagious enthusiasm for baseball, baseball history, and at that time most especially baseball cards. By the time we met him, or to put it more accurately were swept up in his tornado of baseball mania, his baseball card collection was already the stuff of legend–the rumor was that he kept the collection in a trunk that he’d buried somewhere on the grounds of the Whiffleball stadium he’d built on his family’s lawn to resemble a miniature Fenway Park. When asked about this he would bark laughter then give answers as elusive as his unhittable Whiffleball pitches. My brother and I had bought stray packs of cards before, but under Buster’s influence we began collecting, buying packs whenever possible at the general store in town called Floyd’s, which was owned by Mr. Floyd, a chipper Vermonter with a Santa Claus build and a gray-flecked flattop buzzcut.
When the family who owned the house we were living in came back from jesusing Korea, we moved down into the valley below Randolph Center, to East Randolph. East Randolph consisted of some run-down houses clinging to a section of Route 14 kind of like dried carcasses to a strip of cracking flypaper. There was a farm machinery dealership, a shallow swimming hole bracketed by a rusted car husk and a defunct gravel pit, and a general store called Race’s that was, unsettlingly, not owned by Mr. Race but by a looming, often angry-seeming man from Pennsylvania named Mr. Heyder.
Not long after we’d moved there, my father got my brother a speedometer for his bike, but not a mile was recorded on the odometer before a pack of cackling East Randolph kids mashed some sticky-pus weed-bulbs called wild cucumbers (which I’d never seen growing in Randolph Center) into the shining black face of the speedometer, breaking the needle and fouling the interior mechanisms. My enraged brother whaled on the main instigator until the kid, using his shifty East Randolph know-how, ended the barrage by yanking out a hunk of Ian’s hair. It was the first in a series of fights between my brother and the East Randolph toughs, and the beginning of my lifelong practice of moving around in public as invisibly as possible so as to avoid victimization.
Collecting baseball cards became somehow more solitary than it had been in Randolph Center. In Randolph Center any additions to the collection were discussed, or at least had the potential to be discussed, in a small but palpable community of Randolph Center baseball card collectors that included me, Ian, Buster, Buster’s friend George, and sometimes even some other kids from Ian and Buster’s little league team. In East Randolph it was just my brother and me, a reality that I would have been willing to embrace but that my brother often recoiled from. By the time I purchased the pack that included this 1978 George Foster card, the whole process had become as lonely and compulsive and privately rapturous as religious pilgrimage or addiction.
In that light, this card represents the apex of my solitary obsession, for I remember the precise moment I found this card in a new pack, and it’s the only Cardboard God that I can say that about. I had just bought the pack from the scowling Mr. Heyder and was walking home. I was by the spot on Route 14 where an abandoned general store with an “Esso” sign and dust-covered windows faced, across the road, an empty metal trailer that had briefly been a restaurant called Chez Rene. Sometimes I was able to delay gratification for a while, carrying the packs of cards (I usually bought two) all the way home before opening them, but on this day I must have needed that pain-killing hit just a little bit quicker and slid my finger under the plastic flaps, breaking the infinitesimally thin coat of glue and releasing the scent of the rectangular shard of gum that came in every pack.
I put the shard in my mouth and was shattering it and releasing the first burst of sugar when I found this card amid the others. I saw the N.L. ALL STAR shield and I saw the name that I recognized from following its awe-inspiring march through the previous season’s statistics pages in the newspapers. The broken-pieces phase of the gum gave way to the soft and cohesive sugary phase, and I heightened the all too brief moment, which would soon give way to the texture-of-a-pencil-eraser/flavor-of-spit-and-disappointment phase, by flipping the George Foster card over to affirm that the legend told by the newspaper statistics was true. After all, nothing was an inarguable fact until I saw it on a baseball card, and here it was: George Foster had hit 52 home runs during the 1977 season, the most any player had hit in a single season in my entire lifetime.
In years to come the 50-home-run plateau would be robbed of its glory by steroidal cheaters and new cartoonish ballparks with dimensions barely bigger than Buster Olney’s Whiffleball lawn, but in 1978 it was mythic. Only ancient guys from a black and white world that preceded the epoch of the Cardboard Gods had ever reached that Olympian height. But now George Foster had done it, and as sugar coursed through my body I held in my hands that very same George Foster, or at least a little sliver of George Foster that had fallen like a red and brown and white leaf all the way from the forests of heaven to the gravel-pit valley of East Randolph, Vermont. I paused for a moment to chew the already fading, hardening gum and stare at the ecstatic statistics, then hurried home before anyone could fuck with me.