Harmon KillebrewFebruary 24, 2007
I don’t know much about baseball card collecting, but I am familiar with the term mint, which is used to describe cards that have been held to the greatest degree possible away from life and its universal slant toward deterioration. I think there are other gradations below this topmost designation, but I doubt there are any so far removed from mint that they could be applied to this 1975 Harmon Killebrew card. My incessant childhood pawings have pushed it beyond the limits of the language of commerce. In a monetary sense, it has been ruined. Handled too much, clung to too tightly. It’s now the opposite of mint. I fear leaving nothing behind when I pass from this earth, so please allow me to offer a new term to serve as the baseball card collecting omega to the alpha of mint: Wilkerized. If this term catches on, maybe years from now, after I myself am deteriorating in a potter’s field grave, perhaps I will live on in a conversation something like the following:
Young man hoping to sell his baseball cards to buy some weed: So, how much can I get for this Ken Griffey the Fourth (With I-Tunes) card?
Sports Memorabilia Store Owner: Are you shitting me? Look at it. I mean, the fucking thing’s been completely wilkerized. (Author’s note: I don’t even require that the word be initial-capped.)
Young man hoping to sell his baseball cards to buy some weed: God damn it.
Anyway, while the specific contours of most of my long ago baseball card daydreams are lost to me, I do remember the draw this wilkerized 1975 Harmon Killebrew had on me. There were three reasons why I kept going back to it, handling it, memorizing it, gradually making it begin to disappear:
1. The name. Every good religion needs a way to move toward the ecstatic unsayable via the pathways of sound. Chanting, singing, speaking in tongues, rhythmic prayer: all these things help take a person out of their everyday self and into another state of being. Not having a religion of my own, I unknowingly invented certain quasi-religious elements around my fascination with baseball cards. In the case of the Harmon Killebrew card, I not only seized on the fascinatingly unusual name but eventually began chanting it to myself at times, pronouncing it not as Harmon Killebrew himself probably did but in such a way that every syllable was stressed: Har! Mon! Kill!Eh!Brew! Har! Mon! Kill!Eh!Brew! I chanted it again and again in my head, the name like drums going faster and faster.
I was an odd little boy.
2. A sense of greatness. I was just learning the basic language of baseball statistics in 1975, and so took in Harmon Killebrew’s long litany of 40-homer, 100-plus RBI years with the pure and enthusiastic fascination of the true beginner. I have an attraction to anonymous players, to failure and ignominy, to the fallen and the wilkerized, but I am as drawn to the players whose feats stand in bold opposition to the general entropy of the universe as any other baseball fan. I am sure that I found this card soothing. There is greatness in the world. There are things that won’t be forgotten.
3. A sense of age. This may have been the most important of all the elements that drew me to this card. The picture on the front of the card hints of what struck my seven-year-old self as great age, in both the gray hair poking out from the cap and in the name that I probably figured must have only existed in a time long before the current era. But it is on the back of the card that this sense of time and history has its most powerful expression. Unlike most other cards, which fill up the empty spaces on the back left by the brief list of years in the major leagues with minor league stats and large-type bullet-item lists containing such information as “Tommy led Eastern League First-Sackers in Putouts,” this Harmon Killebrew card only had room to list in unusually small type a line for each of Harmon Killebrew’s many, many seasons in the major leagues. Harmon Killebrew had basically been playing baseball forever. The first few years, which occurred long before I’d even been born, were spent on a team, the Senators, that no longer even existed. They were, like the wooly mammoth and tyrannosaurus rex, long extinct. And yet, here was one of them, an Original Senator, alive and well and still grayly slugging home runs. I was drawn to this not only for its mysteriousness but also for the odd feeling of comfort it gave me. I sensed at times that I was an infinitesimally small speck, inconsequential and frail in an unfathomably large expanse not only of space but of time. The universe went on forever and time stretched forward and backward forever and I was an almost-nothing within it. But Harmon Killebrew was something, and I could hold onto Harmon Killebrew.