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Carl Yastrzemski, 1960 (via 2010)

April 15, 2010

I bought some baseball cards last week, something I haven’t done in a while. I have a guest article up on GQ.com (yes, the same GQ that is to my grasp of manly stylishness as Gourmet magazine is to a convenience store Slim Jim) that mentions my lack of connection to the new cards, and how that feeling dissolved with the appearance, near the end of the second pack, of this reproduction of Carl Yastrzemski’s 1960 rookie card.

The card was seemingly targeted toward me specifically, as if marketing consultants had known that I would inevitably be drawn once more to the gods of my youth. (It was part of a subset of the 2010 offering from Topps called “The Cards Your Mom Threw Out.”) Usually I chafe at being the prey in the consumer culture, but here I didn’t mind. I guess I never will mind when it comes to baseball cards. I bought packs of cards as a kid to find the best and happiest parts of myself inside them. It’s the same now, and while most of the cards in my recent purchase seemed to report back that the best and happiest parts of myself were disappearing in this new, slick world, when I came to a reproduction of the first-ever appearance in the Topps universe of my hero, Carl Yastrzemski, I felt all the things you’d want to feel in this life: lucky, happy, connected.

And ever since I found the card in the pack, it’s been sitting on my desk where I write, growing on me. I can’t get over how young he looks. When I first learned about Yaz, he seemed to me as if he was as old as the mountains, as if he had been around forever. The numbers on the back of the first Yaz card I ever got, in 1975, supported this notion. They were small and voluminous and stretched back way before I was born. But now here he is, a cheerful, clear-eyed boy half the age I am now. He hasn’t learned or forgotten anything yet. He doesn’t even know where he might fit in (note his listed fielding position: “2nd B.”).

It reminds me of a photo of my grandfather that I saw for the first time a few years after he died. When my grandfather was alive, I’d never really considered that he’d been a boy, but in the photo he is a rail-thin Missouri adolescent hanging by one arm from the beam of a lamppost. A goofball. Somehow it brought him back to life in a way that a photo from when I knew him could not have.

And now this goddamn Yaz card is making me sad: I miss my grandfather. I wish he were around to see my book. Jesus, he would have crowed about it long and loud to anyone and everyone he came into contact with. I remember going to the supermarket with him when I was a teenager and he was pushing eighty: he’d introduce me to the lady handing out samples of Cheese Whiz as if she wasn’t a stranger and as if I was the World’s Youngest Pulitzer Prize-Winner instead of a mumbling pothead with a GED.

I spent the whole summer with him after being expelled from boarding school, no college prospects looming in the fall. He never once brought up a single thing having to do with my expulsion or what my plans were for the future. We ate together, watched Red Sox games and M*A*S*H and Magnum P.I. together, went to the movies together, went swimming at a nearby pond together. He was using an oxygen tank to help him breathe by then, but when we went to the pond he laid the portable tank down by our towels and waded out into the water and sort of collapsed down into it. Then he gently flipped over so he was looking up at the sky, and he began making a gradual circuit around the perimeter of the pond by performing a slow but methodical version of the elementary backstroke. I stuck close to the shore, splashing around for a little while before getting out and sitting on one of the towels. I watched him circle the pond. Just a couple years earlier, Yaz had played his final game, and at the end of it he circled the whole park, jogging slow, trying to reach out and touch as many people as he could before he said his final goodbye.

I see Yaz, Yaz as a boy on a 1960 card, Yaz much later, on his last day in the majors. I see my grandfather as a boy, hanging by one scrawny arm from a lamppost. I see my grandfather circling the pond. I feel the water on my body evaporating in the sun. He’ll get back to shore eventually, and dry off, and slide the plastic tubing from the oxygen tank back into his nose, and we’ll ride back home, and eventually the summer will end, and the next summer he’ll be in worse shape, unable to live on his own, and the summer after that I don’t want to talk about. I don’t want to talk about anything except sitting in the sun on the little beach of Slough Pond on Cape Cod. I see my grandfather circling the pond. I see Yaz circling Fenway. Can the circle be unbroken?

27 comments

  1. Great post, Josh. The New York Times had a piece on your book yesterday on its Bats Blog, by the way. I am digging the book.


  2. Dammit Josh, you’ve done it to me again. I think I need to call my dad now.


  3. You made my heart ache. Not to mention the spot on my knee where Yaz hit that foul ball in 1978 which I promised to leave to you in my will.


  4. Thanks for mentioning the Times’ Bats Blog review, psychsound. Here’s a link, in case anyone wants to take a look:

    http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/through-baseball-cards-a-meditation-on-life/


  5. Josh, I am so proud of you, and glad to be your cousin. You make Grandfather alive again, and I have missed him so much. Your book is supposed to arrive in the mail today, I am going at home at lunch to check! Love you


  6. Thanks, cousin!


  7. Wow, I kind of forgot about Yaz’ rookie card. This was an unusual rookie card in that it had that whole “Sport Magazine” look to it.

    I totally remember looking at the back of Yaz’ cards and being kind of amazed at how long he had been playing.

    Another player I remember being kind of amazed by was Ed Kirkpatrick. He was a back-up catcher/infielder with the mid 70’s Pirates but he had played since 1962 and he was traded a few times, so there was a lot of lines of text on the back of his cards.


  8. Enjoyed this post!

    Topps puts out a Heritage set where it puts players from today in classic card sets of the past. Will you build a set of that one when and if they do the 1975 set?


  9. Yaz looks like Antoine Doinel looking off into the distance, at the beginning of his adventure. With a Sox cap.

    Got the book, Josh. It’s terrific.


  10. Coming of age as a Red Sox fan in the late 70s, I was not alone in believing that Yaz was a mythic figure. You couldn’t grow up in Boston without becoming steeped in the legend of 1967. Has any baseball player – ever – played better in a pennant race than Yaz did that year?

    By the time I began following baseball in 1976, Yaz was way past his prime. But I remember the 5 homers across 2 games in May. The crunch bunch of 1977 when Yaz drove in 100 runs for the last time and slugged .505 at the age of 38. The epic quest for the 3000th hit in 1979, after he belted his 400th homer earlier that summer. And of course the pop-up off Gossage in the ’78 playoff game. After he had homered off Guidry in the 2nd, and singled in a run (and scored) off Goose in the 8th. Clutch to the end. And I don’t even believe in clutch. But Yaz was absolutely the equivalent of Big Papi in his day.

    Next week I turn 41, and I will be older than Yaz was when he did all that stuff. (Though I think I look a lot younger than Yaz did at the time…he must have looked 55 by the time he retired.) I don’t think I’m suffering a mid-life crisis, but I wonder how many men have one triggered by realizing they’re now older than all the athletes they idolized as kids?


  11. davidhwillis,I remember my dad mentioning something to the effect that he started feeling old when he realized that everyone in the majors had been born after him. Using that as my basis for judgement, Jamie Moyer is now my favorite player.


  12. godfrey and davidw, I’ve had the same experiences you guys describe. I remember being stunned to see that Steve Avery was younger than me when he came up. I’ve gotten used to it by now, of course. Yaz seem ancient when he was 38, and I’m two years older now. Of course, I feel ancient myself, so I guess I was right about Yaz back then.

    I got one of these Yaz cards as a kid. It wasn’t in great condition, but I didn’t care much about “mint” or such things, I was glad to have it.


  13. Fantastic, as always, Josh.

    davidhwillis-Yes, indeedy. I was born a week before Pedro Martinez, and ever since I discovered that, I see the peaks and valleys of his career echoing my own life. Of course, I was never as good at what I do as Pedro was at what he does.

    And now-I’m throwing slop, changing speeds, just trying to get through 5 innings.


  14. Another great story Josh. I remember watching so many games with my dad and those are few and far between these days since we live so far apart. Back in the early 80s when the popularity of baseball card collecting started taking off, my dad and I went through all my old baseball cards and then went and bought some 1983s to see what they looked like and what constituted “mint condition.” We used to spend hours at card shows as we filled in those sets from 1969 – 1975 (the minis where I grew up) and got some new cards and then he would look for the stars of his youth (He just loved Rocco Colavito, not Rocky). We could and still can talk for hours about baseball. It wasn’t long after that I got Yaz’s rookie card.

    The card collection has long since been sold, but it’s the ones from 1969-1975 (when I collected) and the older ones I picked up afterwards (I had all the Topps Red Sox cards from 1959 to 2004) that I miss the most. The new ones just don’t do it for me. Now I can’t wait to see my dad in July, when I go back for a visit. I wonder which game we will go see: the Tigers, the Indians or the Mud Hens. In any venue, it will be great. Thanks.


  15. What’s going to be really shocking in the next few years are rookies who were born in …. 1990!


  16. “The Cards Your Mom Threw Out” cards are great, but thanks to Topps Million Card Giveaway I was able to take myself back to the best time of my life… I bought a pack of cards, went to the site, inputted the code from one of the giveaway redemption cards, and presto… Guerilla-Punk publicity!

    The card I received: 1979 Giants Prospects feat. Joe Strain (error card, should be Giant Prospects)

    THE GREATEST BAND EVARRRR!!! http://cardboardgods.net/category/teams/san-francisco-giants/joe-strain/

    For a mere $2.94 shipping and handling, it will be mine!

    I am currently trying to collect all of the cards shown in your book… I’ll let you know when I get to Johnny Wockenfuss.


  17. Your writing continues to be a tonic to the increasingly statistocorporate (I think I just made up a word) mindset of baseball, and a gentle reminder of why I fell in love with the game in the first place.


  18. my mother recently decided to sell her house, the home i grew up in, and asked my brother, my sister, and me if there’s anything we want for ourselves.

    my brother and i immediately got excited about going through our old baseball cards, which have been in a box in the basement for thirty years. a while back i did take out some of the biggies and sold them, so there might not be any well-known gems in the bunch anymore.

    but thanks to you, i will now look more fondly on many of the cards and probably end up fighting with my brother over some of them. meanwhile, my wife will likely get angry when i show up with a big box of no-name cards, each of which will bring back some kind of endearing memory.


  19. Geez, I mean where do you even buy a pack of cards these days?
    “Specialty” stores geared to the “Hobbyist” and profit-margin obsessed “Collector?”

    They used to be there in those little grocery stores on every corner, every five-and-ten, even at the newstands, beckoning to you…the scent of the gum making your mouth water in anticipation…

    Nowadays it seems that there’s an identical Duane Reade on every corner. And I don’t think they sell cards. And if they do, there sure as hell isn’t any gum in them.


  20. ramblin’ pete – You can find packs of cards, boxes of cards, and mcomplete sets at Toys R Us, Target, Kmart, probably Wal-Mart, too. I remember buying them at the “milk store” and ripping open the packs right outside the store.


  21. Yeah, I had to walk a mile and a half to a K-Mart to find some cards. I think it’s telling that I have to walk farther to get cards now, while living in a huge city, than I did when I was a kid living in a town of a couple hundred people.


  22. I just finished the book, and I am utterly gobsmacked. Lovely work.

    My modest contribution to the heaps of praise is here:

    http://innocentsaccidentshints.blogspot.com/2010/04/cardboard-gods.html


  23. I think you can still find cards at 7-11, but Kids stopped collecting baseball cards a long time ago. You might get some kids buying cards but it’s not the same. Hell, kids don’t even play baseball anymore. I see more kids with lacrosse sticks than baseball gloves. No more wiffle-ball games, no more stickball.

    We were pretty much the last group of kids to collect cards for their intrinsic value not as a commodity. The game was up around 1981 when Donruss and Fleer got into the game and the George Brett Rookie card was selling for about $10-15.


  24. Josh,

    I read the Eddie Leon chapter the other day and it kind of knocked me over. I’m still thinking of the image of you as a 10 old, going to live in that foreclosed house that had all the sex-graffiti on the walls and urine filled coke bottles and sexually defiled toy teddy bears. Good God, I thought I was reading something from a Steven King novel or something.

    Maybe you can set up a separate thread for people who have questions or want to comment on certain sections of the book.


  25. My 11-year old son and his cousins and friends buy packs and boxes of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards. They play the corresponding card game and do trade cards. The only baseball cards my son is interested in are of Cubs’ players, especially Sosa.

    Last year I was able to get him interested in the Topps Attak game and its cards. We would play the game together. In an effort to promote it last season, Target sponsored a Topps Attak play area at a New Jersey Jackals baseball game where you could get free packs of cards and play the game, noting that more card packs could be purchased at Target.

    An area Boys Club hosts a trading card show twice a month and all you see are middle-aged, and older, men buying and selling cards. There is a baseball card hobby store that seems to have a number of kids regularly stop in after school to collect the Topps’ card of the week or card of the month. And with a free piece of candy to boot!


  26. I agree with johnq11’s proposal to have a separate thread about the book. I am just finishing up the book and I have some questions also, mostly to satisfy my curiosity, for example, the Ted Nugent concert that never was.


  27. Psychsound,

    The Ted Nugent story was the best, worth the price of the book by itself.

    It reminded me of the time My Father & Mother took me to go see “The Empire Strikes Back” and my Father left 20 minutes into the film because he thought it was terrible and went next door to watch “Airplane”.



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