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Larvell Blanks

May 2, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.) 

Sugar, Sugar

Ah sugar

Baseball cards existed for decades on the fringes of the game. Few cared.

Ah honey honey

A core imperative of capitalism is to create demand where there is none. Rhetorical dismissals, however rational, such as “Why would anyone want to purchase cardboard rectangles featuring photographic and statistical portraits of strangers?” are ignored in favor of pragmatic, profit-driven inquiries such as “What can be done to make someone want to purchase cardboard rectangles featuring photographic and statistical portraits of strangers?”

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

These cards bring me back to the beginning. I’m a kid. Each of my days as a kid begins with the only childhood love that rivals my love of baseball. The imaginary-character cereals—Cap’n Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms, Super Sugar Crisp—are not allowed in my house, but I make my own version by sneaking heaping teaspoons from the sugar bowl into my Cheerios or Total or Corn Bran or Rice Chex. For my love of sugar I lie and steal. It feels good. The morning brightens, larval gray giving way to the fluttery winging shimmer of cartoons.

***

Ah sugar

When sugar was added to baseball cards, via a slab of hard bubble gum, baseball cards metastasized from a marginal curiosity to an American institution.

Ah honey honey

For most of human history, sugar was not in demand. But as capitalism took root worldwide during the colonial expansion of European powers, sugar came to be known as “white gold” for its desirability and tremendous profit-making properties. The world tilted murderously toward it.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

Afternoons as a kid I devour whatever is available, sometimes Chips Ahoy, sometimes Oreos, sometimes Nutter Butters. Sometimes there’s nothing sugary in the cupboards but Quik, which I eat dry in heaping teaspoons. If I still have my small weekly allowance in hand, I go to the general store with enough of my own money to buy one thing for me alone. The one thing differs. Could be Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or a Nestle Crunch bar or a $100,000 Bar or M&Ms or Rolos or a fistful of Bazooka Joe or a Charleston Chew or a Snickers or Bubble Yum or a Mars Bars or Sugar Babies. Could be a pack of baseball cards.

***

Ah sugar

Interest in baseball cards has been considered for some time to be waning. Every so often there is an article or a blog post or a book or a TV special that wonders whatever happened to baseball cards. It’s fucking obvious what happened.

Ah honey honey

The cultivation and manufacture of sugar in colonial times was extremely labor-intensive, so Europeans enslaved indigenous populations (referenced in the customary generic misnomer on the uniform of the player in the card at the top of this page) to do the work needed to make sugar. What else were the Indians doing? What other use did they have in this sweet new tilted world?

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

In 1977, a nine-year-old boy in the most powerful nation the world has ever known discovers this card in solitude, the sugar coursing through his body causing his heart to pound as if he is in love. He is not in love. He doesn’t know about girls. He doesn’t know how sweet a kiss can be. A kiss? He doesn’t even like to be touched. Here is the boy at the pinnacle of the corrosive arc of capitalism through human history: don’t touch me; gimme sugar.

***

Ah sugar

The most common explanation for the current downturn in interest in cards is that “the bubble burst.” The bubble that is being referenced is figurative, an investment bubble, the vast and idiotic speculating done on baseball cards in the late 1980s and 1990s creating an imaginary fragile orb filled with emptiness. But the real cause in the decline of baseball cards is much simpler. Think bubble, but be literal.

Ah honey honey

When the Indians being forced to work on sugar plantations began dying in great numbers from European diseases, the Europeans looked to Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people of the same color as the player in the card at the top of this page were captured, enslaved, shipped across the Atlantic, and forced to provide the labor needed to produce sweetener.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

A nine-year-old boy with sugar coursing through his body chews the bubble gum that came with the pack of cards. He chews, gulps, exults, keeps chewing. The gum is not yet ready for bubbles. Some cards stop him, others don’t. This one does, the first name something to be worked over in the mouth like gum, like the contagiously empty syllables of a pop song, like the declensions of a word for forms of life. Larva, larvae, Larvell. The second name is for the things beyond names, a bubble with nothing in it, expanding. The gum is ready now. Breathe-slow, blow, a nothing day in a loveless larval year. Sugar fills the blanks.

***

Ah sugar

When the sugary bubble gum was removed some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s from packs of cards—presumably to protect the cards, those idiotic objects of investment, from damage—it was the beginning of the end. Kids drove the industry and the nostalgia and the joy of baseball cards. Nowadays, with no sugar involved, kids don’t give a shit about baseball cards. Nowadays baseball card conventions are, so I’ve heard, largely childless, instead sparsely populated by middle-aged men like me meandering around and remembering how sweet it all used to be.

Ah honey honey

Sugar causes a fleeting increase in serotonin levels in the body. Sugar makes you fat, gives you diabetes, rots your teeth. Sugar is stupid. Sugar is irresistible. Sugar snares children, topples empires. America was able to gain its independence from Great Britain in part because the British were devoting much of their military might to protecting their sugar-making territories in the Caribbean, weakening themselves in the fight against the colonies. One empire staggered, another began to rise.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

Sugar stops time. Time has been stopped. The player gazing out at the nine-year-old boy during this stoppage is known as Sugar Bear. The player has explained that this nickname came to him during his first professional season, 1969: “In the months of August and September, while I was in the Arizona Instructional League, there was a hit single being played on the radio called ‘Sugar, Sugar.’ Ralph Garr, Darrell Evans and others started calling me ‘Sugar Bear.’”

***

Ah sugar

Taking sugar away from baseball cards? The only business decision that could compare would be if the music industry equivalent of bubble gum, bubblegum pop songs, attempted to remain a profit-generator in spite of removing from its product the insipid insidious sweetness, the hooks, the groove.

Ah honey honey

The bubblegum pop songs that ruled the air in the late 1960s and 1970s were aimed at me, which is to say they were aimed at children, mass-produced, written by company writers and performed by company musicians, everyone involved in the assembly line production ordered to keep it simple and shiny and contagious. The apotheosis of the genre was the 1969 song “Sugar, Sugar” that was not only its biggest hit but the most direct expression of its aesthetic: sugar and nothing else, a sweetened larval blank. The song was disseminated through cross-platform marketing before that hideous term even existed, and it started its viral sweep around the world by preying on those with the least resistance, appearing first in a cartoon program, The Archies, and coming as a prize in certain sugar cereals so that children could get hooked on it as they crested the first sugar wave of the day. Though children were targeted, many others were struck, stricken, addicted. “Sugar, Sugar” is reportedly a favorite song of George W. Bush. Presumably he first heard it in 1969, his first year out of college, as his privileged class status was likely allowing him to avoid going to Vietnam. Years later, he danced with his daughter at her wedding to “Sugar, Sugar.” He was nearing the end of his two terms as president by then, during which he had blandly fronted the continuing transformation of the United States into a faltering obese diabetic overextended colonial empire that is always at war.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

I have only ever wanted one thing, the impossible thing, the sweet stoppage of time. Stop the world. Just once. At nine I already know the deal, and sometimes in the middle of the night it springs me awake and upright like a half-broken trap. Time always goes forward, leads to when there will be no more sweetness, no gum, no card to hold, no me. Why wouldn’t I love that sugar has seized me, that time has been called, that play has halted, that there is still a me to be gazed at by a stranger named Larvell Blanks for one sweet American moment alone?

20 comments

  1. No. 1 song in the country the day my wife was born. Irresistible.


  2. My fellow Americans…

    My 2012 platform would return us to traditional values as Mr Wilker suggests above. Our nation has lost its way; we can no longer afford to be addicted to fossil fuels, tax breaks for billionaires, and reality television programs. We must embrace the common social good of yesteryear, when sugar — not HFCS, accept no substitute! — and the national pastime went hand-in-hand.

    The long-overdue return of gum to trading card packs is only the beginning. From
    the first meal of the day
    to a delicious mid-day snack, followed by a heapin’ helpin’ of sweet frosty elixir, we must renew our commitment to what made us a great nation as well as a high-achieving workforce of baseball fans.

    My name is Lonnie Smith, and I endorse this message.

    *** Paid for by The Committee of Displaced Cane Spiders, Miguel Santos, and the family of Oscar Azocar


  3. This is great stuff.

    I had the “Sugar Sugar” cardboard record that came on the back of a cereal box. I want to say Alpha-Bits but I wouldn’t swear to it. Also had one from the Jackson 5.


  4. I had a Jackson 5 cereal-box record too. (In fact I still have it.) “ABC.”
    Great stuff, and having recently borrowed an Archies’ Greatest Hits collection from the library, I’ll attest that the formula – as it were – produced alot of sweet bubble-gum pop songs that even now stand out as higher quality listening than the indistinguishable crap that clogs the Top 40 these days.

    What I’m wondering is whether I might have found Total cereal at all palatable back then had it featured appealing cartoon mascots, or animated television commercials ala Jay Ward & co.’s “Quisp, Quake, and Cap’n Crunch?” For some reason I could handle Special K and Product 19, but Total never had much culinary appeal. Of course contraband like Cocoa Puffs or Trix were true delicacies to be savored.

    And I agree, a pack of cards is just not the same without the gum.
    Even if it had the consistency of the cardboard itself, lost its flavor in three minutes, and tasted like shit.


  5. Total was fine with heaps of sugar. Kind of like the sterner, less athletic older brother of Wheaties.


  6. Yes, Total was great with sugar, as was its weird Post competitor, Fortified Oat Flakes.


  7. Work’s been too busy and I haven’t been able to check in for the last month or so, but I just thought of you and your readers, Josh, and now I see you’ve also got a music-related post up. Enjoy: http://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/index.php/complete-this-phrase-%E2%80%9Cinsert-rock-artist-the-insert-unique-baseball-players-name-of-rock%E2%80%9D/


  8. There’s a cereal from Trader Joe’s called Gorilla Munch that’s roughly the taste of Cap’n Crunch (and Quisp!), but…somehow…supposedly…healthy. Our boys blow through a box by Tuesday of each week, at which point they start asking my wife why she won’t buy Cap’n Crunch, a cereal these overprotective parents have only let their kids have a half dozen times. Ain’t nothing like the real thing.

    Could anything kid-targeted yet not objectionable to parents be included in packs of baseball cards that might lure them back into the hobby we loved at their age? Fruit roll-ups won’t do the trick. Would an image they can scan into their smartphones to activate some app do the trick?


  9. That’s a good question, frankenslade. I’m guessing probably not a thing can be done to lure kids back to cards. That said, my 9-month-old has been enjoying gnawing on some 2012 cards I got recently.


  10. Doug Rader was quoted by Jim Bouton in “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally” as giving little league players the following advice: “Eat bubble gum cards. Not the bubble gum, just the cards. They have lots of good information on them about hitting and pitching.” Rader forgot to say that the sugar residue from the cards would give them a sugar high, too, which would give the kids a short-term burst of energy for running the bases, but it would deplete their energy in the long-run as their blood-sugar plunges.


  11. What’s interesting about the Blanks card is that it appears to an action shot of an exchange of balls between the ump, catcher, and pitcher. (At ;east that’s my surmise, given the posture of the catcher.) Probably not too many cards capturing that particular act.


  12. It also looks like he might be getting an intentional walk, Shawn.


  13. Definitely could be an IBB. But . . . Larvell Blanks? He had 3 in his career.


  14. Yeah, I like the oddity of this moment, too (hence the verbiage in the post about the “stoppage”). My guess is that the pitcher was getting a new ball. Blanks hit pretty well in ’76, when the photo was likely taken, but bb-ref has him with 0 intentional walks that season; more to the point, he didn’t get an IBB with the Indians until ’77 when this card was already in circulation.


  15. The name is sui generis, too. The only “Larvell” in MLB history, and one of only two “Blanks.” Had he been a pitcher, he would have been a headline writer’s dream: “Larvell Blanks Chisox” or whatever.


  16. Also, if memory serves, Blanks was a small-time head case who had some hilarious run-ins with Frank Robinson during the latter’s tenure as manager of the Tribe. I think there was an incident in which Blanks taped over his own mouth in the dugout after being benched? (You can imagine how this played with F Robby.)


  17. Hah! I don’t remember that hissy fit, but here’s proof:
    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1842&dat=19770703&id=axcsAAAAIBAJ&sjid=CscEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1363,278077


  18. (laughs) That pic is fantastic! He looks vaguely like an imprisoned North Korean dissident.


  19. See the inexplicable pose in the 1979 Larvell Blanks card.

    http://www.sears.com/shc/s/p_10153_12605_SPM1965233701P?sid=IDx20101019x00001a&ci_src=14110944&ci_sku=SPM1965233701


  20. That ’79 card is mystifying.



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