At the Midwestern Booksellers Association trade show in St. Paul over the past weekend, while talking with people about my forthcoming book, I had several conversations about the worth of baseball cards. Mostly, people told me about valuable cards they either still had or somehow lost along the way. Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays. Occasionally I was asked if I had any doozies.
“What’s your most valuable card?” I was asked a couple times.
I didn’t have any cards with me, but I had a proof copy of the book close at hand, so I pointed to the photo of the Rickey Henderson rookie card that is among the sixty cards propping up my life story in the book. It’s the same card I’ve displayed on this site, and as you can see, it’s taken something of a beating in my loving hands, decreasing its value to the general level of all my other cards, which in total is priceless to me but to the world of commerce is worth no more than a pair of used downhill skis (i.e., what my brother sold his slightly larger collection to buy several years ago).
To me the cards are a way to catch at least some shreds of my life as it slips by. Every single card has traces. They are not done catching these shreds, either. This Paul Molitor card is catching them right now, at 7 in the morning on a gray cold Tuesday in late September 2009. It’s propped up on my keyboard, where all the cards go when it’s their turn to speak. I’m wondering about the traces in the card, and I’m imagining the first time I saw it. It was 1979 and I was 11, my first year in little league without my brother, a sunny year despite that change because I had baseball surrounding me, shining down like the sun lighting up Paul Molitor, a young shortstop (at least according to the card—in truth he had played more games at second the previous season and in all played only 57 of his 2683 career games at the position) in a scuffed helmet that had traces of its own, battles lost and won in the sun, Paul Molitor looking down at something and smiling. What’s not to smile about? There’s baseball to be played! On the flip side of the card is more sunshine, including Molitor’s status as a number 1 draft pick, the comforting duplication of his birthplace and current residence (both St. Paul, Minnesota), the one spectacular minor league season (a .346 average and 52 runs and 50 RBI in 64 games), the promising major league rookie campaign, and the dense paragraph of text describing an all-American hero of an athlete, a high school star in three sports (baseball, basketball, and soccer), a champion at every level so far, in high school, American Legion, and college with his home state university, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
I was never above wondering if one or another of my cards was worth money. I had a prominent fantasy that one day I’d sell my cards for a fortune. (That day, in my childhood mind, was impossibly far in the future. I’d be an adult, which meant to me at that time that I’d be about as old as the adults in the house. In other words, I’m now older than I could ever imagine myself being, the sale of my cards for a pile of money as far as I ever ventured into the future.) The Brewers started to get good when Paul Molitor came aboard, and as the team and Molitor himself continued to rise I may have wondered if his 1979 card would be one of the cornerstones of my future wealth.
By 1987, these cards had moved into a storage facility, out of my sight, but they were still capable of catching traces of the world. I know this because when I look at the 1979 Paul Molitor card on my keyboard I remember his 39-game hitting streak that summer. I was spending the summer in California pumping gas and reading about Zen and dropping the occasional hit of acid, but I still remember getting excited as Molitor continued to keep the streak alive. Is there anything better in the day to day life of a baseball fan than a hitting streak? The whole game is weighted toward failure just as much as life is weighted toward dying, and yet every once in a while there is this fantastic suspension of weight while a player keeps finding ways to collect a hit, game after game. I rooted for Paul Molitor that summer, and a little air went out of me when near the end of August I fished a sports page from an Isla Vista trash can and saw that he had finally failed.
Molitor went on, of course, to surpass 3,000 hits and breeze into the Hall of Fame, a distinction that added even more value to his rookie card, which I learned some time ago is not this card but a card that came out a year earlier and which I do not own. That rookie card is one of the greatest cards ever produced, featuring not only the Hall of Famer Molitor but also a player who should be alongside him in the Hall of Fame, Alan Trammell, and as if that weren’t enough it also features two figures—toothpick-chomping U.L. Washington and doomed-by-name infielder Mickey Klutts—with places of great honor in the minds of any kid who grew up loving baseball in the 1970s.
Even that, the lack of something, in this case the lack of a card I wish I had (and not because it’s worth a little money but because I’d like to hold it in my hands and prop it on my keyboard), becomes another trace of life accruing to my sunny 1979 Paul Molitor card. If you hang onto something long enough you start seeing traces everywhere, even in the places where there seems to have been an absence.
In a few minutes I’ll put this Paul Molitor card back in my shoebox, where it’ll wait for its turn at bat again. I don’t know what’s in the future, but I’d like it if I got another chance, some years on, to pick up this card and see what traces it whispered up to me. I’m thinking I’ll remember this weekend just gone by, when at a St. Paul place called Shamrock’s I ate a burger called The Paul Molitor that had melted pepper jack cheese not on top of the burger but inside it. Is there no end to Paul Molitor’s greatness?
Perhaps the memory of a blissful volcano of cheese might spiral into other memories of the weekend, little things that otherwise might be lost if not for this card, like the moment on the drive from Chicago to St. Paul when my wife and I stopped for gas in Wisconsin and walked into an obscenity-laced shouting match between a pale, slouching adolescent and the Indian guy behind the counter—”Go back to Iraq, you fucking [pausing to find the word] towel-head!” “Fuck you, white trash!” (apparently, the kid had gone on the attack immediately after he was asked to produce I.D. to buy cigarettes); like the discovery that I had to stop looking at the new proof version of my book, the first time I’d seen the work in something like book form, because it tampered with my ability to breathe; like the sight, in an area of the conference center adjacent to the bookseller’s trade show, of a huge room full of little girls in curly wigs Irish step-dancing in front of stern-looking judges who sat at tables taking notes; like the karaoke night occurring Friday night in the lounge in the hotel where we were staying, most of the participants over 70, crooning old standards, the best of them among the oldest: a bearded guy with a walker who had a way of hoarsely croaking the line in “Unchained Melody” that goes “I need your touch” that somehow made me glad to be alive in this imperfect doomed world; a black guy in a very sharp three-piece suit and a fedora who waited through several other singers, swaying to the beat on a stool at the bar, then absolutely nailed “Mack the Knife” and left immediately, breezing past us our table (I told him how much I enjoyed it) and out into the lit-up lobby of the St. Paul Best Western, a nondescript building along I-94 that is now home to yet another stubborn trace in my life as long as Paul Molitor remains within my grasp.