Joe Wallis made his first appearance on Cardboard Gods early on, thirty or so cards into the imposing task of writing about every card that ever came into my hands as a child (and some cards that have found their way to me since then). I often miss those early days of—what should I call it? The project? The compulsion? The flowering of mental illness? Anyway, I miss it, even as I realize that I’m prone to romanticizing anything as long as it belongs to the past. When I was just starting to write regularly about my baseball cards, the touch of childhood was still crackling on the surface of the cardboard.
I’ve been reading J.D. Salinger stories the last few days, and many of them center on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. In Salinger’s fictional worlds, childhood holds life and liveliness and imagination and unaffected sincerity, while adulthood offers nothing but fakery and the keeping up of appearances and the cruelty embedded in social hierarchies. Many of the stories reveal Salinger’s stinging, sardonic masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, to be, by comparison, his most hopeful work. In Holden Caulfield, Salinger found a lasting, if compellingly tenuous, bridge between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. In the short stories, on the other hand, there are no lasting bridges, only harrowing gaps. The man (“see more glass”) in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” can’t endure life on the adult side of that gap; Eloise in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” seems ruined by the gap, too; the narrator in “The Laughing Man” survives, but his childhood on the yonder side of the gap does not. “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” offers a hint of a bittersweet bridge across the gap, in the form of the story itself, which is a loving stretch across the gap by a traumatized veteran to a young girl who stands alone among the uncorrupted entities of the world. Holden is more than the hint of a bittersweet bridge, of course. He’s a living and breathing bad-postured avatar that millions have poured themselves into as if into a second skin, and it’s because he bridges that universally felt gap between childhood and adulthood in a way that feels truer to that element of the human experience than any artistic creation ever has.
When I opened up the box of baseball cards from my childhood and started writing about them, I was trying to follow Holden’s footsteps and bridge that gap, and in those first few weeks, there was an immediate charge in the cards as I held them. But everything gets old, especially rituals, so sometimes, especially if I’m in a writing slump, I get nostalgic about the days when I could pick up a Joe Wallis card and imagine a baseball player who (somewhat like J.D. Salinger, now that I think about it) could not abide in the civilized world and so took to the woods to be wild and malodorous and hairy and free.
But anyway, here I am again, and here I’ll be. In religion, there’s the thrilling moment of epiphany or conversion or enlightenment or whatever, I guess. You “see the light.” After that: well, you try to be sincere with your prayers. You try to find ways to connect to the mystery.
The first mystery of this Joe Wallis card is his batting stance. On first glance, I thought this card might be a strange mistake, for the Joe Wallis card I am more familiar with shows him in a right-handed batting stance, while this card shows him bemusedly following through on a left-handed swing. When I looked at the back of this card, I thought that a piece of information included there—“Bats: Left”—proved that the card here was correct and that the later and hairier Joe Wallis card from 1980 was a mistake. But on baseball-reference.com Joe Wallis is listed as being a switch-hitter. I’m not sure why he is listed on the back of this card as only hitting left-handed, but it may have something to do with his career .199 batting average against left-handed pitchers (compared to his .263 average versus right-handers). Maybe before this card came out the Topps people called him to confirm his status as a switch-hitter, and at that point he was considering forgetting about being a switch-hitter and just sticking to being a lefty. In that light, it’s interesting that his later card with the A’s, the one I am more familiar with and that is his last card, shows him from his weaker side. He was determined, I guess, to prove that a debilitating dooming weakness could be turned into a strength.
The second mystery was pointed out some time ago on the original Joe Wallis post by a commenter who goes by the name Champ Summers. Champ linked to an article that describes a minor league baseball game in which Joe Wallis hit a fly ball that never came down.
How do you survive a mysterious and beautiful event such as that? How do you not slowly unravel and grow increasingly less able to exist in the mystery-stripped world of adulthood? How do you not take to the hills? A ball went up and never came down. People will tell you that only a child would think that such a thing was possible, but you were there. You hit the ball that never came down. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.