Last week we celebrated National Baseball Card Day, a day to celebrate the hobby of card collecting.
I grew up in the Bronx, a train ride away from the home of my favorite team, the New York Yankees. If I had my way, I would’ve attended every single Yankee game as a child, but I grew up in a single-parent home. My mother was a New York City Police Officer who stretched her paycheck to maintain our household. There wasn’t a budget for Yankee Stadium, but we did have other ways to watch the Boys of Summer.
I spent my days and evenings in front of the television, tuned into Channel 11, listening to Phil Rizzuto broadcast the game. My Topps baseball cards were always within reach, especially my beloved Yankees cards. I would study the statistical information of each player as they came to bat and chewed on the gum that was included in each pack. I would line up stacks of cards as I watched and listened, prognosticating who would be the next big star in the Majors. If I was lucky, I would hear Phil scream “Holy Cow” after one of the Yankees hit a home run.
Despite having hundreds of cards, very few made it into my treasured baseball card binder, only the best players made it to this coveted location. It was the place where you would find different variations of Don Mattingly, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., Rickey Henderson cards on full display. Even Wade Boggs, the archrival, had a few spots within my binder. He wore a Boston Red Sox uniform but there was no denying his ability to field and hit the baseball.
During the summer, my friends and I would play baseball for hours, within an alley across the street from my building. It was our Field of Dreams, notwithstanding the backdrop of fire escapes and clothing lines filled with the day’s laundry. While we patiently waited to step into the batter’s box, we often traded cards to increase the value of our all-star cardboard team. If we were down a few runs and didn’t want to lose to a team from another block, you would hear: “If you hit a home run, I’ll give you my Roger Clemens card”. Every so often you would win the wager and walk away with a highly sought-after card and earn the praise from friends for hitting the ball deep enough to run around the spray-painted concrete bases.
The cards were currency and some of us were richer than others. We would do favors for the elderly neighbors, such as going to the store and picking up milk and eggs. Our reward was simple, “Keep the Change”. We knew the 50 cents we just earned could land us two packs of Topps cards, and potentially a Mattingly or Winfield, the equivalent of hitting the lottery.
Baseball cards educated us on value. They taught us about America’s pastime, they gave us a sense of community, and they brought us countless hours of fun. We sometimes lost track of time and were immediately reminded when we heard one of our parents screaming our names out of the tenement windows, telling us it was time to come upstairs.
So much has changed since I flipped cards with my friends. The small card shops have been replaced by cell phone stores and vaping shops. This generation rarely leaves their homes, lost in video games and virtual interaction with their online friends whom they never met
I wish we could celebrate National Baseball Card Day every day and give our youth the cardboard memories that I enjoyed and cherished. The joy of ripping open a pack of cards was the equivalent of a birthday or holiday, except we could do it if we kept fetching milk and eggs for Ms. Kagan on the 3rd floor.
I still own my baseball card binder and every so often I open it up and think back to my childhood and smile. I grew up collecting baseball cards, collecting