Okay, so we’re all stuck at home staying socially distant and praying for an end to this terrible worldwide virus crisis, anxiously waiting for the day to return to normalcy and watch a sporting event, any sporting event.
And if you’ve binge-watched everything you can find on a gazillion channels, from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to “Star Trek: Picard,” here’s a fascinating new book to consider for your reading repertoire, “The Wax Pack: On The Open Road In Search of Baseball’s Afterlife,” by Brad Balukjian (University of Nebraska Press, hardcover, 259 pp., $27.95).
Balukjian is a self-described “sports archaeologist with a penchant for the underdog,” who has penned a detailed journey to meet and interview a reportedly random sampling of players that he unveiled in a pack of Topps baseball cards still sealed since 1986.
For every baseball fan, and subsequently every fan of collecting baseball cards, there is that one year, the one where you first fell in love with baseball and yearned to learn more about its participants by buying a pack of baseball cards.
From a personal perspective, my year of “baseball card awareness” was 1962, when Topps delivered a now highly-sought set of cards where the player photos were surprinted over borders looking like wood paneling and the lower right corner of each photo was curled up to reveal the player’s name, position, and team. That set today fulfills collecting fantasies with the likes of: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Sandy Koufax and included a subset series of Babe Ruth cards.
And oh, by the way, that set included the first year of cards featuring a newborn team in Flushing formally known as the Metropolitans, with players such as Frank Thomas, Richie Ashburn, and Roger Craig.
For Balukjian, who was 34 when he set out on his quest, single, and filled with some anxieties and personal issues that he details along the way, including his confrontations with OCD, girlfriends, and what was a distant relationship with his father, apparently developed that heartfelt connection with packs from 1986, acknowledged as the “first year I started collecting.”
That math seemed a little odd at first, as the ’86 packs are 34 years old, and the collector might still have been in diapers when he initiated his collection as a youngster enrolled in Greenville Nursery School near Providence, Rhode Island, but not so, as this self-propelled journey was conceived in 2014.
Now an adjunct professor and Director of the Natural History and Sustainability Program (whatever that is), an entomologist and Biology teacher at Merrit College in Oakland, CA, Balukjian was struck with the lightning bolt of nostalgia while attending an Oakland A’s game in 2014, and set out to order a pack of 1986 Topps on ebay.
He infers throughout the book that the aggregation of players originated from one pack, and they did, but in his back-of-the-book acknowledgements, Balukjian confesses he did order more than one pack, “just in case I ended up with too many dead players.”
The pack he settled on did contain an interesting assortment of players, including All-Stars, pennant-winners, those who enjoyed significant moments on the field, and even one Hall of Famer, plus a few, ahem, who didn’t quite reach legendary status.
As it turns out, one of the cards in the 15-card pack was a checklist, for Series 1, a necessary ingredient for all card collectors to help them fill out the set. Each checklist card catalogues 132 cards/players, and perhaps in retrospect, some of those on that checklist card, which included: Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Bob Ojeda, Ray Knight, Eric Davis, Ken Griffey, Sr., Lenny Dykstra, John Franco, Bob Boone, and Fred Lynn, might have made for some intriguing chapters, but perhaps that could lead to a sequel. Balukjian, however, quashes that thought quite firmly. “I’ve already lived my dream.”
Nonetheless, Balukjian is dealt a colorful cast of characters in his chosen pack. His roster included: Carlton Fisk, Rance Mulliniks, Randy Ready, Steve Yeager, Garry Templeton, Richie Hebner, Gary Pettis, Jamie Cocanower, Rick Sutcliffe, Lee Mazzilli, Vince Coleman, Dwight Gooden, Al Cowens, and Balujkian’s personal all-time favorite player (that’s likely why he chose this pack) Don Carman.
Cowens passed away in 2002 from a heart attack at the age of 50, but that didn’t stop Balukjian from tracking down family members, acquaintances, his widow, and even a visit to his gravesite to paint the picture of this “wax packer’s” life and career.
The 13 living members of this random pack are very much alive, and for the most part, were completely cooperative when Balujkian approached them for a visit and interviews.
Balujkian must have a pinch of psychologist in him by nature, as he was able to get the players whom he did meet to really open up about their lives and careers, including frank discussions of their divorces, parenting, injuries, surgeries, and other personal tidbits.
Along the way, Balujkian was able to: take batting practice with Rance Mulliniks; go bowling with Randy Ready; watch kung fu movies with Garry Templeton; go to a zoo – yes, they went to a zoo – with Don Carman (as a youngster he considered Carman to be “the greatest pitcher in the world.”); and hang out with Steve Yeager at a Jersey Mike’s Subway Shop in Granada Hills, CA owned by the former catcher.
The journey began in the summer of 2015 launched from an old Honda Accord where Balujkian lives in Oakland, and he chronicles each mile traveled and cup of coffee consumed. That Honda survived 11,342 miles through 30 states and some 123 cups of joe in 48 days to compile this book. Whew!
The lifelong Phillies fan (Carman was a Phil) took a circuitous route through the Continental United States to reach each “wax packer,” as he liked to call them, heading to Southern California, East through Texas to Arkansas and Oklahoma, to Florida for several stops, up to New York and Connecticut to try and see Gooden and Mazzilli, up to Cooperstown to attempt a meeting with “Pudge,”and then back out West to Las Vegas to catch up with Sutcliffe before heading home to the Golden Bear state.
Interestingly, Balukjian doesn’t have a baseball writer’s background, although he has been published in numerous publications. That innocent approach, however, works well in his favor, as this is decidely not a “so-and-so batted such-and-such in 19-whatever” kind of baseball book. There are baseball stories, and even stat-related tales to keep every baseball fan enticed. But no, this is a personal connection with each subject, and in some cases, the book reminded me of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” although I’m not entirely sure why, as that tome had nothing to do with baseball, with a pinch of “The Teammates,” a David Halberstam book in 2001 that chronicled the journey of former Red Sox players as they road-tripped to visit Ted Williams in his final days.
“What if a pack of baseball cards could come to life,” writes renown baseball reporter Jayson Stark in his poignant review. “It sounds like a Spielberg movie plot, except it happened. Brad Balukjian made it happen, in real life, with the most eclectic cast of baseball characters ever assembled. And the result is one of the most funny, honest, human, and uniquely creative baseball books of the year. I’ll admit it. I loved The Wax Pack.”
It is also not a “baseball card book.” The fact that this hodge-podge of ballplayers lumped together from a pack of cards is almost secondary as its source.
Balukjian does, however, bookend his journey with chapters related to the production of Topps baseball cards and talks to some of the poeple involved in their creation as they worked in the Topps factory in Duryea, PA.
We meet Mary Lou Gula, who worked for Topps for 25 years, and among her many duties involved card-cutting and monitoring the one-ton globs of pink gum that ended up in little slabs to accomodate each pack. Oh, you can breathe in that delicious sugary odor even now, can’t you?
And even though the Topps factory in Duryea closed in 1996, Balukjian meets up with a handful of former Topps employees at a casino in Pennsylvania for a touch of reminiscing.
Balukjian’s lack of baseball card expertise is evidenced by not even mentioning the cards featuring Coleman and Gooden are not even their actual player cards. They’re “Record Breaker” cards, when Coleman was noted for “Most Stolen Bases, Season, Rookie,” and Gooden for “Youngest 20-Game Winner, Modern History.”
And Fisk’s card is never noted for being his “All-Star” card, not his regular player card.
Card collectors know the difference.
Balukjian also never mentions the value of the cards as they exist today. Buying those packs on ebay certainly couldn’t have set him back much. A current check of ebay offers an unopened pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards for less than two dollars, plus $2.90 for shipping.
The author never actually meets up with several of the “wax packers,” including Pettis, Coleman, and Gooden, for a variety of “excuses”or missed “appointments.” And in the case of Doc, there are implications that he went off the wagon at an inappropriate time. Or perhaps it was simply just the particpiant’s lack of willingness to cooperate, so Balukjian spends entire chapters describing the missed circumstances in detail, or hooking up with relatives or acquaintances while analyzing the player from afar.
His “Moby Dick” becomes Fisk, as this literary Jonah tries to track down his “whale” in Florida to no avail, and later hatches a plan to come face to face during an Induction Weekend up in Cooperstown.
These days, it actually is relatively easy to meet your favorite Hall of Famer during Induction Weekend…for a price. At some of the hotels and memorabilia shops along Main Street, some of the Hall of Famers – and other baseball luminaries, will sign autographs for prices corresponding to their popularity and frequency as signers.
At this weekend event at the historic Tunnicliff Inn, Reggie Jackson was signing for $89, Robin Yount for $85, and a Fisk signature was worth $69.
What Balukjian didn’t know is what is well-known amongst autograph hounds. That Hall of Fame “discount” is partially due to the fact that if you happen to catch Pudge away from the promoters that host these Main Street events, such as on the golf course or elsewhere, Fisk will sign just about anything for a quick $20 donation to his Foundation.
So since the writer and the Hall of Famer never made that connection in Florida, Balukjian’s plan involved buying a greeting card with a written note about the book and dropped in his business card. So when he handed his ’86 Topps card to Fisk to sign – after paying $69 – he actually handed Pudge the card and explained, “Carlton, since you’re probably so tired of everyone asking for your autograph, I thought I’d give you one of mine.”
A somewhat confused Fisk replied, “Umm, thanks.”
Balukjian hoped it would inspire Fisk to call him after the weekend for that interview.
He’s still waiting.
“The Wax Pack” is a journey worth waiting for, worth taking. Enjoy the ride.
And stay safe, stay well during this terrible worldwide crisis.