By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Forty years ago, almost to the day, I had a bad case of the chicken pox. In the midst of my misery my oldest brother walked into the house and tossed a little package to me. The wrapper was red and yellow and had a painting of a catcher pulling off his mask. I took me about two seconds to rip it open. Inside were pieces of cardboard with pictures of baseball players on one side and statistics on the back. I had just received my first pack of baseball cards and I was hooked.
In those days a pack of cards was a dime at the Gary Company Store. Gasoline at Adrian Haynes’ Esso station was about 38 cents a gallon, up from about 32 cents a year earlier, a result of the Arab oil embargo. A postage stamp was eight cents and the best seat at Riverfront Stadium to see the Reds was $5.50.
To fund my hobby I took to collecting pop bottles. The Company Store would give you 5 cents for each one you returned, so two bottles equalled a pack of cards and a six pack meant I could get 30 cards. That’s what I did the summer of ‘73, went all over Gary Bottom, down on the school grounds, everywhere looking for pop bottles. When I’d get two, I’d take them to the store, get the little green ticket from the guy on the loading dock, go around the front of the store, exchange it for a dime and get a pack of cards.
There was always excitement when I got a new pack. There was the smell of the always stale pink strip of bubble gum and then one-by-one I would look at each card, hoping not to get doubles.
I always treated my cards with care. I didn’t put them in the spokes of my bike, flip them, or build card houses. I would keep them sorted, mostly by team, then by number, in a cigar box, or shoe box. I now have them in pages in albums, stored away safely from harm.
Topps was the only company that produced baseball cards at that time. There would be special cards maybe in boxes of Cracker Jacks, on the back of Hostess products, or in cereal boxes, but if it were a “real” card it was Topps. There was one set to collect and you knew what it was.
I have collected cards for the past 40 years and thanks to my Daily Telegraph colleague Wayne Gillespie I am just about to gather the remaining cards I need for several years in the 1970s. Wayne is an avid collector and he has helped me with the ‘73, ‘75, ‘77 and ‘79 sets. I have already completed the ‘76 and ‘78 sets years ago.
While collectors can buy a full set of cards these days, the excitement of card collecting is building a set, opening each pack of cards and putting them in numerical order and seeing what you need to fill out the year. Most of the sets in the ‘70s had 660 cards which meant you had to buy at least 66 packs, but you would have to get many more because there were always doubles. I had a lot of Tom Hall cards in 1973, but I never got Johnny Bench until I bought him at a card store 20 years later. Topps has always maintained that they produced equal numbers of each player, but I still do not believe that.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s card collecting became a big money business and a lot of the fun got away from the hobby as investors took over. However, the fiasco 1994 season in which half the season and World Series was cancelled, card prices went over the cliff and that ‘75 George Brett rookie card I have will never again be what it was worth in 1993. But that is not why I collect.
I and most collectors do so because we love baseball cards.
Today there are too many choices for cards. To be a collector you must focus in on one particular set, brand, or niche unless you have funding from Warren Buffet. I have ceased trying to put together annual sets and focus on my favorite players and in finishing out season collections from my childhood.
There are still many collectors but I believe the younger generation is not picking up on the hobby. With a pack of cards costing northward of $5 in some instances, for maybe five cards. It is cost prohibitive. Also young people are not following baseball as we did as youth 40 years ago.
Card collecting has evolved in the nearly half-century I have been saving them and they will continue to change. But one thing that will never go away is the excitement of opening a pack of cards, or completing a need list. It is just as fun to me today as it was on that late spring day in 1973 when I got my first pack of cards.
Bob Redd is a Daily Telegraph sportswriter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.