Sixty years later, I smiled at the story of buying my first “baseball card”, how much does it cost compared to the present, and an interested adult at least wondered at the time…are baseball cards a good thing for children?
Slow news day, someone wrote last week, Related to our coverage of Major League Baseball?
Let me digress for a few lines regarding yesterday’s news coverage of the 8% national inflation rate, the cost of gas, and people’s fear of things yet to come.
While searching through an old box of things this week, I found a small bundle that survived 60 years of adolescence, college, adult lives, kids, homes, moving, and changing priorities. It was a box of baseball cards…a bit of a childhood that survived all of that, out of sight, out of mind, and out of this world for its relevance and comparison to the current economy.
Mine is hardly collectible. When I put these special cards away years ago, I tossed them in a drawer with a rubber band wrapped around them. If you rank them today, collectors will say they are worthless – the corners are curved, the picture is faded, the imprint of that rubber band.
But the story of how I got it is a testament to the passage of time, especially to anyone who still buys baseball cards… The cost of a baseball card now is very different than it did in 1960, when I bought it by the group for a nickel and got six cards and an old flat piece of gum .
Now you buy them in complete sets, or what’s called a value pack of select cards, for $50, $60, $70, and even hundreds of dollars…and no gum.
But once, when I was in the third grade, I bought my first package of 1960 Topps baseball cards at Mary Dowling General Store, in Chesapeake, Ohio… and the thrilling experience of sitting on the front steps of her store and peaking in a package of wax paper to see – to dream – get On a copy of the Cincinnati Reds player… say Fada Benson or Roy Macmillan or Frankie Robinson.
I was bitten the year before, in my sophomore year, on a school bus trip home from Chesapeake East Elementary when one of my older fifth grade boys, Jerry Girls, gave me some duplicate cards from packs they had bought over the afternoon hour. At that time you can leave the school grounds and go across the street to a gas station and buy a bottle of pop and “moon pie” for lunch. That thought perished today. And one of those cards they gave me was Roy Macmillan in 1959, when he was playing for the Reds. Because of that, Roy Macmillan became my favorite red, because he looked like a nice guy, and he looked special wearing those horny-rimmed glasses.
It was a Saturday morning, school was outside, and I went to the Chesapeake with my mom and grandmother to go grocery. The Dowlings store was across the street and up the street, and I had begged my grandmother for a dollar bill—to buy some baseball cards. She was generous in giving me a dollar, but she is suspicious. She mixed baseball cards with playing cards, playing cards were used for gambling, and she was vehemently against it. But she gave me the dollar.
Then, I had to convince my mom that a dollar spent on baseball cards wouldn’t plunge us into financial ruin. It even happened that I owed it to my father, who explained to her, “It’s just the pictures of baseball players we listen to on the radio. They’re harmless, and if that’s how he wants to spend his money, he’ll have to live with his choice—that or something else.” , but not both.”
Mrs. Dowling ran the store herself. Everything that came in and out of the door caught her attention. And while she loved the fact that boys buy baseball cards (it was a sale you wouldn’t otherwise have), nickel was still a huge problem for an adult who grew up in the times of the Great Depression, just 30 years before. To her they were just ridiculous baseball cards, a waste of a perfectly good nickel!
But I proudly entered her store and picked a handful of bundles from the open box of Topps cards on her counter–they’re worth about fifty cents. She wanted to sell, but she said to me, “I want to talk to your mom before you buy it. Did you know you spend 50 cents on baseball cards?”
I was terrified. What if I get this wrong? A curious old woman… ruined my big day on Mrs. Dowling’s concern about baseball cards – impractical spending that could lead to something worse… and ultimately eternal condemnation.
But my mom saved me.
“I don’t care if she has it,” she said when she finally made her way from the groceries and came to find me. That’s all he’s been talking about since spring. Baseball and baseball cards. Maybe we’ll get some peace once he gets tired of them.”
The purchase was complete, I rushed to the stairs outside and couldn’t wait to see who I got. Carefully opening the wax paper, the first card was the giant catcher Hobie Landreth’s card. Now, Hobie Landreth was a good player, I think, but what a disappointment. In fact, the entire package was a disappointment. The only name she’s ever known is Nellie Fox, an old White Sox Shortstop, and future Hall of Fame.
But I had another nine bundles of hope, and I opened them all up by the time we got home. To my eternal joy…there were two Reds, but no Frank Robinson and Vada Benson. To my temporary disappointment…most of the cards seemed to be from players who played in MLS, guys I didn’t know because I couldn’t listen to MLS matches on my transistor radio. There was John Romano (Cleveland), leaving the Lone (White Sox), and other good guys, but not what I was expecting.
All these memories came back to me as I carefully sorted out those old cards. Not all of them had been from that day at Mrs. Dowling’s house, but contrary to what my mother had thought… I never got tired of looking at them and devouring the personal and statistical information on their back.
I’ll leave you with this. If this story happened in 2022, where a chest of Topps cards (complete set) cost $199.00, there would be no story. No suspense, no excitement, no Mary Dowling. I don’t know what the inflation rate is compared to 1960. But it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t buy them.
Cards were cool at the time because they were close-ups where you could actually see what the players looked like – their features, Roy Macmillan’s trumpet-rimmed glasses. They seemed like people you could actually talk to – and who worked off-season at the post office to feed their families. Cards now feature motion graphics that sparkle, sparkle and are even 3D. I’m sure nothing raises the price, and the end result.
inflation? We never heard of it at the time.
All we know is that a pack of baseball cards… costs a nickel.
And I never got a Frank Robinson card!