With my recent eBay obsession I’ve been digging into my childhood collection of trading cards. What started innocently enough with Topps baseball cards in 1986 turned into a full-blown addiction where I’d spend my entire $8/month allowance in a single Friday night at the Alcove Hobby shop on Woodward Ave.
Now I have no attachment to the cards and they’re simply taking up room in the basement. The only reason I still have them is because everyone my age grew up hearing the stories of attics full of Mickey Mantle rookie cards someone’s mother threw away. So everyone my age has a closet, basement, or attic stocked with cards they desperately hope will be worth more than a penny a piece. With most of my cards now 10-15 years old and still worth pennies, it’s not likely they’ll ever be worth anything.
Today I walked into Shinders, a comic book and sports card shop, and I saw packs of baseball cards I snatched up as a kid for as much as $1 a pack going for 29 cents. I was briefly tempted to buy a pack to remember the nostalgia of opening pack upon pack of baseball cards. But only briefly.
As I’ve been pouring through my collection and revisiting a sports card shop, I can’t quite figure out what I saw in baseball cards. I liked baseball at the time, and rooted for the Detroit Tigers. But I really didn’t know anything about baseball. I didn’t follow the sport, I didn’t know half the players, I didn’t know who all the rookies were. I think the cards were simply a collection to me, which is why I so quickly transitioned to racing cards and diecast when I got into NASCAR.
I collected a lot of things as a kid, from the requisite rock collection, to baseball cards, sea shells, animal postcards, Matchbox and Hotwheels cars, and even stamps and coins for very brief stints. I think baseball cards were probably ideal because they were so ordered. I could sort them by number or team, put them in albums or store them in plastic boxes. When I think about it, that’s all I ever did with my baseball cards. It’s not like you ever looked at your baseball cards just to look at them, you had to sort them, order them, rank them. I don’t even think I bothered trading my cards much.
But what really made baseball cards, and later racing cards, so addictive was the lottery-like nature of opening a pack. There’s a certain thrill in opening a wax pack of 10 or 12 or 15 random baseball cards. You could get that lucky card that completes your collection. Or more likely, that big money card. And if you came up short, Topps gave you a crusty stick of sugary gum to help heal the loss of not scoring big.
I think that’s what baseball card collecting was for me — hoping I’d strike it rich. Which is funny, because it was always a some day pay-off. I rarely sold my baseball cards or cashed in on that big money card. Occasionally I did sell some cards off, but that immediate pay-off wasn’t in mind when I’d open a pack and find a Don Mattingly. I imagined myself years from now, selling the card for hundreds of dollars and being incredibly wealthy. Now here I am at that exact age I imagined myself, and my Don Mattingly card is worth a few bucks, just like it was in 1987.
It seems odd to me that much of my childhood was spent collecting things I could one day cash in on. Now that I’m cashing in, and getting so much less cash than my 10-year-old mind imagined, it’s strangely hollow. I’ll buy a computer with my earnings and a few years later the computer will be ready for eBay, and I’ll be starting over. It’s almost Ecclesiastical.