Having been asked to pen a (hopefully) entertaining monthly column on the matter of vintage baseball cards and their collectors, I think it fitting – for my initial foray – to relate the tale of my first pre-war card purchase and the thrill it provided me.
But as the great Yogi Berra was reported to have said to a reporter prior to an interview, "Before I talk to you, I gotta tell you something." Thus, before I start, let’s first examine how such an intrinsically trivial act (buying a card) could provide such a buzz - my amateur attempt at self-psychoanalysis, I suppose. What compels otherwise responsible adults to shell out bodacious cash for little pieces of cardboard featuring pictures of dead white guys on them?
Is it the only means we have of grasping a long bygone era, a remnant of the narratives of our fathers, or the stories we read by lamplight long after our mothers thought we were fast asleep? Shouldn’t we have a personal answer to this question if only to justify our habit to our wives or girlfriends, who often are unable to see any rationale for this hobby and think we’re crazy?
Perhaps the discovery and purchase of these cards is our "archeological dig" into the early days of baseball – with a T206 common being the plentiful arrowhead and an E107 Christy Mathewson the rare intact Etruscan urn. After all, these late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Boys of Summer are, at least to many of us, our cultural equivalent of the Greek Gods – as there is most certainly a mythological aspect to these legendary heroes. What is the word "Ruthian" if not an updated synonym of "Herculean?"
Having spent most of my professional life overseas (China, France, and Africa, to name a few), I ventured back into card collecting about nine years ago when I returned stateside in 2000. I started enthusiastically, albeit predictably, with the late 1950s cards I bought at the drugstore counter way back when, usually with the loose change I had stolen from my mother's handbag. Oh yes, I suppose we collect to recapture those innocent, carefree days of yore – but I digress.
I was bitten by the pre-war card bug suddenly one day about eight years ago when I attended my first ever card show, a small gathering in Northern Virginia. As I recall it, I timidly approach a dealer’s table finding myself within earshot of a conversation he’s having with a potential customer, who is holding a T206 Walter Johnson (portrait). Oh man, Walter Johnson! The nostalgia boom was lowered and smashed me right in the kisser! Obviously not owing to my own memories of the unparalleled hurler known as the "Big Train" was I overcome, but to my father’s, who was born in 1908 and raised in the Washington, D.C. He often regaled me with his remembrances of having gone to Griffith Stadium as a wee lad and witnessing the Big Train’s sizzling buggywhip deliveries.
I overhear the dealer quote him a price of $250 for the card, a princely sum at the time, particularly inasmuch as I had probably never previously purchased any card north of $100. The prospective buyer replies, "If you have it at the next show, I’ll probably take it." At that moment, my eavesdropping (uh, I mean overhearing) morphs into action -- I ask if I can have a look at this gem of a piece of slightly tattered cardboard. Upon closer inspection, it appears to be nice solid example.
I somehow achieve a synaptic bypass, in other words, I avoid the usual question to self, "Are you nuts?," and then say reflexively, "I’ll give you $250 for it," to which the nice man behind the table replies that the "other guy" was another dealer and $250 was a "dealer price" at which he was willing to "flip" the card to him. However, he then utters the magic words, "but if you heard $250, then $250 it is." I quickly stroke the check, giving any modicum of good sense and restraint the proverbial stiff-arm.
I walk out holding the card with a young Walter Johnson staring right back at me, my arm hairs standing on end. That did it, my first hit of crack cocaine from which I have yet to recover. I still get that same feeling each time I look at it.
I am still an addict, with no prospect for recovery or intervention from friends or relatives. I do however still enjoy the companionship of that monkey on my back.
Copyright © 2009 Mike DeNero's Vintage Sportscards, LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.