Learning to Baseball 2 – ‘You Lost All Our Cards!’

Steve Wright returns…

As a younger sibling those words, taken from the opening scene of the 1986 New York Mets World Series song, resonated with me. Whoever had been reckless enough to lay that prized collection of baseball cards on the line, that was immaterial, it was surely the role of the older brother to ensure that it didn’t all go wrong. That’s how it works right?

It all began in 1986. As a young teenager in Nottinghamshire my eyes were turning west, attracted by what would become classic 80’s movies and the lycra clad lure of glam rock. The still relatively new Channel 4 (I’m that old that I remember how moving from 3 to 4 TV channels was a really big deal, television that started at breakfast time too) was championing new ideas on UK television and so it was that baseball had come to town, albeit in the middle of the night.

This was something new, exciting and collectable.

I have always been a collector. In my much younger days I maintained a very sensible accumulation of National Savings Certificates. Birthday and Christmas money would arrive from family members and be taken to the Post Office for a new issue of certificates and five years later my money had grown. I suppose it was logical that this should develop, at least briefly, into stamp collecting and before long I was hooked on all sorts of paraphernalia, my frugality a lost gift of childhood.

Anything we can do the Americans can of course do bigger and baseball offered an opportunity for all sorts of shiny memorabilia to catch my eye. Much as I have always enjoyed the Panini sticker collection there was something special about baseball cards. They were sturdier and more satisfying to hold, they contained more information about the player and as a result they seemed to reside at a different level of collectability. Given that the likes of Topps gave cards a good try around the turn of that decade without much success the rest of the UK maybe doesn’t agree.

Stickers continue to thrive over here and the only cards that have now taken off are Match Attax, which (even ignoring the appalling name) are to me too busy on the front and bland on the back. There clearly was a time when UK sports fans enjoyed a good card collection as old sets of cigarette and bubble gum cards attest. These continue to attract collectors but the younger generations have apparently made their feelings known and want something more from the hobby. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing if their cards include a social game, given how selfish being a collector can turn out to be.

One item that has frustratingly never made it to the UK is the Bobblehead, surely every house needs at least one of these magnificent beauties. This is the nation of the garden gnome for pities sake, how have we never cottoned on to the finest example of sporting tatt the world has ever produced?

The bobblehead figure is sometimes given away at special games to the first so many people who turn up, which is another interesting aspect of US sports where they engineer an event out of their contests. Fans are encouraged to arrive early to pick up their figure, or t-shirt, and presumably then end up spending money in the stadium rather than outside. Getting your hands on a wobbly headed Noah Syndergaard here, though, will cost you serious money.

More recently I have been enjoying old baseball photographs. I’m not sure whether it is the nature of the older technology or just the way of life at the time but somehow the stars of old seem to possess a different aura to those of the modern day. These men look like they have worked for their living. They have a rugged, heroic quality that wouldn’t look out of place walking from the pithead after a long, hard shift underground, or carrying an unconscious child from a burning tower. Likewise, the old wooden stadia rendered in fading black and white photographs take on an extra magic; the fields where Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb wrote their legends.

One of the great things about the internet is that you don’t have to actually shell out your hard earned money to collect these photographs yourself, or to make a trip to Cooperstown, you can simply sit back and enjoy the work of numerous excellent Twitter accounts that fill in the game’s photographic history for you to enjoy. Of course the flip side is that you can also access dealers from all over the world that put temptation before you with alarming ease and regularity and every day turns into a battle of will not to put your hand in your pocket.

The latest area that appears to have taken off across all sports is art. Baseball again lends itself perfectly to this genre of collectables and I have been amazed at some of the creativity that has blossomed in a range of different formats. Of course cost can be an issue when you are dealing with something that requires substantial commitment from an artist but what room wouldn’t be improved by one of Sean Kane’s painted classic gloves? I regularly visit his website just to look at the wonderful Willy Mays design he created. The likes of Paine Proffitt and Gypsy Oak also produce wonderful work across a range of sports to brighten up your walls.

I still go back to that song every now and again. “We’ve got the teamwork, to make the dream work. Let’s go, let’s go Mets!”. It’s cheesy beyond belief but it’s all there, the cards, the bobbleheads, Joe Piscopo, Shea and most importantly of all the stars who infuse those things with meaning; Gary Carter, Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez, who I now get to listen to on SNY’s coverage of Mets games via MLB TV.

I’m not sure what it is about collecting that has stuck with me so strongly through each stage of my life. There is something powerful about the possession of things for certain, but perhaps stronger still is the actual process of building and maybe even completing a collection. As I get older the value of simply owning things diminishes, but when those things are so imbued with history and memories that flow out when they are viewed or touched then the magic of lost moments returns. It’s less about possession then and more about nostalgia, which so long as it doesn’t become morbid and stifling is a wonderful thing.

I have a dream. It is not I’m afraid so inspiring as Martin Luther King’s, but I like to think it has some merit. The natural progression of a collector is surely to curate. To collect for a living and on behalf of a community. To lay down their history and pass it on to future generations, to inspire them to join in and make stories of their own. That’s one of the reasons that I write, I believe that there is power in our shared stories, and maybe at its best my collecting springs from the same well of inspiration. Maybe one day that dream will become reality, but in the meantime at least it provides me with the excuse to keep collecting.

Image Copyright: Paine Profitt whose magical work you can buy here.

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