Jewish Journal


April 22, 2010

Baseball Cards:  Two Different Stories of Obsession and Fantasy


“Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards” by Josh Wilker (Seven Footer Press: $24.95) is a memoir by a now 41-year-old chronic misfit who relates his journey mostly through baseball card collecting and his worship of his older brother.

Wilker especially enjoyed the cards of the occasional Jewish Major League Baseball player. Wilker grew up with Jewish heritage on his father’s side, but except for the occasional professional athlete who entered his ken, he thought of Jews as World War II concentration camp victims—“thin gray prison-clothed victims.”

Always seemingly offbeat, Wilker grew up with a mother who wanted to live a simple, rural life, so left her urban husband to cohabit with a free-spirited man in Vermont. Finding it difficult to make friends at school or anywhere else, Wilker created a fantasy life built around baseball cards that he bought in bubble-gum packs.

His more athletic, less shy older brother sometimes participated in the baseball card fantasy, other times showed no interest.  Wilker (previously author of three nonfiction books for the juvenile market) related not so much to the all-star players as to the fringe players, those who bounced between the major and minor leagues, or stayed in the majors steadily through persistence and luck, more than overarching skills.

A fan of the Boston Red Sox, Wilker became emotionally attached to one all-star, Carl Yastrzemski, but never dared to hope that Yaz would ever notice. Even into adulthood, Wilker drifted and sometimes depended on illegal narcotics to get through the days. He looked to his brother, his mother, her boyfriend and, eventually, to his biological father for affirmation, but found it only sporadically. Nearly age 40, Wilker finally begins to pull his life together because of the long-time frustrated Boston Red Sox winning a championship , because of meeting a soul mate who would become his wife, because of settling in Chicago, because of making peace of sorts with each of his biological parents, because of re-bonding with his brother, who had also fallen on hard times for a while. 

Those who have never collected baseball cards might find it difficult to comprehend their psychological hold on Wilker. Still, this is a candid, clever account of an extraordinary ordinary life as part of an offbeat family.

Dave Jamieson, in his early thirties now, is the author of “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession” (Atlantic Monthly Press: $25.00). Jamieson collected baseball cards during adolescence, while the memorabilia craze reached its apex of craziness both in its widespread nature and its inflated prices for those who buy and sell. The monopoly held for decades by the Topps baseball card company ended due to government regulatory and judicial rulings. Companies such as Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck rushed into the commercial fray, making collecting more complicated and, for those truly devoted, more exciting.

Jamieson’s book, which is about what he terms “an American obsession,” contains elements of memoir. Mostly, though, it is a straightforward history of the baseball card market, which took root shortly after the American Civil War. Back then, the cards accompanied tobacco products. Later, the cards accompanied bubble gum and other sugary treats. Eventually, the cards themselves became the primary sales item. Not all that many purchasers cared about the gum.

Prices guides for baseball cards became easy to find, starting with James Beckett III, a statistics professor from Bowling Green University. The price lists disseminated in Beckett’s monthly magazine and in annual book form gave confidence even to pre-teens to buy and sell without feeling foolish.

Spending time with collectors, retail dealers, auctioneers, museum curators, manufacturers, baseball players and their union representatives, Jamieson cobbles together an interesting examination of a hobby that turned into big business.

Steve Weinberg is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal.

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