It’s the time of year when boys of all ages find their thoughts anchored on something besides Russian collusion, the IRS, and just how much Trump paid Stormy Daniels. Come April, I think of baseball cards from back in the day, and what they still mean to me.
You can trust it when I say that Greg Hoard and I talk to each other almost everyday. Occasionally it’s about the business of writing, travel, or schedules, but usually it’s about baseball and baseball things.
You see, we each played high school and college baseball. And we each had our fling around professional baseball, he as a beat writer for the Reds (Cincinnati Enquirer), and I called balls and strikes for the better part of eight seasons in the minor leagues. So it’s only natural that when we meet, in person or by phone, we talk baseball.
I know his favorite glove – the Wilson A2000. Mine was a MacGregor model, the one that Dodger pitcher Don Sutton used for several years.
I know his favorite baseball (the actual baseball) – the Wilson A1010 model, because the seams lent themselves to pitchers, and Hoard and I were both pitchers. And I like the Wilson ball fine, but my favorite was actually the old MacGregor Model 97 that the Big Ten used for years – for nostalgia more than the ball itself.
And we also talk often about baseball cards, because Hoard talks tough, but inside he’s really a softy on the fonder items of his youth; and baseball cards were among them – the ’57 Rocky Colavito Topps card, the ’59 Orlando Cepeda card, the Mantle cards of the early 60s, and of course, the iconic Stan Musial card from 1958 – a thing of beauty.
But my taste in cards might surprise you, because I came by having them quite by accident. Actually, I was in the second grade at Chesapeake East Elementary in 1960 when an older boy who rode the bus with me, Gerry Jerrells, gave me my first baseball card. Jerrells and some of the other older boys would spend their lunch money on cards at a local dime store during noon, and discuss and swap them back and forth on the bus ride home. One day he gave me a 1960 Topps Roy McMillan, the old Reds shortstop, because he had so many duplicates of that card.
I was a Reds fan back then, of course, and man how I cherished that card. Because of it McMillan became my favorite Reds player of all-time (still is), and when he was traded later that winter (to the Milwaukee Braves for Joey Jay on December 12, 1960) I literally cried. Worse, I hated Joey Jay, even with the success he would have for the Reds, because of Roy McMillan.
I never had any extra money to buy cards with, and back then a pack of ten Topps cards (with gum) cost a nickel, I think. Occasionally, when I’d go to town with my grandmother she’d visit Mary Dowling’s general store, and Mrs. Dowling sold baseball cards. I’d always come home with a couple of packs, fragrant with the unmistakable odor to Topps bubble gum, and I kept those cards for years, even though I never actually had that many – maybe a couple hundred. Later, in college, I came to meet Doak Ewing, from Cambridge, Ohio, and we became close friends (still are) because Doak was a big-time card collector, and to this day owns one of the five best collections in America. I wouldn’t begin to guess how much his collection is actually worth.
But over the years I would cling to this card, or that card, for one reason or another. Sometimes it was the design itself. Sometimes it was the player. And as luck would have it I was fortunate enough over the years to actually meet some of the people on my favorite cards, and I share some of those with you here.
Foremost was former Washington Senator and Twins slugger, Harmon Killebrew, who was one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known. And my favorite Killebrew card was the old ’59 Topps, with the circle framing the player’s image, and the capital building in the bottom left with a block ‘W’ over it. Priceless. It’s worth about $125 now, in mint shape. When Killebrew came to Troy, Ohio in 1998 for an art show honoring fellow Minnesotan David Maass, I showed him that card.
“You know,” that’s my favorite card, too,” he shared. “I always liked that picture and the royalties we got from the sale of those cards by Topps helped my wife and me to set up housekeeping. We were young and didn’t have any money, and you didn’t make much money playing for the Senators. Every little bit you could make extra really helped back then.”
Another card from that same year was that of a little-known pitcher for the old New York Giants named Marv Grissom. Grissom happened to be with the Cardinals in 1959, and his image framed by that pink background always stood out to me.
Of course, Wally Post’s cards were always special to me because I met him at my first-ever major league game in the spring of 1962, he actually gave me a baseball out of the dugout and took the time to visit with me, my dad, and my Little League coach. Technically, the best Post card of all is the 1957 Topps, followed by the ’59, but this 1962 model is special because that was the year I had the encounter with him at old Crosley Field. Good times!
A favorite for a different reason were the cards of old Cleveland catcher Duke Sims, the first professional baseball player that I ever met in person…when he played Double A baseball for the old Charleston Indians, in Charleston, West Virginia. My mom’s cousin once took me a game there at the original Watt Powell Park and introduced me to Sims when I was about eight years old. He later had a pretty good big league career with the Indians, the Tigers, and Dodgers.
Finally, if I had to pick one more card that stands out as a favorite it would my 1965 Topps Vada Pinson card, the old Reds centerfielder and one of the most elegant outfielders to play the position, ever. Pinson signed that card for me at old Crosley Field during a rain delay in the spring of 1968.
Most of them are still in a box up in my office, and yes…I occasionally get them out and think of the day when I either got the card or met the player on that card. It’s as clear still as the moment it happened. And by the way…the cards back then were far superior to the action image cards that Topps sells today. They were posed portraits that we memorized because it was the only means we had of knowing what Roy McMillan looked like. And I’ll never forget – slight in build, wiry, squinty eyes, and those horn-rimmed glasses that he wore.
In fact, he reminds me a little of Greg Hoard. Good field, and no hit!