The summer of '52. Harry Truman was the President of the United States, the Yankees totally dominated baseball, and less than one car in every 100 had air conditioning. In the searing heat of Norman, Oklahoma, you could watch the asphalt bubble on the quiet side streets. A tiny grocery store less than a block from my house started selling red-wrapped packages of chewing gum for five cents. As a bonus, you would also get five baseball cards in the package. The gum frequently melted, sticking to the bottom card of the pack.
Within days the cards were no longer a novelty to me; they were an obsession. While listening to the "Mutual Game of the Day" on the radio I would spread them out in numerical order. Within weeks I had all 80 cards, and began making more sets in batting average order, alphabetical order, team and position order. I memorized the statistics on the back of the cards and watched for those players in the daily box scores.
In July I joined my family on a trip to St. Louis. We were going to see the Cardinals, and, through scheduling luck, they were playing the Dodgers and Giants on successive nights. My uncle Joe provided us with tickets directly behind home plate. The air was a sensual delight: the sound of bat against ball, the smell of the grass and the hot dogs, the feel-somehow intangible-of indescribable excitement. Billy Loes was directly in front of us, playing catch. I walked to the screen and my four-year-old sister, Jill, followed. "Mr. Loes," I called out, "may I have your autograph?" "Mr. Loes, Mr. Loes," Jill echoed.
Loes stopped throwing and walked towards us. I pushed my Billy Loes #20 rookie card through the chicken wire of Sportmans' Park. I wasn't breathing. Loes smiled. "Sorry, they won't let us sign right now," he said.
"Oh, okay," I mumbled. I didn't really care. I had just talked to a major leaguer.
"You've sure got beautiful red hair," Loes said to Jill. She beamed. He gave us a wave and started back towards his game of catch. Billy Loes was my new hero. No doubt about it.
On the long drive from St. Louis back to Norman days later I was never bored. I was reading my baseball cards. After 43 years, it's amazing how much of it I still remember. Does it really say on the back of Mel Parnell's card that he worked in the off season as a pickle salesman? I hope so, because that's how I remember it.
A pleasant surprise was waiting when I returned to Norman. The first pack of cards I bought had a Bob Feller card in it, along with four other new faces. At last, Topps had released a new series!
By the time school started in September, I had collected 25 complete sets from #1 through #130. In addition, I had hundreds of extras. I had no idea that the 1952 Topps set had over 400 different cards in it; no number over #130 ever reached the little store near my house.
In January of 1953 I heard a rumor. A kid at Woodrow Wilson school had been to New York to see his father over the Christmas holidays and had brought back a Mickey Mantle card. A Topps Mickey Mantle. The story (an obvious lie, I thought) was further embellished by the claim that he had turned down a dollar for it. A dollar? No way. A dollar would buy 20 packs, although you couldn't buy more than four at a time or you would have to pay sales tax, which cut into your baseball card purchasing power. Besides, if Mickey Mantle cards really existed then I would eventually get one. Right?
Not right. I never did get one. In fact, I never did even see one until the 1970s when I attended a card show.
But that was all right. There was probably no one at the show besides me who had ever seen 25 1952 Topps sets (plus extras) at one time, let alone owned them.
In the summer of '52 I discovered baseball cards and the joys of collecting. In the decades since then, one thing has become abundantly clear: I am not alone. The fervor for sports cards and memorabilia is not lost with youth, but sustained by the child in us that refuses to yield to time.