Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Article: What's in the Cards?

This article was originally printed in the July 14, 1986 edition of Sports Illustrated.  A transcription of the text is after the jump...


In 1979 I spent most of my spare time doing research for what I hoped, as a passionate fan of the N.Y. Yankees, would be a book reporting the team's triumphal march to a third consecutive world championship. It was not to be a Yankee year, however. They fell out of pennant contention early in the summer, and by the time September rolled around, I found myself so confused over how to get a grip on the season that I was forced to retreat into the world of my baseball cards.

Back in May and June of that season, I'd gone on a spree of buying cards. One of the prices I'd paid for not becoming a fan until late in my childhood was that I missed out on the card-collecting stage. Anyway, I couldn't have been a collector even if I'd wanted to. As I learned years later, because of wartime shortages virtually no baseball cards were printed between 1941 and 1948.

So I'd never traded cards with my friends—five Snuffy Stirnweisses for one Ted Williams, or a Ted Kluszewski for a Hank Sauer. I'd never flipped cards competitively, odds against evens. I'd never squirreled away in shoe boxes tall rubber-banded stacks of cards, which, dug out decades later, might contain treasures worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, not to mention an afternoon's worth of Proustian evocativeness. (The most valuable baseball card in existence, the famous T-206 depicting Honus Wagner, the Flying Dutchman, is, if in mint condition, worth as much as $20,000.) So even at the age of 44, I found it difficult to look at a package of bubble-gum cards without feeling a sense of having missed out on something.

One afternoon early in the '79 season, when the garish display of baseball cards on the counter of my local stationery store had as usual caught my eye, I found myself explaining to the two proprietors my need to do some intensive research in the field of baseball. Even though they looked at me curiously, I scooped up about five dollars' worth of cards along with my afternoon paper.

I was interested to see how my collection would evolve. I had often heard that it was the practice of Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. to print fewer cards of the better players. How else to explain why the ones that had most increased in value over the years were the Cobbs, Ruths, DiMaggios and Mantles? Scarcity of supply had to be at least a part of it. The theory had even been asserted in print. In a quirky 1977 memoir called Baseball and the Cold War: Being a Soliloquy on the Necessity of Baseball, the author, one Howard Senzel—a disillusioned veteran of New Left politics but also an unreconstructed fan of his hometown baseball team, the Rochester Red Wings—claimed to have seen the uncut sheets of cards that his father, an employee of the firm that did Topps's printing, would occasionally bring home from the office. Sure enough, Senzel insisted, on each sheet of cards some of the mediocre players' images were duplicated. The game was rigged!

Because of this, I assumed that as I accumulated cards by buying random packs every time I went into my stationery store, the least represented players would be the Steve Garveys, the Willie Stargells and the Rod Carews, while those who piled up quickest would be the nonentities who played for weaker teams like Toronto, Seattle, Atlanta and San Diego. But that wasn't the way it worked out.

By the end of May, I had collected about 2,500 cards. Putting them in order had given me something to do while listening to the late-night broadcasts of Yankee games from the West Coast.
It looked at first as if my collection was heavily weighted with lesser-known players, since among the most frequent repetitions were Mike Phillips of St. Louis (12 duplicates), Tucker Ashford of San Diego (11), Barry Bonnell of Atlanta (11), Jim Mason of Texas (10), Tom House of Seattle (9), Balor Moore of Toronto (9) and Wayne Gross of Oakland (8). All of these players were obscure, at least to me. In fact, out of the 765 most common players in my collection, 567 could be described as either journeymen or relative nonentities.

On the other hand, I hadn't exactly proved that Topps weighted its print runs. For among my duplicates were 10 Vida Blues, 9 Rick Mondays, 8 Joe Morgans, 8 Tom Seavers, 8 Lee Mazzillis, 7 Steve Garveys, 7 Rick Burlesons, 7 Dave Lopeses, 7 Jim (Catfish) Hunters, 7 Reggie Jacksons, 6 Fred Lynns, 5 Rod Carews, 5 Dave Parkers, and 4 Pete Roses. In fact, you could field a pretty fair all-star team from among these repetitions.

What's more, I couldn't spot any pattern when I judged my collection in the light of team competence. Of my 765 most duplicated cards, 347 represented teams in the top half of their respective divisions, while 418 played for teams in the bottom half. As for the balance between extremes: my multiples included 129 players from first-place teams and 125 from last-place teams, so there was no visible trend in terms of team ability. In fact, the only pattern I could see was that I seemed to be accumulating players from the National League West Division, of which I had 287, faster than I was collecting players from any other division, and more than twice as fast as I was gathering players from the National League East, of which I had 117. Since I'd bought all my cards in the East, where collectors were least likely to want Western Division players, this made small sense from a conspiracy theorist's perspective, unless perhaps the Topps company was trying to promote increased contact between the two parts of the country by flooding each with what the other most desired.

Nor was there any pattern apparent when I considered the cards I was still missing. By the middle of June, when my collection was approaching 2,700, the number of players I lacked had shrunk to a mere 13. These could fairly be described as a mixture of stars and mortals. Among the stars were Don Gullett of the Yanks, Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox, Jim Palmer of the Orioles and Dave Kingman of the Cubs. Among the mortals—at least up to that point in their careers—were Angel catcher Brian Downing, the Tigers' Steve Kemp, Bob Knepper and Jack Clark of the Giants, Steve Braun of the Royals, Jim Slaton and Bob McClure of the Brewers and Larry Milbourne of the Mariners. Also missing was the team picture of the Cincinnati Reds. For me this clinched the case that the printings were not weighted. Whatever value these cards might assume in the future, it would have little to do with supply and everything to do with demand.

This didn't mean that these 13 cards hadn't already assumed greater value for me. In fact, like so much else in life, they had begun to grow more desirable the instant I sensed their scarcity. What had started out as a diversion took on the character of an obsession. Where once I'd stooped to picking up a couple of packs whenever I had more important business at my local stationery store, now I began dropping by with no purpose other than to buy more cards. As inconspicuously as possible, I would comb the store's display case, checking the single visible card in each package to see if I could find one I was missing. Soon the two proprietors had caught the spirit of the hunt and were pulling out their backup supplies for my inspection.

By the end of June, my foraging had yielded Downing, Kemp, Yastrzemski, Knepper, Braun, Slaton, McClure and the team picture of the Cincinnati Reds. But the size of my collection now surpassed 3,000 cards. These had cost me more than $60. With only five cards left to go, I was beginning to feel as if I were trying to swat a fly with a battleship.

So I yielded to a final loss of shame. I'd shared my project with my daughter, and she picked up the spirit of the chase. She had dropped news of her father's obsession into the network of her third-grade classmates, many of whom were traders and flippers. One thing led to another, and on a Saturday morning early in July, I escorted two fellow collectors into my study, neither of them over four feet tall. Some brief bargaining ensued, and for the price of a few duplicates, among them Steve Ontiveros of the Chicago Cubs, I acquired Gullett, Kingman and several vague but enthusiastic promises. Two days later, there arrived in the mail an envelope embossed with the six names of a law partnership. Certain that I was to be sued for something, I anxiously tore out the letter and read the following, neatly typed on the firm's stationery:

Enclosed please find baseball cards—Jim Palmer and Jack Clark—in full consideration for Mr. Ontiveros.
Very Truly Yours,

There followed the signature of one of the firm's partners, whose name I now recognized from my Saturday trading session with his son. Things had clearly gone far enough. Even though I was still missing Milbourne of the Mariners.

But before emerging from this world, I decided to see what I could learn from the cards about reality. Since they were numbered randomly, the first thing I did was to rearrange the entire collection into teams. Then I read the biographical and statistical information printed on the back of each player card. Finally, I culled the cards of the teams that were still in the race in early September and arranged their first-string players on a series of imaginary diamonds.

This got me started, at least. There were many players I'd never heard of before, mostly because they had never played against the Yankees. From the statistical summaries on the backs of the cards, I could tell the veterans from the hopefuls, the superstars from the supernumeraries. But the yield of information was limited. The stats might tell you that a team had a lot of power hitters or strikeout pitchers, but they told you nothing of game-winning hits or strikeouts with runners on base.

In fact, the clearest picture you got from the cards was one of how the teams had been built and thus of how stable they might be. At one end of this scale were the Texas Rangers, who after the Topps people had gone to press the previous winter, had wheeled and dealed so frantically that much of the team had changed. By the time I'd finished matching Ranger players into the team's media-guide roster, I had an assortment of Yankees, Indians and a Padre, as well as half a dozen Rangers who had been playing with the team only a season or so. Near the other end of the stability scale were the Cincinnati Reds, made up of eight players who had spent their entire careers with the Reds and six others who had been with them for over five years.

But if you looked at how all the teams were doing, stability didn't seem to be a factor. True, Texas was nearly out of the race in the AL West Division, while Cincinnati was close to the top of the NL West. And stable Pittsburgh was winning the NL East, while labile Atlanta was trailing badly in the NL West. But California, a very unstable team when it came to developing its own players, was winning the AL West, while Kansas City, the very model of stability, with 14 players that had started out with the team and five more that had been on board for more than five years, was trailing the Angels by four games. And no one had been more unstable in recent years than the Yankees, and no one had done as well, except maybe Los Angeles, a stable team that was doing badly this year.

So there was only so much to be gleaned from the cards about the true characters of the teams. You had to read the box scores and baseball news in the daily papers and the weekly periodicals. You had to go to the games or watch them on television. So I did something entirely new for me. I began to follow baseball objectively, and to look at the game as if it wasn't played only by the New York Yankees. In short, I became a complete fan.

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