Baseball Cards: My Wonder Years

The iconic 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson rookie card, and the Mike Schmidt/Steve Carlton cards. (from Scott Greene's collection)

The Setting: Summer of 1980, Philadelphia, PA, 1 mile from Veterans Stadium

The Participants: Two 5-year-old kids sitting on a step with cardboard boxes and binders

The Offer: My 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson rookie card for his 1980 Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton

My Evaluation: I lost big time giving away the Henderson rookie for cards of two veteran players

My Father’s Evaluation: I did great! I got cards of my two favorite players for one player.

Fast forward 9 years and the Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck card is the talk of a card convention I am attending at a Holiday Inn Hotel in Cherry Hill, NJ. I’m running back and forth from vendor to vendor trying to flip the card I just got out of the pack for enough money to buy more packs to get more cards to sell. The pack cost $2 but if I can get $30 for that Griffey and buy 15 packs, maybe I can pull another two or three Griffey cards to also sell. Tough work for a then-14 year-old but it paid for the clothes and Def Leppard and Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes.

So my first memory of baseball cards is about the joy of sitting around and making trades with friends negotiating to get the cards of players I loved watching and idolized. My last memory was of trying to make money on them before getting into other things that brought me away from them – video games, work, girls, school, teenage stuff. Not saying those things are mutually exclusive but, as I got older, I let my collecting days fade away.

Those cards that I have from a kid – the Junk Wax Era I believe they’re called – are in a closet in the bedroom where I grew up at my parents’ house. Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, Score, Sportflics, even some Hoops and ProSet. And inside those boxes house memories for me of the players that I grew up with – Jose Canseco, Will Clark, Bo Jackson, for example. Then there are the failed investments of 100-card-lots of such names like Scott Scudder, Jerome Walton, Oddibe McDowell, Bip Roberts, Dwight Smith, etc. – all the players whose cards would pay for my big house in the suburbs and allow me to retire earlier than I can possibly imagine. Like everyone around my age, it didn’t quite work out as I had originally planned.

I haven’t really thought much about baseball cards until recently. More specifically, I hadn’t thought about them until about a month ago when our leader, Scott Greene, had another one of his #ScottyBallgameBreaks. I’ve seen card breaks in passing and even watched a few of them and thought it was a neat concept but never got in one. But then I came across an image of this year’s Topps Heritage cards, which are based on the Topps 1971 design. Those cards always looked very sharp and neat to me. Clean pieces, as I like to say. I never owned any of those cards growing up though. My favorite player was Mike Schmidt, whose rookie card wasn’t out until 1973. The other players I liked either retired before 1971 (Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle) or started way after that year so I never had any reason to own any of them.

But now with the Heritage set, I may not be able to own an original Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente from that year but I can actually own a sweet Bryce Harper based on that same design. Or rather a “Bam Bam” Harper nickname variation card, which I scored during Scott’s card break of that set.

2020 Topps Heritage Bryce Harper nickname variation

I’m slowly treading back into collecting. I dug out my old Schmidt binder which has all the cards I own of him. Anyone remember the 7-11 Slurpee coins? Or the Drakes cards? I joined another break with Scott, this time with the Topps Gypsy Queen cards and scored a nice Corey Dickerson autographed black and white card from it. We’ll see what else comes down the line.

Tony’s 2020 Topps Gypsy Queen Corey Dickerson black & white autograph, courtesy #ScottyBallgameBreaks

I’ve come full circle, too. Rather than trying to sell the Harper or Dickerson, I am proudly displaying them on my memorabilia shelves and talking to my son about the beauty of cards and the game of baseball itself. You know how they say baseball is a great father-and-son connector? Well back in 1980 when my friend ripped me off for the Henderson card, I would never think that I would be the father part of that connector but the theory is true. My kid loves the Harper card with the Bam Bam name on it. We both actually laugh about it together. He looked at me yesterday and said he misses baseball and that he thought the Phillies would win the World Series this year and next year and the year after that. I didn’t want to crush his dreams by telling him something like that hasn’t happened since the Yankees of 1998 through 2000 and that the Phillies could use more pitching and overall depth. But why cloud his brain with those little details? He misses going to games and buying the team-issued card sets they sell at the ballpark. I cherish those $10 cards knowing they are just as important to my son as those Mike Schmidt cards were to me when I was his age. When the games start back up, I’m going to get two sets this year. One for him and, this time, one for me.

And looking back on that trade I made in 1980? My dad was right.

Tony Bps Spina is a lifelong baseball fan hailing from the City of Brotherly Love - Philadelphia! Tony has loved baseball since 1980 and has followed the Phillies through good and bad times. Tony is married with 3 kids and works for a financial institution but has enough free time to play in 20 fantasy baseball leagues with 75% of them being Dynasty Leagues. He lives a few blocks away from Citizens Bank Park and attends many Phillies games per year in addition to their minor league teams in Lehigh Valley and Reading. He can be reached on Twitter at @TonyBps1.

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