As a boy, I loved collecting baseball cards. It all started with Post Cereal boxes, which, in my family, almost meant my passion's immediate undoing. You see, my father dictated the kinds, amounts, and procedures involved with the cereals we ate. Dad was a brand loyalist in all the products of his life. And according to him, Kellogg’s was the only brand to buy. Not only were their Corn Flakes superior to Post’s “Toasties,” Post had no equivalent at all for his other two favorites: Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies.
I considered Post like I did invaders from another planet: scary yet tempting to look at. Post offered Sugar Krisps and Alpha-Bits, and they also had something called Grape-Nuts, a concept that I couldn’t quite grasp—exactly where were the grapes?—in the same way that I couldn’t fully understand the concept of a mule.
I don’t know what exactly inaugurated Dad’s love for Kellogg’s, but somehow it got aligned with his other brand loyalties: General Motors, Nabisco cookies, the Green Bay Packers, the Army (vs. the Navy), and Alabama football. To him, these entities were right, true, even noble—like John Wayne in Red River—whereas pulling for the Cleveland Browns while driving a Ford to the store to buy Post Raisin Bran was tantamount to communism.
But baseball cards were another story, and lamentably, it was Post cereals who offered them—eight cards on the back of every box. In the only form of compromise my father would allow, IF he consented to a Post product, I and I alone was responsible for seeing the cereal through to my stomach, and beyond, down to the very last Bit in every box. And the rule in our house was that no more than two boxes of cereal could be opened at any one time.
How badly did I want those cards? I might have accepted trying spinach, even liver, if only he’d agree.
I promised him I’d never complain about taste or sogginess, and that I’d finish every bowl I started. So with my first box of Alpha-Bits—a box I carefully selected in Bruno’s market one Friday morning—came the cards I coveted, my beloved Yankees: Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer, and…Ralph Terry. No one told me then, and I wouldn’t discover it for almost ten years, that two years earlier, Ralph Terry gave up the winning World Series home run to Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who, in a quirk of fate, was also on the very same cereal box.
Upon arriving home from the grocery store with my prized box, I immediately ran for the scissors.
“What are you about to do?” My mother’s alarm rang through the kitchen.
“Um, cut my cards off the back of the box?”
“No you aren’t! Your Daddy said you can’t have the cards until you eat all the cereal. Besides, what would happen to the box and the cereal if you cut off the entire backside?”
Is there anything worse than rules and logic and baseball cards?
“Uh Mom? What’s for lunch?”
“Don’t even think about it!”
It took two weeks for me to finish the Alpha-Bits, but I did, and so my collection began. Usually, I was able to follow the rules, and over the weeks of that summer of Post, I got other “interesting” cards—players whose names I often couldn’t read because someone at Post thought it might be fun or more authentic to have each player sign the card in cursive. So Dick Howser, who played for Kansas City became Dick $%#@* until Dad clarified it for me, and Eddie Yost, of the L.A. Angels was E(&**^ Y**&). Fortunately, Post couldn’t disguise Willie Mays and Brooks Robinson, my other prize cards that year.
Alpha-Bits wore on me, though, so I began venturing out into Sugar Krisp land. This was before “Sugar Bear” became a commercial icon, but it didn’t matter to me because the box in question had Elston Howard on it, the new and celebrated Yankee catcher—the first African-American to make the Yankees’ starting lineup. At this point, I had discovered that Jell-O also put baseball cards on the back of its boxes, too, and from eating lime, strawberry, and even orange-pineapple Jell-O, I eventually scored Roger Maris, Tom Tresh, and Whitey Ford. But Elston was my real need, so Hail, Sugar Krisps!
It’s a sad thing, though, about Elston. Not as a player, though his career wasn’t terribly long. It was the Krisps. You’d think that anything called “Krisps” (even with a “K”), would retain its shape and texture for at least the three minutes it took to eat a bowl full. And of course, to get to the cards faster, I would try to down the biggest bowl I could. I wouldn’t add much milk, but even a spoonful was too much for Krisps. Calling them soggy would be like calling the Yankees a “good” team. I can only describe Sugar Krisps in milk after 30 seconds as having the texture AND taste of cardboard. On three successive mornings I tried, and failed to make it through a bowl.
Such a waste, my parents said, as they dumped out my bowl. They wouldn’t force me to eat the mess, but neither would they let me talk them into buying Sugar Krisps again. Ultimately, they tossed the box in the garbage.
I had rarely felt such sadness—I was only five, after all—as I did that day, saying goodbye to Elston in his pin stripes and blue Yankee hat with that beautiful NY emblazoned on it. His mesmerizing dark eyes complemented his brown skin as they stared back at me from the garbage can, making me believe that I had betrayed him, the Yankees, all of baseball, and perhaps something even greater.
Over the next few years, my card collection swelled into the hundreds. While Post ceased producing cards after the following season, my friend Steve introduced me to bubble-gum cards which we could buy at a variety of local outlets, my favorite place being Stull’s Highland Bakery. Stull’s was strategically located a half block from both my grammar school and church. While I couldn’t stop in every day after school, or every Sunday after church, its proximity offered enough chances to make me happy and to imperil my parents’ sanity and monthly budget.
Packages of cards usually cost five cents each and contained five cards, one stick of bright pink, sugar dusted bubble gum, and a commemorative coin or stamp of some famous player or World Series scene. Occasionally, packs sold a penny a piece, containing one card and one stick of gum. Once, on my birthday, our maid Dissie gave me twenty-seven cents to use for cards. I went to Stull’s and asked for twenty-five penny cards. The saleswoman knew me so well that she wasn’t even exasperated when I put the twenty-seven pennies on the counter. As she neared the end of the counting, she said, “You’ve got enough to get one more pack. You want it?” I was so eager that I never thought about the foolishness of such a question.
When I got back to the car, my mother waiting patiently the whole while, I immediately opened my gold mine of cards. And almost as immediately emitted an earth-shattering howl, fell to the car floor in pain and dismay, and cried for all I was worth.
“For Heaven’s sakes, what is the matter with you?” my mother said.
“They’re all doubles,” I yelled back through my rage and tears, meaning that I already owned the cards of Smoky Burgess, Dick Stuart, and yes, what I think was my twenty-third Bill Mazeroski.
It hadn’t occurred to me then that the cards were also called “trading” cards, and most kids didn’t mind getting “doubles” which they would then bargain away. Of course, other than Steve, most of my friends didn’t collect cards; most threw them away, enjoying only the sugar-saturated wall of hot pink gum. And Steve, when we finally did trade, always got the best of me, usually a two-for-one deal—say, his Ernie Banks for my Boog Powell and Don Drysdale. Because he was older he could wear me down with his persuasive techniques, which often included threatening to punch me in the arm.
But while I lost these battles, I was set on winning the war, or rather the race to see who could get the most cards. My secret weapon was a baseball magazine where I discovered that I could order the cards directly from the TOPPS company. I can’t believe that my parents consented to this, but they actually sent a check to TOPPS to pay for my order and the specific cards I wanted. Only I didn’t order specific players; I ordered the cards by the number on the back of the card. I asked for cards 550 through 700—numbers that neither Steve nor I yet owned. I was so excited because I knew that while Steve might hit me again, he would eventually have to admit defeat and proclaim me the champion card collector.
It didn’t occur to me, however, that there were only so many players in the Major Leagues, and thus, only so many cards. Back then, like everything else in my world, baseball seemed composed of infinite numbers and design. How could there be limited cards? TOPPS did send me what it could, but the series ended at card number 598. And by that point, summer had also ended. Though I didn’t win my personal race with Steve, the Yankees won the World Series again. Sadly for me, this would be their last World Series title for fifteen years.
The next spring I also learned that with each new season came a new series of cards, just because TOPPS liked me so much. [Still later, when the market became flooded with other card companies, each manufacturer would produce several series a season, and so the endless supply that I thought existed became something of a reality. But by then, I was on to comic books.] And my family members—even my Nanny, my Mother’s mother—though not wealthy, could always find some pennies in their pockets or purses to indulge my obsession.
My whining for new cards didn’t always work, though. Not every whim can be indulged, after all, as I learned decades later when I became a father myself and had to say "No" to the endless requests for Barbie doll outfits and accessories. Oddly, I've never lamented the dearth of baseball cards in my daughters' years of growing up, for having girls has compensated me in ways I could never have imagined. And both daughters are unabashed Yankee fans, accompanying me several times to that Baseball-Mecca, Yankee Stadium. Still, I certainly commiserated then with my parents who suffered through my pouting, my screaming, my petulance, and my projections that they, of all parents in this world, were absolutely the meanest and most unloving.
While still in grammar school and still in the throes of my card-collecting passion, I suffered other fevers. I seemed to catch every bad germ that came through the school door: earaches, strep throat, bronchitis, general sinus conditions, measles (both kinds) chicken pox, and of course, the dreaded stomach bugs. Being sick in bed, sometimes for whole weeks, had advantages other than missing school: I got more baseball cards, sometimes a new pack every day.
Once, when I was sick in bed on a Sunday, my parents and brother went without me on the weekly trip to visit my “other grandmother,” my dad’s mother. This Sunday ritual was so sacred that only a 102- degree fever could excuse my not going, so my parents left me in the care of my Nanny who had to be at church for a couple of hours that afternoon to cook for the Youth fellowship supper, leaving me for that time in bed alone. Which was really OK with me because, before he left, Dad moved his radio into my bedroom so I could listen to the broadcast of the Yankee-White Sox game. One of Birmingham’s stations carried the Sox broadcast since Birmingham’s minor league team, the Barons, was affiliated with Chicago. Sick as I was, I was also delirious to be listening uninterrupted to Sox announcer Milo Hamilton calling the play-by-play and Mickey Mantle’s thumping of the Pale Hose.
Before Nanny left that morning for church, she stopped by my room to make certain I was well enough to be left alone.
“I think so, “I moaned. “But could you bring me something back, Nanny?”
“Why sure, darling’. What do you want?”
“Some baseball cards from the bakery.”
After giving her precise instructions as to where to find the cards and what exactly to ask for, she left, and I spent the next two hours listening to the Yanks and dreaming of Yankee cards to come. It’s funny now to think about, but never in my card-buying experience did I ever believe that I would only get more doubles, just like I never believe now that a Yankee will hit into a double play. As the game ended and my anticipation matched my temperature, I heard the front door opening.
Always when she arrived home, the second she opened the door she’d call out “Jo Ann (my mother), I’m back.” And while I knew that she knew Mom was still at my other grandmother’s, I expected Nanny to holler out something—my name, maybe.
Nothing, at first. And then footsteps, passing through the living room, her bedroom, down the hall, and finally to my room.
“Nanny?” I squeaked.
The steps grew nearer, and before panic overwhelmed me, the door opened and there she stood. Or sort of. It was the Nanny I knew and loved, but on this early summer evening, I wasn’t sure that this woman really was my grandmother. Even though she was in her early 70’s, Nanny made sure that every time she left the house she was the perfect picture of Southern womanhood. Clothes neatly matching her shoes and purse; hair was precisely pinned and combed. Hat if desired.
But when she walked in my room that Sunday, her hair was coming undone from its pins, her blouse collar was turned up and wrinkled, and the look on her face was a mask either of horror, pure outrage, or, I think now, utter humiliation.
“Don’t ever ask me to go inside that bakery again,” she cried as she threw three packs of baseball cards on my bed.
Her eyes were bright, burning me with shame.
“Because it was too crowded and I kept getting jostled by these…people. And when I got to the counter, a man came right up to me and put his arm around my shoulder and said ‘Hey baby.’ A man, Buddy. A Nigra Man!”
She stared at me then for what seemed like a baseball inning. Then she turned and walked out.
I didn’t call out, and I never asked her what she said to the man.
I didn’t know what to say really, or what to do.
So I just opened the packs of cards, and along with several doubles that day, I was both pleased and surprised to see Elston Howard’s face staring back at me as if he were glad to be home, to see me again after all this time. To welcome me to a world I was only just beginning to understand.
I kept those cards close to me for the next few years, believing that they, like everything else in my life, were a permanent fixture. One spring, my mother insisted that I keep them stored in the basement as they were simply "overflowing" in the boxes under my bed. And overflow was the word all right. The word that also described what ultimately happened to my treasured collection. As I returned from school one day in the fall of fourth grade, my mother greeted me with these, "You know that toilet in the basement, in the room where we store the Christmas decorations? It overflowed today. A pipe must have burst in the sewage line, and everything there was ruined."
"Yes, and I'm afraid your baseball cards are gone."
I can't say that I fully understood what I’d lost in that moment. But I knew I'd never fully forget the devastating feeling of helplessness.
Terry Barr teaches modern literature and creative writing at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, and lives in nearby Greenville with his wife and two daughters. He has had nonfiction essays published in various literary journals including American Literary Review, moonshine review, Scissors and Spackle, Subliminal Interiors, Poetica Magazine, Epiphany Magazine, Four Ties Lit Review, Steel Toe Review, and in the anthology, Half-Life, edited by Laurel Snyder.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: How I could visualize so clearly the family members, rooms, and expressions of a time that occurred some fifty years ago. The writing process opens doors to places I can’t believe I remember so well.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Always the best advice is to “go deeper.” I do follow the advice, because my critical readers manage to find those places in the piece that I’m no doubt unconsciously trying to avoid. Or trying to get to. Getting there makes the essay richer, and helps me confront the depths of my own experiences.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Mary Karr, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Allison Bechdel, and Craig Thompson.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I love writing in coffee joints and can do so readily, especially when I plug in my IPod. I listen to mood music such as XX, Beach House, Kraftwerk, and let the words flow onto the pages of my journal. With a large, dark-roasted café-au-lait, I’m all set.