Among all the smells to be enjoyed during the Christmas season, whether it be the fresh balsam from the tree, the hot cocoa from your favorite team mug, or the ham in the oven, it’s the whiff and suspense of the baseball card that gets me every time. An outlandish declaration, I realize that most people think of casseroles before cards, but I think of the perfumed, sharp edge of Kansas City’s Bo Jackson, and the crisp, aromatic joy of Gene Mauch in his California Angels uniform—Topps did a superb job in 1986 printing their cards, proudly displaying the name of the team in bold font over the top of the card, set on a black background, the players’ role on the team badged in a small circle matching the color of his team in the lower left hand corner, and the players name inscribed along the bottom of the card. Managerial records and team checklists put my senses in a frenzy, as the 32 years wrapped in cardboard has aged the card just like a fine whisky aged in oak. I’d rank the baseball card above the pecan pie and the green bean casserole and the bacon wrapped brussel sprout this Christmas.
This year, on Christmas Eve, my excitement began when I flipped the latch and dual hinges on my black wooden trunk. Upon opening, I was welcomed by the Donruss company and their printed set of 792 major leaguers expected to take up the bat and ball for the 1991 season. The 1991 set would be printed before the start of the 1991 season, so it didn’t allow for offseason shake-ups. Only the teams Donruss, and us experts, expected each player to play for would make final delivery. This method is preferred, economic delivery of the new year’s card is a must, getting the up-to-date data to the baseball connoisseur in good time while allowing the excitement of the Traded print later in the year to be sent to stores—which I have an ample supply of in original packaging.
Speaking of original packaging, whatever the card was stuck in after print is the best place for that card to live. On high moral ground, I advise that a baseball card be kept in its original home, unless you are dealing with an American Tobacco Honus Wagner, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, or a Mike Trout Rookie, as he might go down as the best player of our generation, a modern day Mickey Mantle if that helps nail down his importance. The cardboard rectangular box preserves the freshness of the card, holding tight to both the slugging percentage and the volatile organic compound. The baseball card box is not unlike an oven you open to a fresh pecan pie, as you untuck the cardboard tabs from each side and grab a handful of Donruss, careful not to bend or crease. Is there anything better than scooping a stack of cards from a set, rediscovering the foundations of the greatest game ever played? Give me Paul Assenmacher over pecan pie!
Now, the aforementioned rule can be lapsed in favor of the baseball card album, for expeditious analysis, which I will explain shortly.
The cards I love to scope and sniff on Christmas aren’t worth the big bucks, but they are the ones I held on tight to as a kid, and they are the ones that taught me about baseball, and stats. Forty home run seasons, .300 batting averages, and sub 3.00 ERAs were all sacred numbers in my baseball card album, and I learned these valuable stats from the back of the Topps and the Donruss. Among other things, you could learn the hobbies of your favorite players. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson won several golf tournaments, had three professional fights as a boxer, and hit 35 home runs with 109 RBIs in 1968. Steve Finley went to the college by my house. He was a physiology major. David Wells, in a real curveball of a tidbit, was a surfer. And Eric Davis was the first guy to ever hit 30 home runs and steal 50 bases. A little sabermetrician I was, all at the age of 8!
I began my deep studies of baseball in 1991, my game of numbers elevated to new heights when Santa Claus, later determined to be my mom and dad, wrapped my coveted set of 1991 Donruss, with Leo Gomez and Ray Lankford Rated Rookies on the outside of the cardboard sheath as part of the advertisement to get folks to buy the set. My mom must’ve been roped by the sight of it, tucked next to aisle 19 at Wal-Mart. She isn’t unfamiliar with baseball. Earlier in the year, she tried throwing batting practice to me. She had a good arm, but she was more like Mitch Williams than Greg Maddux, and I charged the mound to prove my point by the 5th pitch. My brother, he had more cards than I did. He had scores of loose cards he snagged from Russell’s, the card shop that was too many main roads away for me to ride my bike to. Thousands of cards held in unmarked boxes filled to the brim with All-Star Rookies, League Leaders, and Turn Back the Clocks. It was with these cards that I learned the value of hard cutting data. The italicized number induced hypnosis, as I was quickly arrested by the home run count that was sloped to the right for emphasis. Bo Jackson lead the league in strikeouts in 1989 with 172. To know this, you’d need to be bilingual in baseball card idiolect. Topps noted their league leaders with italics, Donruss with the asterisk. That stat always riled me up with a destructive thrill—Bo was known to snap his bat like a twig when he struck out. To see that on Sportscenter was a treat, forever fracturing sticks over my leg and over my head, drawing the ire of my parents. “Is there something wrong with him,” neighbors might ask.
“He thinks he’s Bo Jackson. He’ll do this for hours.”
Now, the Sportscenter highlight, always bitter sweet. To see Bo Bunyan also meant that he had just struck out. He did it, both striking out and demolishing bats, with ease, which was awe inspiring. But when he connected, the sound off his bat was alarmingly destructive and seductively soothing. Buck O’Neal said he had heard that sound off only two other bats: Josh Gibson’s and Babe Ruth’s.
Along with the 1991 set, I received a green baseball card album that Christmas, with plenty of sleeves to house a few favorites that I swiped from the box—ones that I was eager to examine at the drop of a dime. Flip the page, there’s Ken Griffey Jr’s 1989 Donruss Rated Rookie. Below him you’ll find 1988 Topps’ Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla Pirates Leaders. Then Felix Jose, Todd Van Poppel, Turk Wendell brushing his teeth and Fernando Valenzuela twisting a screwball. With that screwball he struck out five in a row in the 1986 All-Star Game. On the back of his 1987 card, you’ll see the numbers 21 and 20 italicized—leading the league in wins and complete games, respectively. Mike Scott won the NL Cy Young that year. Calling upon his card to find the numbers behind the verdict, and not Baseball Reference, I can tell you that Scott lead the league in the following categories: Innings pitched: 275 and 1/3. Strikeouts: 306. Complete game shutouts: 5. Earned run average: 2.22. What a cardboard database!
I’d recommend that every baseball junkie get together with their favorite year of baseball and have a seat and grab a handful of cards out of the cardboard holder and get to flipping. The suspense is unmatched, wondering who will come after Candy Maldonado. Ron Karkovice!