Baseball cards have gone the way of pick-up games and bike rides without parental supervision – but I bet they'll be back.
Once I was a very powerful man. I controlled the fate of some of the world’s greatest athletes. I was brash and bold – a bit of a gambler. In 1964, I acquired Mickey Mantle in what was eventually ruled to be a shady deal. It was the start of a long summer, the day school let out. I was six.
My friend Brett and I were flipping baseball cards in my driveway. I can still feel the dust on my fingers from the bubble gum that came in each pack. You couldn’t get that gum except inside a pack of baseball cards. It was gold. But it was nothing compared to the thrill of discovering a superstar wedged between two utility infielders you'd never heard of, or stuck to a pitcher who had no statistics on the back of his card because he was new to the Bigs. Brett had just unwrapped a Mickey Mantle.
But we were Cleveland kids, and fortunately for me, Brett was looking to acquire Max Alvis, the Indians’ third baseman. And so the baseball gods were shining on me as Brett and I prepared to flip. Flipping cards is a cross between roulette and archery – a game of chance and skill. Each guy flips a card, flicking his wrist to make the card spin down to ground. As you release it, you call “Heads” or “Tails.” Heads is the photo side, tails the statistics side. If your card lands on the side you called and your opponent’s card fails to land on the side he called, you pick up both cards. If you both hit what you called or you both miss, the cards stay there. And you flip two more. Winner takes all.
I flipped Max Alvis and Brett flipped Mickey Mantle. We both called “Heads” and we were both true. Then we each flipped nobodies from teams we didn’t care about. We both missed our marks. The cards piled up. I’m not sure how many rounds it took, but when I picked up all the cards and held Mickey Mantle in my hands, it was among the finest feelings I’ve ever experienced, before or since.
Later that evening, after dinner, Brett’s father knocked on our door and asked if he could talk to my father. I knew my luck had turned. The powers that be ruled that a Max Alvis couldn’t be flipped for a Mickey Mantle. They revoked the deal. I walked to my room to get the card like a man walking to his execution.
If I wanted that Mickey Mantle card today, 47 years later, I could get it. It would be easier than flipping Brett for it. In less than 20 seconds it could be mine on eBay for $100. Not that I want it. Baseball cards are part of my childhood. They are tied up with wonder and mystery and lust. Baseball cards helped me and my friends get through long summer days. They fueled our dreams. They taught us math and probability and cause and effect. They taught us that America was a big place, filled with exotic cities like Pawtucket and Toledo and Durham.
Unfortunately, baseball cards are not part of the childhoods of today’s kids. Baseball cards have gone the way of pick-up games and bike rides without parental supervision and tree-house building and the ice cream truck. I don’t mean to sound old and wax nostalgic. In fact, I mean to be prophetic. In just a few years – it’s probably happening already – these activities will be all the rage, the latest in parenting wisdom. The mantra will be: Get kids away from screens. Buy them a ball and a bat and point them toward a playground. In this back-to-the-future future, the really with-it parents won’t allow their kids to spend their summers going to math camp or drama camp. They’ll buy them butterfly nets. And BB guns. And packs of baseball cards that have no value, except to the kids who hold the fate of heroes in their hands.