My baseball card collecting began at a bake sale for Brentwood’s Bonner School back in the Fall of 1977. I paid 50 cents, which was a lot back then, for a stack of 43 cards from the 1974 Topps set. Every card was a common, other than the New York Mets manager card featuring Yogi Berra, but this small stack of cards propelled me from having no baseball cards at all to suddenly having a collection. Before the season came to an end, I managed to add a couple packs of 1977 Topps to my collection, including Rod Carew, and then began the first long wait of my then young life–the six months or so it would take for 1978 Topps to hit the shelves.
Starting around March 1, I would ride my bike each day–several times a day–to the 7/11 on Venice and Sepulveda, only to find that cards had not yet hit the shelves. Then one day, I think it was in early April, there were boxes on the shelves. By that time I’d saved up enough to buy 4-5 packs, which I opened as soon as I got outside. I don’t remember a single card I got, but I have to imagine there was a Mike Lum since there was seemingly always a Mike Lum.
These days you might imagine a kid (or let’s face it…grown man!) quickly thumbing through to see if he drew a “rare” insert. Anything but the signed Ohtani or Judge card, and the pack was a failure. Back then, I treated every card as gold. I am guessing I spent about a half hour outside the 7/11 digesting my haul front and back.
CARDS WITH FRIENDS
One thing my collection did for me was get me “in” with a new bunch of friends at school, the baseball card collectors. There was nothing more fun than spending part of lunch or recess (or sometimes during class) trading with each other. Back then, the Holy Grail was a Steve Garvey card. The distant also-rans were Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, George Foster, Jim Rice, and Johnny Bench.
We typically cared very little about the condition of the cards, and it was often the case that the most precious cards were the ones we took the worst care of, bringing them back and forth to school in our pockets, dripping ice cream or melted popsicles on them, handling them with sticky fingers, and every now and then sending them through the washing machine. I made a lot of new friends in 1978, and trading baseball cards and “Play Ball: Played by Two” were just about the only things we ever did together. Still, that was always enough.
Either because I was a huge slob or maybe because I favored the look, my bedroom floor was literally carpeted by my 1978 Topps cards. Other than a carved out trail from my door to my bed and a couple clearings where I’d sit and admire my cardboard empire, every square inch was covered in cards.
Unfortunately, someone who was not a fan of the decor was my mom. After multiple warnings that I refused to heed, I came home one day to find everything gone. At first, I presumed my mom had simply organized my cards into piles somewhere, so there wasn’t so much panic as curiosity. But as I searched everywhere for my collection to no avail, the truth finally hit.
“I told you a million times you had to clean up this mess or I’d do it for you.”
I didn’t know that meant throw everything away, but that’s exactly what my mom did. This felt criminal. It was cardboard genocide. Steve Garvey, Tom Seaver, Rod Carew, Dave Parker…all of them. Disposed of. Disappeared. Dammit.
THE RALLY FALLS SHORT
With little time left in the baseball season, there was no way I would be able to build the 726-card set fair and square. Fortunately, I knew where my mom kept her loose change. I had never stolen before, but I HAD to collect the set and there was no time left to do it with my own money.
In only three weeks, I was able to rebuild what had taken me 4-5 months the first time around, at least in terms of my 1978 set, though I suppose it took years if not decades to rebuild a strong relationship with my mom. At the time, of course, my 1978 Topps cards were much more the priority for me.
I came close to completing my set in these final few weeks, but my progress mattered little once my mom came through right around Christmas and threw everything away again. I was back to cardboard poverty, aside from the occasional Dick Ruthven discovered between the bed and wall, and all that was left to do was double down my raids on my mom’s change purse and count down the days till the 1979 series hit the shelves.
As I look back now on what was the very first set to take over my life, one that I finally completed a full 40 years later, nearly every card still looks familiar and brings me back so many years. It’s tough to choose my very favorites, but here is a shot at my top fifteen. The Reggie all-star even makes my list of Ten Best Topps Cards of the 1970s, but that’s a subject for another post. Enjoy the memories!