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–maybe even earlier–I would ride my bike each day–sometimes more than once–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 April, there were boxes on the shelves. By that time I’d saved up enough to buy 4-5 packs, which I had to open right on the spot rather than wait the five minutes it would take to bike home.
These days you might imagine a kid quickly thumbing through to see if he drew a “rare” insert or his favorite player. Back then, I am guessing I spent about a half hour outside the 7/11. I did look for my favorite players, though I somehow got none of them! However, I also spent a good deal of time looking at every single card–front and back–reading the stats, looking for good hits on the “Play Ball – Played by Two” game, and setting aside all Dodgers, all-stars, record breakers, team cards, and otherwise notable cards.
I wish I had set aside this first buy or could even remember the details of who was in it. On the whole, I vaguely remember a Sparky Lyle record breaker, a Doug Rau (my first Dodger!), and a Tony Armas–most notable for his Play Ball outcome of “STRIKE UT.” Over the course of the season–and it really did take that long with my limited budget–I worked my way toward a complete set, minus perhaps only a dozen or so cards.
WHAT WAS FUN
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. One albeit very large notch down were Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, George Foster, Jim Rice, and Johnny Bench. And just below those elementary school immortals were Seaver, Morgan, Yaz, Carew, Brett, Luzinski, Kingman, and others.
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, keeping them in pockets or under pillows as opposed to shoe boxes or binders. I made a lot of new friends in 1978, and trading baseball cards was just about the only thing we ever did together. Still, it filled the days and months quite nicely.
Still, Cards with Friends was only half the story. For every hour I spent trading with friends, I spent two by myself in my room. There, favorite activities included sorting my growing set by number, then by team, then by number, then by team, and so on. Or holding a draft where I pretended to be four different owners. Or playing “Play Ball” against myself. Or replaying the 1977 Dodgers vs Yankees World Series. Or–not so much as its own activity but as a by-product of these others–memorizing player stats. Or making a card tower. Or learning handwriting from the cursive team names. Or practicing long division with the at-bats and hits. And those are just the things I remember almost 40 years later.
One thing I NEVER did was clean up after any of this. My carpet was so covered in cards that there was barely even a path from the door to my bed, particularly as my collection grew. It was as if I were some alien creature whose habitat was to dwell among card piles. And truly, this was how I was happiest, surrounded by my cardboard idols. My mom, on the other hand, was not thrilled with how I decorated and for the first of many times chose to solve the problem by picking everything up and throwing it away. To her, these were just disposable pieces of cardboard, and I doubt there was much feeling involved. For me, these were the faces of my heroes, real and living. It was as if my mom had just committed genocide across the baseball world. Save the occasional Dick Ruthven I might find sandwiched between my bed and the wall, I was back to having nothing.
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 the loose change, and just like that a good kid turned bad. It took maybe three weeks to rebuild what had taken me 4-5 months the first time, 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, not that I’d have them for long. Somewhere around Christmas, they were back in the trash, and I was back to utter cardboard poverty, looking high and low for nickels and counting down the days till April when the 1979 series would hit the shelves.
As I look back now on what was the very first set to take over my life, 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!