All the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else's name.
—LARRY GATLIN & THE GATLIN BROTHERS
Last Christmas my brother, Stephen, sent me a pair of balsa-wood toucans, carved and painted in Ecuador. He also sent me a baseball card from a specialty shop in Beverly Hills. The birds, almost a foot and a half high, bill and coo beside a chessboard that I bought a decade ago outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This arrangement dominates a round table in our living room. The baseball card, enclosed in plastic, small and familiar, is propped above the desk in the attic study, where almost no one will see it, although the other day my 9-year-old son, Jessup, did bring a friend up to show it off. Totemic values—he knows it's old and therefore valuable. But he doesn't recognize the player whose card was printed 26 years before his birth. It's no Ted Williams or Stan Musial.
It's Hank Bauer in 1950, during his second spring as a Yankee outfielder. Bauer was a good player: In 14 seasons he averaged .277 and played in 53 World Series games, a remarkable fact that tells you something about the team he played on. Like Long Bob Meusel before him. Bauer had the mixed blessing of playing with the greats. In 1927, when Meusel hit .337, Babe Ruth hit 60 homers and Lou Gehrig hit .373. Bauer played next to Joe DiMaggio and then Mickey Mantle. Who would remember the reliable rightfielder with a face once described as a "doubled-up fist"?
Not that his face looks like a doubled-up fist oh his card. It's one of those retouched photos, a precursor to photorealistic paintings. The colors are undiluted, the light diffused. Bauer smiles a regular smile, his small, even teeth set off by a deep tan. He looks to the right of the camera. Behind him a scattering of the bright clouds ballplayers call angels decorates a blue, blue sky. A wedge of grandstand over his left shoulder balances the back-and-rightward tilt of his Yankee cap. But the hat is not cocked on his head; it's pushed back the way a laborer's hat might sit at the end of the day. The viewer would never mistake Bauer for a cocksure phenom or a flash in the pan. Furthermore, Bauer seems old by today's standards. He looks like someone's father. The back of the card explains that Bauer started in baseball in 1941 at the age of 19, playing only one season before joining the Marines to fight in World War II. He resumed his career after the war, and by 1950, at 28, he was no longer a young man.
October 20, 1985
My brother's quiet irony aside—the Yanks were always his team, never mine—I was touched when Hank Bauer came in the mail. The card had come from a store my brother and I had visited the spring before, the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop, and I knew he must have made a special trip to get it. We had stopped at the shop, we told each other, to find a present for my son. We spent a short while looking at pennants and hats and such, but the cards held our attention: Midwestern madeleines, tickets back to our youth. Once only a penny, those cards that we had smudged and thumbed and traded and, later, marked all over, now sell for $25 to $50. We looked through the glass cases while a proprietary and smug young clerk stood by. We settled on a complete set of 1984 Topps baseball cards, arranged by number in a custom cardboard box. The shop owner said that because there was labor involved in assembling the cards—checking numbers and weeding duplicates—the set cost $18. It wasn't the price that bothered us. It was the idea of buying more than 700 cards all at once, already packaged for posterity. Finding a Rod Carew was simple: Look at the checklist in front, then file through the box to the right number. Easier than finding a canceled check at tax time.
When we were kids the process of acquisition was at least as important as the result: Means and ends were hardly distinguishable. Collecting took hard work, cunning, good luck. We took our nickels to Jim's Drugstore at the corner of 13th and Perry and got in return one package of five cards and a rectangle of pink bubblegum that was the size and texture of the cards themselves. The powdery stuff from the gum covered the top card with a sweetish patina and left a distinct scent that to this day I can identify instantly. You opened the package slowly and thumbed through the cards one by one, waiting for good fortune to appear. Sometimes, when in pursuit of a particularly elusive card—a Walt Dropo, for instance—you would shuffle through the stack of five, all face down, like a man who has just drawn to an inside straight and knows he needs great good fortune. It could come in a couple of ways: the simple windfall of Dropo revealed, or a future consideration—a duplicate of Luke Easter, say—who could be traded to Tom Fertig, our next-door neighbor who never had enough Indians. Tom was an Indian fan so resolute that he argued in favor of Jim Hegan over Yogi Berra. I looked for Red Sox and Tom looked for Indians. My brother was more casual. Like the Yankees themselves in those days and like older brothers always, Stephen exuded confidence—he knew his cards would turn up. He waited for Yankees. I should say here that we all had different teams to follow because we grew up in Wichita, Kan., equidistant from all major league cities, or so it seemed. (In the '50s there was no cable TV to fill the void.) In short, we were free to choose. It's true that we could receive KMOX radio loud and clear from St. Louis, but that was Harry Caray, and my father would not abide him. The Game of the Week might involve any two teams; we always listened to that.
Sometimes we were shorted and didn't get five cards. Some packages contained team pictures, which were useless, the faces being orange or brown smudges. Team pictures were untradable. Even worse than team photos were the checklists of all the cards available, the worst possible expense of a penny. You might as well take the penny out to the tracks and let a train flatten it. No self-respecting collector among us would write to Topps for a complete set. It was not only beyond our means, but it was tantamount to becoming a social exile. Acquisition, as I said, was a code of behavior.
Jim's Drugstore had a soda fountain where you could order a cherry limeade or a chocolate Coke or a milk shake that was served in a tall glass accompanied by the steel mixing canister, which held a short second helping. This was the coldest and the tastiest part. Jim's carried, among other things, toothbrushes and shoe polish, cosmetics and cigarettes, Big Chief tablets, yo-yos and water pistols. At the back of the store was a pinball machine. Here we cheated, sliding flat tins of Kiwi shoe polish under the front legs to reduce the grade. Jim must have known what we were doing. The games thunked in the innards of the machine all afternoon. In the front of the store were the racks for magazines and comics and paperback books and, opposite, the display case where he kept cigars. Empty cigar boxes were the most stylish place to keep your cards, so we periodically checked the supply of Roi-Tans, our clear favorite. Our collections, then, were built at Jim's and on the sidewalks outside the drugstore. Chico Carrasquel for Ted Lepcio, Yogi Berra for Sammy White, Larry Doby for Dropo. We spent so much time there that our dog, a wandering springer spaniel that was a neighborhood fixture, would often meet us there after her morning rounds. As soon as the cards were sorted and appraised, my brother and I stuck the bubblegum in our mouths, first crunching and then chewing. Tom, whose mother did not allow him to chew gum, folded it back into the wrapper and then carried it home. He saved these thin pink rectangles all summer, in stacks on the shelves in his bedroom. By mid-June the room had that sweet odor of cheap candy.
My collection grew greatly the summer my brother decided to read all of Zane Grey in the morning and swim all afternoon. That was one summer before he was seduced by flathead Fords and two summers, I think, before he was seduced. It was also the same summer that gnomish Gerald Beene gave me his highly regarded collection. A year later I quit cadging Roi-Tan boxes. Two years later I gave the whole hybrid shebang, without a second thought, to Johnny Toller.
I don't know what happened to Tom's collection. He may have sold it, in perfect condition, to a shop like the one in Beverly Hills. It may be stacked neatly in Roi-Tan boxes in the closet of his house in suburban Chicago, where he now practices medicine. In those days, in Tom's dry and well-lit basement, where the train set was always in repair, where his father's nuts and bolts were shelved in labeled Sanka cans, I tried to trade for Bobby Avila. When we couldn't make a deal, we played Rook. Tom was hard to deal with. He never caved in on impulse. There was, if not calculation, a sort of obduracy in his wide blue eyes. He wanted more Hegans, Houttemans and Newhousers.
Gerald Beene lived at the top of Coolidge Street, a block away. If Tom was the myopic preservationist among us, Gerald was the restless inventor. It was Gerald who showed us how to use the cards. He made up a game, the principal part of which was a miniature pinball machine about the size of a coffee-table art book. On this machine Gerald played game after game after game. Propelled by a spring-loaded pin, a small ball bearing worked its way down the board until it came to rest in one of the many receptacles—either a plastic box or a scoop of tin, each labeled with a baseball play. Three large OUT pockets guarded the top of the board. If the ball made it to the bottom without sticking in anything, a strike was called. As I recall, the game was fairly representational. Outs predominated, there were more singles than doubles and the long ball was hard to hit. The triple was a shallow scoop of tin on the left side, so gently bent that for the ball to stop there it first had to have been slowed by the side of the machine. The most difficult play of all was the home run—a big, inviting square of blue plastic right in the middle of the board but protected on three sides by barriers. A home run required a feathery touch, a ball perfectly angled from the shoot. It had to fall through a battery of outs and lesser blows. No four-bagger could be achieved through ricochet or carom or failure of courage. Though you might mount a rally by working the sides of Gerald's board, to go for the big blow you had to stick to the center.
Gerald could play a nine-inning game in about 15 minutes, and he often played three or four in a row, stopping just long enough to retrieve the next two teams from the stacks that lined one wall of his basement. For each game he recorded a line score on a freckled Big Chief tablet beside the machine. While I sat on the floor, Gerald provided a running commentary, a play-by-play elaborated in much the same way that old-time radio announcers invented and reported details of a game. On the occasion of an especially dramatic turn, Gerald imitated crowd noise, making a dry gargle in the back of his throat, a sound I never mastered until I studied German. He sat on the cement floor and roared and commented and gagged, ignoring me. Sometimes I would bring the Red Sox to play one of his teams. Needless to say, my touch on his machine was not light enough. He almost always won—it was his field after all. Pretty soon, every kid on the block—even Tom—had a machine of his own. They were all the same in idea but all different in detail—our equivalents of uncut grass, doctored baselines, spies in the scoreboard.
It was primarily because of this game that Gerald's cards became the most prized in the neighborhood. When one of his players hit a home run, he flipped the card over and made a hash mark on the backside margin. By looking on the flip side, then, you could read not only the records of the player's career, as printed by Topps from official statistics, but also this player's history in Gerald's game.
His marks were permanent, in ink. The older the card got, the more it was defaced. Gerald bought new cards every summer, just like the rest of us, but he usually played his game with veterans, saving the unmarked versions for trading. For everyone on the block except Tom these cards increased in value.
With his appreciated cards in hand, Gerald shamed us into trades.
"What do you mean trying to pawn off that brand-new Rosen for this Mize? This Mize," he would say, flipping it over so I could see the double-border hash marks. "He's had great years. I'd have to have more than Rosen."
"I don't know," I would say, trying to count the number of homers marked on the card.
"I'll take Pesky, too," Gerald would say, and we would do the deal.
Gerald leaned toward the slim and the quick. In his game, singles hitters became long-ballers and utility players, regulars. Under his hand they reached their potential. Gene Stephens, known in our group as the Arkansas Greyhound, who spent the best years of his real career understudying Ted Williams, was a thumper in Gerald's game. So, too, were Solly Hemus and Billy Goodman and Jim Busby and George Strickland. Vic Wertz was a dud; Mantle, a weakling. If we were free to choose team allegiances, we were also free to make Gene Hermanski a hitter.
Not Tom, who bought a machine and who played the game but never lost sight of the truth. Wertz was a better hitter than Hermanski, and no number of pen markings would ever change that. Tom, to whom "mint" must have always meant something, never confused his cards with contrary information. After the 1954 Series, in which the Giants embarrassed the best pitching staff the Indians ever had, Tom cold-shouldered any trade involving Giants. For all I can recall, he gave away Don Mueller time and again. He might even have destroyed Dusty Rhodes. For Tom these cards were a two-dimensional representation of the truth. Our Tom was the neighborhood equivalent of his hero, Bob Feller—clear-eyed, broad-browed, alarmingly direct. Gerald Beene—dark, difficult, aggressive—was our own Sal Maglie.
These days, when my son and I want to hang around, we go to a newsstand in downtown Grinnell, Iowa. It's much more than a newsstand: There's a lunch counter at the back of the store and a pop machine, several shelves of toy trains and model airplanes, a glass case filled with cigars and pipes, and a wall of paperbacks and magazines. Recently the owner added video disks. In one corner is the doorway to another room, separated from the store by a curtain of glass beads. In there are other magazines; it costs $1 to browse.
Jessup plays the video games: He can manipulate little creatures inclined to fall off ladders, and he can negotiate hairpin turns, avoid oil slicks and dodge the wreckage of other race cars on a machine called Grand Prix. He can also take his rips on a machine called, too simply, Baseball. Nine stick figures take the field and chase an electronic ball. It's certainly nothing like the ball bearing clicking its way to the bottom of Gerald Beene's box for a strike, followed by Gerald's gutteral cheers. The pitching stick on the video game can throw fastballs and curveballs, and the player bats by punching a red button. My son has trouble hitting the curveball, which I think is what happened to the Arkansas Greyhound, too. Finally, the newsstand also has a pinball machine featuring an old-fashioned, deep-chested blonde. It's like the old days, except you get only four balls for a quarter—we used to get five for a nickel—and if you play poorly, she gives you the raspberry: "That was a lousy game," the blonde says. "Try again."
At home, though, like all kids, my son makes up games. He has a baseball board game in which he uses the cards of real players, provides commentary and makes banjo hitters drive blue darters up the alleys. Sometimes he invents new leagues and fictitious players. The other day he came up to the attic study where I write and told me that the Oregon Timber had just defeated the Hawaiian Hot Stuff. I admired the names and told him so. He said that the next game would pit the New York New Yorkers against the California Gold.
In his room one night recently, I noticed that the cardboard box from the complete set of 1984 Topps cards contained crayons. The cards were scattered all over the room, in drawers, on the floor, stacked on, and toppling off, shelves. Some had rubber bands around them. Suddenly I felt better about buying them in the middle of Beverly Hills.
Red Sox fan Jon Kelly Yenser writes poetry and fiction; he lives in Iowa.