Ever since I first started opening packs of the statistic-filled pieces of baseball cardboard, I've never been able to completely step away from the hobby.
It all started, as I remember, when I was eleven. My parents ran the outdoor movie theater in Houlton, WI, just across the St. Croix River from downtown Stillwater. As a youngster, I was recruited to pick up trash people had left from the previous night's showing.
Money I earned for my work would soon be converted to multiple packs of Topps baseball cards. Topps was the sole baseball card manufacturer at the time. My dad would drive me to Reed's Drug Store on Stillwater's Main Street and I'd hurry to the aisle where I knew I could find the most recent arrivals of the sealed packs.
I'd randomly grab between 10 and 12 packs of cards, pay for them at the register and urge my dad to hurry home so I could release the cards, and the stale piece of brittle pink bubble gum, from their wrapper. Of course, I was hoping to find nothing but cards featuring players on my favorite team, the hometown Minnesota Twins. (Yes, the Twins. Milwaukee, as far as I was concerned, might well have been on another planet.)
Imagine my excitement when I unveiled a Rod Carew card, or one belonging to Bert Blyleven. Every now and then, I'd even open a pack with a Harmon Killebrew card. Sometimes I'd even get duplicates. These trips to purchase cards would coincide with every payday, and over the summer I'd accumulate more than 500 cards.
As Summers passed, I eventually took it upon myself to ride my Schwinn bicycle down the long hill to buy the cards without any parental assistance. Often I would purchase a complete box! That's right, 36 packs.
Older cardboard heroes gave way to fresh faces, and the never ending array of statistics featured on the reverse side of the card. It was interesting to see how many home runs a player hit year by year, or how he performed in 1974 compared to 1977.
This obsession with buying cards has continued over the years, even as the baseball card industry has had ebbs and flows of popularity. In the early 1980's, Topps' stranglehold on the industry disappeared, as companies named Fleer and Donruss also took their turn at the plate to issue player cards.
It seems as if every town had at least one baseball card shop, where a person could walk in and take their turn at purchasing packs or boxes of cards. Collecting baseball cards, which began in earnest in the early 1950s, has passed from generation to generation, from parent to child, even as card technology has changed with the times.
In the mid-1990's, I began to travel to major baseball cards shows, held throughout the country in mostly large cities such as Dallas, or Kansas City, or St. Louis. I'd load up the cards I was intending to sell to willing buyers. I'd travel with two other vendors, whom I'll call Mike and Jim, and we'd take turns behind the wheel in order to make it to our destination in the shortest amount of time. Most of these baseball card buffets would entice attendees by bringing in autograph guests, including the likes of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, as well baseball legends Pete Rose, Yogi Berra and others.
These trips continued for the better part of the next decade. To entice new buyers to the hobby, card companies started inserting cards featuring autographs or small pieces of a player's jersey randomly into their packs. I would "rescue" cards of Minnesota players and return them to their rightful state. Prices of Kirby Puckett, Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter cards were cheaper in Dallas than could be found back home.
As time passes by, local baseball card shops have come and gone, in part to cards becoming readily available with the click of a mouse on the internet. For a 10-year period I joined my co-worker Gregg in running Bases Loaded card shop in Lexington. Silver Bat sports in no longer operating in White Bear Lake, nor is Wildwood Sports in a Mahtomedi shopping center. Last I checked, the closest sports card shop to my home is located in Roseville.
I attended the National Sports Card Collector's Show in Chicago in 2015 and spoke to a product coordinator for Upper Deck Company, a longtime sports card producer (since 1989). I learned then the company was including cards of non-athletes in some products. It was at that show I opened a pack and got a card featuring William Shakespeare. So, it's true, even the Bard has a card!
The most recent change to the hobby has been the introduction of live televised box or case breaks. For a small fee, a person can purchase their preferred team and as packs are opened live before their eyes. For some of these cards breaks, teams are randomly assigned before the packs are opened. It's the equivalent of a baseball card lottery. Cards corresponding to the team purchased are then sent to the buyer through the mail.
Many Minnesotans have been featured on baseball cards over the years, including Hall of Famers Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield and 2018 inductee Jack Morris. Glen Perkins of Stillwater, who starred as a relief pitcher for the Twins, has multiple cards available. The Twins themselves plan on participating in National Baseball Card Day on August 1 by distributing packs to fans entering ticket gates. The St. Paul Saints have scheduled August 5 as their team card set day, with the first 1,500 fans getting the annual set.
I still randomly buy a pack or two, sometimes even a box, when I'm at my local Target or Walmart. After all, how else am I going to get my new Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano card?