The year was 1964. The average income was $6,000. Gas was 30 cents a gallon. A new car averaged $3,500. A loaf of bread was 21 cents, a postage stamp was 5 cents and the price of tickets to the movies was $1.25. The average house price was $13,050. None of those prices mattered to a 7 year old kid. Somehow as luck would have it I had a dollar in my pocket! I don’t know where I got the money. I may have found it laying around in the house or maybe it was a gift. I did know that I was on my way to Reed’s Party Store to see what I could buy! An item with a price I was interested in was candy! I knew I could buy a candy bar for 5 cents. Let’s see I could buy 20 candy bars. When I got to the store mixed right in with the candy boxes was a box of baseball cards. They were also 5 cents and I decided to buy all that I could. I don’t remember if I bought 20 packs or if I could only buy 19 with tax involved. I do remember that I walked away without my dollar but with a brown paper bag filled with packs of baseball cards!
Why baseball cards you might ask? Well a few months earlier my family had taken a trip down to Alabama to visit relatives. My older cousin must have noticed how bored I was in a strange place and let me play a game with him. The game was flipping his baseball cards with the target of a baseball cap he had placed in the middle of the floor. We must have flipped cards for hours it seemed, though for a young kid time has no meaning. My cousin didn’t know how much I appreciated his attention and him including me in his game! He also didn’t realize how he influenced that first big purchase of my life!
Looking back, I think I made a wise frugal decision. Buying candy would have been good for awhile, but it probably would have given me a belly ache. It wouldn’t be long before all of the candy was gone. Buying the cards was like a 3 in one package. First and foremost was the cards. Secondly was a stick of hard gum in each pack. Thirdly in some if not all of the packs was a baseball coin of players with writing on the back about them.
The reason for the purchase wasn’t the gum or the coin, it was the cards! I discovered that each card had the players name, picture, and the team he played for at the top. Imagine a 7 year old kid opening 19 or 20 packs of cards. Pulling the stiff sugared gum out of each one and possibly a player coin. Leafing through the cards as I opened them. Actually the players names meant nothing to me. I had never heard of any of them. It was like a new adventure. Like reading about people from another world, grownups playing a kids game.
On the back of the cards were batting or pitching statistics along with heights, weights, and comments about the players. There was also a little trivia area on the bottom on some of the cards. A question was asked and you had to scratch off the space given with a coin or some other object to get the answer. For some reason not ever explained some of the cards had the trivia questions and some did not. On the back of the Lou Brock card it asked the question, “What was the most positions played by a man in one season? The answer found from scratching the answer spot with a coin was Jim Walsh in 1911 playing for the Phillies played all 9. With the answer they had a little cartoon that illustrated their answer. It was a little extra designed for the market of their product…kids.
I also found some very interesting stories on the backs of those cards, some explained and some not. An interesting mystery was the statistics of a player named Joe Nuxhall. On the back of his card was an entry of an inning he pitched in 1944. One game, one inning pitched, 5 walks and an earned run average of 45.00. In the comments it mentions that Joe pitched in his first major league ball game when he was just 16 years old! To a young kid who didn’t know much about the game the story wasn’t that special. However years later I found out the story behind the story. It was during World War II and Joe played on a semi-pro team with his father. The Reds were interested in signing his father since all of baseball was looking for able bodied talent. Most of the able bodied men of baseball age were fighting in the war. Since his father told them he wasn’t interested the Reds became interested in his son. On February 18th of 1944 Joe was signed to a major league contract.Joe was the size of a grown man even at his young age. On June 10, 1944 playing against the Cardinals and trailing 13-0 in the 9th inning Joe was called into the game. He retired the first hitter on a ground out before yielding 5 walks, 2 hits a wild pitch and 5 runs. Joe did not make it back to the major league until 1952 8 years later. The statistics on the back of my card had him with 109 wins. He was 36 years old at the time and ended up with 135 wins for his career. The quirkiness of the situation was best explained by Joe years later. “I was pitching against 8th and 9th graders, kids 13 and 14 years old…All of the sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musial and the likes. It was a very scary situation”. For the record my card wasn’t quite right either, Joe was 15 years and 316 days old. The card did mention something else Joe did that few had. Joe struck out 4 men in one inning. A few years later I figured out the mystery after seeing the same stat on a Bob Gibson baseball card. If a player strikes out but the ball gets by the catcher he can run to first base if there is nobody on base at the time. In the statistics it is recorded as a strikeout. Apparently both pitchers struck out the batter but the catcher couldn’t make the putout and it was necessary to strike out the next guy to get the “third out”.
An old box was found and I dumped my cards in it. There was no trying to protect the corners with plastic sleeves or anything like that. Taking them out of the box with a hands on effort was just what I wanted. I wanted to touch, feel, and play with the cards just as I would any other toy. I tried the flipping game with my cards just as my cousin and I had. I had a bunk bed and getting on the top bunk and flipping the cards toward the cap I placed on the floor was an unusual challenge.
My bedroom floor was made of wood. Between all of the wood pieces were small spaces. Those spaces were just a perfect fit for cards to be placed so they would stand up. The cards were carefully placed in their baseball positions. Sometimes players with gloves were used in the field, although most of the time players posed with their bats. There was no compromising though. If a player was an outfielder he was not placed in the infield and infielders did not play the outfield. Once the cards were lined up in their positions the game could begin. My sister and I played many hours of this marble game. Oh yes, we played with a pencil and a marble. One player would roll the marble from the pitchers slot and the other would hit it with the pencil. If the marble hit one of the cards that was standing it was an out. Obviously the cards took a beating in a game with these rules. Just getting them into the cracks would sometimes damage the bottoms and if the marble hit them they paid for the catch they made. Yet, the fun of the game was worth more than the cardboard cards in our minds.
When I wasn’t playing games with my cards I was pulling them out and sorting them or reading the backs. Comparing statistics of like players was a fun thing. The next year I went to Reed’s looking for some cards but they didn’t get them in that year. One day on the bus a friend gave me some 1965 Topps baseball cards he found on the playground. There were maybe 15 of them. That was my only exposure to 1965 cards. In 1966, 67, 68 and 69 Reed’s had baseball cards again and I bought my share. Maybe it was because the 1964 cards were the first I bought or maybe it was the fact that we had so much fun with them, I can’t say. But those cards were always my favorites.
Amazingly I kept my cards through the years. I have pictured some of my cards and their damaged condition. Years ago I thought it would be a really neat collection to find my cards I still had from 1964 in mint to near mint condition. It took a few bucks but i was able to purchase many of the same cards I bought on that day in 1964. Pictured you will see a few of my original cards, worn out by the games we played with them and how some looked when I first bought them. I have some cards today that are worth more in the eyes of card dealers, but this collection is the dearest to my heart and will never be sold.
Above: A few of my old cards displaying the creases and ware that were marks of love!
Below : What some of my cards looked like when i bought them in 1964.
Smoky Burgess (pictured above) was the catcher we always used in the marble game. I never knew the story about why he was called Smoky? The back of the card says he lived in Forest City, NC. That probably explains his real name which was Forrest. He was crouched in perfect catching order and that is why he was our all time catcher. He was only 5’8 inches tall which for a catcher or any major league player seems pretty short. The Burgess card wasn’t the only card that was intriguing. With every card there was a story and with every story there may be 3 or 4 questions from a curious 7 or 8 year old. Rusty Staub and Pete Ward for instance had little trophies on the side of their cards. Topps 1963 All-Star Rookie is engraved on them. Rusty also played for a team called the Colts. It was only later that I learned that the Houston Astros were originally the Houston Colt 45’s. Interesting also is the fact that Rusty had just turned 20 years old when the 1964 season began. He showed enough promise to earn the Topps Rookie Award at the age of 19!
Today the baseball card industry has been taken over by grownups. When you go to a sports card show very rarely do you see a kid buying cards. The fact is the collectibles craze has priced the kids out of the market. No longer are the kids encouraged to play with their cards like I did. Cards are meant to be treasured in plastic sleeves and please don’t damage the corners! You might say my cards were damaged but I think a better term for it is worn. It’s like buying a glove or a bat and using them. Sooner or later they get worn out, but the enjoyment of playing with them should have been their purpose.
I’m sure that there are a lot of similarities with my baseball cards and how God looks at us. I’ll bet if cards could talk they would rather be loved by kids rather than be in card dealers showcases. The very purpose of baseball cards was for kids to play with them. Sometimes we feel that we are not being used by God. Maybe it is like the story of Joe Nuxhall where we are just not quite ready for the job. On the other hand maybe we sit in a showcase and look good to those who see us without ever trying to be used for what God has planned in our lives. I think those blemishes on my old cards are like what God looks at when he sees his faithful servants getting older. Every wrinkle and crease is seen as a memory of the times they were doing exactly what they were created to do.