On another blog site (The On Deck Circle–see blogroll on right) there was a wonderful article on your individual Hall of Fame. It asked who were those guys that made your personal Hall of Fame. They didn’t have to be great players, only players you remembered fondly from your youth. The reason didn’t matter, only the fact that you remembered them. One of my choices was a totally obscure pitcher named Don Kaiser. Why him? Well, simply because his was the first baseball card I ever owned.
In the town where I grew up, the elementary school was six or seven blocks from home and I would walk to school daily. Yep, I’m one of those geezers who walked eight miles a day to school in the snow in July, uphill both ways. Well, maybe not quite like that. Back then, most small towns in my part of the world, at least those with which I was familiar, had a small neighborhood store located either across the street from the elementary school or at the corner of the same block. You might remember these. They were mom and pop operations with a store in the front, a few rooms in the back where the family that ran it (usually an older couple) lived. The place sold all manner of items, from soap to motor oil to candy. They were the convenience stores of their day and they were quite popular with a community where the automobile was just catching on. By my time they were fading, but the one near my school still operated. It was universally called “The little store” to set it off from “the big store”, the large franchise grocery stores that were just then invading the landscape. Because they were bigger and nationally backed, they were cheaper and the day of “the little store” waned quickly in my part of the world.
I had an allowance and was not a great financier. In other words, I spent the money. One habit was to stop in “the little store” once a week and pick up some candy or bubble gum with a nickel (you could actually buy something with a nickel back then). In April of 1957 I stopped in looking to feed my face with something sweet, sugary, and totally decadent. The candy was up by the main counter where they kept the comic books, the aspirin, and all the tiny things that were easy to steal. There was this big, old-time cash register where the guy had to ring up each item by hitting keys with numbers on them. Beside it was this box of shiny packets that said “Topps” and “baseball cards.” I’d never heard of such, but it sounded interesting. So on a whim I bought a pack, expending my entire nickel on this new and maybe dubious item.
I got outside, and being a methodical sort, I looked the packet over carefully before opening it. The pack had a ballplayer sliding on the top, said “Topps Baseball Gum” and 5 cents. There were five cards in the pack (you could feel them though the waxed paper) and a piece of gum. Now that meant six items and I’d just put out five cents, so I was getting five cards and a stick of gum for less than a penny each. So I turned the pack over, opened it carefully. The gum was on the bottom so I took it out, stuck it in my mouth, and after a couple of chews realized I’d overvalued the gum.
The cards were facedown in the package. I could make out the gray background with red lettering. There was a cartoon up in the corner and a line of statistics, most of which meant nothing to me. Then I turned over the card and there was Don Kaiser, my first ever baseball card (see the picture above). I’d never heard of him but it didn’t matter, there he was and I could make out his face and see the “Chicago” on his uniform. He never did much, lasting three years in the Majors and a handful in the Minors, but I always watched for him on the TV, listened for him on the radio, looked for his name in the box scores in the paper. Because I picked him up first, I’ve always considered him my first card.
I looked at the others. To this day I remember which players were in the pack:
Foster Castleman was next. He was another journeyman that I’d never heard about. As with Kaiser I watched, listened, and searched the box scores for him. OK, he played for the Giants, which was bad, but he was still suddenly a real person to me.
Gil McDougald was in the middle of the pack. I’d heard of him and hated him. Actually I didn’t particularly hate McDougald, but he played for the hated Yankees and here he was in my packet of cards. What the heck were the baseball Gods thinking giving me a Yankee? I wasn’t sure what to do, but I kept him anyway and quickly he became a favorite of mine, even if he did play for the evil, awful Yankees.
Next came catcher Stan Lopata. I think I vaguely knew who he was, but I wouldn’t want to swear to it. The Phils were OK by me, but nothing special and for some reason I never followed Lopata much.
And then I turned over the final card and there he was: Carl Furillo. I knew in that moment that I was in love with these cheap pieces of cardboard. Here was one of my heroes. He played for the Dodgers (my team), he was good and now I could actually see what he looked like. Back then the TV cameras seldom zeroed in on a player close enough you could see his face, but now I knew what Furillo looked like and, well, the day just couldn’t get any better. Well, maybe, but there was no Duke Snider in the pack.
I went home, pulled out the cards, showed my grandfather, and watched him look them over carefully. He congratulated me on the purchase, hoped I’d find a few Cardinals next time, and didn’t raise my allowance. He did begin to explain to me some of the stats on the back of the card and that meant quality time with him and it also meant I was learning something new about the sport.
Well, even without a raise in allowance, next week I’d have another nickel and another package of cards. The store was still going to be there and surely there were enough packs that at least one would be left. There was. I have no idea who was in the next pack.