In times of stress, it’s sometimes pleasant to think back on simple joys, like how little pieces of cardboard brought such joy to my life for a few years.
I remember my parents telling me we were going to a mountain cabin for a few days. That sounded awfully boring to the 10-year-old me. But I quit complaining about the trip when they promised eight small packs of baseball cards from a convenience store.
Those little packs held potential treasures. I think the primary joy was the anticipation of discovering what was in the pack. If we stopped at any store, I wanted a pack of Topps cards. I had a spot on the sofa where I always sat, with a pillow I always used. I would open the pack, put the chalky cardboard-like stick of gum in my mouth, then hide the stack of unseen cards under the pillow, pulling them out one at a time, very slowly. It’s like I was going fishing in my own way, pulling something up from under the water surface to see what I had. I was overjoyed to get Red Sox cards. I remember studying Carl Yastrzemski’s card very closely — same with Jim Rice and Dwight Evans.
I think the cards were a spark for my imagination. I could study players’ stats for hours. And in studying stats, I could picture something of an actual game on a field. I still enjoy going down the rabbit hole of baseball stats. Rickey Henderson’s domination on the basepaths started in the early 80s as my baseball stat interest was born and while I still practiced my slide into a base. I marveled at his 130 stolen bases in 1982. Still do. But now I’m perhaps just as impressed that he stole 36 bases at the age of 41.
I like looking at the numbers for their bigger picture, too. There was the infamous steroid era that tainted the power totals for years. But there are many other stories too. For instance, I enjoy looking at pitching numbers prior to the days when pitching became so specialized, with middle relief, setup men and closers. Those old-time starters logged some serious innings and win totals. Cy Young had 511 career wins and 315 losses over 7,356 innings. Wow. Even the famous knuckleballer Phil Neikro, who pitched until he was 48, has some of those old-time numbers, even though he pitched as recently as the 80s. At the age of 40, he won 21 games and also lost 20. He was an ultimate “innings eater.”
Of course, the primary big-picture narrative in baseball stats from the early days was the segregation of players. It’s little known that Jackie Robinson was actually not the first major league baseball player of color. That distinction belongs to Moses Fleet Walker, who played for Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. In that season, at the age of 27, Walker played in 42 games and batted .263, with 40 hits in 152 at bats. Imagine his experience in those games. What did he endure? It was 63 years before Jackie Robinson would take the field as the man recognized for breaking the color barrier.
I certainly enjoy looking at the numbers of the first true phenom of baseball history, Babe Ruth. We know of his batting heroics, but his pitching was insanely good, too. Did you know that he was 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA at the age of 21 for the Boston Red Sox? His stats are so amazing. But he was also done a disservice in a way. He didn’t play all of the best players of his age. There is an asterisk to his career because of society of the time. I say that because people like Josh Gibson, a black baseball player hit as many as 84 homers in a season and compiled a .391 lifetime batting average against all levels of competition. But Gibson didn’t get to match up against Ruth. That’s unfortunate for so many reasons.
I’m thinking of all this as we live through a summer that has yet to have baseball. The year 2020 will be remembered as long as we live. And, of course, baseball statistics are just a minor mention in the big picture of our weird year. But I’m thinking of those old cards, those old stats and how there are so many narratives wrapped up in the numbers.
Whatever happens in the future of sports, 2020 will always hold the notable asterisk. It’s a year of alterations, a year that traditions give way to new reality. Hopefully, some of the new realities will emerge as good things.
But my old baseball cards are coming out of storage, even though a sneezing fit is inevitable. Maybe I’ll grab a handful, take them to my recliner and stick them under my small, red pillow, pulling them out slowly once again. There’s certainly no monetary treasure there. The baseball card market is done. But value comes in many forms, doesn’t it?
I need to hold them again and think of some good childhood days in the middle of our strange time. That sounds like a personal 2020 plan to me. You have anything similar?
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.