Skinned Ya: Just what is a baseball card worth?
My cousin Robert never forgave his mother for packing up all of his baseball cards (without his permission) and giving them to his younger cousins. That would be me and my siblings. We pawed through the cache of cards - there were well over a thousand of them - looking for ballplayers who were still active or who at least we'd heard of.
Cousin Rob went on to become a very astute and successful businessman, and to this day he bemoans the fact that all those cards would be WORTH A LOT OF MONEY TODAY. How much could he have gotten for a mint-condition Lou Boudreau? That "Ted Williams is back from Korea" card? A Mickey Mantle rookie year?
Unfortunately, the Rogers' children were not hoarders, we were destroyers. Few toys beyond a couple of moth-eaten stuffed animals survived our collective childhoods. I always envied my friends - typically only children or children with one sister - who still have Barbie dolls in their boxes, Gilbert Erector Sets, the "real" version of Candyland. While they were keeping their toys and games in pristine condition, we were playing "let's cut Little Lulu's arms off", "let's stretch that Slinky out and see how long it is," and "let's see if we can smash open that pooner and see if we can get the little metal elephant out." (A pooner, for those who never played marbles, is the big marble you'd use as a shooter. And no, while I was able to chip away at the pooner, I never managed to extract that tiny little elephant.)
So if real toys made out of cloth, metal, glass, and plastic didn't survive in our house, what chance did baseball cards have?
Little to none.
Since Robert may be reading this, I regret to report that the cards he so long lamented the loss of were really not good for much. At first, they were OK for flipping, but after a while the other kids caught on that we were playing with cards that they didn't care to win. Some kid would be gleefully yelling "skinned ya" when he wiped us out, only to find out that all he'd won were the 1952 St. Louis Browns. It didn't matter to us if we got "skunned". Who cared? It wasn't like the cards we lost were any good.
Robert's cards did have some minor use as flashcards for my baby sister Trish (known then as Po). We would show her the cards and she would tell us who the players were. (One of her first complex words was Gary Geiger (ga-gy-guy-gah) - an outfielder for the Red Sox.) But a toddler has only so much patience, so much interest in memorizing the names of ballplayers.
No, the primary use of Robert's stash of baseball cards was to attach them to the spokes of our bicycle wheels with clothespins so that we'd make that entirely satisfying, clackety-clack sound as we road around. And since nobody wanted to wreck current cards - unless they were triplicates of really bad players - by using them on their bikes, we could keep every kid in the neighborhood happy. And, as anyone who's ever attached a baseball card to their bicycle spokes knows, they get soft after a while and no longer make such a satisfying clacking sound. So you need to change them often.
I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Robert, but that's where your cards went. (And thanks to your preservationist instincts, your cards - packed so tightly in those shoe boxes, unexplosed to the softening air - had stayed pretty darned crisp.)
I am quite sure, however, that among the many cards his mother gave us, there was not a 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card. There are only a few dozen of them left. Most are long gone. Perhaps my father used one on his bicycle. He was not alive in 1909, so if he had a Honus Wagner, it would have to have been a hand-me-down from an older cousin, given on the sly to my father by his Aunt Roseanne or Uncle Pat. Little would he have known that some day that Honus Wagner card - called, in the article I saw, "The Holy Grail of baseball cards" - would fetch $2.35M when it was sold earlier this week.
For a baseball card.
The world is indeed a wondrous place.
I'm sure that my cousin Robert read the story with interest, and not without a pang.
What card among the thousands that my Aunt Margaret brought us on that long ago day might actually have ended up being worth something someday?
The Mel Parnell? The Dom DiMaggio? The Jimmy Piersall?
If only his mother had let Robert hang on to them. If only his ghastly younger cousins had been more forward thinking about their value. If only we had been more careful, less given over to the folly of noisemaking bicycles. If only we'd been less sneakily triumphant when we let some chump think that he'd skinned us, when all he'd really gotten was some useless old baseball cards that nobody wanted anyway.