No one had room for my childhood, even if I was content to give it away.
Last month, my wife, Tina, and I trudged through the Kerr Scott Building, a 23,000-square-foot exhibition space on the edge of the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. She pulled a green rolling suitcase, heavy enough that its hard-polymer handle curved slightly between the bulking body and her hand, while the strap of a large book bag dug into the bare skin of her right shoulder. I followed her, the trunk of my body tilting like a tree against an encroaching summer thunderstorm. I managed three separate bags with my left hand and a stack of slim cardboard boxes beneath my right shoulder. And this was only half of the cargo.
The bags and boxes and bags of boxes were full of my childhood sports cardsall 20,000 or so of them, each dutifully sorted by year and manufacturer and placed in labeled rows and sets. There was basketball and football, hockey and soccer; college sports and country music, comics and Desert Storm. But mostly these were baseball cards that I had collected as a kid with an obsession so strong I used to write notes about Jose Canseco in the brim of a sweat-stained Oakland Athletics cap.
I grew up across the road from my family farm, on a rural postal route. I didn’t have Internet until I was 11, cable television until I was 13; baseball cards were a line out of the country.
So between 1987 and 1994, I worked summer jobs, begged my parents and beseeched my grandmother to buy more and more cards, to make my collection matter. For my entire life, I reckoned it did.
In July, a few weeks after I’d turned 30 and gotten married, my wife and I drove to my parents’ house to pull the battalions of baseball cards from the closet where they’d sat, undisturbed, for nearly two decades. I had resolved to sell them all, hoping to turn them into cash that could help pay down the bills a first-time homeowner who has just gotten married typically has. I called a few area memorabilia dealers to see if they wanted to buy them all at once. The older men seemed paternalistically pleasant, if a tad disappointed in my decision to part with my childhood so swiftly. Used to be, they told me, every small town had at least one sports cards store; now, they were a species so endangered and marginal they should’ve qualified for government subsidies. So, no, they wouldn’t dare buy them all, but their advice (and that of the Internet) was unified: Organize everything, price the ostensibly valuable ones online, haul the load to a sports cards show, and be readynay, thrilledto accept less than expected, if anything at all.
So on a recent Sunday morning, Tina and I packed the car and drove to our appointed entrance. We paid the $5 fee and began to ask: Who wanted 20,000 or so baseball cards, largely produced from 1987 to 1994 and in generally perfect condition?
“I’m sorry,” at least six dealers said in some form, “but I just don’t have any need for that.”
Perhaps they’d misunderstood my question and thought I’d included a dollar amount, so I reframed the query: “Will you give me anything at all?”
One dealer mercifully purchased a notebook of 1967 Topps cards, a Hank Aaron action shot and a portrait of Casey Stengel in 1962, when the former Brooklyn Dodger looked ancient and had been pushed from his position as the Yankees manager to the Mets. After some hard bargaining, he offered $70. Another gentleman purchased a box of 880 medium-gloss Upper Deck cards and some holograms for $5, or the price of my admission.
And then, there was nothing: I asked the broad-chested man in the shiny Drew Bledsoe jersey if he’d give me $25 for everythingtwiceand he declined. Two gentlemen did not deign to look up from their pizza grease to entertain my question. Another man not much older than myself rummaged through a few boxes, in search of one particularly rare Derek Jeter rookie card. He’d buy the whole set if he could find that card, he said, but he couldn’t.
Lastly, another dealer who didn’t even move from his chair let me in on the real secret: This industry was dying if not dead already, and my heroes had killed it. He suggested that years ago he would have been interested in the greats of my timeBonds and Griffey, Ripken and McGwire, Canseco and Alomarbut that strikes and steroid abuse had diminished the value of everyone’s collections. As the supply of home runs increased, the demand for homerun hitter collectibles disappeared. This was paper, then, worthy only of the recycling bin.
I’d arrived that day with visions of converting rows of the wood-grained 1987 Topps baseball series or the still-sealed Upper Deck complete 1992 set into cash, of translating my treasured past into an easier future. But I left with only enough money for a meal or two, 19,000 or so sports cards and the hard-swallowed realization that my childhood had existed on a bubble, forever burst.
On behalf of my generation, I felt tricked. Long ago, my parents had told me that I needed to keep these baseball cards safe and sound; when I was an adult, they promised, I could send my kids to college by selling them. My father drove me to sports memorabilia shows in distant cities. My grandmother transported me to the strip mall in the nearest town, where the card shop was sandwiched between a video-rental store and a Little Caesars. During the 1993 home run derby at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, my mother gave me the credit card so I, age 10, could order a limited-edition set of four beautifully printed and presented cards featuring a retired triumvirate of all-stars from baseball’s gilded agesTed Williams, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle.
When I recently pulled that set from the closet, though, I realized that the edition had never been very limited. It includes a UPC code, and its touch of authenticity is only a clear sticker on the back, with the code “C7927” printed in clumsy computer letters. I was nearly Rube No. 8,000 to bite that summer night so long ago. In fact, the period of my obsession parallels precisely with the most wanton era of overproduction in the history of American collectibles, when sports cards were churned out with the conviction that every kid like me had to have them all.
Twenty years later, I realized that’s why I could buy so many unopened boxes of 1990 Bowmansan old-fashioned imprint of Toppsat Sam’s Club with my allowance. That’s why my “Upper Deck All-Star FanFest” set No. C7927 sells for $3.95 online, which is a 90 percent loss before adjusting for inflation. That’s why I have 19,000 baseball cards in my car and no clue what to do with them.
As I once did, my dad still believes in the indelible goodness of America’s pastime: “I would just keep them, then,” he says. “They’ll be worth something again someday.”
But I don’t know. Since we returned from the market that day with almost all of the cards, I’ve hardly been motivated to get any of them out of the car. I’ve made my peace with them, and now I can only hope someone on Craigslist will give me $.0000001 a piece for them.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Struck out the side.”