Baseball Cards: Kids Version of High Stakes Gambling

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Baseball Cards: Kids Version of High Stakes Gambling
This 1973 Freehan card vexed the author as a 10-year-old

We were far too young to even be within 500 feet of a casino, but we had our version of a slot machine. We may not have been old enough to bet, but that didn’t stop us from plunking down coins for a shot at what was inside those mysterious wax packages.

Come to think of it, the Cunningham’s drug store near my Livonia house was sort of like a casino. There was no clock. They served food and drink at cheap prices. There were surveillance mirrors on the walls.

And, of course, the gambling that we did inside!

There was no crapshoot on the Vegas strip as thrilling to an adolescent boy as a venture into the Cunningham’s on Plymouth Road and Farmington during baseball card season.

Your fate was held in the hands of the trading card gods. You had no more control over how you’d make out as the adult in Caesars Palace did at the Roulette Wheel.

We collected cards back then—circa the 1970s—ostensibly to someday accumulate every card in that year’s set. That was the goal, every year. Whether through barter, luck or perseverance—or all three—you wanted to be able to check every card off the list. And we’re talking some 500+ cards.

There were two ways to acquire cards.

The first was the wax package route. Fifteen cents bought you 10 cards and a flat rectangle of pink bubble gum with a sugary coating that invariably rubbed off on the card it rested against. For years you could tell which card was the “gum card” because the sugary coating left a stain on the card that was indelible.

The second was the slot machine method. They had the machine near the front entrance, chained to the floor. There were maybe four or five slots with respective metal levers, each operated by placing two quarters on the steel tray above the levers. The trick was, after plopping down your four bits, to jam the lever into the machine and pull it back out, rapidly. The cards then poured through the slots.

We believed that the number of cards that was distributed was directly proportional to how hard you were able to jam the lever into the machine, and also by how fast and violently you pulled it out. We believed this because the number of cards that the machine doled out was often different, unlike the wax packages, where you knew you were always getting 10 cards.

I’m sure there were many Cunningham’s cashiers who furrowed their brows at the gaggle of boys who treated the baseball card machines like the slots in the casino, complete with cheering and cussing.

But the acquisition of the cards was only the beginning of the collection process. The next step was the Barter. That took place outside the store.

We’d always opt for a combination of bubble gum cards and those from the machine, sans sugary coating. No one just bought one over the other. You combined, apparently to somehow better your luck.

Outside the store we’d stand, our bikes between our legs, gum packing our cheeks like sunflower seeds in a hamster’s.

The first thing you tried to do was offload “doubles”—those duplicate cards that were not needed. We’d shuffle through our cards like traders on the floor of the NYSE, calling out doubles loudly in case anyone was interested, right then and there.

The checklists were always mental. Everyone seemed to know which cards they needed, cold. We didn’t have to consult with a grocery list of needed cards. And we also knew which cards we already had, so the doubles could either come in the form of two of the same card from that day’s haul, or by way of mentally connecting your collection at home with those cards being shuffled in your hands in front of the store.

Sometimes you’d end up with triples or even quadruples, usually of some bench player who rarely found his way into an actual game. No one got three or four Rod Carews.

I kept my cards categorized by team, rubber banded together. It was easier, to me, to keep track of who I had and who I needed if I could think of them by team name.

Topps was the trading card brand of the day, and nobody else. We only knew Topps. Today, the baseball trading card world has been turned upside down by so many different companies and sizes and shapes of cards that it’s a lesson in futility to even think of garnering a complete set.

Topps used to release their card sets in stages. The first was right about now, in spring training. Those cards kept us busy for a couple months, and then we’d keep our eyes on the machine in the front of Cunningham’s.

Sure enough, the machine’s sample cards would one day change and there’d be a sign on the machine that indicated a new “edition” of cards was available.

That was an exciting day, boy.

More wax packages would be snatched up and into the trays would go our quarters as we sought to add copiously to our sets. Then, of course, more bartering in front of the store, done through wads of gum.

One year a Bill Freehan card became contentious.

It was the 1973 set. I can still see the Freehan card today: the Tigers catcher lunging to try to tag a New York Yankee player out at the plate. The card was auspicious because it was a horizontal photograph, as opposed to the standard vertical. That in of itself made it a cool card to have.

Anyhow, I needed that card to complete my Tigers team. My friend Rob Polster had it. And Rob was a transplanted Chicagoan, never really a true Detroit sports fan. He rooted for the Windy City teams. He was a Cubs fan, as was his family.

To this day I blame Rob Polster’s lack of Detroit sports loyalty for his utter disregard in bartering with me for the Freehan card. He knew how important it was to me, but there was no fellow Tigers fan empathy going on. If anything, there was some Chicagoan spite.

Rob simply wasn’t going to trade me the Freehan card. I’d be left to get it on my own devices, i.e. multiple trips to Cunningham’s until I got lucky.

I never got the card. A couple years later Rob and his family moved back to Chicago.

The House wins again.

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