Cardboard Gods: Card Collecting Just Ain't What It Used to Be

Geoff Estes@TheGeffyManCorrespondent IJuly 18, 2011

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: A man sells vintage baseball cards prior to the start of the last game at Yankee Stadium between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees on September 21, 2008 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Yankee Stadium held it's inaugural game on April 18, 1923 against the Boston Red Sox and tonight's match will be the final game to be played at the historic stadium. During it's 85 years as ''The Home of Champions,'' the stadium has also been known as ''The House that Ruth Built'' and ''The Cathedral.'' The stadium has been host to 33 World Series, three Papal visits and has been visited by legends such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Bera, Mickey Mantle and boxing great Muhummad Ali. In 2009 the Yankees will move across the street to a newly constructed stadium estimated to cost $1.3 billion. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It's good to know I am not alone.  At least Josh Wilker knows what it is like to grow up with your best friends being two-inch pictures printed on cardboard.

Wilker's book Cardboard Gods is a fantastic read.  I just read it this summer, although it came out in April of 2010.  Wilker writes about his unconventional childhood, which involved a hippie mother, a rebelling brother, a dad and boyfriend living under the same roof, and hundreds of baseball cards. 

Wilker tells about how in his later, post-college years, he turned to his old baseball card collection to recall memories of his childhood and all the hours he would spend pouring over his "cardboard gods."

While Wilker tells his life story through different memories evoked by certain baseball cards, I was uplifted and also a little sad. 

The uplifting part was that Wilker went far into his 20s and 30s before realizing what to do with his life (which gives many of us striving writers some hope).  The sad part is that the passion he felt for collecting baseball cards as a youth, the same passion I felt, just isn't there any more.

I remember my brother and I would run up to the nearest Casey's General Store to buy a new pack of cards whenever we scraped up enough money.

I remember pouring over the sports page, just waiting for Northpark Mall in Davenport, Iowa to announce when the next "card show" would be.  We would hit all the good tables at the card shows and always find some hidden gems, while never spending more than one or two dollars per card.

Trading cards was like a sport to us.  We would play basketball for cards.  We would make picks on all the NFL games on Sunday, and whoever got the most correct won the card the other put up for grabs for the week.

Cards were divided into teams, and then players within the teams.  This got more difficult in the free agent era.  When a player was traded or signed by another team, if often meant a whole night rearranging the pages and pages of cards we had in our card books so everything was in current order.

We would criticize the other neighborhood kids who didn't really have a favorite player. One week the kid down the street wanted to trade for all of my David Robinson and Jack McDowell cards because that was his favorite player, the next week it was Gary Payton and Travis Fryman.

Why couldn't he just love someone the way I love Reggie Miller and Kenny Lofton and stick with a player?  It made trading cards seem so much more meaningful if you had a favorite player you wanted to collect.

In other words, collecting and trading cards was a huge part of my youth in the '90s, much as it was for Wilker and other kids in the '70s and '80s.  The difference is this: I collected cards for the pure joy of it, much like Wilker. Many other kids in the '90s, however, saw dollar signs instead of collections.

Beckett magazines were flying off the shelves so people could see how much their card cost.  I remember getting a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, and even though I could have taken it to one of my beloved card shows and made a pretty penny for it, it was invaluable to me.

I didn't care what Beckett said, or what the guy at the card show said. To me it was worth millions.

For many kids my age, card collecting became more about how much value their cards had to other collectors, instead of how much value it had to them.  It is a shame, but it is a fact.

This is why card collecting has died a slow death.  Some still collect, sure, but the good cards are out of reach to kids.  They are too expensive and too sought after for their dollar value.

A young Derek Jeter fan can not dream of collecting all of his cards, unless he has rich parents.  Cards are just too expensive.

I still have my card collection.  Thousands and thousands of cards are crammed in my books.  I don't foresee myself ever getting rid of them, no matter the value of the cards themselves.

Many of them have more sentimental value to me than they would to anybody else, regardless of what Beckett says the cost of the card is. 

The Internet and DirecTV have done many great things.

However, one thing they have taken away is the excitement a kid can get from cracking open a new pack of cards and seeing his favorite player staring back at him.

Kids in this day and age can see that player anytime they want, in real time. 

Card collecting just ain't what it used to be, but I am glad I was around to see what it once was.