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High Times


I love baseball. I've been a Yankee fan since I was six years old. The first game I remember watching was Reggie hitting three in 1977. I started collecting baseball cards soon after, trading with my friends, sorting, flipping, re-sorting. I was getting more into baseball, and my card savvy improved as well. I stopped flipping, started sheathing my better cards, put together sets.

Basically I was a card dork.

In the summer of 1981, my father was renovating an elderly woman's basement. As part of her renovations, the woman told him to throw everything in the basement away.

The cellar was a gold mine. World War II memorabilia, posters, helmets, all kept in pretty good shape, aside from the mildewy smell.

And there was a box of baseball cards.

1954 Topps, mostly. The set famous for Mr. Aaron's rookie card (not in the box), and no Mantle, but two Ted Williams cards. The box had two of #250, one in pretty good shape, one a tragedy. Also a Berra (nice), a Mays (tragedy), Banks rookie (tragedy), Kaline rookie (not bad), and a couple of Jackie Robinson's (54 and 55 Topps-both tragedies). Lots of other cards in scattered condition, but an absolute find nonetheless.

My father presented the cards to the woman and asked if he could buy them. She said just take them. He insisted that the cards were probably worth money, and she insisted he just take them. He gave her $30 and came home with the box of cards.

I knew none of this as he came home, touting a 'present'. He often would bring me a pack or two of cards when he got home from work, so I was already excited. But instead of a pack of 81 Fleer, he gave me the Berra.

I was astounded. "Is it real? Where did you get it? Is it for me?"

He told me he found it.

I told him we had to go back to wherever it was he found this and look for more.

He said he looked, there weren't anymore, basically torturing me. The next day he gave me the good Williams. Then two cards-the Mays and the Banks, I think. By then I knew something was up. He finally caved (it must have been weeks) and presented me with the box. He told me the story about the old lady.

I like to think that I thought about the lady, a grieving widow that gave away something she shouldn't have, maybe even thought about returning them. I might have. It's possible. I really don't remember. But my dad's a stand-up guy, and if it was legit by him, that's still good enough for me.

That began the addiction. I collected hard through 1982. I bought packs, searched garage sales, flea markets. That summer, a vendor at the Wellfleet Drive-In absolutely took advantage of a kid with $20 in his hand, forcing me to tears and 'teaching me a tough lesson'. Some of the luster had gone.

Reggie was in California. Thurman was long gone. And I was getting old enough to understand a little bit of what George was about (back then). That ended a four year binge. I dabbled a bit through my adolescence. Bought three or four packs in 1985 and pulled a McGwire rookie, which I forgot about until 1995. A few packs a year, for old time's sake.

I left for school in 1989, and I told my mother to never throw my cards away or I'd kill her. They still reside in my room at home, so she knows that that was not a threat.

I graduated in 1993. Mr. Clancy and I started hanging out together soon after college, same group/not really friends in school, 'hey, you're not an asshole' after school. It turns out we had a lot in common.

In 1995, I had a total relapse. Clancy's influence (it didn't take much, mind you) had me diving headfirst into K-Mart shelves, blocking registers while I searched for the sure thing. They invented inserts when I was gone-randomly seeded, short-printed cards. They put odds ('seeding ratios') on the pack of finding the gems.

1:244 means one in every 244 packs, which loosely translates to one of that insert set in every 10 BOXES. And there are 10-15 cards in the insert sets, and only the most collectible players bring premiums. So you're odds on a Griffey or McGwire are about 1:100 BOXES. These are worse odds than scratch tickets, with $100 being the going rate for a premium box of cards.

I stopped spending money on new stuff, but my addiction still had control. I needed a fix. Early in 1996, I walked into a card shop in Downtown Crossing. I bought two cards-- a nice 65 Aaron and an even better 67 Clemente.

It's been the vintage ever since. I got my first Mantle later in 1996, a 66 Topps. Since then I've acquired some more, and spent WAY too much money doing so. I bought cards on the Internet with random success (maybe the guy that sent me an 'EX+' Mantle with a huge crease right through Mickey's face is the same slappa that screwed me back on the Cape). I found the professionally graded material to be the safest purchase over the web. Too many people with bad eyesight.

I have gotten the addiction under control, learning about the market, reading the trades. I have developed a decent eye for grading (Mr. Clancy is the stickler), and I have focused my collection on higher-end collector grade cards.

This began as an essay on the state of the card market today, and turned into a history lesson.

Sorry about that.
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