Harold Uhlman’s recent baseball card articles here on ThinkBlueLA got me thinking back to my childhood, remembering the days when a pack of Topps baseball cards was 10 cents and I’d open each pack with excitement and great anticipation. Flipping though the cards one by one, hoping to find a Dodger card, or the missing card we were seeking to complete a collection and then popping what was usually a stale stick of bubblegum in my mouth.
Baseball card collecting was fun because there was a “hunt” involved. You’d get the checklists and attempt to fill out the collection completely. I can’t tell you how many “Vicente Romo’s” or “Mike Kekich’s” I got in my attempt to land the white whale of cards: “George Brett” or “Roberto Clemente” who always remained unchecked on my checklist. You just couldn’t seek out auctions for missing cards as you can today. The hunt meant that you’d buy packs and packs until you finally landed the missing piece, often times taking months on end to do so. Trades with friends would work too, but very few that I knew were as passionate as my brother and I, so swaps usually didn’t work out, because they didn’t have the cards I was searching for.
Back in the early 70s and before that, Topps released the lower numbered cards first and it wouldn’t be until late summer when the higher numbered ones came out. As a result, those higher numbered cards are not as plentiful and have become quite the collector’s item today. Additionally, it was exciting each spring when the new cards for the coming year arrived. We always were anxious to see the new designs and would compare them to previous years. My brother’s preference was what I called the 1972 “funky design”. It had a wacky border with a definite 1970s script that surrounded the players that also had the most advanced stats on the back of any card I could remember. I preferred the more simple design of the previous year in 1971, with the black border that are nearly impossible to find today in mint condition, since the black edges show the slightest crease.
I remember warming up at a Little League game and my older brother Taylor calling me over to the fence to show me the McCovey ’72 card that he pulled out of a pack that was a missing piece to our collection. A moment of quick celebration ensued. Yes, he was a Giant, and we hated the Giants, but that card had eluded us for a long time so it didn’t matter who he played for.
We lived one block away from a corner liquor store that sold the Topps cards. The place had a nice candy section too. My mother didn’t like the fact that we patronized the place, but the nearest 7-Eleven was about a mile away and I reminded her that 7-Eleven sold liquor too, so she didn’t make much of a fuss about my brother and I buying cards at the corner liquor store that was much closer to home.
That liquor store had another twist to it too – it was owned by Andy Etchebarren, the catcher of the Baltimore Orioles. This was the early 1970s and the Orioles were big too – World Series Champs in 1970 and pennant winners from 69-71. It was cool that local boy Andy had a store within a block from my house.
Then there was “The Event of the Century” in Hacienda Heights. During the spring of 1971, when the O’s came to town to play the Angels for a weekend series, Etchebarren arranged for 4 of his teammates to join him at the store for a promotional event on a Saturday morning. This was a big deal for my little town in the eastern outskirts of L.A. County as the Orioles were the defending World Champs. Jim Palmer, Dave Johnson, Brooks Robinson, Dave McNally and Etchebarren were to be there signing autographs and posing for pictures. Palmer had just won the Cy Young Award and Brooks was the World Series MVP from the previous Fall Classic. I’m telling you, kids were coming out of the woodwork for this event.
I had one problem that day though as my Little League team had a game that morning that started at the exact time. By the time I arrived after my game, they were wrapping things up. There had to be 500 kids in that small parking lot, all clamoring to get autographs from one of the players. I didn’t have a prayer. The players were getting in cars and starting to leave. My only shot was Davey Johnson, who was a bit more accommodating to the kids and signing for many that stood behind ropes on the path to his vehicle. I had nothing for him to sign except my worn out baseball mitt that I was carrying as I returned from my game.
I reached that thing out in his direction a and miracle of miracles happened; he took it, looked at me, smiled, paused for a few seconds, signed my glove and patted me on the head. I guess he saw the despair on my face and took pity. To be honest, I’m not sure what was going through Davey’s mind aside from wanting to get to his car and leave. Needless to say, that very small gesture absolutely made my day, week month and year.
Never mind that I missed the speeches and the fan fare of the event. Nor did I get any of the free 8 x 10 photos that they were all signing earlier in the day. I got a second or two of “one on one” contact with a Big Leaguer. The first I had ever had. It wasn’t my dad that took me there or arranged it either. I did it myself, and it felt real good. Davey Johnson was a favorite from then on. Twenty-eight years later, when he briefly took on the helm of the Dodgers as manager, I wrote him a quick letter and thanked him for that gesture. He sent me two signed baseball cards in return. Again, a classy man; and signed cards… that made it even more special.
The baseball mitt Davey signed? I still have it. And even though the signature has long since worn off, I know it’s there.