Kids, Cards and Class

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.

The coveted 1971 Clemente card and a "funky" 1972 Topps card no offense to Joe Ferguson intended)

A Topps 1971 Roberto Clemente card and a Topps 1972 “funky design” Joe Ferguson rookie card (no offense intended, Joe).

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.

Davey Johnson - a class act in 1971 and a class act today.

Davey Johnson – a class act in 1971 and a class act today.

The baseball mitt Davey signed? I still have it. And even though the signature has long since worn off, I know it’s there.



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2 Responses to “Kids, Cards and Class”

  1. Bluenose Dodger says:

    That’s what it’s all about Evan. Great story. The chase for some of those elusive cards was almost the most fun. I mentioned in a response to one of the articles on baseball cards that Topps did not issue a 1954 and 1955 Mickey Mantle as they didn’t have the Mickey Mantle rights. Bowman did but Bowman wasn’t available in our area. Can you imagine the chase for that Mantle card in Lunenburg with no one understanding why there wasn’t one. I didn’t care. I had Duke.

    Nice touch to write him a note and remind him of that moment and how important it was in a youngster’s life. Nice touch that he again responded.

    I still prefer the plain, simple cards but do collect the fancy ones.

  2. Ron Cervenka says:

    Great post, Evan.

    As crazy as it may sound, I never got any autographs from baseball players as a kid – none at all.

    Back in my early days of going to Dodger games at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and then at Dodger Stadium, my dad never got us there early enough to get autographs, nor did we hang around after the games to get them. They also didn’t let fans in early to watch BP and by the time they did open, someone had already collected the BP HR balls from the LFP and threw them back onto the field. In those days, players would never sign autographs for fans in the Pavilions, so the opportunity just never came up. Perhaps this is why I so very much enjoy getting autographs now – I’m making up for lost time from my childhood.

    My very first baseball player autograph didn’t come until I was 28 years old and it was on a piece of paper – “To Ron, Best wishes. Steve Garvey. 12-10-81.” Years before, I was blessed to get a Steve Garvey foul ball at Dodger Stadium one April night in 1974 (the best year of his career) when a buddy of mine and I went to a Dodger Game and we sat in the Loge Level behind home plate. As a result, Steve became my favorite Dodger of that era.

    My very first autographed baseball didn’t come until 2005, but it was a special one. A dear friend of mine is a dear friend of Wade Boggs and lived near him. After Wade’s HOF induction, I asked my friend if he could get me a ball autographed by Wade. Nothing happened for several months and then one day a box showed up at my house. In it was not one, but two Wade Boggs autographed baseballs – one of which I gave to my son Tim.

    But wait… There’s more!

    The box that the balls came in had a FedEx label on it and when I removed the label, there was another label addressed to my friend with Wade Boggs’ return home address on it. How’s that for a certificate of authenticity!

    By the way, this same friend of mine was also a neighbor of Ted Williams, but I was too late for that one.

    The next baseball that I got autographed was… you guess it – that Steve Garvey foul ball in 2006. After that, the flood gates opened.

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