The Boys of Summer

When I was a kid growing up near Sacramento, California, all the boys played baseball. We played baseball during recess at school, we played in the park, and we played baseball in our backyards. Every kid had a mitt and a ball, and most had a bat as well. We’d go the park, and if there were enough of us, we’d break into teams and play the rest of the afternoon. Or all afternoon on weekends. Whenever there was some spare time—or our moms kicked us out of the house–we’d hop on our bikes and head to the park.

There was a tennis court near our little diamond, and the goal was always to hit the ball over the monstrously high chain-link fence and into the tennis court. That was an automatic homerun. I don’t remember hitting many homeruns, but it was a noble goal.

Around this time, we all started following the major league teams, too.

This was when I was nine or ten, the early 1960s. At about this time, Post started printing baseball player cards on the backs of their cereal boxes. These were easy to collect. All we had to do was talk our moms into buying box after box of breakfast cereal, then quickly eat the stuff so we could cut out the cards on the back. It was easy collecting the boxes that had sugar in them (which was most of them). Like little humming birds, we lived on sugar in those days. If the box had some cards we wanted and it was a corn flake or shredded wheat box, well, that was problematic. Somebody would have to eat that stuff, and it usually fell to a younger brother or sister to do the deed—or suffer the consequences!

But the cereal got eaten, so Mom was satisfied, and the boxes were cut up and sorted by team into nice little piles, to be traded, hoarded, sorted and if you had too many of one player, drawn on and discarded. It was fun in an obsessional kind of way. Not all the kids went after collecting baseball cereal cards with the dedication that I did. I had a best friend named Bobby who had a better collection, but not many other kids could say that. Besides, Bobby hole-punched all his cards so he could ring them together, and even then, that didn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Around the same time that I discovered cereal cards, I also discovered chewing gum cards. Packaged with a pink tongue of gum–sometimes fresh, often times dry and crumbly—these cards always smelled like the powdered sugar that covered the gum. But dry or fresh, I would chew that gum with as much dedication as I would collect those cards. Every allowance, I was hoofing it over to Nellie’s to buy another pack or two. Nellie’s is what we called the corner market because the owner’s wife was named Nellie and she was always the one to help us pick out our sweet treats. She had the patience of a saint. Even now, I have no idea what the real name of the place was.

Anyway, Nellie’s sold me most of the cards I collected at this time—1961 and 1962—and what a lot of fun that was, trying to get all the cards for a team. My favorites at the time were the San Francisco Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Why the Pirates and not the Dodgers or the Angels, our other West Coast teams? I have no idea. Maybe I just liked the black and gold color scheme of their uniforms. But I followed the Pirates with a fervor.

And then I turned twelve, and the Beatles happened. Almost overnight, I stopped collecting baseball cards, and started collecting 45s and Beatle cards instead. I only had a limited income after all: an allowance—which I could save, and sometimes borrow against if I wheedled long enough—and yard work money. During the Spring and Summer, I’d mow the lawn like crazy. During the Fall, I’d rake till I had blisters. During the Winter…. nothing. It was a hard life during the Winter.

After the Beatles and 45s came book collecting, and eventually, record albums, so by the time I was fourteen, baseball card collecting had become a part of my past. I put the cards in shoe boxes and kept them in my closet. Eventually, I collected all the shoe boxes and put them in a larger box. And over the years, I carted that box with me everywhere I moved. Over the years, I would occasionally look through the top layer, reminisce a bit about the ten-year-old who even then had to have ‘em all, even as I now collect a particular author or recording artist. The baseball cards had become like an old friend, or a totem of my youth, a touchstone for young and innocent days.

And today I sold them.

It was great being ten. Time to let someone else enjoy my childhood.

–Greg Shepard

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