Baseball Books Reviewed: Cardboard Gods

Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards by Josh Wilker (Seven Footer, 243 pg., $24.95). HB, 2010.

Josh Wilker’s collection of baseball cards were “the heart” of his childhood bedroom, and the impetus for this memoir, Cardboard Gods. Wilker turns his acclaimed blog into a book at the crest of a wave of renewed interest in baseball cards. He joins recent books by Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession (Atlantic Monthly, 2010) and Tom and Ellen Zappala’s The T206 Collection: The Players and Their Stories (Peter E. Randall, 2010). Two weeks after Cardboard Gods’s release, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) announced the establishment of the Baseball Card History and Influence Committee.

This new wave of interest in baseball cards represents a shift in meaning. Baby Boomers accumulated cards with an emphasis on collecting and checklists. The hobby revived among Gen Xers with an emphasis on monthly price guides. The trend Wilker represents concerns neither collecting nor the hobby’s economics, but the lens of historical and sociological analysis.

While the game of baseball provides Wilker “the closest thing I had to a religion” (195), baseball cards represent something even more powerful. Baseball cards offer Wilker a “world of drama and wonder” (9), and often he demonstrates this through religiously tinged language as he probes life’s most important questions. He describes “pack-opening prayers” (25) where the players’ frozen images allow the beholder’s imagination to create superheroes. Baseball card gods are not just the superstars. In addition to “the strutting spectacular conquering god,” Reggie Jackson (57), they also include the cards without a number ending in 0—“gods with warning-track power, gods with waning speed, gods who drifted from team to team, gods who got released, gods who got sent down, gods who waited and waited and never got recalled” (30–31). On the front of the cards are gods; on the back is scripture, both numerical and prose. Lyman Bostock’s 1978 Topps card, for example, recalls his murder and elicits probing childhood questions like “what happens when you die?” This in turn leads into reflection upon Sunday mornings spent studying batting averages “as religiously as I’ve ever studied anything” (101). While batting averages represent certainty and pure numbers can validate a god’s place in history, there always remains a trigonometry exam lurking to provide Wilker a foil. Likewise, the miniature church that represents normalcy on the putt-putt course cannot adequately address Wilker’s questions of meaning.

In framing his memoir of childhood around the stories derived from his baseball card collection, Wilker offers two stories that meld into one another. As with any recollection of a golden age, interceding events and knowledge comingle with the historical events to create something altogether different. In the 1970s, baseball cards provided “time-dissolving card-aided daydreams” (114). They continue to do something very similar.

Buster Olney’s ESPN bio places his baseball card collection alongside his college degree and work history. While he left Wilker’s hometown to attend Vanderbilt, Wilker travels a different route—one whose beatnik surroundings read like a Jack Kerouac book and that raises questions in the spirit of the Transcendentalist Henry Thoreau. It is no surprise, therefore, when Wilker makes a Thoreau-like spiritual journey into a wilderness and rediscovers his baseball cards, opening a link to imagination and memories of a pristine childhood when a trip to the general store to buy a pack of cards made anything seem possible.

Wilker’s baseball cards lead to life’s deepest questions in the present. “Is life a battle between good and evil or an inconsequential rest stop between oblivions?” (138). “What happens,” he asks, “when reasonable hoping turns to something else? A ritual, a tic, religion, addiction” (122). A 1975 Topps Dick Sharon evokes Wilker’s similar connection of a Jewish father, and his readers enter a beautiful, light streaming synagogue. But Judaism does not provide life’s answers or happiness. In Cardboard Gods, Wilker moves us beyond baseball cards as monetary investment to place us inside his Transcendentalist-esque realization of their ability to transcend time and make tangible a golden age of childhood. He takes us to a simpler time when older brothers were idolized and happiness could be found in a nickel pack of cards.

Reviewed by: Joshua Fleer (July 1, 2010)