If you were born before the 1970’s then you most likely remember going into a small grocery store usually at the corner on the block where you lived or otherwise pretty close by. Such a store was an old-fashioned, claustrophobic emporium where in order to get something off a very high shelf the clerk used a long stick with a hook at the end. It acted like an artificial hand that magically grabbed a carton or jar without crashing or crushing it. There was also a ladder on rollers which the braver employee used to slide over from one part of an aisle to another to re-stock merchandise.
The Chicago West Garfield Park neighborhood grocery store I went to in the late 1950’s was on Kostner in the middle of the block south from the corner at Jackson. This was where I bought penny candy and fed my growing baseball card habit. My favorite sweet junk was little waxed bottles with a sliver of colored water inside that was good for one quick slurp as well as rolls of paper with sugary dots on them. I ended up eating more paper than candy.
A couple of doors down from the store closer to Jackson was a tavern. My Uncle Henry once took me there and ordered (for me) a Seven Up. The stench of beer odor that imbued my olfactory nerves never quite wiped away. To this day I find even the mention of beer displeasing. When we got back to the apartment, Ma let it be known very emphatically that my visit to a tavern would not occur again.
As for my predisposition to collecting baseball cards, it had been drilled into me by Ma that some cards had more value than others. She told me not to trade the special ones. A year older and supposedly wiser friend in another part of our apartment building, Alan, tried to hoodwink me into trading Ernie Banks for his Willie Mays. Naturally, he had duplicates of the Say Hey Kid. Not wanting to tick off Ma, I put our swapping on hold until I could get approval from the commissioner. This was probably around the time Ernie had won his first MVP award and on his way to his second straight. Naturally, she educated me about the concept of “a sucker born every minute” and the deal was never consummated.
Like all the other kids who had this very American hobby, I studied the statistics on the back of each card learning more about numeric relationships that one could ever learn in a classroom. It didn’t take long to comprehend that forty home runs was twice as good as twenty. Or that a person could fail two-thirds of the time at bat but still come out a hero with a fantastic .333 average. I even improved my vocabulary reading words such as mediocre and meteoric. And where else would I come across ‘rookie’ or sub-par?
The living room where there was ample space turned into a ballpark as I laid out on the carpet cards comprised of a given team by position in their proper location from each other. It didn’t matter if I had all the starters. A backup shortstop could also play second base. And if I didn’t have enough cards from one year, I would add in those from the previous year to field a proper nine.
A few years later, in the mid 1960’s, I tried to act more sophisticated as I aged. I gave away my cherished cards to a younger upstairs neighbor, Ronald, at our Austin neighborhood apartment. More than forty years later, he still reminds me that he is holding on to those cards waiting to sell them in case of a financial rainy day. Every once in a while I beg him to get another peek at what I gave up and he is always telling me that it is not going to happen without the presence of an armed guard.
My brother who is fourteen years my junior also collected cards. He learned from my mistakes. He sold his cards while in his teens and used the money to purchase his first fancy camera. He used that camera to con someone into paying him to take pictures at a party. Later, he sold that camera and used a good part of that money to buy even nicer equipment.
I’d like to tell you that today my brother makes a fortune on Ebay or a decent living as a commercial photographer. Nah. His road to fame is first working for me and eventually moving on to Intel, the chip maker. But, that’s another story.