Recommended Reading: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker

From time to time, I’ll post a review of a baseball book I’ve read that I recommend to other baseball fans. Even if you’re not an avid book-reader, you might find this post interesting, so go ahead and give it a try.

 

I just finished reading Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards.

I actually heard about it for the first time on ESPN Baseball today podcast as a recommendation from Eric Karabell. I started reading it and could barely put it down.

The book is Wilker’s auto-biography, and each chapter is a different baseball card that he relates to an event in his life during his baseball card collecting years from 1976-1981. Even in the years after 1981, he ties in stories with each chapter (and baseball card) from cards he collected during those years.

Wilker describes his first trip to an MLB game at Fenway at the age of 7

“When we walked up the concrete tunnel and I saw the field for the first time, the deep green color of the grass hit me like the heartbeat of something benevolent and immense.I followed my family to our seats in a daze. You only sense that pulse a few times in your whole life.”

Here’s another excerpt from the beginning of the book

“As I write this, decades later, almost all the things that made that room my room are long gone…the only thing that remains is the heart of the room, the box containing all the baseball cards I ever brought home. The box I’ve carried with me through my whole life…I wonder sometimes if the years have beaten all this out of me. Have I lost belief in the boundless possibilities in that slim moment when I levered my fingernail below the flap of unopened pack?…For a few seconds, the lifespan of happiness, the gum was soft and sweet, and sugar coursed through my bloodstream, and I looked for the first time directly at a brand-new card and felt sunshine coming up from it as if from some better world, some wider moment suddenly so close I could hold it in my hands. Behold this card. Behold this world of drama and wonder-as if somewhere just beyond the fringes of this world exists an invincible solidity, the answer to the question in our hearts.”

There is a chapter on Topps 1975 card #407. It was Herb Washington, the only player in the history of major league baseball to have “pinch runner” as the position listed on the card.

There is a chapter on Topps 1975 card #528, Eddie Leon. He is wearing a Red- and-white Chicago White Sox uniform, and the bottom of the card lists his team as “Cardinals”.

There is a chapter on Topps 1977 card #418, the White Sox team Card. This was the year management decided it would be a good idea to wear shorts instead of pants, tall white socks, and butterfly-collar shirts as the official team uniform. They look more like a beer-league softball team than a major-league baseball team.

Wilker’s life was thrown into chaos in 1976, when his mom left his dad, and moved him and his brother to a hippy farm in Vermont to live with her new boyfriend. Everything was spinning out of control, except for his collection of baseball cards, which helped bring normalcy and order to his life.

“Even during my earliest years of consciousness, when I generally understood the experimentation of the adults in my family as simply the way life was, I instinctively began to reach for things that had clear rules and distinct lines between what was good and what was bad. In fact, one of the things that would draw me into the world of the cardboard gods as much as anything else was its clean, well-defined system of statistical landmarks. You knew where you stood with the numbers on the back of a baseball players’ card. If a guy hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs, he was a star slugger. If another guy turned in a sub-3.00 ERA, he was a top pitcher. It was as simple as that, no gray areas, no confusion.”

 

I can relate a lot to this book. Well not the split-family moving to a hippie farm in Vermont thing, but remembering the excitement of collecting baseball cards growing up. Long before the world of twitter, facebook, and instant on-demand entertainment, my friends and I had to think up ways to entertain ourselves, and that often involved using our imaginations. We created this world where the guys on our “team” of baseball cards played the guys on your friend’s “team”. The cardboard gods were larger than life to us. We walked down the road to Mickey’s Convenient store in Harker Heights, TX every chance we could to collect them. We bought Beckett magazine to see how much our cards were worth, which set the market rate at which everyone intensely traded cards late into the night.

One final story I’ll share from this book. Wilker tells a story of a rough time in his life in his late 20′s where he was between jobs and spent a lot of time going to his grandfather’s to watch Red Sox games.

“…I think of Dwight Evans slowly striding to the plate with the game reaching a crucial stage, me on my grandfather’s orthopedic bed, my grandfather safe and sound in his La-Z-Boy. The next summer he’d be in a nursing home. the summer after that he’d be gone. I think of Dewey working the count to 3-1. I hear the chant of 33,000 people on the television. My grandfather joins in. The crowd noise blooms into a great wordless roar that covers the hum of the oxygen machine. My grandfather bobs a loose fist in time to the chant…he turns to me, grinning, his eyebrows raised. ‘Dewey…Dewey,’ he chants, and he won’t look away until I join him.”

That story in the book really touched me, and I’ll close my post with this.

I grew up in the 1980′s during the “Whiteyball era” of Cardinals baseball. I’m at least a  3rd generation Cardinals fan, if not 4th or 5th. My grandpa told me stories of the Gashouse gang he watched as a boy, and Stan the Man he watched as an adult. My dad told me stories of Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Mike Shannon and Ken Boyer. My earliest baseball memories are listening to Jack Buck on the mighty KMOX on endless summer nights at my grandparents farm in Fordland, MO.

My grandpa had a big part in instilling a love of baseball and the Cardinals in me. We used to play games in his living room and out in the yard, where I was Tommy Herr or Vince Coleman or Ozzie Smith, and he was some opposing pitcher destined for failure against the mighty Red Birds. I went with him and my Dad to my first ever Cardinals game at Busch stadium in 1987 and shared the same feelings Wilker had when he walked into Fenway Park for the first time at the age of 7. Busch stadium, the Clydesdales, the Arch, Ozzie Smith’s backflip as he took the field each game, the arches around the top of the stadium, the World Series flags flying in the outfield…all of it was magical.

In the last weeks of my grandpa’s life, he stayed with our family. His wife, my grandmother, had passed away a few months before, and he needed our family to help take care of him. He stayed in my bedroom, I was 14 at the time and just about to start my freshman year of high school. It was 1996. We watched a lot of Cardinals games that summer and into September as the Cards clinched the pennant. I couldn’t wait to get home each day after school and talk to my grandpa about what had happened that day, and watch the Cards game with him and my family. And one day that September of 1996, my mom came to school to tell me that he had passed away that morning. I watched those playoffs with an ache in my heart, that he wasn’t there to watch them with me. Nothing seemed right in the world when the Cardinals lost to the Braves in the NLCS that October.

As the years went on, the pain of him being gone turned into happy memories of those August and September nights we talked about our Cardboard Gods. His were Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial. Mine were Ozzie Smith, Mark McGwire, Ray Lankford. But we shared the memories together.

I’ve had a lot of great baseball moments since then, like going to my final game at Busch II in 2005 with my Dad and brother, and going with my whole family to Busch III for the first time on Dad’ 50th birthday. But that season of 1996 will always be special. It will be different. Each time I look at my boxes of baseball cards, my cardboard gods, I’m reminded of it.

So read this book baseball fans…you never know what kind of nostalgia it will stir up in you :) And thanks for reading this post….

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4 Responses to “Recommended Reading: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker”

  1. Cardinal70 August 24, 2011 at 10:09 AM #

    Great stuff, especially the end. It’s amazing how baseball brings that tie to family more than any other sport.

    Though it’s sadly depressing that 1996 was your freshman year of high school, since that’s the year I started my senior year….of college. :)

  2. david August 28, 2011 at 11:12 PM #

    Great post that brought back alot of memories. Good job.

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