Update: Here’s this story revisited for NPR.
Near the end of winter my neighbor’s younger brother died unexpectedly. Emily and I are friendly with our neighbor, and offered him our condolences. But we don’t really know each other, for all the usual city reasons that you regret on one level but mostly look past while you’re busy being busy.
On Sunday I was walking through the neighborhood when I came across my neighbor rolling a luggage cart piled with stacked bags and boxes. I waved, and he stopped me.
“Just the person I wanted to see,” he said. “You’re a baseball fan, right?”
He’d just finished the unhappy business of cleaning out his brother’s apartment. A lot of stuff had gone to the charity shop, but there were some things he hadn’t wanted to just hand over. He said his brother had been a baseball fan and had kept some things, which he didn’t know what to do with.
Standing there on the street, my neighbor drew out one of the bags from the stack on the luggage cart and opened it. Inside was a stack of yearbooks. The 1961 Yankees were on top. Farther down in the stack I saw the Jets logo, and then a familiar sight: Tom Seaver smiling behind assembled baseballs. Mets, 1975. Then a Seventies Yankee, swinger’s locks flying, about to crash into a catcher at home plate. Then Mr. Met in a tri-cornered hat. 1976 — I’d had that yearbook, when I was a kid.
My neighbor explained that he hadn’t wanted to leave the baseball stuff to be thrown out or sold to just anybody. He wasn’t interested in getting money for it, but he did want it to go to someone who would appreciate it. He looked harried, but mostly sad: He knew there were people out there who would love this stuff, but he didn’t know how to find them.
“I can help you with that,” I said.
So later that afternoon I stood in my neighbor’s apartment, looking at a daybed covered with a stack of baseball books and four boxes — his brother’s baseball collection. The books tended toward big volumes celebrating the game’s history — the kind of lavish coffee-table things I’m always tempted by in bookstores. They looked brand-new. A big box held a stack of games by Cadaco, a company I’d never heard of. The games were some variant of Strat-o-Matic, from the late 1960s and mid-1970s. Another box held the yearbooks. And then there were two shoeboxes. My neighbor said those were full of baseball cards, and I could have them if I wanted them.
I told him I’d take the collection and look through it. Some of it might be pretty valuable, I said, adding that I’d set that stuff aside so he could figure out what to do with it. The things that weren’t so valuable I’d find homes for. The books, for instance, would be a great baseball introduction for Joshua, a way for him to quietly read and soak up knowledge and backstory on his time, arming himself with tales of Ty Cobb and Ted Williams and Frank Robinson. That’s how I’d caught up with the adult baseball fans in my life, spending evenings and car rides reading “Strange But True Baseball Stories” and hagiographies of vanished stars and chronicles of long-ago seasons.
We ferried the stuff down to my apartment. I sorted through the baseball books, putting some in the upstairs bookcase and some in Joshua’s room for him to discover. I put the mysterious games in the closet for closer scrutiny some other time. I looked through the yearbooks (they turned out not to be worth as much as I’d thought), pondering who might like them. There wasn’t a yearbook newer than 1980, though there were copies of Street and Smith’s annuals from 1985 and 1986. The newer stuff was pristine, almost as if it hadn’t been read. The older stuff showed its wear — it had been well-kept, but obviously read quite a bit.
And then I turned to the shoeboxes. These weren’t the long white boxes that card collectors use these days, but honest-to-goodness shoeboxes bearing the logos of old brands: Thom McAn and Walk-Over. 9 1/2. They would have fit me, I thought idly.
I opened the first one. There were cards stacked this way and that, and I suddenly remembered something I’d known as a child: Despite their place in Americana, shoeboxes aren’t a great fit for baseball cards, as long rows of cards don’t completely fill up the box, leaving it vulnerable to flexing. This box was tightly and carefully packed, with no wasted space. The second shoebox was the same way, but there was a baseball nestled among the cards. I eased it free and saw a signature on it, one I knew.
Wow, I thought. Then realized: No. It was a stamp. Next to the Babe’s signature was a stamp of Hank Aaron’s. The ball was white, but you could feel its age: It had gone hard as stone.
I put the souvenir ball aside and took out stacks of cards, arranging them on my dining-room table. There were hundreds of 1974s, with chevrons top and bottom. The corners were tight and perfect. I realized I wasn’t used to seeing old cards like this, as pristine cardboard rectangles. Mixed in with them were dozens of gaudy 1972s, with their Pop-Art colors and 3-D stars, a handful of 1975s, and ranks of dour, almost-military white 1973s. Then there were lots and lots of silver-gray 1970s, the last Topps cards to bear painterly portraits.
I started sorting the cards, at first idly, then methodically. There were few if any doubles from the 1972s and 1973s and 1975s. For the other two years there were lots — the stacks of doubles quickly topped 50, then 100. My neighbor’s brother had all but cornered the market on 1974 traded cards of Steve Stone, and the cards practically sang with a frustration I recalled: In 1976, the first year I’d collected, I’d been a magnet for traded cards of Mike Anderson.
The 1970s were in good shape, but not collector-quality. A lot of the corners were rounded, and some cards had been written on. Same with the 72s: Many had positions added on the front in pen. The 74s, on the other hand, were marred only by the occasional faintly burred front or discolored back. I remembered what caused those patterns. In a wax pack, the rectangle of dry pink gum was bound against the front of the first card, and adhesive often got on the back of the last card.
My neighbor’s brother had been born eight years before me. Looking over his cards, I did the math. He’d been nine when he collected those 1970s, and 14 when he bought a few 75s. I’d started collecting in 1976, when I was seven, and quit (the first time) in 1981, when I was 12. The ages were different, but the age range was the same. And so was the pattern of wear. I’d played with my 1976s endlessly, and today they’re almost round. My 1981 cards? They were put away basically untouched.
I kept looking for signs of order as I sorted the cards, but there weren’t any. Well, except for one thing: I wasn’t finding star cards or valuable rookies. Until, in the middle of the second box, I came to a 1970 Willie McCovey. Next was a 1972 Willie Mays (with CF added in ballpoint pen). I wasn’t surprised by what followed: Dave Winfields, Nolan Ryans, a Mike Schmidt, Tom Seavers, Joe Morgan, Harmon Killebrews, Pete Rose, Rollie Fingers. At some point (around 1980, by the evidence) my neighbor’s brother had taken down those shoeboxes and searched for stars. I suspect he sold, traded or gave some away — there were fewer valuable cards than chance would dictate, and no 1971s — and then put the rest back, where they sat undisturbed for another 30 years.
And there was one other, much subtler sign of order.
Looking through the 1970s, I found this sequence: Rod Gaspar (Mets), Bob Aspromonte (Braves), Jose Cardenal (Cardinals), Dave Marshall (Giants), Larry Stahl (Padres), Joe Foy (Mets), Sandy Alomar (Angels), Calvin Koonce (Mets), Bill Dillman (Cardinals), Ron Herbel (Padres), Dick Selma (Phillies).
That is not a random grouping: All of those guys were Mets at some point, except Dillman. I looked up Bill Dillman. He was a member of the 1972 Tidewater Tides.
My neighbor’s brother was a Mets fan — and not a casual one, either. He knew Larry Stahl and Ron Herbel had worn blue and orange even if they’d never had Mets cards, and he knew that Bill Dillman hadn’t quite earned a ticket back to the Show as a member of the Mets organization. He’d collected cards for a while, then put them aside, their apparent randomness hiding patterns that the right person would be able to read. Someone who knew not just baseball cards, but also obscure Mets. Someone like me.
Looking at those cards, I knew he’d loved the same team I do, and I could see how his mind had worked. I sorted his cards carefully, separating them into years and doubles. I put aside the small stack of valuable cards for my neighbor to consider. I checked to see if the cards of Mets and guys who’d been Mets were in better shape than my own, swapping mine for his when they were. I put aside the partial sets of 1970s and 1974s I’d reconstructed. And then I sat at the table pondering homes for yearbooks and thinking about baseball fans I knew who would see a packet of random 30-year-old Cardinals or Yankees or Expos as a welcome gift, worth pondering at odd moments or kept to be passed on to someone else who would appreciate them.
I never knew my neighbor’s brother, but I think he would like that.