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The Baseball-Card Mines of McCrory's, Lake Grove, N.Y., 1976

If you’ve almost made it to Saturday, then it’s Flashback Friday [1] at Faith and Fear in Flushing.

I don’t know where I got the notion — maybe from a friend or from someone at school or from watching older kids at the five-and-dime — but one day in 1976 I made up my mind: I’m going to collect baseball cards.

I got ideas like this fairly often, back in the late 1970s. I have enough allowance money to afford two Star Wars figures. I kind of liked that Hardy Boys book Dad got me. I’m going to collect baseball cards. Each time it was an idle thought that unleashed a years-long avalanche of collecting, list-making and obsession — I’ve never done anything by halves, though most of the time that would be a good idea. But baseball cards marked the first such avalanche, and the blueprint for all the rest of them.

In the spring and summer of 1976 in Long Island, I lived to collect baseball cards. Specifically, I collected rack packs. Some shops up by the Finast and the King Kullen had wax packs, but a) I didn’t have any reason to go in there; b) they were the province of scary teenagers who smoked; and c) I didn’t know. So I was ridiculously old before my teeth shattered my first flat rectangle of pink Topps gum. Rack packs didn’t have gum — they were an accordion fold of three packs of cards in clear plastic (photo here [2]), with a fourth panel that was just a red rectangle that said “trading cards” with the Topps logo, in that affectless style that all but screams, “It was the 1970s! None of us knew how to market anything!”

You got 42 cards, and if memory serves they were 55 cents after tax. But the crucial thing was that clear plastic. That meant you could see six of the 42 cards you’d be getting — three fronts and three backs. (Why backs? Why not turn half the cards around so you could see six card fronts? Because it was the 1970s, and nobody knew how to market anything.) On top of this, if you knew how and the shopkeeper wasn’t hanging over you like an avenging angel, you could push and pull the cards within the plastic this way and that and sometimes get a glimpse of the colors of the next card or even the card two down. That gave you a fighting chance at knowing if any of the outermost nine or even 12 cards were Mets — they had yellow bottoms, though they shared that characteristic with a few other teams. (The Yankees were a sky blue.)

The key to rack packs, as you’ve probably intuited by now, was prospecting for the Met-heavy ones. It was digging down for the one near the bottom of the box that had Mike Vail on the front, or noting that the white-on-green letters visible on a card back said BUD HARRELSON, or putting aside a pack you’d pushed and pulled to see that the middle blister had a card with a yellow bottom right below the one showing.

Prospecting, though, took time. And time was reckoned differently by seven-year-olds and adults.
There were two significant places available to me to prospect for rack packs. The first one was a stationery store down the hill from King Kullen, one that had packs hanging from a big spinning rack and sometimes boxes of rack packs, too. I don’t remember the store’s name, but I can still hear the sound that spinning rack made as it rotated: whine-chunka-chunka-whine-chunka-chunka. Unfortunately, the stationery store was a lousy place to look for rack packs, because the owner (whom I have no recollection of whatsoever except as a dark, frightful presence) did not like kids, particularly not kids who wanted — no, needed — to take half an hour to excavate all the rack-pack boxes from top to bottom and turn that spinning rack again and again and again (whine-chunka-chunka) until every blister of every rack pack had been checked front and back. Sometimes he wasn’t there, in which case you could wallow in rack packs for as long as your mom let you, but most of the time he was, and you knew you had just time enough for a quick dig-dig-dig through the top layers of the boxes and one single spin (whine-chunka-chunka) of the rack before he’d rise up from his lair somewhere behind the counter and bark at you that there was no looking in the store.

Now, I understand that every kid (including me) would leave the rack packs scattered all over the other merchandise and many a kid would steal as many packs as the pockets of their Mighty Macs would hold. (Not including me — I would have been deeply shocked at the idea of stealing anything, even a rack pack with a visible Dave Kingman if I had no money.) Then, all I knew was prospecting for rack packs at the stationery store should have been great but wasn’t.

The other place to prospect for rack packs was much farther from our house, but it was so much better that I used to dream we were going there. It was McCrory’s, a now-extinct five-and-dime that sold everything from bolts of fabric to model kits to baseball cards. Oh, how McCrory’s sold baseball cards. The aisle on the way to the registers had these big tables with raised sides, each one like a giant open drawer, with another big display drawer underneath, perfectly positioned for rummaging through while sitting on the floor. McCrory’s reserved each of those big tables for a different class of notions, and during the season at least one of them — sometimes two or even three — would be full of rack packs. Overflowing with rack packs, so much so that you could reach your hands into them and slosh your hands through them and feel plastic sliding over and under your hands and hear that crackle and shhh as you wiggled your fingers. We’d go to the Smith Haven Mall (which was near the hardware store and the McDonald’s and everything else of note in our part of Long Island) every week or two, and I would make a beeline for McCrory’s and the baseball-card table with the understanding that my parents would come collect me there when they were done with whatever adult thing they had gone to the mall to do.
Unlike the stationery store, in McCrory’s nobody cared what you did. You could divide an entire table of rack packs into rejects and potential keepers. You could sit on the floor and pull rack packs out one by one for careful examination. You could wiggle the plastic for as many subsurface peeks as you could manage. It was like a trip to the Planet of Baseball Cards, and the only limiting factor was when you’d hear heels on linoleum in what you knew was your own mother’s distinctive rhythm.

I never did get all the ’76 Topps cards — I wound up missing like 50 or 60 of them, somehow. Years later, at card shows, I’d occasionally flip past one of the missing ’76es and stop and stare at a card that my seven-year-old self swore couldn’t exist. (On the other hand, I think I got about 54 Mike Anderson Traded cards.) I did get all the Mets, and I still have them tucked away in a binder. Jerry Koosman and Del Unser are practically round. Randy Tate is liberally splotched with what I’m pretty sure is now 31-year-old Nestle’s Quik. They’re testaments to the fact that children love things half to death, and I’ve kept them because there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

It’s a sight to make any mint collector shudder, but to me it’s comforting: This what baseball cards look like. Simply framed photo above, name, team and position below. The player’s name is set against a blue background; METS is in black, against that sometimes-deceptive yellow. On the lower left, a little stylized figure showing the player’s position. (I think I was about 30 when I noticed that there’s a right-handed pitcher and a left-handed pitcher.) The blue of the Mets gear varies strangely in the photos, from Buddy Harrelson’s navy cap to Felix Millan’s near-aquamarine batting helmet. The composition is all over the place, too: For every terribly dull card (Jesus Alou is fat, Ed Kranepool looks fat, tired and possibly hungover, Joe Torre is both unhappy and vanishing into shadows), there’s one I remember as being thrillingly stylish (Jon Matlack grinning like he’s just come into possession of the secret of the universe, Felix Millan with his hands choked halfway up the bat, John Stearns thoroughly enjoying his Bad Dude batting stance).

I still collect cards. I quit when I was 12, then took it up again by accident in 1988. (The kids who lived next door to my parents wanted — no, needed — one of the four 1980 Rickey Henderson rookies I’d put in a doubles box when Rickey Henderson didn’t mean anything. To get rid of them I told them I’d trade them one for every Met card they had in their house. They had a lot of Met cards.) I now have every Met card Topps ever made, and every Topps card, of whatever team, of any player who has ever been a Met. (As this account will address in frightening detail [3].) In fact, I got the first series of 2007 Topps in the mail this week, and assessed them quickly with a practiced and by now somewhat dispassionate eye: They look like the ’71s, which look like the ’86s. Hey, Darren Oliver got a card. El Duque’s wearing the ’86 throwback uniform. Today I buy cards via eBay, or Beckett — PayPal transactions yield mail a few days later. Instead of opening packs I get the series hand-collated in a box.

Needless to say, I don’t sit around in five-and-dimes hunting for rack packs anymore. (That would be scary.) But I think I can trace too many oversized emotions back to rack packs in 1976. Gluttony? That’s arriving at a birthday party and seeing a friend’s mother has wildly exceeded the Setauket, N.Y., party-favor mores by getting every kid in attendance three rack packs — and realizing half the other kids there don’t care about cards and will trade them for noisemakers or Oreos. Feeling smug because you’ve got this life thing figured out? It’s thinking my grandmother might just possibly be good for three rack packs at McCrory’s, asking for six and having her counter with four. Anger at a corporation? It’s sending 50 cents — practically a rack pack! — and a baseball wrapper to Westbury, N.Y., to get all 24 team cards, waiting a month and having the team cards come back on flimsy white stock that doesn’t match your other cards. Wild elation? It’s coming to the last possible unknown card of a rack pack — the one before the one with the back showing in the final blister — and coming up with Mike Phillips. Despair? That’s spending three weeks’ worth of allowance on rack packs, getting nothing and then watching my friend Andrew pull a Mets team card and his brother Robert (who liked the Yankees!) pull a Tom Seaver when he already had two of them.

And anticipation? It’s cracking that first blister of a rack pack and shuffling past the card on top that you know about.

Crinkle…snap. Jerry DaVanon (Astro), Phillie, Cub, Stupid Traded Card, Brave, Cub, Expo, Ranger, AL ERA Leaders, Expo, Pirate, Pirate (what the heck?!), YELLOW — Darn! a Red!, Bobby Murcer (back was showing, Giant.)

Crinkle-snap. Barry Foote (Expo), Checklist, YELLOW — Another Red!, Rangers Team, Padre, Ranger, YELLOW — Ugh, an Angel!, Brewer, Pirate, White Sock, Cardinal, Padre, One of Those Black and White Cards (Who’s Pie Traynor?), Kevin Kobel (back was showing, Brewer.)
Crinkle-SNAP! Come ON! Gary Carter (Expo), YELLOW — Crud, a Tiger! And it’s Mickey Lolich!, Dodger, YANKEE, YELLOW — NO! An A or an Athletic or whatever the heck it is! I HATE this pack!, Rookie card (nobody), Phillie, ANOTHER YANKEE, Stupid Traded Card, Oriole — ANOTHER DYAR MILLER?, Cub, Checklist, I know the last card is John Mayberry (back showing, Royal) so come on…YELLOW! MET! YES!

Aw heck. Gene Clines.

Next Friday [4]: The speech we long to hear.