There is no other place that this could have began than here, because this card is where it all started for me.
From the first time my Uncle Joe put a Wiffle Ball bat in my 2 year old hands, baseball has been my favorite sport. I mean, it was inevitable when I really think about it. Being a kid in the 1980’s, growing up in the St. Louis area, baseball was everywhere in a city gripped by the thrill of Whiteyball and the Runnin’ Redbirds.
Not just every game, but every trip to the grocery store, park, even church, was a sea of red (sometimes freckled with powder blue) and it was impossible to not get caught up in Cardinals Fever. To this very day, I have a very visceral reaction to the saxophone intro to Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” because it was featured in every Cardinals highlight package from the summer of 1985. Baseball was inescapable and I wasn’t looking for a way out.
The Cardinals had a very successful run in the 1980’s, winning a World Series in 1982, and losing in Game 7 of both the 1985 and 1987 World Series’, but 1985 was the peak. The team was a juggernaut for most of the season, winning 101 games before coming up short versus their statemate Kansas City Royals in what was dubbed the I-70 Series, named for the interstate which runs between the two cities on opposite sides of the state map.
The star of the team was eventual Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, who broke Dodgers fan’s hearts with this unforgettable moment in the 1985 NLCS:
The most beloved player from the team (and certainly the favorite of 6 year old me) was the somewhat awkward-looking and always fidgety centerfielder, Willie McGee. McGee, who burst onto the scene with a historic 2 home run/1 amazing catch performance in Game 3 of the 1982 World Series, exploded offensively in 1985 with a stat line that epitomized manager Whitey Herzog’s approach to baseball: hit the ball to the gaps of the cavernous astroturf covered, multipurpose stadiums that dotted the baseball map and RUN LIKE HELL.
McGee led the NL in hitting with a .353 average (setting a new NL record for batting average by a switch-hitter), in hits with 216, and triples with 18, eventually receiving a Silver Slugger award for all the havoc he wreaked on NL pitchers in 1985. As dynamic as McGee was at the plate in 1985, he continued to play exemplary defense while patrolling CF, winning his second Rawlings Gold Glove. All McGee’s excellence in 1985 culminated in McGee being recognized as the 1985 National League Most Valuable Player.
1986 would be a trying year for both Willie McGee and the Cardinals. Bad luck and the injury bug conspired together and bit hard, with McGee missing time with hamstring injuries and the Cardinals finishing in third place, 28.5 games behind the eventual World Series Champion New York Mets.
For me, 1986 brought about my first hobby: baseball card collecting. After spending a rainy summer afternoon pouring over my mom’s flood-damaged baseball card collection from the 1970’s, I decided that I too wanted a baseball card collection, and asked my mom and dad for some packs of 1986 Topps for my birthday. Much to my surprise, instead of getting me a few packs as requested, they bought me an ENTIRE BOX OF 36 PACKS!
Immediately I wondered if I would be lucky enough to get a Willie McGee out of one of these packs. I asked my mom if she knew how they decided which players went in which packs and she told me that all were packed at random. She then asked me a question that I had never even considered yet would form a superstition for the rest of my life: which pack would I open first?
I didn’t have to start at the top?
Were there better players toward the bottom?
My mind boggled at the possibilities, so I went to the back left of the quad stack and counted down to the 4th pack from the bottom, choosing that pack to be my first of many rips. I pried apart the wax seal, tossed the sweet-smelling but already stale from the summer heat gum in the trash, and flipped the cards over photo side up.
Lo and behold, as if ordained by both the baseball and trading card gods, there it was: a 1986 Topps Willie McGee! Clearly I had made a good choice, and I decided that forevermore, when given the choice of packs, I would always choose top left, 4th from the bottom (which makes no sense given someone else might have already chosen that pack in boxes that are already open, but, hey, let’s not bring logic and reason into this!).
I was so distracted by this stroke of luck that I put down the rest of the pack and flipped over the card to look at the back, because that, to me, was where the good stuff was to be found. Career statistics, biographical information, fun facts, all for review and I had 36 packs chock full awaiting me. What more could a 7 year old boy want? (the answer was a Nintendo, but that wouldn’t come until Holiday 1987)
I couldn’t tell you which other cards were in that pack, but I can tell you that I carried a 1986 Topps Willie McGee #580 in my wallet for about 20 years thereafter, until one last errant washing machine cycle finally murdered that card.
Along the way, the card hobby has seen it’s fair share of advancements and innovations. Photos are higher resolution and certainly more action filled than ones featured in the 1986 Topps set, which can mostly be described as “Spring Training mugshots at dusk”. Designs are far more elaborate (refractors anyone?). One of the latest trends is the rise of digital cards (the original NFT’s!) and I’m always interested to learn about where the hobby that enthralled me so much as a kid is headed next, even if I don’t obsess over cards like I used to.
But for me, the most interesting part of the card is still the card back. It’s the thing that brings me back to the cards, even more so than the picture on the front. As a kid who grew up pre-internet, the back of the card was an opportunity to learn something I didn’t already know about a player and a gateway to understanding how the game itself worked.
The back of the cards were akin to mystical tomes of knowledge printed on card stock.
From that day forward, I was hooked.
I still am.
Thanks for reading!