Tim Van Schmidt
Spring Training is now in session in Major League Baseball for the 2021 season. But Spring Training means more than just the start of the baseball pre-season — it also means the new baseball cards come out.
I was a baseball card nut when I was a boy. It started in Illinois, where I was a young Cubs fan. All summer long I would scrape together my nickels, plunk them down on the counter of the drug store and take home a handful of “wax packs.”
At home, I loved the ceremony of breaking open the packs. I was disappointed with doubles — and triples — but was thrilled with finding a star card. I didn’t care one bit for the bubble gum that also came in the packs — I just liked the cards and hastened to put the new ones into my collection.
When we moved to Arizona, I found that I was quite popular at trading sessions because I was a new kid from out of town. Apparently, cards I collected in Illinois were a little more scarce in the West. Plus nobody there cared about the Cubs and I didn’t care about the Dodgers or the Giants, so there was a lot to trade.
That was the golden age of card collecting. It was about being in awe of our baseball heroes and about managing our cherished collections — trying to improve your holdings with every trade. But it wasn’t about business.
Baseball card collecting, however, did become about business. People started hearing about the fantastic prices dealers were getting for old cards, so they rushed up in the attic and pulled them out, looking for a fortune.
New baseball cards became very popular as collectors started speculating on what would be valuable in the years to come. This speculation brought with it a rush to grab new releases when they came out. Card companies met the demand while enthusiasts started following delivery trucks around to get the freshest stuff.
The big difference here is that these were no longer kids who were buying cards. These were adults.
I sold some of my old cards to a couple of dealers in Fort Collins when I first moved to town, but it felt like someone was bargaining for my childhood.
I eventually sold the rest of my stuff directly to collectors on eBay.
I recently wondered what CO-VID baseball cards would look like since 2020 was certainly a strange sports year, so I ordered up a “blaster box” of 2021 Topps First Series baseball cards.
I thought receiving my order at home would take some of the luster out of getting new cards, but there was a small thrill of anticipation in waiting for the box to arrive.
It was also fun cracking open my “blaster box” and digging into seven 14-card packs — 99 cards in all — plus a special release to help celebrate Topps’ 70th anniversary.
Actually, there are several special releases and designs. These include a series of contemporary cards using the 1986 design, as well as another series using the 1952 design. Plus there are cards with special borders, foils and more. There are also cards commemorating Topps’s history as a company. The one I got proclaimed that Topps became the “official trading card” of MLB in 2009.
The card I was looking for — one that illustrated how weird 2020 was in sports — was number 258, titled “Walk-off apart, Distant celebration.” It shows the San Francisco Giants as they “stay six feet apart to celebrate” a walk-off home run by Mike Yastrzemski.
The stats on the back of the cards are perhaps the most glaring proof of the CO-VID season. For instance, Dominican slugger Yordan Alvarez played 87 games for the Houston Astros in 2019 and only 2 in 2020. Rookies such as Giants catcher Joey Bart, Marlins outfielder Monte Harrison and Nationals second baseman Luis Gracia, who debuted as the youngest player — at 20 — in the Majors, fared better but topped out at 40 games. This has got to mess with your stats.
The 2020 World Series is commemorated in several action cards, including an awesome snap of pitcher Clayton Kershaw, but I also got other Dodgers cards including a ’52 release and a base card of Cody Bellinger, and a good one of Mookie Betts. On the Tampa Bay Rays side, I also got a ’52 and a base card of Blake Snell.
I learned a lot about contemporary pitchers thanks to the League Leaders cards featuring NL ERA leader Trevor Bauer of the Reds and AL wins leader Shane Bieber of Cleveland. I only got one Rockies card — featuring rookie pitcher Ryan Castellani — but I did get some Cubs cards including Columbian pitcher Jose Quintana.
If I had to pick favorites, though, I especially like the ’52 design cards and scored both Mike Trout and Jo Adell cards. An ’86 design card I’ll treasure is of Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg. And it was cool to run across a base card of the venerable workhorse Albert Pujols.
My favorite card, though, is a horizontal action shot of Pirates first baseman Josh Bell sliding into base — it’s got the thrill of baseball all over it.
All of my old cards are gone, but now I have a lot of new ones — and the baseball season is just beginning. Does anyone want to trade?
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. See his new posting on YouTube, “Baseball Cards I Used to Have,” on his channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”