Back in the mid to late 1980s, baseball card collecting went through a boom and bust cycle. Interest in the hobby peaked and card companies flooded the market with more sets and much larger production runs. As a high school and early college student, I bought into the hype and thought that I might start my own card shop one day. So, I spent my few hard-earned discretionary dollars snapping up boxes of unopened cards (for the future store) and filling out my collection of Pittsburgh Pirate players (my favorite team).
But like the card market itself, my interest in baseball declined quickly. The 1994-95 strike and its subsequent resolution did not fix the economics of baseball. Small market teams, like the Pirates, were left to pursue perfection in scouting and drafting only to see their best talent leave for the richest teams. The Pirates have never recovered, and I dropped my hobby and my card store ambitions.
Yet, I kept my baseball cards. Card collecting introduced me to the history of the game. I breathed the nostalgic aroma that the purists insist is the lure behind baseball. Here I found something beyond cardboard pictures. I found legends worth admiring. In my home office, I have a few of these cards hanging together, snug in their plastic cases. While they are not the economic treasure I once dreamed of, they whisper advice of greater value. Let’s listen:
Roberto Clemente – “Passion is the fuel for excellence”
1968 Topps ($35-65)
I never saw Roberto Clemente play. He died before I was old enough to know about baseball. As a Pirate fan, I read books on his life and tried to collect his cards, though they were mostly too expensive for me. From his humanitarian works to his perseverance through discrimination, there is much to admire about Clemente. To me, though, his enduring legacy is passion. From all accounts, he played with a passion that elevated him. He was not content to have a decent throwing arm. Instead, from deep right field he would throw out runners going to third base. If he hit an easy grounder, he would still sprint for first base, sometimes surprising the fielder into a throwing error. He played and coached during the winter off-season. He was never content and worked continually on his sport. That passion made him one of the all-time greats. He became my favorite player because of that passion.
Willie Stargell – “Leadership encourages and motivates”
1965 Topps ($10-25) and 1971 Topps, autographed ($6-10)
While Willie Stargell was first known for his mammoth home runs, it was his leadership during the Pirates 1979 World Series Championship season that first caught my attention. He was a player to whom I connected as a young boy, even before I had any baseball cards. As his nickname, “Pops,” suggests, he was the patriarch of the “We Are Family” team. He led with his play (32 home runs and 82 RBI in just 126 games) and by encouraging his teammates. He handed out “Stargell’s stars” to his teammates to put on their caps whenever their play merited recognition. And even though he missed many games due to injury, the writers still voted him co-MVP of the league because of his tremendous influence on the team.
Hank Aaron – “Greatness is excellence over time”
1972 Topps ($20-25)
My appreciation for Hank Aaron came when my friends and I played a baseball simulation game during my college years. We chose all time great players to be on our teams with the stats from their best season. As I was studying Aaron’s stats, I couldn’t choose a best season; they were all amazing. He was rookie of the year in 1954 and then followed with 21 consecutive All-Star campaigns. And for a man who hit so many home runs, he had remarkable plate discipline. In many seasons he walked more than he struck out. He never had more than 100 strikeouts in a season. He definitely embodied a greatness that came from consistent excellence.
Bill Mazeroski – “Timing is everything” “Focus on your best”
1960 Topps ($4-8)
Bill Mazeroski also played before my time, but his legends taught me two things. First, timing is everything. Maz is most famous for his World Series winning home run in game 7 of the 1960 World Series. It still is the only Series-winning, game 7, walk-off homer. And it gave the upstart Pirates a win over the heavily-favored Yankees. One act of greatness, at the right time, can create a legend. The second lesson was about his defense. As Maz was considered for the Hall of Fame, his batting statistics did not elevate him above other enshrined second basemen. However, his fielding, often called the best ever at his position, eventually earned him his place at Cooperstown. Thus, I learned that a pursuit of perfection in one dimension can outweigh average performance in others. That may sound like accepting mediocrity, but it is more about the importance of focusing on what you do best.
Tony Gwynn – “Do what you do with excellence”
1983 Topps, rookie ($12-15)
Being just a couple years before the market boom, maybe this isn’t quite a classic card. But Tony Gwynn is a classic player whom I admire. Toiling for one of the more obscure teams (the Padres), all he did was compile a lifetime .338 batting average. And the only season when he hit below .300 was his 54 game rookie season! He also won 5 Gold Gloves for his fielding prowess. In an era when the superstars were the home run hitters, Gwynn just kept producing despite his lack of highlight reel home run footage. Like Maz, he focused on his specific talents, and maximized his expertise with them.
As my step-dad predicted, my investment in baseball cards was a poor choice — if measured only in dollars. However, as I met the legends of the game, through the history that cards introduce, I gained much more than a monetary reward. I found role models worth emulating. I certainly can’t say that about my Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds rookie cards.
Pricing based on rough average of current selling prices on beckett.com’s Marketplace. Like other collectibles, condition is a huge factor in pricing.
Bob Cohen, “Willie Stargell Biography,” The Baseball Page
Hank Aaron’s stats, Baseball-Reference.com
Nick Acocella, “Mazeroski was a defensive gem at second base,” ESPN.com
Tony Gwynn’s stats, Baseball-Reference.com