Buried treasures unearth memories

JOHN EISENBERG

January 04, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The baseball cards were in an old cigar box in the room where I slept as a child, behind some toys in a closet. Now it's the room my children destroy at their grandparents' house. I was on an idle rummage during the holidays, finding camp letters and frightening, old pictures, and came upon buried treasure.

The box had once held some of the cigars my grandfather was never without. On the lid was a drawing of a woman with two red roses in her dark hair, and when I raised it my grandfather was alive again for a moment. The smell of cigars jumped into the air.

Inside the box was a still-life from a childhood: dozens of baseball cards, mostly from 1967 and 1968, divided up by team and gathered in rubber bands, a purposeful system devised a quarter-century ago and untouched since.

Just about every team was in there, as were a few strays at the bottom of the box: a Dr. Doolittle movie card, a Warren G. Harding presidential card, a 1963 Frank Gifford football card, and the 1959 card of Curt Simmons, an old Phillies pitcher.

There were maybe 200 baseball cards in all, the only remaining evidence of an incalculable number of trips to the 7-Eleven, where you could get seven cards wrapped in wax paper and a piece of brittle, pink gum that I threw away on the bike ride home.

Collected in innocence, they were now -- I knew this before even touching one -- a gold mine of some measure. Buried treasure that I had buried.

I went first to the Orioles. On top was Gene Brabender, a tight shot of his face, with those thick, dark-framed glasses. Next was Sam Bowens, one of the first black Orioles, in front of some palm trees at Miami Stadium. Three Sams, in fact. I could retire to the Amalfi Coast if the card market was desperate for Bowenses. I didn't think it was.

After Bowens came Woodie Held, Larry Haney, Mark Belanger, Stu Miller. I found Joe Pepitone, the Yankees' sex symbol. I found Bill White, then an old Phillie, now the National League president. I found a 25-year-old Tommy John and a young Dick Williams managing the Red Sox.

I found Jim Northrup and Roberto Clemente, Pete Ward and Brooks Robinson, Ruben Amaro and Willie Mays, Bob Aspromonte and Ernie Banks. Most of the stars were near the end of their careers, their cards valuable as artifacts but not top-dollar items. Then I saw his face.

It was a thin face 24 years ago, with high cheekbones narrowing to a sharp chin. His Mets cap was pulled down, making it seem as if he was peeking out from underneath the bill. It was Nolan Ryan, age 21. His rookie card.

I was at the door of the nearest card store when it opened the following morning.

"Wow," said J.J., the 15-year-old behind the counter.

He asked me where I got it and shook his head when I told him. "Got a little lucky," he said.

He picked it up by the edges, as you might a rare photograph. "First thing you gotta do is laminate it," he said, and gave me a plastic cover from behind the counter.

"Take it, free," he said. "Great card."

I asked him what it was worth. He picked it up again.

"Well," he said after a moment, "it's not in perfect shape. It isn't centered. It's got rubber band marks on the side. And look at this . . . "

He pointed to some white markings in the blue sky.

" . . . this stuff here, it isn't a perfect photograph."

I explained: "No, see, I used to whack pennies with it. There was this game we played . . . "

By now a half-dozen kids were at the counter, ogling and punching each other. They come from nowhere at these stores.

"I'll give you five bucks for the cigar box," one said.

"No way," I said.

J.J. said that some of these Nolan Ryan cards had sold for $1,200. Then he said that, as a small businessman (literally), he was prepared to offer $600.

A thousand thoughts racket around your head at such a moment. Was that a good deal? Should I care about getting a good deal? Isn't it obscene to get anything more than a dime? Should I cash the stupid thing and use the money to pay the mortgage? Will it be worth more in five years? Will I have to pay taxes on my investment of three cents?

"Sorry J.J.," I said, "but I'm going to hold on to it for now."

He nodded. "Cool," he said. "You should."

I stepped out into the sunshine, suddenly a card-carrying member of the upper class of memorabiliacs. I wanted to sell. I did. And maybe I will someday. But what I think I'm going to do is keep it for a few years and then show it to my son, who turned 6 months old on Christmas Eve. He might think it's cool, too.

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