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Cardboard Gods

by Josh Wilker

“Cardboard Gods,” Josh Wilker’s coming-of-age memoir as revealed through his baseball card collection, should have immediate resonnance for the following groups:

  1. Baseball lovers
  2. Baseball card collectors
  3. Folks who grew up in a dysfunctional family
  4. Folks who grew up in the 1970s and remember what it was like when the more anarchic elements of the counterculture lapped up to your front door, and then inside, and then washed away your world

That first group isn’t as big as it used to be, but if you’re 1), and you’re a boy, you were probably 2). The fourth group is obviously tied to a specific time. It’s the third group that’s the mother lode. That’s most of us.

Wilker hit the jackpot with me. I’m all four—with the proviso that I collected baseball cards in the five-year period before Wilker did: Topps 1970-1974, rather than Topps 1975-1980. We’re almost a tag team. Just as I got done, he started.

Question: Does this make me an easy mark? Or a tougher sell?

The latter, I think. Rob Neyer pushed the book on his ESPN blog, and he has a to-die-for blurb on the front cover (“Josh Wilker writes as beautifully about baseball and life as anyone ever has”), but I still picked it up with skepticism. What does Neyer know? What can Wilker tell me about my times that I don’t know?

That skepticism died on page 9.

Wilker’s subtitle is “An All-American tale told through baseball cards,” and the first chapter is called simply “Topps 1975 #533: Rudy Meoli,” and includes what we used to call an “in action” shot of Meoli at the plate. Wilker writes:

Behold the uniformed maestro at the center of everything, his head thrown back in awe, his arms outspread as if to proclaim: Behold.

We look back at the card to see if we’ve missed something, to see if we’ve misread what’s going on there. We haven’t. Five-year-old Josh Wilker has. The adult Wilker writes:

For a long time, I lived in an angelic state of stupidity and grace. ... For a long time, years, I didn’t understand that I wasn’t witnessing the occurence of something magnificent in Rudy Meoli’s card from 1975, my first year of collecting. I didn’t understand that all I was looking at was some little-known marginal who’d just squandered one of his rare chances to reveal any previously undiscovered magificence by hitting a weak foul pop-up, the easiest of outs.

But the writer in him doesn’t end with the adult mea culpa; he pushes on toward an angelic state of understanding and grace:

Even to this day there’s a faint residue on my inability to interpret the blatantly obvious in this picture. On some level, perhaps the only level of any importance in this life, I still think of Rudolph Bartholomew Meoli, a backup infielder with a .212 lifetime average and more career errors than extra base hits, as one of the most thrilling performers of his era, a superstar in the reign of happiness and confusion.

That was the moment when I thought, “OK, this is going to be good.”

Baseball cards turn out to be a brilliant framing device. Not because Wilker’s childhood was idyllic. Because it wasn’t.

His parents were more-or-less happily married until his mother took a bus from their home in Willingboro, N.J., to attend a peace rally in Washington, D.C. in 1969 and wound up falling for her hippyish seatmate, Tom, who, by 1973, had moved into their home. He was, in fact, sleeping with the mother while the father took a smaller room down the hall. In his own home. In which he paid the bills.

What baseball card could possibly represent such family trauma? A 1976 Mike Kekich card. That year, Kekich was with the Texas Rangers, and he would end his career a year later with the nascent Seattle Mariners, but he’s famous, or infamous, as one of two 1973 Yankees pitchers—Fritz Peterson is the other—who traded entire families: wife, kids, dogs. After several weeks, Kekich tried to call off the switch, but by then Peterson and his wife were cozy and wanted to make the switch permanent. Peterson basically told him what we as kids told each other when we wanted a baseball-card trade to be permanent: “No backs.” Kekich wound up in the metaphoric smaller room down the hall. Hell, he wound up with the Seattle Mariners.

Wilker’s story gets worse before it gets better. His mother and Tom, dragging along five-year-old Josh and his more aware, older brother Ian, moved to backwoods Vermont expecting paradise. They wound up in a shitty home surrounded by shitty neighbors. They wanted to live off the land but the land was harsh. They tried to start a non-competitive school, which only increased the contempt of the neighbors. The family was isolated and ostracized, and poor Josh could barely make it down to the grocery store and back without being picked on. That’s part of the reason for the baseball cards. He needed something certain. He needed big men he could hold in his hand. He needed cardboard gods.

Wilker frames this chapter on social experiment gone awry with “Topps 1975 #407: Herb Washington,” that great baserunning experiment of Charley O’Finley’s that went awry: the professional pinch-runner who was caught stealing more than half the number of times he stole. The adult Wilker remains understanding. In the face of a more affluent acquaintance named Wendell who scoffed at the idiocy of the family experiment, Wilker writes: Whether the useless innovation of Herb Washington signaled the apotheosis of the A’s dynasty or foretold the team’s impending descent at champion-sprinter speed into abject late-1970s suffering is beside the point. The point is that life is not to be methodically considered and solved like a math equation. Life, fucking Wendell, is to be sprinted toward and bungled beyond recognition.

Beautiful.

In this manner, the book continues. Wilker’s childhood confidence falters and there’s Mike Cosgrove with a face full of faltering confidence. Girls make him self-conscious of his clothes and there’s the 1977 Chicago White Sox team card, the players wearing collared shirts and shorts, the most embarassing uniform in a decade of embarassing uniforms. He discovers death and there’s Lyman Bostock.

Because Wilker is a Red Sox fan, one anticipates the one-game playoff with the hated New York Yankees in 1978. Yet for some reason the representative card is “Topps 1975 #299: Bucky Dent,” back when Dent was with the Chicago White Sox. Wilker explains, sympathetically:

...here’s the tragic figure of Bucky Dent, the mildly promising, light-hitting young Chicago White Sox shortstop who after being named to the Topps All-Star Rookie Team in 1975 was killed in a horrific wood-chipper accident.

Sure, Wilker says, there’s that odd rumor that Dent didn’t die during the ’75 off-season; that he was eventually traded to the Yankees, and, in that one-game playoff, came to the plate with two on and the Yanks down by two, and after a delay, and after a new bat, he hit a homerun over the Green Monster in left field to put the Yankees ahead, and the Yankees would go on to win the game, the ALCS and the World Series, all on the back of the puny Dent, who, himself, would become a shirtless pin-up boy and lousy TV actor (see: “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders”). But then Wilker writes reasonably:

Clearly, the stronger Bucky Dent theory is the one in which Bucky Dent was tragically chopped into pieces, then minced into bits, then pureed into a mush of flesh and feathered hair and eye black by a ravenous, extemely efficient wood chipper before he was ever able to make any significant impact on baseball history or on the innocence of, say, a ten-year-old Red Sox fan in East Randolph, Vermont on October 2, 1978.

Wilker is particularly excellent on that childhood. He watches “The Incredible Hulk,” tags after Ian, yearns for Yaz. “Go with me, Josh!” young girls ask and he thinks “Go where?” Bullies descend:

“Hey, doofus,” the second one, Denny, said. “How many hours in a day?”
“Hey, yeah,” Muskrat said. “How many days in a week?”
“He doesn’t know. They don’t know shit.”
“Hey, how do you spell dog? How do you spell cat?”
“Why is your hair so curly and long?” Denny said. “You must be a woman.”
“Why are you a woman?” Muskrat said.”

He is less excellent on his dissolute twenties and thirties, but that’s a tougher sell. Children are powerless and thus sympathetic. By the time you hit 25, if you can walk and talk, you need to get a life. Wilker, the character, doesn’t even sprint towards his bungling as his parents did; he wanders, shuffles, meanders. One loses patience with him, as he does with himself. But in that wandering, drop by drop, comes the wisdom to write this book.

My own baseball card collection is long gone, sold to Joe Roedl in sixth grade for a few dollars, but I can’t see any of the Topps series from that period—or, more, from the coveted period preceding mine, particularly the 1965 series with the team name embedded in a pennant in the lower left corner—without a yearning to have. Those cards, as immortal as gods, look the same. But I’m 47 now, not 8, and the places I bought baseball packs, Little General and Salk’s Drugs on 54th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis, don’t even exist anymore, having been replaced years ago by a doctor’s office and a Starbucks. We said it to each other when we were trading baseball cards but Time says it better to us: No backs.

—October 11, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard