The following is taken from Josh Wilker's wonderful memoir Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards. You can find more of Josh's writing at cardboardgods.net
On July 28, 1976, Randy Jones went 10 innings in a 2–1 victory to push his dazzling record to 18 wins and 4 losses. After a rocky start to his career that included an 8–22 season, Jones had broken through in 1975 with 20 wins, and in 1976 he looked to be heading to superstardom. Sports Illustrated even featured him on their cover, wondering if he could become the first National Leaguer since Dizzy Dean to win 30 games.
By then I had finished my first year in a new class invented by the hippie parents scattered through the area. There were no grades, in both senses of the word: Kids of all ages were together in one room, and hierarchical assessment of academic achievement had been abolished. The idea was that we were free to learn what we wanted to learn, however we wanted to learn it, that every little boy and girl would find a way to burst into bloom. I learned about Indian tribes and feelings and how to say words in Russian and I wrote stories and plays and even an imitation of a television show using a cardboard box with an opening in the front that displayed a paper scroll filled with my tale in bright crayon about a bionic flea. Sometimes as I was walking to school I broke into a run.
There was a brief moment in time when it seemed the answer to everything was Yes. Anyone could burst into bloom. You didn't have to be among the few and chosen. Randy Jones—junk-ball-tossing Randy Jones, pale-skinned bozo-haired Randy Jones, thin-lipped dough-faced Randy Jones, Randy Jones in his Padres fast-food uniform, surrounded by feckless Padres teammates and empty seats and the blissfully indifferent blue of a Padres sky—was every bit as good as Jim Palmer.
Our classroom was located in the East Randolph elementary school, and kids from the regular classes made fun of us. The general gist of the taunting was that we were retarded. One day as I was leaving the general store with a pack of cards a couple kids my age from a regular class fell in behind me. One of them, Muskrat, started making marching sounds in time to my steps.
"Hu-lef, hu-lef, hu-lef rah lef."
"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.
Sometimes a pack of cards couldn't do much for you. Sometimes it was full of nothing but guys you already had and checklists and highlights and league leaders. Sometimes when you got home and opened it you wished that you had picked a different pack from the box in the store. But what else was there to do? Dump the doubles onto the doubles pile, glare at the checklists, and try to learn something—you were always free to learn something—from the drab highlights and leaders.
Later in 1976, the magic dissipated for Randy Jones. He didn't get close to 30 wins and never finished another season with more wins than losses. Meanwhile, Jim Palmer, shown in the 1976 Victory Leaders card without headgear for no apparent reason other than to display that his flowing blow-dried hair is spectacularly superior to Jones's cap-crushed rusted Brillo, continued tanly vying for Cy Young awards, breezing into the playoffs, and posing for lucrative underwear ads. To this day, I find myself wishing what Randy Jones seems to be wishing—that he could somehow cross over from his photo to the golden realm of the AL Victory Leader and kick Jim Palmer in his Jockey-shorted nuts.
One night in September 1978, late, Ian and I were home alone and I asked him about the universe. I remember when it was because of Lyman Bostock. Ian had his light on and was reading. I was up high, in my loft bed.
"What's at the edge of it?" I said.
"The universe is expanding," he said.
"Expanding? But where? Into what?"
"It's too complicated to explain to you."
Sometimes cards had to be changed in a hurry to reflect offseason transactions. I imagine that such changes now can be effected digitally, seamlessly, leaving no trace of any previous worlds. But when I was a kid, these changes were done with an endearing crudeness that always allowed ample evidence that the past could not ever be fully erased. For example, in Lyman Bostock's 1978 card, Bostock is presented as an Angel, but the garish coloring along his neckline suggests makeup applied by a tipsy floozy more than uniform piping, and his helmet more closely resembles frosting on a personalized supermarket cake than a decal on hard plastic. He is certainly no Angel, not fully, not yet.
The universe didn't make sense. If something was expanding, then there had to be something it was expanding into. There couldn't just be nothing. I stared at the ceiling that was only a couple feet from my head. There was a little hole up there, directly above my head, and it was my theory that the hole had been made by rats who lived up above our room in a crawl space and every once in a while dug away at the ceiling with their claws when no one was looking, like prisoners chipping away at their cell wall. Maybe one day they'd claw all the way through and fall on me and bite me and I'd get the Plague. All the kids of the town would visit me, wearing surgical masks, and they'd give me presents as I shivered and coughed and said brave things. I'd have my baseball cards at my bedside. One day near the end when it was difficult to speak I'd croak to my weeping mother that she should give all my cards to my brother when the time came.
"What are you talking about?" she'd blubber. "You are gonna be just fine!"
"Hey, Ian," I said now.
He flipped the page of his book, ignoring me.
"Hey, Ian, what happens when you die?"
When I had gotten Lyman Bostock's doctored 1978 card I knew him solely as a name near the top of the list of batting averages printed in the Sunday sports section. I studied those averages religiously, as religiously as I've ever studied anything. I loved the exactness of them. I loved that there was a hierarchy, an order, Singleton and Brett near the top, Kingman and Belanger near the bottom, and I loved even more that occasionally certain previously unknown players moved into the upper echelon of that hierarchy, sometimes creeping up the list past the sturdy .280 Amos Otis types, sometimes materializing out of nowhere, as Bob Watson would do for the Red Sox in 1979 upon amassing the minimum number of at bats. I don't know which route Lyman Bostock first took, because I don't remember a time before Lyman Bostock was among the batting average leaders, and yet I also do recall thinking of him as a new guy, a youngster storming the rarefied realm lorded over benevolently by his wondrous Twins teammate Rod Carew. In general, I thought about him this way: Lyman Bostock was rising, each year a little higher. His move to the Angels in 1978 provided a temporary hiccup in his career's rising motion, but within that first year with his new team there was a microcosm of his career, a smaller rising, his batting average going up and up after a bad April.
At some point during that season I started cutting out the batting average list from the Sunday paper and taping it to the post of my loft bed, below the 1975 Victory Leaders card featuring Andy Messersmith. Each time I taped a new version of the list to the post, I looked for Lyman Bostock and was happy to see him rising, a little higher each week.
Ian didn't answer when I asked him what happens when you die. I stared some more at the ceiling and thought about the rats falling through and the Plague and my tragic death. Everyone weeping. Maybe they'd bury my cards with me, bawling about how much I loved them. Or maybe my cards would be covered with the Plague and they'd have to be destroyed. Or maybe they'd have to burn me and the cards. What would be left? A car approached that sounded sort of like our VW Camper, Mom and Tom returning, but it didn't stop. I started to really think about the whole thing, and not in a fun way.
"How can it be?" I asked out loud. "We're here and then forever we're gone."
"Look, just don't worry about it," my brother said.
"One minute suddenly nothing and that's it," I said, my voice rising.
"It's not going to happen for a long time."
"But it's going to happen!"
"Think about something else."
"Oh man oh man. It's going to happen," I said, starting to panic. "Omanomanoman."
I climbed down the ladder of the loft bed, past my Victory Leaders card and the latest Sunday averages, and went and sat on the stairs and gripped my stomach with both hands, rocking back and forth, overpowered by the idea that someday I would not exist.
Earlier that day, we had learned about Lyman Bostock. He'd been riding in the backseat of a car and had been shot and killed by a man aiming for someone else.
"Hey, Josh," Ian said. I didn't turn around. He was standing behind me at the top of the stairs. I heard pages riffling.
"Oh man, oh no," I muttered.
"Hey, Josh. Who is the all-time career leader in triples?"
"Oh man. I don't know. Oh god."
But then I told him. Sam Crawford.
More sound of pages riffling.
"Now, all right, now who's the all-time single season leader in doubles? Wow, that's a lot of doubles," Ian added.
And I told him. Earl Webb. And he kept on asking questions with answers that I knew.
Eventually, I was able to get up off the stairs and go back into our room and climb my loft bed ladder past the list featuring, near the top, Lyman Bostock's name and his average. I lay down and looked at the ceiling. Four hundredths of a point shy of .300 forever.
"Hey, Ian," I said. "Can you ask me a couple more?"
Josh Wilker writes about his childhood baseball cards at cardboardgods.net. Since his first posting in 2006, his site has been featured in The New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and ESPN.com. He is a winner of the Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction and has an MFA from Vermont College. He lives in Chicago. You can buy Cardboard Gods on Amazon.