Where have you gone, Nellie Fox?

In the mid 1950s, when baseball was more important than X-Boxes to kids in the U.S., and when the major league players, at least overtly, appeared to be positive examples for kids to emulate, I developed an addiction. My addiction caused me to play baseball almost incessantly and I hungrily devoured every piece of information I could get my hands on about my heroes in the major leagues. And one of the methods I used to learn more about the pro baseball players was to spend my entire allowance, 25 cents per week if I kept the yard clean, on baseball cards. Oh, there were a few football cards mixed in, but baseball was the dominant sport. In fact most of us kids on the mill village only played football while waiting for baseball season to roll around once again.

Beginning in 1955, I bought a few baseball cards. But the major dive into my addiction began in 1956 and continued into 1957. Practically every penny of my allowance would go to the cards. As soon as my dad parted with the quarter, I headed off to Cheek’s Store on Second Avenue. I was such a familiar sight in the store that Maston, the clerk, wouldn’t even bother to ask me what I wanted, he would simply say, “How many?” That question help to save time for both of us.

If, for some reason, Cheek’s Store would be out of cards, and this happened occasionally because I would do my best to empty the shelves, I would walk over to Westend Grill on Thomas Street to make my purchases from the glass case in front of the jukebox. When I had enough money and the cards were available, I would buy from both. I was hooked and needed my fix.

FOX118FC.jpgI wasn’t smart enough to know when I had completed the set, so I would just continue to buy and buy cards, even though I had 14 pictures of Harvey Kuenn and 12 of Frank Torre, Joe’s older brother. A few weeks into a new card season, I would have the complete set but then the addiction would take over; each time I would tell myself that this is the time I would get a new card of someone I didn’t already have. As soon as I made my purchase, I couldn’t even wait to get home. I would walk down the concrete steps that led from Cheek’s to the sidewalk in front while opening the packages of cards and gum. It’s amazing that I didn’t break my neck getting out of the store.

I learned to slide the colorful wrapper slowly off the card. This would allow me to cover the valuable information contained on the card, while teasing myself to see if this card was not already in my collection. Most of the time it wasn’t a new one: it was only another copy of the 1956 Mickey Mantle card of the hated New York Yankees, or picture number 41 of Nellie Fox, the White Sox second baseman. Disappointed, I would walk away with my shoulders slumped, at least until the next time I received my allowance and my pulse would race again as I walked into Cheek’s to buy cards.

Luckily, my addiction never got so bad that I had to resort to chewing the gum that was packaged with the cards. The gum, flat and hard, was similar to the cardboard the cards were made of, but not quite as tasty, according to some reports. In fact, when I would accidentally drop the gum onto the sidewalk while fumbling for a card, it would rattle against the cement like a piece of hard plastic. Once I gave some of the baseball card gum to a neighborhood kid who kept bugging me. I never saw him again after that.
Out of curiosity I decided to look at the value of some of my old cards on the Internet. Let’s see … Bob Feller is about $80; Ted Williams, my favorite, is … oh, my, $175 – I had about ten of him. Nellie Fox … $30. Mickey Mantle … I’m getting sick … $250. I must have had 20 of him in his Yankee uniform.

So, what has happened to this tremendous number of baseball cards that now, if they had continued in my possession, should enable me to sit back on my own Caribbean beach, sipping tall, cool drinks in the shade? Alas, the cards went the way of the teen years.

As I reached the years where I wanted to spend more time with friends than with sports, I lost interest in the card collection and allowed them to sit in the middle of my bedroom in an ugly, dilapidated cardboard box. My mom, seeing an opportunity to rid herself of an eyesore, gave my collection away to a younger neighbor kid.

I can’t honestly say it bothered me very much in those years, but now, with the thoughts of all the money those cards are worth, I work every day at forgiving my mother for this atrocity. Meanwhile that kid who got the cards as a gift is probably enjoying himself in the Caribbean.

I wonder if it was the same kid I gave the gum to.