Baseball, though, remains a mystery to her, and I suspect it always will.
Mom has become famous among my circle of friends for the time when she read an early baseball story of mine and said, "It was a good story. But one question. Who are YOU to say that it was an unearned run? Who are YOU to decide that the run wasn't earned?" It's actually a much deeper question than I realized at the time -- really, if you think about it in the larger context, what IS an unearned run? -- but the main point is that my mother never cared for baseball, never connected with it, never thought it was worth her time ...
… except for a few months in 1976.
I was 9 years old and just then beginning to fall in love with sports. The writers of Sports On Earth were having dinner a couple of weeks ago, and one question was this: What was your first relatively clear sports memory? The answers were all fascinating. Shaun Powell, for instance, remembered being told again and again by his mother to clean up his room, and he emerged just in time to see Franco Harris make the Immaculate Reception. My first memory, sadly, was not that clear or prominent. My memory was of those Oakland A's yellow uniforms. That's all. Just the uniforms. I remember seeing them on TV. It was daytime. I have always assumed it was during one of the A's three World Series of the early 1970s -- I think it was the 1972 Series against Cincinnati* -- but I don't know for sure. I just remember those yellow uniforms.
*Sometimes, I convince myself that I remember the Reds uniforms too.
Every sports memory from that time is fuzzy. I remember seeing Gaylord Perry pitch in Cleveland … or, I should say, I remember being TOLD that Gaylord Perry was pitching. I remember relief pitcher Don Hood picking someone off. I remember Buddy Bell hitting a long home run. I remember Bingo Smith making long jumpers and Greg Pruitt having his jersey torn as he broke away from a defender.* But it's all pretty much unfocused and bleary … until 1976.
*Pruitt is one of only four players -- Ricky Williams, Willie Ellison and Mercury Morris are the other three -- who rushed for EXACTLY 1,000 yards in a season.
That was the year that I started to collect baseball cards in earnest. Everyone in my school did then. Michael Schur remembers that in his school you had to choose between baseball cards and comic books. In my school, I recall no comic book option. It was all baseball cards, all the time, and that year I flipped cards, tossed cards, traded cards, spun cards and put cards in the spokes of my bicycle. That year I left a Dock Ellis card in the wash (where it undoubtedly went through some of the same emotions that the late Dock Ellis did over the years). That year, for the first time in my memory, I started to study the statistics on the back.
For pitchers: Games … Innings … Wins … Losses … Runs … Earned Runs … Strikeouts … Walks. … ERA.
For hitters: Games … At-bats … Runs … Hits … Doubles … Triples … Home Runs … RBIs … Average.
Oh, I loved those 1976 cards with their stupid multicolored stripes on the bottom and the goofy little trophy they would put in the bottom right-hand corner for the top rookies and the five-point star they would put on the left side for All-Star... and, man, I just loved those cards so … you know what, hold on a second.
OK. Back. I just put an eBay bid on a 1976 Topps baseball card set. Wish me luck.
My mother knows nothing about baseball … but one thing my mother knows A LOT about is hobbies. She has had a million of them. She collected stamps. She painted by numbers. She cross-stitched. She collected all kinds of tchotchkes. For a while, she was very into refunds -- you know, get $2 back if you send in 10 soup labels or whatever. Please don't underestimate this, she was VERY into the refunds thing. We used to get this magazine called (I'm not joking) Refundle Bundle*, and she read it and clipped it religiously. She put an ad in it once, earning her a bit of fame in Refund World. One year -- probably 1979 -- Mom decided to put all the money she made from refunds into a Christmas Fund, and friends helped out by bringing over their garbage, which we would sort through. What fun. She made about $500, though.**
*My mother just told me that she saw the publisher of Refundle Bundle on some shopping network show, so apparently this still exists.
**While she was focused on refunds, Mom was (on the side) also a world-class coupon clipper. One year, the local supermarket was going out of business and so offered triple-coupon value (with the much appreciated "Full Value" caveat, meaning that if the item was 40 cents and you had a 15-cent coupon they would multiply it by three and credit your account five cents). My mother reached into her coupon files (seriously) and bought about $120 worth of groceries for $2.10.
So, while Mom knew nothing about baseball -- and did not care to know -- she wanted to be involved in her oldest son's life. We shared a love of movies. We shared a love of games. But sports were beginning to take over my life, and she knew it, and so, in the spring and summer of 1976, Mom became a baseball card expert.
In those days, there were really two ways to buy baseball cards:
1. You could buy the wax packs, which were red, had a baseball on the cover, a stick of concrete-flavored bubble gum inside* and cost 15 cents (for 15 cards, I believe, though I've been told it was only 13 cards).
*In case you want to make your own Topps bubble gum, here are the ingredients: Dextrose; corn syrup; gum base (to make the gum scratch your tongue raw); softeners (I love how they don't even say what those "softeners" are, they are just "softeners" -- they didn't work anyway; the gum was harder than diamonds); natural and artificial flavors (there are NO natural flavors in there, come on); artificial colors and something called BHT, which stands for Butylated Hydroxytoluene. This was used, the package says, "to maintain freshness." Here, according to The Good Human, are a few of the dangers of BHT:
• Ingestion calls abdominal pain, confusion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting.
• This substance is harmful to aquatic organisms.
My favorite of those, unquestionably, is "combustible." And we're worried about players using steroids?
2. You could buy the executive baseball rack pack, which had 42 cards for 49 cents. The advantage of the rack pack, in addition to getting more cards, was that the pack itself was see-through, so you could see the three cards on top and the three cards on the bottom. This was hugely helpful because, as you know, if you collected 1976 baseball cards, the Topps company decided to make 483 times more Sixto Lezcano cards than any other. Also Don Money. And Gene Locklear. A good pack would have only one of those three guys. Most packs would have two.
My mother learned to search the rack packs and make sure that there was no Lezcanos, Moneys or Locklears visible. Oh, they were always inside. Always. But at least she made the token effort to avoid them.
After a while, my mother got hooked. She bought for me a little filing box to put my cards. Together we would file the cards different ways. We filed them by number, but that wasn't a lot of fun. I did learn over time that the Topps numbering system was set up so that players with numbers ending in 5 and 0 were really good players, players ending in 50 or 00 were superstars. Look at the 1976 set:
50: Fred Lynn (MVP of 1975)
100: Catfish Hunter (Cy Young of 1974, 2nd in 1975)
150: Steve Garvey (MVP of 1975)
200: A league leaders card
250: Fergie Jenkins (Cy Young 1972)
300: Johnny Bench (MVP 1970 and 1972)
350: All Time All-Star card of Lefty Grove
400: Rod Carew (batting champ for fourth straight year)
450: Jim Palmer (Cy Young of 1975)
500: Reggie Jackson (home run champ of 1975)
550: Hank Aaron (for legendary status)
600: Tom Seaver (Cy Young winner of 1975, for third time)
650: Thurman Munson (three-time All-Star … WOULD win MVP in 1976)
Someday, I'm going to visit the Topps plant and ask them to explain the numbering system to me.
Of course, none of this meant anything to us then. The cards in numerical order just meant they were kind of a mishmash. We filed them by team, but that wasn't a lot of fun. We tried filing them alphabetically, but that wasn't great either. Finally, my Mom suggested we file them by statistics -- if memory serves we filed them by number of wins for pitchers and number of home runs for hitters. I remember getting out this graph paper, writing down the numbers, and I do believe that was where my insane love of baseball numbers began.
But that's not the story.
The story goes that at one point we needed one card to complete the set. The card was a 1976 Boog Powell. It is, on its own merits, a thing of beauty.
First off, the Boog doesn't exactly look in great baseball shape. I mean, his butt does not quite fit into the photograph. He's got the great red Indians top on with that incredibly cheap-looking Chief Wahoo patch on the sleeve. The orange "BOOG POWELL" and the pink "INDIANS" do not exactly flatter Boog, either. He does look focused, give him that, but the hat he's wearing looks like it belongs to his 5-year-old son. And the middle finger is rather prominently pointed out through his glove. Also, the stylized cartoon first baseman on the left, what exactly is happening there? Is he catching an infielder's throw? Because if he is, his foot is nowhere near the base. Is he fielding a high chopper? Is he running to first to get the pitcher's throw? And is he wearing sunglasses? This is one of the greatest baseball cards ever made, simply by virtue of its own awesomeness.
But it meant 10 times more to me because (1) Boog Powell was my favorite player at the time; this was just before that gritty second baseman Duane Kuiper had pierced my consciousness. When you're 9 and in Cleveland, you are going to love Boog Powell. He was a Cleveland Indian. He hit home runs. And his name was "Boog." Done deal.* (2) This was the last card that we needed for the set, and my mother was becoming somewhat haunted by it. She did not know Boog Powell from William Powell (of "The Thin Man"), Dick Powell (who married June Allyson) or jazz pianist Mel Powell. She would pronounce "Boog" so it sounded like the first syllable in "Booger," and she would wonder what grand conspiracy was keeping us from finding one. Still, this card was keeping us from happiness. We bought pack after pack, searched through all the Lezcanos and Moneys and Locklears on earth. Never got one. I would offer incredibly lopsided deals to my friends -- trade you a Hank Aaron, Pete Rose and Steve Carlton for one Boog Powell -- and no one bit. It was haunting.
*For these very reasons, Boog Sciambi remains one of my favorite baseball announcers.
Then, at some point, we stopped looking. The seasons changed. The summer light had faded, school had begun, the Indians were mediocre, Boog Powell himself was clearly at the end of a fine career (he hit just nine home runs and batted .215, and the Indians released him the following March; he finished his career playing 50 rather forgettable games for the Dodgers and then retired. And, let's face it, our interests were moving on to other things. I was on to football and a Cleveland Browns infatuation that would overwhelm any emotion I felt about the Indians. She was on to whatever the next hobby was -- it might have been the time she was buying small exotic plants (I remember she bought a venus fly trap, which died approximately 59 seconds later).
Then one day -- I wish I remembered exactly when, I only remember that it was getting dark early and it was well after the baseball season ended -- my mother came home from shopping with a big smile on her face. I recall it being around Thanksgiving, but it might have been around this time of the year. She called me to the kitchen and told me to help her unpack the groceries. As I went through them, I came across a rack pack of baseball cards. And there, in the slot on the left was a 1976 Topps Boog Powell baseball card.
What I remember most of all -- even more than my own joy -- was how happy Mom was. She had not only found the card, but had found it ON SALE in the "last season's junk" bucket that they have in every grocery store in America. Oh, she was so happy.
As a parent, I think I understand this better now. It's fairly easy to get your child something they will like, at least for a few moments. And it's not all that difficult to get them something they will love for a while. But to get them PRECISELY the right thing, the thing they will remember not only for a week or a month or even a year, but for the rest of their lives, that's something different.
I don't remember many of the gifts I got as a kid. I remember a microscope, I remember when we finally got Pong, I remember … no, that's about it. The rest are bright blurs, like the yellow uniforms the Oakland A's used to wear when they played World Series games in the daytime. I remember a baseball glove. A board game. A toy of one kind of another. But even though 36 years have gone by, I remember exactly how that Boog Powell card looked in that rack pack. I remember precisely the expression on my mother's face when I saw it for the first time.
I also remember the expression on her face, many years later, when she told me she had thrown out all my old baseball cards. She always says she did it because the basement flooded. That's what mothers say, I guess, when they throw out your cards. They must learn it in some class.