I'm always quick to tell anyone who will listen that I started collecting baseball cards in 1978, but it really wasn’t until the summer of 1981 that it fully kicked into gear and I became a dedicated collector. 1978 was the year that I fulfilled every father’s dream and began playing Little League. As an avid collector of Star Wars cards the year before, it didn’t take long once I discovered they made cards for baseball too that I fell madly in love with them. I still fondly recall getting some packs here and there that summer, devouring the info on the backs of the cards along with the sweet pink rectangle in each pack. I can only wish to relive the hours I spent stacking my deck to whoop my little brother in the PLAY BALL game on the backs of each card that we would play every day of that summer.
Unfortunately for a budding nine year old collector, at the end of the summer we were stationed in Spain, where baseball cards could no longer be found on every corner! Save the occasional box of cards my grandma sent me for a birthday or Christmas, card collecting took a back seat to comics, which were readily available at the Navy Exchange bookstore. Our cards then only came back out when a new kid moved to the base, the rest of us picking his collection over like vultures, as that would be the only supply of new stuff until the next kid moved to the base.
But then in the glorious summer of 1981 we were transferred back to the good old US of A! We would spend the summer in Arkansas with relatives before moving on to Florida at summer's end. The date we arrived back in the US was June 9th to be exact, and boy howdy how I couldn’t wait to watch baseball all summer after three years without television in Spain. Well if you’ve read this far and remember any baseball history at all, it’s pretty easy to piece together the events that happened three days later (on my 12th birthday no less) and brought my dreams crashing down. Thankfully though, I still had baseball cards to collect to fill the void.
With three card companies instead of one, it didn’t take long for my plastic card locker to outlive its usefulness, so I “upgraded” to rubber bands and a Coca Cola crate. Despite the crudeness of my storage system, I was extremely meticulous in my sorting and filing methods. Each rubber banded “bundle” was sorted by team in the following order:
1. Topps Team Checklist on top (marked appropriately of course)
2. Topps players in alphabetical order
3. Fleer players in alphabetical order, with the manager card on top
4. Donruss players in alphabetical order, with the manager card on top
Any multi-player, record breaker, post season, set checklists, and Fleer Checklists (marked appropriately of course) were banded into their own bundle.
The team bundles were then placed in the box in the following order:
1. AL East in alphabetical order
2. AL West in alphabetical order
3. NL East in alphabetical order
4. NL West in alphabetical order
5. Multi-player, etc. bundle
I ended up getting on a Little League team in Arkansas (McGehee Bank), and despite the absence of Major League Baseball that summer, that and collecting fixed my baseball jones.
By 1981 I was a Houston Astros fan, solely due to my having been a pitcher for my Little League team in 1979, the Angels. I knew Nolan Ryan was a bad ass (with his 1978 Topps Record Breaker card as my primary evidence) and so I became a Ryan fan. I carried on again the next year toiling with the Angels, even though Ryan had moved on to Houston, but I never stopped rooting for him, and by the time the Astros made their playoff run in 1980, I’d become a fan of the team as well.
Throughout that summer, my first ever collecting goal was to finish the Topps Astros team set. Each week I'd narrow it down by a few cards until there was only one card remaining. Card #534, Dave Smith. For the rest of the summer, every time my grandma went to Walmart, I'd ride with her so I could search all the rack packs for Dave Smith. Never once did I see him. Never once did I come home with a pack that had him inside
At the end of the summer, we left Arkansas and headed towards our new home in Florida. On a rainy morning of Day 2 of the drive, we stopped for gas at a 7-Eleven somewhere near Pensacola, FL. I asked my dad if I could have a dollar to go in and get a Coke. I bought that Coke, and one pack of 1981 Topps baseball cards. I got back in the U-Haul truck, riding shotgun along with my crate full of cards. We headed back down the highway and I went to work on that pack of cards. I still remember freezing up as I sorted through them and suddenly there before my eyes was card #534, Dave Smith. I did it! I finally completed the Astros team set!! I was on cloud nine the rest of the trip. I must have spent hours staring at that card. I still love seeing it 36 years later.
To this day the cards of 1981 hold a special place in my heart for the great memories of collecting that summer, and more importantly, the great memories of life that summer. I hope that all the collectors out there have similar memories themselves. But without a $%@#$&%^ two month baseball strike for crying out loud!