Because we all need a respite, I have been thinking about Cleon Jones.
In an age of 24/7 media, when we are bombarded with stories of inflation and school shootings and COVID-19, it is helpful to have a distraction. Especially when your job inevitably drenches you in such worldly concerns.
So, I have been thinking about Cleon Jones.
Jones was an outfielder who played in the major leagues from 1963 to 1976, mostly for the New York Mets. Good player, but not particularly memorable, unless you are the type to fill your head with meaningless baseball trivia. In other words, I remember Cleon Jones.
But it is not his 93 career home runs or his .340 batting average for the 1969 Miracle Mets that has me thinking about him. It is the fact that his was the first baseball card I owned.
At the age of 6, with a dime in my pocket, I wandered into the local convenience store and bought my first pack — 10 cards for 10 cents. Opening the traditional wax pack that included a piece of cardboardlike gum with the cardboard cards, Jones was the first player to stare back at me.
It was, it turned out, life-changing. For a while.
Years of collecting were followed by years of allowing the cards to sit untouched, ignored while the duties of adulting took priority. That is, until recently, when I summoned the motivation to finally do something with the thousands and thousands of cardboard childhood memories. Yes, that motivation was provided by my wife, but that’s beside the point.
Beginning with the intention of liquidating my collection, I turned to local card shops and the online fantasy land that is eBay. And I quickly found that it is easier to spend money than make money when it comes to sports cards. There was the nostalgic, impulsive purchase of the entire 1972-73 set of Topps brand hockey cards; and the decision to collect the 1965 set of baseball cards; and the hours and hours spent online to find cards that can be flipped for a profit, thanks to my, um, er, savvy mind for business.
The unintended — but entirely predictable — outcome: I have purchased far more cards than I have sold since beginning this all-consuming adventure. “Yeah, a lot of people tell me that,” one card shop proprietor told me.
So, I guess I am not alone. As ESPN.com wrote in late 2020, when the pandemic fueled a wave of newly invigorated collectors: “The rise of eBay, Amazon and newer marketplaces like StockX gave birth to huge secondary markets and fierce global competition for sports’ most coveted stars, which in turn sent prices skyrocketing.”
Indeed, collecting has changed since the innocent days of purchasing a pack for 10 cents and storing cards in stacks held together by rubber bands. By the mid-1990s it had become big business, not childhood folly.
As author John Bloom wrote in the 1997 book “A House of Cards”: “Collectors often decried how money had ruined their hobby, making it hard for them to form meaningful friendships through their cards. Money, however, made the hobby not only profitable but also more serious, more instrumental and therefore more manly. The same collectors who complained about greed often bragged in the same interview about the value of their cards. Yet money, in turn, made the hobby less akin to child’s play and more like work; lonely, competitive, unfulfilling, and alienating.”
We’ll leave that to the sociologists to decipher. But an amateurish foray into this childhood-hobby-turned-adult-business has been fulfilling and whatever is the opposite of alienating. Who wouldn’t want to spend 30 minutes internally debating whether to bid $230 on a Mickey Mantle card? It eventually sold for $405.
Yes, it is silly to pay more than $200 for an 8 3/4 -square-inch piece of cardboard. But it also is a respite that combines childhood, memories of collecting with my dad and my friends, and grown-up profit-seeking.
So, if you have $350 or so lying around, I have a Nolan Ryan rookie card for you. Just don’t ask for Cleon Jones; I’m keeping that one.