I love sports cards. Specifically, hockey and baseball cards. I started my collection in the mid 80s as a 7-year-old, when I taped my cards into photo albums, putting my heroes on display for me to pore over for hours. Cards were hard to come by. There were two stores in town that would sometimes have packs that I would beg my mom to buy me. To this day, I occasionally get a whiff of that sickeningly sweet bubble gum smell and I instantly think about tearing into a pack of cards. My biggest scores were when my grandparents would go on vacation and snag me some team sets at flea markets they would frequent.
As I started junior high school, the sports card industry exploded, reaching into even the smallest of towns across the country. At one point, my town of less than 3000 had three different sport card stores. My friends and I would make the rounds regularly, bringing any money we could find around the house. Mostly though, we just wanted to see the cards, as if being in their presence each day made them ours, in some small bizarre way. Thin pieces of cardboard worth so much, both literally and figuratively, and priced beyond the reach of a kid. Ken Griffey Jr’s smiling face stared back at me through the display glass, seemingly taunting me in his hard sealed case.
As often happens with childhood crazes, my life moved on from collecting cards. As one might expect, as I slid into my teenage years, I found other, more pressing things to spend my money on. I stopped buying cards, and apparently so did everyone else as our three card stores shrunk down to zero. My cards found their way into a cupboard in my room and eventually, upstairs in my father’s barn. There they remained, in their Rubbermaid containers like a pharaoh in his tomb or that cowboy in that Toy Story movie, waiting to be played with again.
Fast forward a couple dozen years or so when my wife and I built a garage for our home. My dad figured the nice empty loft in my garage would be a perfect place for some of my clutter from his barn. Boxes and containers appeared, and were soon covered by soccer equipment, camping gear and hockey jerseys as the empty space upstairs quickly began to fill.
As luck would have it, my son started showing an interest in baseball and hockey cards. Thrilled by the prospect, I certainly encouraged him. I soon started picking up the odd pack of cards for him at the store to create his collection. It also got me thinking of the treasures that lay, forgotten in the loft. It was time for a new generation to experience the joy of card collecting.
It was then, when I uncovered and went through the bins in my garage, that I found a complete set of O-Pee-Chee Premier Baseball cards from 1991. I had completely forgotten I had them and finding the binder brought memories flooding back. This set was important to me as it was the first and only complete set of baseball cards I had ever owned, but it was so much more than that.
If you don’t recognize the name O-Pee-Chee, they used to rebrand Topps baseball and hockey cards to sell in Canada under their own brand. However, the O-Pee-Chee Premier brand was all their own and did not have a Topp’s equivalent. This baseball set followed on the heels of the 1990–1991 O-Pee-Chee Premier Hockey cards which were the hottest thing going in my local card shop. I deeply hated my friend who managed to snag a Jaromir Jagr rookie card out of one of his foil packs one day. Somehow, my Sergei Fedorov rookie paled in comparison and there was nothing I could do about it. The short supply of OPC Premier cards had the double effect of driving up the value in the monthly Beckett card “bible”, as well as made it impossible for us junior high school kids to locate any new packs. I had to stew in anger, vowing I would somehow get my hands on that Jagr card.
This brings us to a memorable day in 1991, when on my daily lunch time trek to Bar’s Collectibles, a complete set of O-Pee-Chee Premier Baseball cards appeared on the shelf. I didn’t even realize there was such a line! Somehow that day, I managed to have enough money to purchase the set. There was no way I was going to be left in the cold without a coveted card as I had them all! I was sure to be the envy of all my friends.
Ultimately, for some reason, this set did not have the same immediate success as the hockey version. I assume, there was an over-saturation of the market that caused this set, which looked exactly like the hockey ones, to have little or no value. The can’t-miss plan crumbled as the thrill of having the complete set slowly started to turn to disappointment, as it became apparent the cards weren’t worth anything. At the time, this set became my most disappointing purchase, simply because it was unable to live up to the lofty expectations I had for it.
However, today, I look at this set much differently. Aside from a couple rookie cards of Hall of Famers, these are the baseball cards I enjoy revisiting the most. Having a set of only 132 cards meant that the ratio of stars is very high and the set serves as a quick overview of the players that dominated baseball back when I was most obsessed with the game. While there is the odd Brian Barnes in the set, who racked up only 3.2 career WAR over 5 MLB seasons, most of the cards represent the best of that era. Looking at this set and the sense of nostalgia it gives me gave me an idea for a series of pieces to work on.
Going through my old cards, so many players had completely left my consciousness, even though they meant so much to me at the time. I’d like to tell stories about some of these players, say why they were important to me and examine their major league careers from a sabermetric view that I certainly didn’t have as a kid. The OPC Premier set from 1991 will serve as a starting point, though I already have some players in mind who are not in the set. If you have any players from that era that have some sort of significance to you, let me know. I may have something to write about.
Oh, and getting back to that Jagr card that started the whole thing, I recently managed to snatch one up at a flea market for peanuts. That vow, however lame it may be, is fulfilled.Next post: Baseball Movie: Long Gone
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