Why Will Leitch Burned All His Baseball Cards: A Q&A

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Pictured: New York mag columnist and movie enthusiast Will Leitch on deck, 1992.

Hey Will, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Sorry, I’m late. I’m on baby duty right now, but I duct-taped his mouth, so we should be okay.

Oh!

I’m just kidding!

Whew! So people used to collect baseball cards, and you were one of those people. Can you tell me about your first memories of baseball, and how you got into it?

Yeah, so my dad struggled with getting me into playing baseball for a long time. And by a long time I mean until I was about seven. But for some reason it felt like a long time! I was that kid who would always run to the wrong base. I remember playing tee ball, and I actually hit the the ball once, and then I just walked back to the dugout because I was so used to striking out anyway. This was tee ball, which is hard to strike out in! My dad was really frustrated by that.

What changed?

Dad had just about given up on me, but I was really into math. So Dad, in one last ditch effort, told me that baseball had a lot of statistics in it. He took me to a Cardinals game and I saw Ozzie Smith play and learned about batting averages. I then basically became addicted to baseball forever.

So with baseball cards, I wasn’t very interested in what was on the front of the card. It allowed me to get a sense of what a person looked like, but I didn’t really care about that. What I really cared about was what was on the back, because it had all the statistics. I used to set up little tournaments between the cards, and compared them using the stats on the back to see who would win. I had Jeff Lahti—who now I believe is the father of Tiger Wood’s current girlfriend, which makes me feel incredibly old—but Jeff Lahti was a pitcher for the Cardinals, and he pitched four games without giving up an earned run, so he won every one of my tournaments. I ended up taking him out of my games.

You were a nerd!

It was really nerdy! I mean, these were little games I would play by myself and with my baseball cards. And since I needed more competitors, I kept buying more cards. Some people would collect full sets, and I would get those for Christmas from relatives who didn’t know me very well. That wasn’t what I wanted. I liked to get the baseball cards from the pack, and I threw the gum out because I really just wanted to play with the cards.

I didn’t collect to collect. I never really knew the players I had when I opened a pack of cards. The only team I knew I had all the players for were the Cardinals, because they were my favorite team. For me, it was all data and stats, and how I could use them to play them in my tournaments.

Did you ever trade any of your cards with your friends?

I had other friends who were into baseball cards, but they always had them behind wrapping. There was a whole industry around that for a while—like you could go to the mall and there would be a store that would sell things just for your baseball cards. I always found it strange that my friends would put their cards behind glass. It’s the whole Toy Story idea: Why have a toy if you have to keep them in a box the whole time?

For how long did you collect cards, and why did you stop?

I was basically doing this from 1982 to 1988, and ended up having a rather massive amount of them. I didn’t put them in a folder or anything, because they were things I played with. Three quarters of my room became filled with baseball cards, and people would come by and say to my dad, “Oh wow, those baseball cards must be worth a lot of money!” This is around the mid-’80s when the collectible cards market was about to explode. There were these books that would say that a card was worth something like six cents, and my dad would say, “That just might pay for your college someday!” But we really hated that. We liked the idea initially—that all this junk I had in my room was somehow worth a lot of money. But then I would be playing this tournament game with my cards in my room and people would say to me, “Hey, what are you doing with those? They’re not going to be mint if you play with them!” My dad’s an electrician. We’re not investors or business people, and certainly we cared about money because we needed to survive, but the idea of having this thing that I kinda loved be turned into something that was more like an investment opportunity struck us both as a little distasteful.

I was 12 or 13 and was getting into girls a little bit, and I started to care a little bit less about these cards. I still loved baseball, but the cards weren’t as big a deal to me anymore, and they took over my entire closet because there were so many of them. My mom told me I needed to do something with them, and asked if my dad and I would think about selling them. And we were like, “We don’t want to sell them!” We had this discussion about how selling them felt weird. This is something we never intended to make money off of. So we decided that the best thing that we could do was burn them.

That just sounds so amazing to me that you did that.

I grew up in rural Mattoon, Illinois, where we actually burned our trash. It sounds very ritualistic, like, “We then put the cards in a bonfire, and set them ablaze!” But we just burned our trash. We lived out in the country and had a barrel in the backyard where we would take our trash, so I took them all out and put them in this barrel and I set them on fire. It was the best chore a 13-year-old boy could possibly have, like, “Take this bag of stuff and set it on fire!” Mattoon wasn’t very environmentally conscious. I’ve actually seen styrofoam burn.

Do you remember any of the valuable cards you had that burned in that fire?

The one card that my dad says he wished we had back was Ozzie Smith’s rookie card from when he played for the Padres. But for me, seeing Ozzie Smith in a different uniform other than the Cardinals seemed like an abomination. It was so strange! Like if your dad dressed up as your mom, or your mom dressed up as your dad. That card was one that I sort of hated, but in retrospect is now a very valuable card because he’s now a Hall-of-Famer. I also had special cards from the 1984 Olympics, which had people like Mark McGwire and Will Clark, and, from my understanding, are pretty valuable right now. I vividly remember the Olympics cards because I had no use for them. They had no stats—just some story about where the guy was from.

You didn’t save a single card?

I didn’t. I know my dad still has cards from when he was a kid. I think he has a Stan Musial very early card that’s in a safety deposit box. We didn’t go through my cards to pick one we wanted to save. We just got rid of them all.

I’m sure if my dad was in a different profession, was more consumed by wealth, or frankly had ever invested a dime into something at the point in his life, we might have had a different conversation. We talked about how it felt like we didn’t earn any of the money we would get from the cards. And we felt very strongly that you’re supposed to earn money, not just get it. This was something that we did for fun. It would have been like if we tried to sell one of my trophies that I got from my Little League team. To be honest, these days, Dad regrets it more than I do. At the time, he didn’t realize how expensive college would be. But I still take it as a badge of courage. It’s something I’m really proud that I did. I think that he is too, but it helps that the baseball card market collapsed. The market got flooded because there was too much collecting going on, and now none of those cards are worth nearly as much as did maybe 10 or 15 years ago. There was also something really unseemly about having to stand in front of a man in a shop — this was before eBay remember — and have him ask, “Oh did you use this card?” Like, I would be at fault for actually having fun with these cards.

Did you ever think that rather than burning the cards, you could have saved them and passed them on to your kid one day?

No. Frankly, for my kid, by the time that he’s into baseball, the idea that baseball cards ever existed will seem like a very silly thing. One of the reasons I collected baseball cards was because I didn’t get to watch every baseball game because they weren’t all on television. I live in Brooklyn now, and I never miss a Cardinals game. I have access to every Cardinals game, and every Florida Marlins game, and every Toronto Blue Jays game. One of the reasons I collected cards was because it connected me to the game that I couldn’t on a daily basis. If I had access to the Cardinals when I was a kid like the kids do today, I would have never collected baseball cards. If the Internet had existed, I would have been online all day looking at stats, and would have been one of the founding members of Baseball Prospectus. Collecting baseball cards would have been this thing I thought only little kids did.

But now, you can get connected by watching baseball games every day. And my kid will, whether he likes it or not! Even if I still had the cards, it wouldn’t occur to me to give them to him. He’ll probably be the same way when I was as a kid hearing my parents say things like, “Mickey Mantle was a true baseball champion, not like these guys today!” And I’ll probably be saying that to him about Albert Pujols and other players. I think it’s a generational thing. Like the cards that my dad has are probably his favorite players from when he was growing up, and even as a baseball fan I’m like, “Well you lived during a time when black players couldn’t play! And there was no off-season training regimen! Your game is behind me!” He’ll have a new generation of guys to follow.



Mike Dang collected rocks as a kid.

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