Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

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.


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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17 Comments / Post A Comment

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I have the same kind of relationship with my comic book collection, at least in terms of viewing them as playthings. I'd read them in bed, stack them up on the floor when I was done, step on the stacks occasionally. My dog at a few of them.

After I graduated from college, I lugged all my comics out of my mom's attic, with the intent to sell them. It hasn't happened in five years, because a) they're in such ratty condition as to render them worthless, and b) I could never sell my comics! For the same reason I could never burn them.

joshc (#442)

@boyofdestiny at least every other time I make the long trek home to visit my parents, the issue of the boxes of comics in storage is raised briefly and I have the same reaction. I am perfectly happy with them taking up space in their house but have no real interest in hauling them home to take up residence in my own increasingly full storage space. I guess that if they had to be sold or burnt that I'd really like it to happen without my involvement.

Van Buren Boy (#1,233)

Is this where we discuss the time we found a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card and thought we were going to be millionaires only to discover that everybody else had the same card meaning that it wasn't going to be worth all that much?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Van Buren Boy Where's the SEC investigation into that scam? We were promised riches beyond our wildest dreams!

I threw out my cassette collection when I left home about ten years ago. Now I bitterly regret it, if only because I have lost the opportunity to show my kids what a pain in the ass it was to listen to music when I was a kid. By the time I have teenage kids, they'll be plucking music out of the air with their magic internet brains.

percolator (#1,721)

A couple years ago some friends and I were killing time on a trip to Sag Harbor and found a shop that was selling cases of old unopened baseball cards, organized by year. We bought a case from the 80s, hoping there would be something of value inside. Obviously, none of them were worth a dime, but what they lacked in financial value they made up in ludicrous hair styles. I still regret trying to chew the gum.

jfruh (#713)

When I realized I was just months away from no longer thinking my Transformers toys were cool, I staged an enormous battle royale amongst all of them that ended with them all shattered in bits on the pavement. My dad was pissed because of all the money he spent on them over the previous three years of my Transformers obsession, but it was an immensely awesome and cathartic way for them to go out, I felt.

BirdNerd (#4,196)

When I was about 12-13 my younger bro (only by 19 months) and I gathered all of our figurines (ninja turtles, GI joes, etc) and put them on a makeshift raft (tobacco sticks weaved together with bailing twine….I also grew up on a farm) and sent them down the creek that ran behind our house. We waited until after a decent rain so the flow would carry them easily. We chased after the raft, navigating through the woods following this life raft of memories that was sure to make its way to the Gulf of Mexico eventually. It picked up pace when the stream got thinner and faster and we eventually lost sight of it before it crossed onto the neighbor's property (that we were frequently told to never encroach due to his affinity for drinking and shooting his rifles at trees).

keisertroll (#1,117)

I'm not as sad that I lost my cards so much as I'm sad that they don't make Eagle Brand snack mix anymore.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@keisertroll OH MY GOD YOU'RE RIGHT. I just noticed.

keisertroll (#1,117)

From the arrangement of the NL West teams and the styles of logos, that photo was most likely from 1993.

ylhollander (#216,828)

@keisertroll It's from 1992. The Cardinals' centennial logo (1892-1992) on the scoreboard is the giveaway. Yes, I'm aware there's a Rockies logo on the outfield wall and they didn't start play until 1993, however the logos for both Colorado and Florida were released in the summer of 1991 and were up on Busch's outfield wall during the 92 season.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@ylhollander Fair enough. I thought it could also have been from that winter. I remember going to Veterans Stadium for the 1993 Phillies home opener and seeing the Marlins and Rockies logos there whereas I did not see them on the wall the previous August.

salvo (#8,697)

I still have my baseball cards from when I was a kid—thousands and thousands of them—and like Will, I actively engaged with them, mostly sorting them into every conceivable permutation, and eventually they ended up in a stack of cardboard boxes, to be lugged from apartment to apartment and from city to city.

But it's always a kick when a baseball fan comes over and I can go to the boxes and pull out a random stack of cards that invariably include players who are now managers or dads of current players, or some all-time great from the past like Frank Robinson or Roberto Clemente.

Back in college, I lived practically across the street from the building that housed the student paper, where I was an editor, and one day another editor told me she popped over to my place the night before and knocked on my door but I didn't answer even though the lights were on, so she looked in a window and saw me asleep on the floor surrounded by hundreds of old baseball cards.

To this day I'll occasionally bring down a random box and thumb through some cards, a tangible link to my boyhood, and gaze at the players I first came to know of, and knew best, as the visage on a 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inch piece of cardboard.

johnfany1 (#217,590)

hy gay nice action

fujidude (#276,739)

Will kinda made a good point. I grew up in the country and we burned our trash in a barrel. There always came a time once or twice a year when I had to clean up my room (at parental direction), and there were toys or comic books or whatnot that I'd outgrown or — not so much lost interest in but just didn't need anymore, so I'd stuff it in a garbage bag, grab the kitchen trash can and whatever trash needed to be burned, and get the big box of strike anywhere kitchen matches out of the drawer next to the sink and tell my mom I was gonna go burn the garbage. It was kind of an attitude that if I had to get rid of that stuff, then I didn't want anyone else to have it.

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