Baseball Cards Save the Game of Baseball Itself
August 1, 2008
by William Szczepanek
It sounds a little far-fetched to claim that baseball cards saved the game of baseball, but many of us weren’t around to remember what was going on in the fifties, and the some of us who do remember don’t always remember it as it was.
The Influence of Television
Mantle. Snider. DiMaggio. Mays. With names like that playing day in and day out baseball must have been in its glory years. If we get in our time machine and check out what was really happening we see sparsely populated ball parks all around the league. We see attendance figures slipping drastically in the major markets, namely Chicago and New York. The situation got so bad that two of the best teams in baseball, the Dodgers and Giants, from the largest city in the country, with the best players at the time, abandoned their iconic baseball palaces for the Left Coast. Many cities were dying and neighborhoods were crime ridden. People were staying away from baseball in droves. The war years of the forties and early fifties decimated the Major League rosters, so the return of the players should have meant increased interest at the ballparks. But just as these world-affecting incidents passed, a new invention grabbed the interest of the American people ― television. Games were now televised and the owners were sadly predicting that baseball could not survive with television since no one would go to the games. Around the same time the Negro Leagues died. That supposed Golden Age of the fifties was looking very bleak to the business of baseball.
The solution for many teams was to move. New stadiums drew more people as they do today. But other things were happening in our society that are seldom talked about. The viewers of the ball games began to change. Baseball tried all kinds of promotions to get fans to the park. Ladies Night brought more women to the games, but otherwise it was largely well-dressed men who attended the games. I remember baseball games from the fifties. The air was filled with smoke ― cigarette smoke, cigar smoke and spilled beer. Probably the only time it was worse was in the eighties when it was almost impossible not to be seated near some drunken slob who insisted it was his right to swear at the players. But, many suffered through those ignominies in order to see their heroes.
The Advent of Baseball cards
There were other factors at play also. Baseball cards were being purchased for a nickel a pack by kids ranging in age from about 4 years to young teens. At the same time this generation of youngsters was fed by the tube, that ‘vast wasteland’ of useless material --- Howdy Doody, cartoons and real baseball games, starring those very same players who you just saw in a pack of cards. New interest in baseball was being generated from many angles. Little kids talked baseball, watched baseball and even played baseball without Little Leagues or parental intervention. Baseball diamonds were always crowded with pickup games. But even more games were being played right in the street where first base might be the green Chevy or in alleys where a very narrow lane defined the entire playing field, while the ball was still live even after caroming off of a garage roof. A vacant lot became the perfect setting for a new ball field. Sometimes the kids themselves cleaned up glass and bottles from an empty lot to make it safe to play.
Other than the time I broke my arm when I crashed into the school building pursuing a ball, my most terrifying experience was when I chased a fly ball and my foot dislodged a sewer cover. My leg went into the hole as I crashed to the ground. Upon looking around I only saw one leg. The other disappeared into the ground. Amazingly enough I was not only all right, but I caught the ball. Another instance was the longest home run ever hit in my neighborhood, estimated at about six miles. The home run territory was the area above a train trestle that passed over the street we played on. My drive not only cleared the trestle but hit a Chicago and Northwestern commuter train and stuck in a crevice of the engine as it streaked by. To my dismay the other players voted that my hit was an out since I lost the ball and the game had to end because of it.
The Perfect Storm
So it was in those days. Baby boomer boys, plus television, plus baseball cards equaled increased interest in baseball itself. More fathers began taking their sons to games. More families started going to games together. Kids collected more baseball cards. Television, baseball games and baseball cards all fed on each other. The perfect storm saved baseball for the ages in some part due to the nickel pack of baseball cards.
Thank you, Topps. Now, what can you do for the current economic situation?