The Golden Age of Baseball Cards™

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Education Reform - What Role Will Baseball Cards Play?

February 4, 2009

by William Szczepanek

In the 1950s the American people were preparing for a future of peace and prosperity.  World War II had ended and the Korean War was drawing to a close.  The fans were enjoying the World Series in October, 1957 between the Yankees and the Braves.  All seemed well. The feeling that peace was close at hand, however, was short-lived.  The late fifties ended with the omnipresent danger of annihilation by a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.  The most fearful vision of the time was reflected in what appeared in the sky at night on October 4, 1957.  For the first time in human existence the night sky was lit by something other than the moon, planets and stars. The Soviet satellite, Sputnik, raced across the dark sky, indicating to the entire world that the Soviet Union was ahead in the race for space. It also gave the impression that their ballistic missile system was also superior to that of the United States.

For previous decades the American dream and American superiority evolved from a lot of hard work and a good deal of intelligence.  Suddenly, the requirement to have an educated population became even more important.  A little known fact is that certain American public schools geared themselves to addressing the need for scientists and engineers. Magnet schools in large cities recruited the best and the brightest and created a corps of students that were taught by the best teachers in order to meet the needs of the scientific community.

For the most part the plan worked, creating the most highly educated population on the planet, which served both the scientific community and the business community for decades to come.  The plan worked for many reasons ― good teachers, attentive students and supportive parents who wanted their kids to have the opportunities that they didn’t.  But, there was also something else ― something that is very difficult to put into words without discrediting those students, teachers and parents of today that still feel the same way.  Things were often done for the good of the country, for the good of the society and for the good of the family, rather than the good of the individual or special interest group with the idea that things would be better for all by doing so.  Free markets and democracy were also in equilibrium, a necessary factor for both to succeed. In the long term the effort to combat the Russian's exploits resulted in a unified effort to communicate effectively, particularly from one research institution to another, ultimately resulting in the development of the Internet.

The focus on education was everywhere back then, including baseball cards.  In the 1950s, for the first time, baseball cards provided information to kids ― data about players, statistics about performance and stories about personal accomplishments, not only on the diamond, but with regard to their performance during the War or for community organizations.  Baseball was a business, but it was a part-time business that required a player to work during the off-season.  Players would commonly recommend that kids stay in school and get an education before moving into sports.

While I was young enough to ask my mother buy a pack of baseball cards for me upon request, I was not yet old enough to read.  I would look at the cards, the pictures of players, their uniforms and team emblems and would get satisfaction from those things that would be immediately recognizable to me.  When I turned the card over I saw numbers and words, but couldn’t read them or understand what the numbers meant.  Over time the information became not only more understandable, but more important to me.  I was surprised to learn that baseball players came from all over the country.  They came from cities large and small, but surprisingly from many more small cities than I realized.  I saw the height and weight of the players, again surprised by how normal most of them were. The Giants weren’t necessarily giants. Some of the cards had quizzes where the answer could be obtained by scratching the card with a coin. I still remember learning that the Cactus League and Grapefruit League were located in Arizona and Florida, respectively. There’s is a lot you don’t know when you’re a kid.

I remember trying to figure out Batting Averages ― pretty easy, but was very puzzled by the math of Earned Run Averages.  It took awhile, but I figured it all out.  Division really was important to learn. The cards of the fifties were an encyclopedia of information about baseball, players and life.  They really were important in the scope of things and taught kids skills they never realized they were even learning.

I kept statistics of games that I played with baseball cards.  It was a true fantasy league. At bats, hits, innings pitched all collected and converted manually every day to batting averages and earned run averages ― by hand.  When I would die, I had hoped that God could provide me with career statistics that I didn’t have time to tally by hand. We didn’t have computers or electronic calculators, but learned the significance of numbers by working with them.  When I think back to my high school and college days, the most powerful portable calculator of the day was a slide rule.  Imagine telling your kids that when you were in school you did advanced math by rubbing two sticks together.  It seems almost prehistoric. Yet, today we have become very dependent upon electronic tools to save us time, at the expense of understanding what’s really going on. I also talk with children who don’t know how to fantasize or dream about what could be, because videos so very often present them with the images that their brain can’t imagine.

So how do you think about baseball cards?  Are they a commodity that can ultimately be exchanged for cash?  Or, are they a reservoir of information.  Most of the information on a card today can also be found on the Internet, so the card of today is not so unique in intrinsic value as before, and the overall value of cards to individuals from a particular time can be very different than that for people from before or after that time.

Education reform is necessary today to enable us to compete in a global society.  The education systems of other countries are slowly overtaking ours. The economy is in turmoil over real estate foreclosures and the government is trying to keep the gears moving by addressing this problem. But, the mortgage crisis wouldn’t be this bad if job losses weren’t so high.  People now need to be retrained for the new global economy. But, what will these new jobs be? What type of education is necessary? Today, we need to encourage future engineers and scientists to solve the problems of clean energy and global warming instead of pushing young people to be financial analysts who craft new ways of creating money out of thin air.

What will be the Sputnik of today be that will inspire the current generation to take action? What can baseball cards do to facilitate a solution to this situation? I don’t believe that baseball cards were an especially important part of the education reform that occurred in the fifties, but they were a small part of a collective of new ideas that provided a focus, that provided a direction, that fostered a hope, that allowed a kid to fantasize about the future, that pushed a little kid to think that he/she could make a difference.

What is the ideal baseball card of the future?  Allow yourself to dream.  Using technology that already exists it‘s possible to envision a baseball card with an embedded computer chip, powered by a wafer thin solar component that could provide power wherever there is light, without the need for a battery that could last forever, though that would be nice.  Now, what would the card look like?  It could include a changing image of the player from every year of that player’s career, by touching the surface of the card..  It could provide statistics for every year of the player’s career and it could be updated every year over a wireless connection, so a rookie card would be meaningless. All cards would be both rookie and veteran. Once the technology becomes outdated, the card could survive by itself in its own package to forever provide information about that player.  Would this information also exist elsewhere?  Sure.  But if you wanted to sort through your cards and look at stats and info, you would not need a keyboard or Internet connection.  You may also be able to play games with these cards just by selecting the lineup and putting them in a pile.  For those who consider cards commodities, the current value could be updated to the card itself. Sound impossible?  So did playing a baseball game on computer, before personal computers existed. And, what will people learn by collecting these cards?

Maybe we need to get the cards back into the hands of kids. Anything is possible, particularly in the mind of a child who knows how to dream of things that could be.

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