Friday, May 27, 2011

My First Cardboard God

I don't know how old I was or how I first learned about Harmon Killebrew, but I would approximate the moment at sometime in 1984.  I was six and a half years old that summer.  After kicking the tires on my baseball interest for the two previous years, '84 was the year I dove in and started this lifelong obsession.  That was also the year Harmon was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I'm sure I had heard of him before then, but it was probably then, when I saw his picture on my very first Official Twins Program, that I first realized his significance.  I learned that if I was going to become a Twins fan, I'd better know that Harmon Killebrew was the greatest Twin.

By 1986, baseball was my life.  I had been seriously collecting baseball cards for a couple years, always under the belief that Topps was the best brand to buy.  Something seemed to change at the precipice of the trading card boom around that time.  In 1981, upstart companies Fleer and Donruss were granted licenses by Major League Baseball to print their own trading cards.  It was the first time in about 20 years that Topps had competitors, but they were still kings of the market.  Around '86, though, when collectors started going crazy for 1984 rookie cards of young New York superstars Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry, they noticed that their 1984 Donruss cards seemed to be much more difficult to find than the Topps counterparts.  Also in 1986, the hottest new name on the scene was Oakland rookie sensation Jose Canseco.  Jose did not have a card in the Topps set that year, but he did have a "Rated Rookie" card in that year's Donruss set.  Suddenly Donruss was the must-have brand.

My parents had bought me Topps sets for the previous two years, but in '86 I begged for a Donruss set.  My mom called around and the one place she could find that carried the complete set was Grand Slam Sportscards in Uptown.  I saved up and she drove me to the hole in the wall joint on Lyndale and Lake Street.  It was a revelation.  I would later experience that same feeling the first time I walked into record stores like Oar Folkjokeopus and Garage D'or, the first time I went to First Avenue, the first time I visited Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, and Target Field.  I couldn't believe it.  An entire store devoted to baseball cards and memoribilia.  It was amazing.  We were there to get the set, but I couldn't resist looking at the single cards they had for sale.

My first Killebrew. Warts and all.
I saw, for the first time in my life, Harmon Killebrew baseball cards.  They were mostly priced at well over a few bucks each.  But then I noticed one priced for 75 cents.  It was his 1975 Topps card - his final appearance on a card as an active player.  It was in awful condition (hence the price), but I neither knew nor cared about the importance of condition.  It was a Harmon Killebrew baseball card and I could afford it.

Over the next two years I learned more about baseball, more about Killebrew, and more about cards, and I became a regular customer at Shinder's.  I became so regular at the Crystal location, in fact, that they let me start volunteering there on Saturday mornings.  It was my first real work experience.  They wouldn't (and couldn't) let me touch the register.  They were very careful to shield me from the porn.  I simply showed up for three hours on Saturday mornings and sorted and priced baseball cards for them.  I got paid in store credit.  And I was working for something specific.

A 1955 Topps Harmon Killebrew rookie card!

At the time, a near mint Killebrew rookie was listed in the price guide for around $100.  This one was priced at $30.  I had learned a bit more about the importance of condition, and I understood that this one was not in the greatest shape, but it was right in front of me and seemed like the only realistic shot I ever had at a real Killebrew rookie card.

After about a month of volunteer work, I had it.  My mom asked if I was sure I wanted to spend all the credit I had saved on one card.  The store manager (and my first "boss") Tom made sure I understood that because of the card's condition it would never be worth the full value of its price guide listing.  I understood and I didn't care, for I was now ten years old and owner of a Harmon Killebrew rookie card!

The 1955 Topps Harmon Killebrew rookie card I worked toward at Shinder's in 1987.
Over the next several years I eventually acquired every other Topps card of Killebrew.  Every one of them was in significantly better condition than the rookie card I worked for at Shinder's and the 1975 card I bought at Grand Slam.  I had many opportunities over the years to upgrade the '75 card.  And if I really had wanted to I probably could have upgraded the rookie, too.  I guess it wasn't important to me.  And why should it be?  There's no sentiment in going on ebay to pluck down a few extra bucks for a mint 1975 card.  A mint 1975 card will never capture the exhilaration of finding that first beat up card at Grand Slam and buying it with my own money.  Giving a couple hundred bucks to some random dealer for a nicer rookie will never replace  skipping cartoons on Saturday mornings to work toward my Killebrew rookie.

I think that to my mom I justified spending so much of my allowance on expensive Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Tony Oliva cards as a sound investment.  But deep down, even then, I think I probably knew that I was never going to sell them.  Those were keepers.  Over twenty years later, I still have every one.