Thursday, October 12, 2006

Cardboard Gods

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, October 12, 2006:
I was a newcomer to this country in 1949, a German-speaking boy trying to fit in as an American. My parents had conceived me in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart as affirmation of their survival and as revenge against Hitler. Somehow they conveyed to me very early on that the world was not a safe place and that caution and seclusion were essential life skills. Thus reticent by nature and circumstance, all the same I longed for risk and inclusion.

Baseball cards were my way in, and my way out. These cardboard gods were my tickets of admission to the street games of the Bronx and passports to a larger sense of being somehow American. I learned to read from the backs of the cards, those magically encapsulated hagiographies, and discovered I had an unusual memory for facts and figures that in the older gang into which I sought admission lent me the jester’s motley of amusement and license. I flipped cards passably, too, and delighted in winning a Jackie Robinson while risking only a Wally Westlake. Cards were currency in more ways than one.

My parents of course viewed my street-corner competitions as unserious and unworthy—if I were such a prodigy that I could read baseball cards, why not the Talmud? Chubby and unathletic, I was permanently “it” in games of tag and a figure of fun at Hopscotch or Ringolevio. Until my teen years when, sprouted and slimmed, I was miraculously able to play the game I had known only through its fetishes, my bubble-gum cards provided safe passage through rings and ring leaders. Like all games, as I was later to learn, they provided early instruction in the rules of adult society: mimicking its rules of inclusion and exclusion, sublimating its rites of war, and creating a bazaar of barter and status.

Fast forward half a century. The games that had connected a lonely boy to his peers and had provided a peephole into the adult world—what do men DO?, a boy wondered—now connect a grandfather to his youth, with reminiscent pleasure, certainly, but always questions, questions. Now a historian of sport, an analyst of play, I collect stories rather than cards as my trophies. And I recently came across a good one, in an 1891 issue of The American Journal of Folklore (today known as The Journal of American Folklore) by Stewart Culin, one of the giants of folklore studies but heretofore unknown to me.

As with the long-standing question of when baseball began, to which I have been supplying tentative answers for some time, I had wondered when baseball-card flipping and trading commenced. For me it was 1952, but I knew that in the 1880s photographic and chromolith cards were inserted into cigarette packs, whose purchasers were presumably not children. Culin, in “Street Games of Boys in Brooklyn, New York,” cites thirty-six games described to him by “a lad of ten years, residing in the city of Brooklyn, N. Y., as games in which he himself had taken part.” From Hare and Hounds to Red Rover, from Leap Frog to Kick the Can, Culin details games that many of us recall from our own youths, however many years since. The thirty-sixth game I relate verbatim:

“PICTURES: This game is a recent invention, and is played with the small picture cards which the manufacturers of cigarettes have distributed with their wares for some years past. These pictures, which are nearly uniform in size and embrace a great variety of subjects, are eagerly collected by boys in Brooklyn and the near-by cities, and form an article of traffic among them. Bounds are marked of about twelve by eight feet, with a wall or stoop at the back. The players stand at the longer distance, and each in turn shoots a card with his fingers, as he would a marble, against the wall or stoop. The one whose card goes nearest that object collects all the cards that have been thrown, and twirls them either singly or together into the air. Those that fall with the picture up belong to him, according to the rules; while those that fall with the reverse side uppermost are handed to the player whose card came next nearest to the wall, and he in turn twirls them, and receives those that fall with the picture side up. The remainder, if any, are taken by the next nearest player, and the game continues until the cards thrown are divided.”

Boys badgered men coming out of tobacconist shops for the pictures in their cigarette packs, or they took up smoking early, incentivized by the lure of the cards. That the cards were worthless to most adults may have added to their value for children … such is the spin of generations. Once it became clear who the “customers” for the cards truly were, the candy and gum manufacturers got into the act, including cards with their products; by 1920 or so baseball cards ceased to be packed in with cigarettes. The cards entered a golden age that coincided with my own boyhood of the 1950s, as the Topps Gum Company issued cards of surpassing charm that today are auctioned at Sotheby’s rather than skipped over pavement to lean against apartment-house walls.

Card-flipping was clearly a game of the city, where sidewalks outnumbered grassy fields or even sandlots. Culin, a picturesque writer, notes that like other street games, it had been “modified to suit the circumstances of city life, where paved streets and iron lampposts and telegraph poles take the place of the village common, fringed with forest trees, and Nature, trampled on and suppressed, most vividly reasserts herself in the shouts of the children….” Card flipping in my boyhood was not baseball, surely, and yet as its surrogate it retained something of the larger game’s spell. There was joy and reverence in the handling of our totems, some of whom we withheld from corner-clipping confrontations unless the reward equaled the risk.

We were oasis traders more than we were ball players, but we felt we were a part of the game. Duke Snider and the Dodgers were sure to prevail at Ebbets Field if an artful wrist-snap could lean him against the stoop, vanquishing all the cards beneath him. And in the power transference that accompanies such magical acts, we were heroes too.

--John Thorn


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