This homemade arts and crafts project hangs on a wall in my office. It displays four of my favorite baseball cards, out of hundreds that I acquired about fifty years ago. My collection was built five cards at a time, most of them bought in packages with bubble gum at the neighborhood U-Totem store near our home in Houston, Texas.
The men pictured on these cards are four of the greatest baseball players of their era. They have all achieved baseball immortality, some of them not without controversy, but that is a subject for a different debate. In terms of their accomplishments between the chalk lines of a baseball diamond, it can be argued they are four of the best who ever played the game.
I collected baseball cards during the first half of the 1960’s, when I was just a boy. I think the reason I fell in love with baseball can be traced, in large part, back to those cards. Baseball was also the only organized sport at which I had even a small measure of success, so that probably contributed as well. In my twenties and thirties, I was distracted by the demands of work and a growing family, and my interest in baseball waned. Around that same time, my attention was captivated by the speed and violence of professional football, and baseball, by comparison, seemed boring and tame. My appreciation for the easy, measured pace that makes baseball such an agreeable game to watch was lost, but thankfully, the loss was only temporary.
In 1985, I moved to Kansas City for a job, and for the first time in many years I had a hometown baseball team to cheer for. It was fortunate timing, for that year the Kansas City Royals won their first and only world championship. Back then, I enjoyed taking my young family to Royals games on Sunday afternoons, where we sat in the sun and watched players who would become the legends of their era like George Brett, Cal Ripken and Dave Winfield.
When I began traveling for my job, I tried to see as many baseball games as I could, wherever I happened to be. It was cheap entertainment, and a good way to pass the time on some of those lonely nights away from home. And while it was thrilling to experience the grand palaces of the Astros and the Dodgers and the White Sox, some of my favorite memories were made in Midland and Great Falls and Round Rock, where young dreamers played for a chance to get to The Show.
I have never been what people call a forward thinker. The Big Picture can never be big enough for me to see it. I’m just not wired that way. One of the questions I always dread in job interviews and career development discussions is “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” The truth is, I don’t have a clue how I got here or where I’m going. Wherever I am, I just hope it’s above ground. This same, sad limitation is what also prevents me from projecting which major league players, while they are still just ordinary human beings, are destined for baseball immortality.
When the four men in the picture on my wall were in the prime of their careers, did the fans who paid to watch them play think of them as baseball gods? I doubt it. But seen through the prism of time, Mickey Mantle was the Adonis of the outfield, the left arm of Sandy Koufax hurled thunderbolts at hapless mortals, and Roberto Clemente, for his baseball talent and other reasons, is today viewed by many as the next closest thing to a saint.
So I look at the men in the picture and I wonder, who among the players in major leagues today will deserve to have their baseball cards hung on my office wall tomorrow? The answer to this question is beyond my abilities. But I’m a baseball fan for the rest of my life, and I’m anxious to find out.