Monday, January 2, 2012


Perhaps the first or second of my many obsessions - I believe stamps may have come first - was baseball cards. Like Josh Wilker, who essentially tells the tale of his very messed-up life through the baseball cards he collected in the mid-to-late 1970s, I was absolutely smitten with the thrill of opening a new pack. Break the seal, jam the stale pink sheet of awful, sugar-overload bubble gum into my mouth, and start rifling through the players in hopes of either some San Francisco Giants or some big-deal bomber like Greg Luzinski or George Foster. Wilker's and my peak card-collecting years coincide almost identically - 1975-1979. His life was quite significantly weirder and less tethered than mine, and he clung to his cards as a island of preteen sanity while trying to navigate a very confusing home life.

I picked this 2010 book up after one of the ESPN "Baseball Today" podcast hosts called it out as his best sports book of all time - and once he described it as not really being a sports book per se (it definitely isn't), I decided to give it a go. It's kinda like "Friday Night Lights" - sports is the backdrop for a much deeper and emotional story. In many respects, though, "CARDBOARD GODS" is a comedy. Wilker and his older brother have to negotiate life with a mom and dad who initially live communally with "Mom's special friend Tom", before their square accountant Dad gets fed up and moves to Manhattan, while Mom & Tom try to live off the land in Vermont. Hippie Tom tries his hand at being a blacksmith (!) at a time when that skill is virtually obsolete. Mom paints signs, milks the goats, all in a rural Vermont filled with white trash rednecks who love to beat up and mock the nerdy Wilker boys.

Josh Wilker, already out of place with his peers, devotes most of his mental attention to his cards - and finds in them some of the strange quirks of humanity and of life itself. He tells his growing-up story with individual cards serving as illustrators of each short chapter's theme; for instance, the dashing and chisel-jawed Los Angeles Dodgers all-star Steve Garvey as a metaphor for an unattainable perfection and stability, a figurative ocean away from Wilker's rocky childhood. Many lesser lights show up as well - I remember the Kurt Bevaqua card from 1977 extremely well myself, but I had forgotten that he won an MLB contest for largest bubble gum bubble blown. Can you imagine today's players competing in something like that? 35 years is a long way away when you think about it.

Likewise, many of the cards he picks are players with ridiculous names, Afros, hairstyles, neck acne or stoned expressions. Sure, I remember Bake McBride & Oscar Gamble, but I'd totally forgotten about John Wockenfuss, and even Lyman Bostock. I had to laugh when he calls out my San Francisco Giants during the late 70s in particular as being so anonymous and awful that he could never remember any of the players' names and mixed them up constantly. Ironically, this was the absolute height of my Giants obsession, and I could tell you everything about everyone on those mostly wretched last-place teams.

There's one particularly great scene that stood out for me. Wilker and his brother convince their nebbishy dad to take them to a Ted Nugent concert around '77 at Madison Square Garden, even though neither isn't really sure of what Nugent sounds like. They watch him play, scared and annoyed by all the baked burnouts and shitkickers around them, while their dad tries to stay sane - and then, confused, rush to leave after "he" plays. Turns out that, not really knowing anything about rocknroll and just trying to fit in with their Vermont peers, they left before Nugent even played and watched opener AC/DC instead.

"CARDBOARD GODS" has its share of pathos and hits a few pretty rough emotional ditches, particularly as Wilker tries to navigate his twenties away from home, but it's all told with a fairly light hand and without much overwrought prose. Cliche as it may sound, I recognized a bit of myself in this tale, particularly the awkwardness of being sports-crazy but not particularly good at sports, and of being girl-crazy but not particularly adept with them either. Definitely a solid memoir and a nice break from the Holocaust books I've been spending time with lately.