I was probably seven years old when I bought my first pack of baseball cards from the Melrose Market in Southfield, Michigan. It would’ve been in 1977, and card collecting couldn’t really have been called a hobby back then.
We’d rip open our packs desperately looking for players we knew, then we’d sort them by team, wrap each team in a rubber band, and toss them all into a shoebox. In the five decades since then, the hobby exploded (in the 1980s), imploded (in the 90s), and enjoyed an unlikely resurgence (during the pandemic).
In the 46 years since I bought my first pack, everything has changed about the hobby. What once was simple — open the packs and collect the cards — has become an elaborate enterprise that resembles a lottery more than anything else. Collectors today don’t complete sets. In fact, most are only interested in the limited run insert cards that are randomly shuffled into the packs. The common cards are about as interesting to collectors today as the crisp pieces of gum were years ago.
I’ve got several crates of cards out in the garage, most worth nothing at all, but there are a few treasures that will bring in some money when I eventually sell them. The starting lineup of the 1961 Yankees, rookie cards of all the Hall of Famers who debuted in the 1980s, and some of Derek Jeter’s most desirable cards. It’s been twenty-five years since I was actively collecting, but every spring I’ll make a point to buy a few packs of the latest set, just to see what they look like and to get a taste of the glorious anticipation that shoots from your fingertips to your brain as you open a pack of cards. Say what you will about the hobby and the foolishness of paying actual money for small pieces of cardboard, but there’s really no feeling quite like opening a pack of baseball cards.
So when I finished my grocery shopping this morning, I turned the cart towards the back of the store to the hobby section, and I found what I was looking for — Topps 2023 Series One. A box with seven packs inside, price tag $24.99. Let’s open a pack together…
J.T. Realmuto, Phillies
It’s a nice card. Realmuto seems to have just hit a walk off, and he’s looking into the dugout and pumping his fist. And those home Phillies jerseys with the red pinstripes are definitely in the running for second-best uniforms in baseball.
Zack Thompson, Cardinals
Nothing special here. The standard mid-windup photo that most pitchers get.
Kris Bryant, Rockies
On the one hand, why in the world did the Cubs trade this guy? On the other, maybe they were right.
Tanner Rainey, Nationals
See Zack Thompson, but with a boring uniform. Why teams started using their spring training unis in actual games is completely beyond me.
Bobby Witt, Jr., Royals
The best thing about this card is the Topps All-Star Rookie trophy cup in the corner. Topps went away from logos like this for a while, but it was a nice move to bring them back. I loved these when I was a kid. Still do.
Alex Cobb, Giants
The Giants home uniform is another one of my favorites, so it’s too bad that they’ve also fallen victim to the alternate jersey disease. Here Cobb is wearing white pants with a hideous orange jersey, not the classic cream. Such a shame.
Josh Naylor, Guardians
He’s not rocking the baby, but he is celebrating like he’s just done something important. Even though he’s never really done anything important.
Matt Chapman, Blue Jays
It’s like the pack was watching the game today and is taunting me.
Rafael Devers, Red Sox
This is an insert card, but a worthless one. For some reason Topps is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the 1988 set, possibly the lowest point in the company’s history. (You could argue that 1987 is their most worthless set, but it doesn’t really matter.) Anyway, Devers is depicted here on the 1988 design, which is hardly memorable.
Ozzie Albies, Braves (Stars of MLB)
This is another insert, and it isn’t too interesting. Apparently it’s worth 75¢, which seems about right.
Shane Bieber, Guardians
When Bieber was great, he was probably the most uninteresting great pitcher we’ve seen in the past forty years. Greg Maddux was about as exciting as a metronome, but somehow he made that interesting. Bieber? Not so much. Boring pitcher, boring card.
Kevin Gausman, Blue Jays.
More taunting. Here he’s depicted just after releasing the ball, with his long hair flying out from under his hat, reminiscent of the guy in the Maxell tape ad from so long ago.
Sandy Alcantara, Marlins
Probably the best pitcher that no one’s ever heard of. The last column on the back of his card is WAR. Once upon a time we got games, innings pitched, wins, losses, hits, walks, strikeouts, and saves — and that seemed like a lot of information.
Darick Hall, Phillies
Never heard of him before today.
And that’s it. Kind of a dud of a pack. No Yankees, no superstars. But I’ve got six more packs to go…