Blast From the Packs: A memoir by way of the sports cards of my youth

The author with some foil-wrapped nostalgia.

I always loved the feeling of ripping open a fresh pack of collectible sports cards. I’d hold the foil package in my hands, turning it over and feeling the tightly packed stack of cards within. The best part was always that moment just before opening, just before the mystery and anticipation of what-could-be turns to the what-really-is, for better or worse.

From about 1989 to 1998 or so — about ages 7 to 16 — I collected cards from each of the four main sports of the United States: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. I put the best ones in binders and sleeves, and kept a precious few preserved in those thick lucite cases with the screws in the corners. I bought Topps, Donruss, Upper Deck, Fleer, Leaf, Bowman. I traded with friends for my favorite players and kept an eye to the ever-present Beckett and Tuff Stuff price guides to make sure the deals were fair from a monetary standpoint (though I don’t think any of us were selling our singles at that point). I even — with all the appropriate guilt and contrition upon reflection — stole some cards. I never got caught, but in an early karmic lesson, I did wind up having some cards also stolen from me.

I was what you might call an intermediate collector. I wasn’t the kind of kid to put cards in bike spokes or carelessly toss them in shoeboxes, but I also didn’t have the bankroll to purchase boxes of packs and line my shelves with treasures cased in lucite. I knew kids from both of these groups, but I fell right in the middle, taking good care of the cards I was able to get, but not having access to whatever I wanted.

But there was nothing intermediate about my love for cards, and that fed and nurtured my growing love of following the sports themselves in a kind of hobbyist symbiosis. Sometimes my love of a certain card would lead me to be a fan of the player depicted on the card, for no other reason than the card was heckin’ cool (like maybe it had shiny foil or a hologram on it!). Other times, a player’s personality and sporting ability would lead me to fill up binder pages with cards of just that player, and I’d become, for example, “the Penny Hardaway kid” at the sports card trading club I was part of.

Still am the Penny Hardaway kid, I guess.

Like most young collectors, however, I “grew out” of the hobby. For me, the end was going off to a preparatory academy my last two years of high school where money was tight and time for hobbies was nil. I remained a voracious consumer of sports for many more years, going on to be a reporter and editor on the sports desk of the Purdue University student newspaper, covering (and growing to appreciate) literally every varsity sport on campus. For a while in early adulthood, I had a small collection of my favorite players’ jerseys, but I never revisited collecting cards.

That thrill of a new pack, however, never really left my mind. Somehow it was that dopamine-laced memory that rose to the top whenever I’d think back on my collecting days.

Nowadays I don’t watch much live sports, but I do listen to an excellent NBA podcast called No Dunks. Between new episodes of the show, the hosts sometimes put out video content on their social media channels, and one of the recurring segments that has stuck around is called “Poppin’ Packs.” In it, host Leigh Ellis takes a pack of old basketball cards, usually from some season in my prime collecting years, opens it, and makes the other No Dunks hosts guess the players in the pack by sharing trivia about them. It’s a fun little diversion that has taken on a whole new life in the pandemic shutdown, as Leigh has played “Poppin’ Packs” with NBA luminaries such as Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, and B.J. Armstrong, stretching the segment out into a long-form interview where the guest shares memories about playing with or against the players on the cards.

I gained two pieces of insight from the existence of “Poppin’ Packs.” One, you can still buy packs of cards from the sets of my youth, and two, opening those packs and looking at the cards is a great way to remember forgotten players, uniforms, even teams (RIP Seattle Supersonics). Contemporary to “Poppin’ Packs” is another, somewhat less-organized recurring feature on Deadspin called “Let’s Remember Some Guys,” which started out as writer Tom Ley literally just listing non-star players from the ’80s and ’90s (presumably the youth of most of Deadspin’s readership) in a story and inviting readers to share their own “guys” in comments. This, too, evolved into a video feature, with writer David Roth and other writers sometimes rifling through piles of old sports cards to remember the titular guys.

Inspired by Leigh’s packs of early Sky Box, Upper Deck, and Topps (I forgot they even did basketball cards), and to some extent by the random “guys” of Deadspin’s old staff, I hopped on eBay to see what I might be able to find. Some years and some sets, it turns out, are still in fairly high demand and command eye-watering prices (mid-90s Fleer Flair going for $10+ per pack? I loved those sets, but not that much). But look a little farther, and you can find full sets, “wax boxes” (display boxes of unopened packs, so called because baseball card wrappers used to be wax paper), and individual unopened packs from certain years for VERY little money. We’re talking $20 or $30, sometimes less, for a box of 36 unopened packs of glorious nostalgia.

As an aside, the reason for this cheapness is a huge spike in card production. In the late ’80s and into the ’90s, very old, very rare cards would occasionally go up for auction and sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars (for instance, in 1991, Wayne Gretzky and one of the former owners of the LA Kings purchased a Honus Wagner card from the 1910s for about half a million dollars. It was big news) and this got a lot of people — including millions of kids like myself — across the country thinking “wait, I can make money with these?” The collectible card industry then produced an ABSOLUTE LOAD of new cards to capitalize on this swelling interest. It turned out that because these cards were VERY common (you could buy packs in the checkout lanes of many supermarkets where I lived), and collectors held onto their cards instead of tossing them out like so many Honus Wagner tobacco cards from the childhoods of the 1910s, it’s exceedingly unlikely any of the cards produced in that era will ever reach the value of those old tobacco cards.

This was a sad realization for those of us who figured our Chipper Jones rookie cards would fund our second beach home. But now it’s all got a silver lining: I can buy packs of cards from the sets of my youth (and maybe even some from before and after my collecting heyday), for a little bit of money and recapture some of that pack poppin’ thrill. I’ve already done this part once, purchasing a box of 36 packs of 1992 Leaf baseball cards for $15 shipped. I think packs of this were at least $2.50 in 1992, so this is much more economical.

Again, this isn’t going to make me money any more now than it would have back then. But I’m not collecting for any reason other than to feel that old joy again, and to remember some guys in my own way, which will, if I can vanquish my writers block for a while, result in some different kinds of posts here in this oft-neglected space.

Clearly, this isn’t an original idea. I’m inspired by my peers who are revisiting their youth through minor consumerism and sports collectible nerditry. I’ve been struggling with a desire to write again lately but not feeling inspired by much of anything in this haze of COVID-19 quarantine and depression over the seemingly inescapable awfulness of politics in the United States. As a result, I’ve been reading more and giving thought to what has really moved me to write in the past. When I thought about it, the answers were obvious: sports (I wrote 120-some sports articles in a single year on the sports desk at Purdue) and consumerism (I used to update this blog every few days with recommendations on music, movies, junk food, etc., in an earlier incarnation) are two of the things that got my creative juices flowing the most. So why not combine them?

To tell the truth, I’m not entirely comfortable with what that might say about me, that in the most tumultuous time of my existence on earth, with so much important going on, the one thing that makes me want to create is the rediscovery of a childhood hobby based on the buying and hoarding of pieces of shiny cardboard. But I’ll take the muses where I can find them, folks, particularly as a self-described writer who hasn’t been able to write much of anything beyond social media posts and work-related material for years on end.

I miss writing, I miss sports cards, and while I don’t necessarily miss my childhood, the way the world is these days is making those old times a great deal more attractive than they had been. I hope you’ll join me on these periodic Blast from the Packs journeys.

3 thoughts on “Blast From the Packs: A memoir by way of the sports cards of my youth

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