Baseball Cards: Two Different Stories of Obsession and Fantasy


“Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards” by Josh Wilker (Seven Footer Press: $24.95) is a memoir by a now 41-year-old chronic misfit who relates his journey mostly through baseball card collecting and his worship of his older brother.

Wilker especially enjoyed the cards of the occasional Jewish Major League Baseball player. Wilker grew up with Jewish heritage on his father’s side, but except for the occasional professional athlete who entered his ken, he thought of Jews as World War II concentration camp victims—“thin gray prison-clothed victims.”

Always seemingly offbeat, Wilker grew up with a mother who wanted to live a simple, rural life, so left her urban husband to cohabit with a free-spirited man in Vermont. Finding it difficult to make friends at school or anywhere else, Wilker created a fantasy life built around baseball cards that he bought in bubble-gum packs.

His more athletic, less shy older brother sometimes participated in the baseball card fantasy, other times showed no interest.  Wilker (previously author of three nonfiction books for the juvenile market) related not so much to the all-star players as to the fringe players, those who bounced between the major and minor leagues, or stayed in the majors steadily through persistence and luck, more than overarching skills.

A fan of the Boston Red Sox, Wilker became emotionally attached to one all-star, Carl Yastrzemski, but never dared to hope that Yaz would ever notice. Even into adulthood, Wilker drifted and sometimes depended on illegal narcotics to get through the days. He looked to his brother, his mother, her boyfriend and, eventually, to his biological father for affirmation, but found it only sporadically. Nearly age 40, Wilker finally begins to pull his life together because of the long-time frustrated Boston Red Sox winning a championship , because of meeting a soul mate who would become his wife, because of settling in Chicago, because of making peace of sorts with each of his biological parents, because of re-bonding with his brother, who had also fallen on hard times for a while. 

Those who have never collected baseball cards might find it difficult to comprehend their psychological hold on Wilker. Still, this is a candid, clever account of an extraordinary ordinary life as part of an offbeat family.

Dave Jamieson, in his early thirties now, is the author of “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession” (Atlantic Monthly Press: $25.00). Jamieson collected baseball cards during adolescence, while the memorabilia craze reached its apex of craziness both in its widespread nature and its inflated prices for those who buy and sell. The monopoly held for decades by the Topps baseball card company ended due to government regulatory and judicial rulings. Companies such as Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck rushed into the commercial fray, making collecting more complicated and, for those truly devoted, more exciting.

Jamieson’s book, which is about what he terms “an American obsession,” contains elements of memoir. Mostly, though, it is a straightforward history of the baseball card market, which took root shortly after the American Civil War. Back then, the cards accompanied tobacco products. Later, the cards accompanied bubble gum and other sugary treats. Eventually, the cards themselves became the primary sales item. Not all that many purchasers cared about the gum.

Prices guides for baseball cards became easy to find, starting with James Beckett III, a statistics professor from Bowling Green University. The price lists disseminated in Beckett’s monthly magazine and in annual book form gave confidence even to pre-teens to buy and sell without feeling foolish.

Spending time with collectors, retail dealers, auctioneers, museum curators, manufacturers, baseball players and their union representatives, Jamieson cobbles together an interesting examination of a hobby that turned into big business.

Steve Weinberg is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal.

‘Ace’ holds all the cards when it comes to cakes


You’d think Duff Goldman’s ultimate Rosh Hashanah cake would be, say, a 15-layer honey cake topped with mammoth gates of heaven swinging shut.
 
Goldman, after all, is the “extreme baker” of the Food Network’s reality series, “The Ace of Cakes.” His concoctions include a 3-foot-tall performing Elvis, a rolling black Jeep Wrangler, a hot-rod engine that spews sparks and a seven-tier “Cat in the Hat” wedding cake.
 
His show features insane deadlines, aggressive brides, temper tantrums, bleeped-out expletives — and a star who is as likely to wield a blowtorch or a band saw as a rolling pin or cake knife. Critics have said “Ace” is to cake what “Monster Garage” is to cars.
 
So you’d expect Goldman’s holiday cake to involve Gothic gates or, perhaps, even a Bosch-like depiction of where bad Jews go if they’re not inscribed in the book of life (according to some rabbis).
 
But no.
 
Goldman takes his heritage seriously — especially his Jewish culinary heritage — so his idea is, well, serious. “I’d do a three-dimensional cake covered with a painting — an indistinct figure emerging from the darkness into the light,” he says in a telephone conversation from his Baltimore apartment. “It would represent how we should embrace the New Year by constantly moving forward.”
 
No one has ordered such a cake from Goldman, which is why he hasn’t baked it (it could cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, depending on how many moveable parts are necessary). So in reality, he is more likely to make the honey cake recipe handed down from his great-grandmother, Mommo — as well as her luscious brisket and tsimmis. He still has those recipes, among thousands of others she wrote on index cards in her imperfect English.
 
“Mommo gave those recipes to my grandmother, and they were passed down to my mother and then to me,” he says proudly.

The Yiddish-speaking Mommo, who died when Duff was around 4, also apparently passed down her artistic and adventurous streaks. “When my great-grandmother was 14, things got pretty hot for the Jews in her part of the Ukraine, so she fled with her two brothers,” he says. “Her brothers ended up in Argentina and became like these Russian-Jewish gauchos.”
 
Mommo came to the United States and settled near the frontier. She traveled as far west as her money would take her, settling in Wichita, Kan., early in the last century.
 
Young Duff (ne Jeffrey Adam Goldman), now 31, remembers her as an avid baker, milliner and weaver. “She had this big, scary loom in her tiny little Wichita apartment,” he says of her textile work.
 
He keenly watched as Mommo prepared to make apple streudel by kneading a small ball of filo dough with her bare hands, until it covered the entire dining room table.
 
Back home in McLean, Va., Goldman first attempted to “cook” at age 4 by swinging a meat cleaver at some carrots. Several years later, he disdainfully tossed aside the child-safe tool his mother had given him to carve a pumpkin; instead he tried a steak knife and chopped off a finger (the digit was reattached, he reports).
 
No wonder his mother, Jackie, a stained-glass artist, refused to let him near the knives when she was cooking, although, in his words, “I was always hanging around when she was in the kitchen.”
 
Young Duff expressed his artsy side by spray painting graffiti on buses, subways and underpasses (he fought back when fellow taggers beat him up). He shaped up after his bar mitzvah, when he began sculpting in metal and snagged his first professional food job — at McDonald’s. “I could make 12 Big Macs in under a minute,” he says.
 
Thereafter, he worked in a series of restaurants and decided to specialize in cakes.
 
“I was drawn to pastry chefs because what they were doing was so process-driven and involved so much craft,” he says. “Even as a [youngster] I saw there were things to be studied, to figure out: protein content and freezing temperatures and so forth.”
 
While attending the University of Maryland, Goldman got a job making corn bread at a famous Baltimore restaurant. He went on to study pastry-making at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, then worked for Food Network celebrity chef Todd English and soon became the executive pastry chef at the Vail Cascade hotel in Colorado. There, he combined his sculpting and baking talents to make his first specialty cakes (power tools, he soon discovered, were just the ticket to create humongous infrastructures).
 
In 2000, Goldman opened his own Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, with what he describes as a “ragtag team of musicians and artists with experience in architectural modeling, graphic design, sculpture and performance art.”His creations were so jaw-dropping that he soon received national attention, replicating a piece of rare black Wedgewood china for Hillary Clinton, for example. His flavors included green tea and Thai iced coffee, as well as Goldman’s own version of honey cake.

The chef began appearing on Food Network competitions and caught producers’ eyes when he arrived at one contest lugging power tools and wearing a goatee, earrings and steel-tipped punk rocker boots (oh yes, he’s also a musician).”I didn’t read the rules very well, so I pretty much broke every single one,” he says. Goldman moved about his table when he should have stood in one place and spilled too much cornstarch on the floor. “But I made a really awesome cake,” he recalls. His piece de resistance looked like a giant peach tree, with the “cakes” hanging off the branches via fishing wire.
 
Producers rewarded Goldman with his own show, “Ace of Cakes,” which The New York Times called “‘Monster Garage’ for the culinary set.” “Ace” is typical of these kinds of reality series in that it highlights tension between the protagonists.But none of the stress is concocted, Goldman insists. “Running a bake shop is dramatic, because we have real deadlines,” he says.

When You Care Enough to Send Matzah Love


 

Picture our forefather Moses as a child, standing outside a swimming pool, waving to other children in the pool. They look confused because the pool waters have been parted.

“The other kids always hated it when little Moses came to the pool,” reads the caption on the card.

This is Hallmark’s latest gambit into the specialty field, with humorous Passover greeting cards under its L’chayim: To Life label. According to American Greetings research, Passover is one of the top three Jewish greeting-card occasions. (What is the fourth? The Fast of Esther?) Hallmark’s L’chayim label came about after the company conducted a survey in 2000 and found that people want cards that reflect “individual lifestyles or cultural heritage,” and they have a “renewed interest in humor.”

But the fifth question is, do they work?

“A Seder Plate for the New Millennium,” tries to poke fun at today’s health craze mentality. The shankbone is tofu-on-a-stick; the eggs are Egg Beaters, a cholesterol-free alternative, and the bitter herb is espresso.

Another Moses card pictures the leader as a lifeguard, splitting the ocean on a swimmer. “Before the Exodus, Moses worked as a lifeguard at the public beach.”

Not all the cards attempt cynical humor. One features an animal figure surrounded by hearts saying, “Happy Passover …” and on the inside it says, “With Matzah Love.”

Some of the most clever Passover cards can be found online (for a fee) at the American Greetings Web site (www.americangreetings.com), which features animated, interactive cards such as “Find the Afikoman” and “The Official Matzah Cooking Survival Guide.”

Some cards are evergreen, like “The Lost Tribe,” where the Whinesteins, “the only family that didn’t make it across the desert” each voice their individual complaints, like “For this, we left Egypt?” and “Are we there yet?”

When you get one of these cards in the mail, you know that we almost are.

 

Oy Mom! What to Say?


You’ve bought the perfume. You’ve ordered the flowers. You’ve reserved the brunch. You forgot the card.

Picking out exactly the right thing to say to mom on her special day is not easy. The funny cards aren’t very Jewish; the Jewish cards aren’t very funny.

Then you spot a black-and-white card with a picture of a woman in a housedress and slippers holding up some clothes. The front says, “Schmataphobic” — the inside says, “I Have a Fear of Old Clothing.”

Somehow, this card channeled the spirit of your mother.

“Jews have always relied on laughter to get through tough times,” said Riva Scher, who with friend Sue Kupcinet created Yenta Sentiments, where the motto is: “Have we got a card for you!”

Scher, of Tarzana, and Kupcinet, who lives in Encino, met in 1998 and became friends in 1999, when Scher asked Kupcinet to proofread a book she wrote.

“Neither of us wanted to be yentas,” Kupcinet told The Journal.

The idea for the line started in 2001, when the youthful-looking grandmothers saw what they thought was a sign for Yenta Tattoos (it turns out the word was Yona) and wanted to make tattoos for Jews, such as a heart with “Bubbe Loves Zayde” inside. Since Jewish law forbids tattoos, the idea evolved into greeting cards.

The cards, which can currently be found in the Chicago area and locally at eateries like Fromin’s and Factors, were rejected by several stores in the Fairfax area, because the owners thought them too offensive.

Each of the cards features a funny saying such as, “I Plotz. Therefore I am,” and old pictures of the family members of its creators. They will use photos of other people’s families, provided the pictures are more than 25 years old or they have permission from the photographer.

The women hope to expand the business to include magnets, bookmarks and sticky notes and hope buyers at the New York International Gift Fair in August kvell over their creations. They agree that writing the cards has been a very therapeutic experience.

“These words were made for smiling,” Kupcinet said.

To order the cards, visit

Do Party Invites Right


Invitations? Eliminate the possible problems way ahead of time. Have you asked your parents and your in-laws to give you a list? When you do, give them a number. When you ask for a list of 30 from each side, it is so much better than receiving 50 from one set of parents and 100 from the other. Add to that total another 30 of your friends and maybe 30 from your child. So 30 from each side turns out to be 120 — or more depending on who’s doing the counting.

What other problems, you ask? Remember when someone mistakenly forgot to include Aunt Saydie? Remember how one side of the family did not speak to the other side for a long time? While that may sound like a good thing, it really isn’t.

After you make the master list of 30 from each side plus your 30, it is a very good idea to give each set of grandparents a master list to proofread for errors. The errors being, of course, that you are inviting or not inviting someone that may cause a big problem. Let’s have no surprises here. It is amazing how someone may remember, "Look, we forgot so-and-so."

While so-and-so might not have minded, there could also have been another world war in your family if you don’t invite him/her. Purposefully, we do not include the child’s list to the grandparent proofing. We do not need a grandma saying "I never liked that boy!" There is no discussion involving the child’s friends.

Although you will not mail invitations for six to eight weeks, it’s good to begin looking long before that time. At least six month in advance is good to begin your search. With all the choices available, it’s not easy to pick invitations. It’s good to have a notebook, journal or an index card box with everyone’s name and address on a separate card. When the invitations go out, each name is checked. When the response arrives, it is so noted. Also note when a gift arrives and when the thank-you note is sent.

The index-card box is one of the most important items in your home and is referred to each time an affair is coming up — as well as when you need a gift for that person’s party.

Must you have a very formal invite? Will it need the extra color in the envelope? Many forget the reason for your affair. First of all, it’s not your affair. What will be suitable for your almost 13-year-old? Will he or she have a say in this selection? And will it be his or her favorite color?

It was one thing when you chose that adorable little "It’s a Girl" announcement in azalea pink, and it’s quite another for your little girl — almost grown up — to choose her invitation in that hot orange/spring green combination. While the tablecloths and place cards will probably be white, the napkins and accessories will follow through in the orange and green.

You will need a flower arrangement for the table that houses the place cards and another [smaller] arrangement for the ladies room to place next to the basket containing tissues, some pretty guest soaps, perfume and hand lotion.

Imagine the trim on the cake icing matching those two beautiful colors. Imagine her joy at being able to make the decision. The good news is that you will not have to wear a matching dress in those colors. They are just her colors.

Remember you do not have to like it. It is just amazing that, together, you two found something she loves. And your daughter will remember this affair — forever. We can only hope and pray the orange-and-green flowers in the lady’s room do not clash with the chartreuse wall tile!

Trade You a Jutze For a Koufax


Just when baseball fans were denied the miracle of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series, another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes up to bat. The American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) has commissioned the printing of 15,000 sets of “America’s Jews in America’s Game” baseball cards. Featuring all 142 Jews who played in the major leagues from 1871 through the 2003 All-Star break, this collector’s edition is as rare as — well, as rare as a Jewish professional athlete.

The brainchild of Martin Abramowitz and his then 11-year-old son, Jacob, the cards were born out of the collector’s unquenchable thirst for a complete set of Jewish ballplayer cards. Four years ago, Abramowitz lamented aloud that he had only 90 of the 100 existing baseball cards that featured Jewish players, and that some 40-plus Jewish players never even had a card.

“Why don’t you make your own cards?” suggested Jacob, who then sketched the set’s logo, a baseball inside a Star of David, on a napkin.

“There are many paths to Jewish identity and Jewish engagement. Sports are one such path, and I realized the cards could enrich that path for youngsters,” said Abramowitz, who lives in the Boston area. “Plus, I loved the idea of a father-son project.”

So Abramowitz and son set out to compile a definitive roster, uncover missing photos and locate minor league records. And what would baseball cards be without bios and elaborate stats? Of the 142 players included in the set, 123 had two Jewish parents, six had Jewish mothers, seven had Jewish fathers (but practiced only Judaism) and six were converts. And the stats don’t stop there. The Jewish players’ .265 collective batting average is three points higher than the collective average of all players from 1871-2002. Jewish players hit 2,032 home runs, 10,602 RBI’s, and pitched five of the 230 no-hitters. There were three descendants of rabbis, six pairs of brothers, 12 players with one-game careers and 10 players who changed their names.

With the help of MLB photographer George Brace, Abramowitz’s tireless research, and a little Jewish geography (Jacob’s Camp Ramah cabin-mate happened to be the son of Fleer Trading Card Company owner Roger Grass), the cards rounded third. Then the AJHS donated $25,000 to cover the licensing and publishing fees, and one collector’s dream became a cultural reality.

“The cards exemplify the AJHS’s mission of fostering an appreciation of the Jewish contribution to American life,” said Michael Feldberg, AJHS executive director .

A contribution that often goes unnoticed. Sure you’ve heard of Shawn Green and Sandy Koufax, but what about Ike Danning and Alfred Jutze? “The cards give a richness and texture and reality to the memory of these oft-overlooked players,” Abramowitz said.

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