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Chicago Cubs Cards, Covid-19 and Collecting: Chasing Cards in Quarantine and Finding Much More

Quarantine. The big lock down.  Who knew what was ahead when we received the news that Colorado was joining other states on a stay-at-home-order on March 14th?  After one weekend of streaming 80’s movies with our kids, explaining again and again, “I had one JUST like that” about nearly every pair of jeans or now antique cars, my wife and I both naturally gravitated back into some hobbies we had been unable to enjoy since raising our three kids, the oldest now 15. 

For her, it was sewing, puzzles and doing some scrap-booking.  For me, it was a boyhood hobby that I had abandoned, but now started back towards…because of a Pearl Jam poster?

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Since joining Twitter a few years ago, I was an interested observer and almost unaware of its use as a marketplace connector; buy/sell/trade.  One day last winter I saw a retweet from a sports fan I followed that said, “Check out this poster my friend is selling”.  The referenced poster was one announcing the Pearl Jam concerts at Wrigley Field in 2018.  I snapped a screenshot and texted it to my buddy who is a lifelong Cubs fan, whose fandom is surpassed only by his affinity for Pearl Jam.  The mutual Pearl Jam and Cubs fans struck a deal and now the poster hangs in my friend Drew’s basement office in Colorado.

After he shared a picture of the poster mounted a couple of weeks later, I went back to the Twitter handle that had originally offered the poster for sale to check in on @OneMillionCubs; “what in the world is that all about?”, I thought.  It’s about a lot more than Beau Thompson’s quest to collect and sort 1,000,000 Chicago Cubs baseball cards, that’s for sure.

Jumping Back Into Old Hobbies

When my wife and I jumped back into old hobbies that second weekend of quarantine, March 21-22, 2020,  I went to my basement determined to make a dent in my loads of childhood and college memories by reducing the number of plastic tubs that stored all my collections; I would purge, I could sell, I might…trade? 

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Early that Saturday I shuffled into our utility room in the basement, making my way past the Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations and taking a left at the stacks of empty suitcases patiently serving a probationary period before they would again see the light of day.  Once there, I grabbed a purple Rubbermaid “Roughneck” tub.  It was as dense and heavy as I’d imagine a bin of gold bars, seemingly too heavy to have been lugged from my parent’s basement outside of Ithaca, NY and shipped, intermingled with my wife’s belongings, over 17 years ago, out to Colorado. 

When I opened the bin, there was flood of memories as I saw the red 1990 Donruss wax-pack boxes stacked on top of each other.  Then, the Bowman, complete set(!) I had willfully purchased with my first official paycheck as a dishwasher in a dining hall back in 1991.  And—get this, I have the first four Score sets produced, UNOPENED!  I was pretty sure I could liquidate and celebrate these sought after assets with a high-end bottle of scotch, and even possibly put a down payment on those solar panels we want.  Or, not. 

When I went to ebay to price compare I was shocked that the staple “junk-wax” sets of my youth, (1987-1991) were almost worthless.  “What about those rookie cards I have stashed in the smaller bin?”.  I ran down to pull up those cards that were much more valuable (to me, at least) and began perusing the Bo Jacksons, the Ben McDonalds, the David Wests in their tightly-packed, single-card, bullet-proof, top-loaded holders.   Wait…David WEST?  Wasn’t he supposed to be the next Frank Viola? Didn’t he get traded FOR Frank Viola?  I had to go check all of this out on the interwebs.

 

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You get the picture:  lots of cards, little value, but a million memories.  Wait, a MILLION?  What was that Twitter handle again?

The One Million Cubs Cards Pursuit

I navigated back to Twitter the next time I was online to check out the @onemillioncubs handle and understand more about what Beau Thompson was up to.  What I discovered was a rampant desire by Mr. Thompson to do the unthinkable:  collect one million Chicago Cubs baseball cards, tallied and sorted, by player.  This is the type of Twitter content I am here for.  America’s pastime. Fandom.  Seemingly logical hoarding.  The holy trinity of a card collector’s purest pursuit. 

I read some more and realized, not only would Beau take my Cubs cards; he would willingly send stuff back?  Oh man, let me start sorting.  So, that’s what I did.  I went through that tub of junk-wax era cards and pulled out two healthy stacks of Cubs cards; probably about 100, total.  Most, I was glad to part with, but some made me…pause?  Like this one, the Ed Lynch 1987 Topps where he looks like a disinterested Vice Principal from your local middle school (1987 Topps, Ed Lynch, #697):

Whoa, Ed—bad day? I flipped the card over and immediately had one thought:  did Ed get a Mets’ 1986 World Series ring?  He had pitched in one game for the Mets that season before being traded to the Cubs.  This look appears to be when Ed realized that his old team was destined for greatness and instead, he was going to have to deal with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field.

If you figure that the Cubs were one team of 26 total during the junk wax period, I’d just plowed through about 2600 cards over two cups of coffee and a granola bar in about 2 hours.  Doing some eye-balling of my remaining bins, I thought I could complete this exercise in about 12 hours, with no distractions.  Game on. 

Remember when, in that cult holiday classic, “A Christmas Story” the protagonist Ralphie gets his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and runs into the bathroom to decode the first radio message since he acquired said decoder ring?   ”My fingers flew. My mind was a steel trap!”. Yeah, that was me on our couch the entire month of April.  I unboxed. I sorted for Cubs. I piled the cards back in that weren’t Cubs.  I smiled again and again.  It was…AMAZING! 

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I swear, I don’t do Sudoku or crosswords. I pulled “Words With Friends” off my phone two years ago. But this incessant sorting in the hunt for Cubs was like using a function of my brain that had been on a hiatus since the 20th century.  I could sort, pause to reflect, flip the card in one hand in one quick motion and reference stats from a favorite or forgotten player.

Willie Wilson and Don Mattingly

Like this:  do yourself a favor and go look at Willie Wilson’s 1980 season.  That little treasure was delivered to me on the back of his 1987 Topps card, #783:

Unbelievable, right?  And yet, somehow, the man finished fourth in the MVP voting (ultimately losing to his teammate, George Brett).

 I came across cards of my favorite player, Don Mattingly, and tested my memory to see if I could recall his 1988 stat-line like I could in 7th grade  (why ’88 and not his MVP season of  ’85—I don’t know); “it should be 18 HR, 88 RBI and a .311 average” I stated confidently to my disinterested 15-year old. Yup—still is.  My point is; my conversations on work calls the next week were peppier. I was cracking more (dad) jokes, and my attention span and memory seemed to be…improving?  This hobby is good for the brain, trust me.

Andre Dawson and WGN

Steadily, my Cubs piles grew larger and I was reminded how much I liked Andre Dawson.  Like a lot of you I was able to watch more than my fair share of Cubs games on WGN in the late 1980’s and Dawson was my favorite.  He didn’t swing, he swatted pitches away with a violent disgust.  Picture your dad at the grill taking a swing at a wasp with his spatula—that was Andre “The Hawk” Dawson dealing with 90 MPH fastballs.  And, just as impressive, he could swing and miss—typically a Ruthian cut– stand firm, rarely off-balance, and glare out at that pitcher, daring him to try it again.  And, man, that cannon from right field.

I could not help but to think as I would come across a Dawson card, put it in the pile for Mr. Thompson, and reflect to myself what might have been if Dawson had played on natural grass as opposed to the rock hard turf in Montreal for a decade prior to coming to the Cubs. His rickety knees never moved on the front of those cards, and it appeared they would hardly bend in real life, either. 

Still, I remember Dawson piling up those 49 homers in 1987 earning an MVP and I remember his commercial that would air almost every game in which he stated, “When I hit one over the fence at Wrigley Field, I hit it over a Tru-Link Fence”.  That took me back to afternoons at home watching Cubs games as a latch-key kid in a more innocent time. This whole darn baseball card thing is cathartic, I began to realize. 

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Into the Attic

After two weekends into my efforts I had prepared a stack of cards the size of a Pop-Tart box that I was ready to send to Beau when I recalled that I likely had a few more Cubs cards in my safe up in the attic.  Grabbing these treasures would require snagging my key from the basement, hiking up three flights of stairs, and moving aside some foot lockers and old softball trophies in the attic, but I was sure it would be worth it.  These extra steps delivered an onslaught of introspection as well, it turns out.

As I reached into my safe to find the trusty cardboard box which held my exclusive cards, it occurred to me that my trip up and down the stairs in my house wasn’t the only thing about to stress my heart.  You see, my trusty box was a US Government cheese box that my grandmother had received in 1984 as part of her benefits as a widow.  The dimensions were perfect for storing baseball cards upright and the snug-fitting lid made sure nothing got too jostled. 

Here I was, sorting through baseball cards during a once-a-century pandemic, ‘worthless pieces of cardboard’ to most, holding the same box that my grandmother had 36 years prior.  It was an incredibly emotional, paradoxical moment that literally froze me.  My eyes swelled with tears and then they fell.  My grandmother had passed two months before my oldest was born and although I talk of her consistently, I don’t have an obvious keepsake or idol that reminds me of her displayed around the house.  But, thanks to the hunt for Cubs, I now recognize this box will always remind me of her, and the safe where it resides now and forever speaks to that profound value.

Let’s Play Two

My first exposure to baseball cards is likely very similar to some of yours; I have an older brother and we stored cards in an old orange and blue Kangaroo-brand shoebox that once housed size 8 sneakers.  We weren’t the most careful collectors as the cards were wrapped in thick and grubby old rubber bands that would stain your hands.  Still, when my brother handed the cards down to me, leaving the hobby to pursue teenage girls who used too much Aqua Net hairspray around 1983, I immediately loved the 1971 Topps set the most, and specifically, Ernie Banks, #525.  Look at that card—it’s beautiful; I can almost hear Ernie chirping his signature quote, “Let’s play two!”. 

I knew 100% that my Ernie Banks card was in this old government cheese box, I just had to spend the time reviewing cards until I found it.  About one-third of the way through the narrow box, I found it.  Weathered and worn, it is not worth much to the majority of collectors in our hobby.  Still, this particular Banks card had been in the house I grew up in, since burned down, subsequently my second childhood home, and it had followed me across the country, as if a loyal Golden Retriever. 

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What stumped me as I sorted through these old-time cards was that my brother was born in 1970, so it was odd to me that he would have so many of these 1971 Topps cards, probably a couple hundred. It occurred to me that someone else must have gifted them to him, and my hunch is they came from a transaction at my Dad’s service station where all sorts of trades went down.  Let me explain.

At Barnett’s Blue Sunoco on State St. in Ithaca NY, cash was the preferred currency, but not the only one.  My dad, and his dad, both ran that station for 40+ years and were exceptionally generous in hard times.  If your car needed a critical service, but you didn’t have the cash, my dad would often take other items in trade.  My visualization is that these 1970 cards came in some sort of barter for an automobile staple; a tank of gas or maybe a new set of windshield wipers.

Because of its fair nature and its ability to support folks who had fallen on hard times, my family’s Sunoco station had an incredible reputation in the neighborhood it served, which was racially diverse for the area.  When there were riots after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., our Sunoco station was the only building on State St—since renamed MLK Boulevard—that did not have a single window smashed.

Paying It Forward

Did I really want to give up one of my prized possessions, this Ernie Banks card, to a stranger?  Would I separate with this treasure for someone else’s cause?  Absolutely.  The symbolism, the timing, were a divine gift too profound not to share. 

I’ve sent Beau Thompson the last of the Cubs cards I had to sort through to find.  He is an incredibly responsive trade partner, sending me back some 1970’s Yankees cards that I truly appreciate.  But, that’s not what I got out of this whole exercise over the last few months.  This hobby, these things, those memories, are all exceptionally deep to me and many other collectors.  In today’s world of incredibly serious issues, this hobby made me reflect and evaluate in ways I did not think were possible when I initially started.

With my return to the hobby I’ve decided to try and complete a 1971 Topps set, including the reacquisition of an Ernie Banks card.  It means that much to me.  And, the extra time at home has allowed me to foster the collecting hobby with my kids.  We are working on the 2020 Topps Heritage set which emulates the ’71 design.  What goes around comes around, kids.

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If you haven’t traveled into your collection yet, now is the time.  Get in there; go hunt those Cubs cards like Andre Dawson would hunt a 4-seam fastball.  Whether it’s the tactile nostalgia that comes from holding the cards you cherished as a kid, or the unexpected feelings that surface, there’s a grand slam of life experiences tied to those cards, I guarantee it.

Loren Barnett
Loren Barnett

This guest blog post was written by Loren Barnett.
Email: CyberBarnett@Gmail.com

You can follow Beau Thompson’s quest at @OneMillionCubs on Twitter and send your Cubs cards to his attention at PO BOX 628456 Middleton, WI, 53562.

The scene from “A Christmas Story” referenced can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_XSShVAnkY

Andre Dawson’s Tru-Link Commercial can be viewed here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFvY48hgbfQ

Barnett’s Blue Sunoco Gas Station is now gone, but it closely resembled this station in North Canton, OH.

My grandmother, Gladys Mae Hulbert, was born in 1914 and died in 2005.  She mothered 11 children and was widowed for the last 40 years of her life, never dating again.  She is cooking, dancing and laughing in heaven, I guarantee it.

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