This post is dedicated in the memory of John L. Schaefer (1942-2020).
The year was 1954, and suburban America was squeaky clean like an episode of Leave it to Beaver. Picture houses going up and pre-teen boys riding their bicycles along picket fenced subdivisions in places like Elgin, Illinois.
John L. Schaefer was one of those 12-year old boys that summer. The son of a Methodist minister and a school teacher, and like many other boys he enjoyed sports.
Growing up in the northwest suburbs, John was naturally a fan of the Chicago Cubs. He collected baseball cards and they survived the decades.
One Chicago Cubs player during the summer of 1954 was a black man named Ernest, or Ernie for short, Banks. The Dallas, Texas native became the Cubs first African-American player when he made his big league debut on September 17, 1953.
Just ahead of the summer of 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled segregated schools were unconstitutional. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling came down on May 17, 1954.
The Topps company included the young Ernie Banks in its 1954 baseball card set. It was Banks’ first baseball card…his rookie card.
Through the years, John L. Schaefer kept that Ernie Banks rookie card among several other Cubs baseball cards he collected as a youngster. He grew up and had a 40-year career in education as well as serving as a coach in multiple sports. Coach Schaefer was the head girls basketball coach at Naperville Central High School from 1973 to 1988 earning over 200 career victories.
Later in life he would give those old baseball cards to his son, Michael. And that’s where the Cubs cards, including that Ernie Banks rookie card, came into my collection.
Michael sent a package that arrived this week. It sat with eight other packages for a few days before I began opening. Once I reached his bubble mailer I pulled out a hand written letter. Before looking at the cards I read the letter.
As I read through that very personal note, a thousand emotions ran through my head. We share the loss of a father, and both Cubs fans. We share a love for the hobby. Did that note mean what I think it means? The number one card on my want list…an Ernie Banks rookie card. No, can’t be….could it?
Unbelievable. Michael sent me a stack of 1950’s Chicago Cubs baseball cards. Inside that pile of vintage Cubs cards was my holy grail. The white whale. An Ernie Banks 1954 Topps rookie card. My hands were shaking. This is an unreal moment.
It took a moment for all of this to sink in. A few minutes later, I reread the letter. I reached out to Michael. And then I went through the second stack of Cubs cards. These were more modern cards.
One card stuck out. And it’s technically not even a Cubs baseball card, rather a Pearl Jam trading card featuring “clubhouse manager” Rob Skinner. This was a 1991 Topps-style card from Pearl Jam’s 2016 tour stop at Wrigley Field.
I have a couple of these Rob Skinner cards, so why does it stick out? Michael read my blog post about my ten most wanted Chicago Cubs baseball cards the same day he lost his father of cancer. I also lost my father after he battled cancer. My dad, Wayne Thompson, passed away on August 26, 2016. His death came just a week after that Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field.
I was in attendance for that concert. I chose to see Pearl Jam instead of visiting my parents and seeing my dad. My dad was seemingly doing well despite dying from cancer. His death was sudden and unexpected. I beat myself up over skipping a weekend with my dad to see Pearl Jam play Chicago.
There were some dark times during my dad’s battle with cancer and following his death. Baseball cards were a great escape for me. I continued to have a feeling of guilt for that Pearl Jam concert. It took some therapy sessions before I started to let go of the guilt and embrace my experience. What also helped was a similar story from a Pearl Jam fan that had recently lost his father and Eddie Vedder dedicated a song, “Release.”
When I watched the documentary, “Let’s Play Two,” that intertwined that concert and the Cubs winning the World Series…all that guilt was lifted from my shoulders.
I can now look back at my 2016 Pearl Jam experience and smile. And I hope Michael reads this post and can smile knowing a piece of his dad’s childhood found its way to my collection where it will be cherished for the rest of my life.
Michael – I can’t thank you enough for this gesture, and wish you and your family my deepest condolences.