If not for a chance encounter in 1972, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book might never have been born and the hobby might never grown into the bustling industry that we know today.
Indeed, when a curious collector walked into a Boston bookstore that summer looking for a book about baseball cards, he couldn’t have known that he was about to set off a creative firestorm that would help launch an avalanche of nostalgia that carried the hobby through boom and bust, and which continues to burn with collectors today.
Now, more than 40 years after its original release, “The Spinal Tap of Baseball Books” is available to readers everywhere as a Kindle edition. To commemorate this milestone, we wrangled a few minutes with co-author Fred Harris, who filled us in on the book’s history and continued impact on American culture.
Scratching a Hobby Itch
In the summer of 1972, Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris were working in a Boston bookstore when our intrepid fire starter strode in and asked if they had a book about baseball cards.
Confident that they did, Boyd and Harris were flummoxed when their research revealed that no such tome existed. After the disappointed customer left the store, Boyd remarked how surprised he was that no one had bothered to write a book about baseball cards.
“We should write one,” Harris told him.
The idea resonated with Boyd, and the two writers, who had been collectors since their childhoods in the 1950s, set about their quest. It was a winding but whirlwind journey that delivered “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book” to store shelves as a Sports Illustrated book in 1973.
My Mom Threw Out My Baseball Cards
It’s a lament that afflicted collectors through the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s as their eyes bugged at prices dealers were asking for cards from a few decades earlier. Whether the candied memories from their own childhoods were clouded by dollar signs and wishful thinking or not, erstwhile hobbyists were convinced they would have been sitting on a cardboard fortune if not for the cleaning rituals of their mothers.
Harris and Boyd may have been the first to recognize the phenomenon, mostly because it directly affected their writing efforts. In particular, all of the card photos in the book were taken from their own collections, which they put together as adults.
“My mother had already thrown out my baseball cards,” Harris recalls. “We were working with a very limited inventory of cards.”
Blogging Before Blogging Was Cool
Even with that finite starting material, though, the cards that Harris and Boyd had at their disposal provided plenty of fodder for their unique writing style. The funky photos and unusual personalities featured on pasteboards from the 1950s and 1960s were ripe for caricature and satire, and, as it turns out, America was ready for a nostalgic (if acerbic) look back.
In fact, Harris attributes the immediate popularity of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book to what he terms a “smart-ass attitude” and a general approach that he labels “rifting.”
Particularly in the player and card profiles that make up the majority of the book, and with the benefit of significant 21st century biases, the text reads like a series of connected blog posts that you might find on hobby websites today.
It’s also clear that many current writers who incorporate card talk into their material have lifted heavily from the flare and techniques that Harris and Boyd injected into their profiles. Harris, for one, has noticed the echoes of his writing across the ages and finds it “flattering” when modern scribes tell of the influence he has had on them.
With Boyd handling American League subjects and Harris tackling the NL, the duo tripped through hundreds of cards, putting a name to emotions that card stacks had evoked in Little Leaguers everywhere for decades.
Who among us with a 1964 Topps Don Mossi in our collection, after all, could have argued with the description of his “loving-cup ears” or his characterization as the “dark hulking presence”of an undertaking duo who “does all the dirty work”?
Similarly, not many would quibble with the simple tagline next to card #470 in the 1964 Topps set: “Jim Bouton is a big mouth.”
Harris said that Bouton was really the only player to take exception to the authors’ characterizations, ironic considering that Bouton was the author of the infamous tell-all book, Ball Four.
Critical Acclaim and Continued Demand
Though Bouton may not have been a fan of the book, critics took notice right away, and the reviews were largely positive. Bolstered by high marks from such respected publications as the New York Times and Vanity Fair, the hardback sold well and developed a strong following within the hobby.
By the time that literary agent Harry Houghton convinced a publisher to bring the book back to print at the crest of the hobby surge in 1992, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book was a bona fide classic.
That 20th anniversary release also garnered the attention of baseball fans in the national media, and Harris found himself on the interview couch, trading card stories with David Letterman and Larry King, among others.
Still a Fan But Not a Collector
These days, Harris is still an avid sports fan, but he no longer collects baseball cards.
When the hobby took off during the 1980s, he jumped back in with both feet, opening a hobby store he dubbed the “Great American Card Company,” but the darker side of the business disillusioned him.
As Harris noted during our chat and in the introduction to Kindle edition of his book, “Baseball cards had stopped being the innocent fun they were 20 years earlier. Everything was about “what’s it worth?”, and then there was the counterfeiting of sports collectibles. I eventually sold the business and moved on.”
He’s also lost touch with Boyd over the years, though Harris holds his co-author in high esteem: “Brendan is a very talented and accomplished author.”
Of course, Harris is an author in his own right and maintains an active web presence at his website, FredCHarris.com. He is currently focused on a blog project that he calls, simply, “Concerts,” and aims to replay in prose the many live music performances he has attended over the decades.
It’s a nod toward the past that shares a foundational bloodline with Harris’s classic baseball card rifts, as both the hobby and the music we love have an enormous power to evoke sweet memories of youth.
Birth of Nostalgia
“It’s amazing how it’s persisted in popularity over the years,” Harris says now of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book.
When you consider how closely we were all able to bond with little rectangles of cardboard, though, maybe the really amazing aspect of the book was that it was the first of its kind and came as late as it did.
“The book was one of the first to capture the nostalgia of that time (1950s and 1960s),” Harris relates. “The term ‘Golden Oldies’ had not even been coined when the book was released.”
Whether it was a consequence of timing, or whether Harris and Boyd opened the floodgates for Baby Boomer reminiscences, there is no doubt that The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book changed the hobby and the way we remember our childhoods forever.
While he says it’s possible we’ll see another hard copy release of the book somewhere down the line, Harris is just happy that the eBook version means it will be around virtually forever.
“It’s nice to have it available for a new generation of collectors.”
(Note: The Kindle Edition of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book is available here. To learn more about the book and Fred Harris, visit the book page of his website.)