Why baseball cards made us all smarter kids.
by Chris Houston
My wife always laughs when she watches and listens to me do math very quickly. It seems I can add odd numbers up in my head faster than she can actually change her mind. And that, as most guys will tell you, is fast! I credit collecting sports cards as a kid for helping me hone my math skills.
Is it hard to fathom that I was a straight A math student because of something as simple as collecting baseball cards? In my case, I believe it’s true and I hope my two year-old son will follow the same path.
As a big Atlanta Braves fan growing up in Tennessee, I was in awe of Dale Murphy in the early 1980’s. The two time National League Most Valuable Player was my hero (as he was to many kids around the country who had WTBS on their cable system). I collected nearly every single Murphy card I could find. I would always count how many I had, which sometimes was well over 300. That’s a simple lesson in addition, but the educational aspects went much deeper.
I would also look at the back of each of Murphy’s cards every year and nearly memorize the stats. It didn’t dawn on me until I was around 30 that crunching those numbers made me a step ahead of people who, let’s just say, played with airplanes and barbie dolls. My hobby of collecting baseball cards was a great way to learn math. Not only would you figure out what a player needed to average over the next few years to become a .300 career hitter but you also learned how tall was tall and what a good weight was for a man who stood 6’4.
To figure out a player’s batting average you’d have to be good at fractions. As you watched the games on television, hoping your hero continued his quest toward the Hall of Fame, you could use division to figure out a batting average. 3 hits out of 10 at-bats meant .300. It was an early lesson in division.
There I was, sitting in front of the tube, watching the Braves and hoping I could be Dale Murphy, absorbing knowledge and not even knowing it. As an obsessed little boy who thought the "Superstation" was the greatest TV station on the planet, I became hypnotized by the numbers. The more Skip Caray and Ernie Johnson talked about the stats the more it intrigued me. I became a numbers guy, as most baseball card collectors are. So if Murphy had 46 RBI through 81 games he would need 54 in the next 81 to get 100 for the season. That’s an algebra lesson.
In the days long before autographed cards became the focus, I bought cards for the backs as much as the picture on the front. Sure it was interesting to see which pose Don Mattingly showed the photographer, but it was more cool for me to see what kind of numbers he put up and how he stood in the grand scheme of things past and present. The Hall of Fame debate started very early for me and most of it centered on the backs of a baseball card. I bought into the numbers hype because baseball is a sport defined by numbers. What’s your career average? Is it over .300? Baseball players are measured by their productivity unlike in any other sport.
If you look at the back of any card it usually gives you the player’s height, weight and birth date. One of the first things I always tried to do as a kid was figure out how old a player was. Let’s see, it’s August of 1985 and he was born in 1960 but his birthday on the baseball card is in September? I learned to figure out he was now 24 and just about to turn 25. That meant the player was a prospect with many more years of ahead of him.
Not only did my math skyrocket but collecting baseball cards also helped me with geography. How else would I have known that Tom Glavine was from Concord, Massachussetts? As a kid trying to learn as much as possible with no internet, the back of a baseball card gave me insight into a world beyond my hometown. I had never been to New England so I’d have to find Concord on the map. If you go through about 100 common cards in a week comparing birth places to maps then you start to become very adept at geography. New players meant new cards and new hometowns to find. I wondered what they did there in the off-season.
A player’s card usually also listed the cities in which he played minor league ball, which opened up yet another door to discovering cities and towns from coast-to-coast. I found my friends at school who didn’t know baseball cards didn’t have nearly my aptitude for geography.
My mind was constantly filled with numbers and how important they are to the game of baseball. I learned people, places and things. I learned a little science from comparing big guys to small ones.
I now consider myself a bit of a stat guru and to this day the first part of a baseball card I look at when I pick it up is the back. Because that, as I’ve learned, is certainly the really important side.