A Common Problem
by Robert Nishihara
There's a term used in baseball card collecting that refers to low-value, non-star player cards. These cards are called "commons". They are the filler material in a baseball card pack, the cards that you hurriedly flip through until you find a "name" player. The faces on these cards blur nearly to abstraction in the rush to find cards of distinction. And the distance between star players and also-rans is never greater or more apparent than it is with those thin pieces of cardboard that kids of all ages have been ogling over for decades.
Indeed, in most sports card stores, the cards of star players are arranged neatly in locked glass display cases, the prices of those aforementioned cards running in the same neighborhood as high-quality electronic devices (or, in extreme cases, luxury automobiles). The commons? They are packed like sardines into cardboard boxes (if they are kept at all), with each card valued in nickels or pennies.
Of course, what it is most often lost in this disparate dichotomy is that any player who is privileged enough to have his likeness forever imprinted on a major league baseball card is part of a truly special fraternity. To wit, a guy who has made it to "The Show" for even a single at-bat, say Jeff Banister (1991 Pittsburgh Pirates; career 1 AB, 1 hit), belongs to the same club as Ted Williams. They share a connection that so few know.
And, yet, the rank-and-file of major league baseball so far outnumber the elite (I suppose that's what makes the stars elite) that baseball fans actually spend most of their time watching the rank-and-file play the game in the generous spaces between the appearances of the stars. In turn, I think it's natural that most fans find themselves aligning themselves, however tangentially, with certain obscure players over time.
Recently, I went to a local sports card shop that has an extensive collection of "commons" and flipped through many of their boxes in hopes of finding cards of some of those obscure players. The trip was a success.
In 1980, the San Francisco Giants signed Milt May to be their starting catcher. To illustrate what dire straits the Giants' catching corps was in at the conclusion of the 1979 season, May, who hit .254 in a split season with the Tigers and White Sox in 1979, actually represented hope. By comparison, the menagerie that the Giants had assembled that season had managed a paltry .210 average with 45 RBI. In 1980, May hit .260 for San Francisco with 50 RBI in 103 games. In 1981, he hit a career best .310. Of course, 1982 Milt May cards, as you may have guessed, can be had very cheaply. (By the way, if you want to impress your friends, tell them that you know not only who scored the 1,000,000th run in MLB history but you know who drove that run in as well. It was good old Milt May who hit the homer that scored Houston Astros' teammate Bob Watson in 1975 with the landmark run.)
When I was growing up, journeyman 1B Mike Lum astounded me. He was the first Asian face I had ever seen on a major league ballfield. His 1974 card (with Atlanta), which included his greatest season 1973, practically leapt out at me. The price of the card at once saddened and thrilled me (hint: even the sparest of spare change was the asking price).
In 1993, Robby Thompson seemed god-like to Giants' fans. He played gold glove defense, hit over .300, and added spark to a team that went on to win 103 games that season. To this day, I'm not sure I've ever seen a second baseman turn a double play quite a smoothly as he. However, his .257 career average likely doomed him to mediocrity (in history's eyes) and the price of his 1994 baseball card reflected that accordingly.
In the course of perusing these cards, I also came across backup outfielder and pinch hitting specialist Del Unser. I was never a big fan of Unser's, but I always knew that when the Phillies of the early 1970's wandered into town, he might be trouble. Imagine my surprise when he showed up with the 1975 Mets. As I watched the New Yorkers take batting practice before a game that year (at Candlestick, of course), Unser put on a near-unprecedented display. Line drive after line drive. Deep fly after deep fly. Batting practice, of course, means nothing. All of those scary swings wouldn't mean anything, right? Wrong. That day, Unser killed the home team with his screaming line drives. With that day burned into my brain, I conjure up the images of his sparkling batting practice session and picture perfect line drives during the game every time I hear his name. And, grudgingly (in memory of that one-day, one-man wrecking crew display), I pushed forth the pittance that is currently required for his card.
As I flipped through these endless rows of cards, the semi-ridiculous wooden batting poses, the equally wooden pitching follow-throughs, I gained a new appreciation for these players. For every face that I passed on each of those cards, there were likely tens (perhaps hundreds) of others who toiled in the minor leagues without ever having made it to the big leagues. And who knows how many countless numbers of others who dreamed of the opportunity to play baseball with the slightest hint of making it to the majors were rebuffed at even the lowest minor league level. Even the most obscure baseball card represents an individual who defied those seemingly incalculable odds. Each face on every one of those cards belongs to a major league baseball player.
Nickels and pennies for the card of a major leaguer? They haven't printed enough money to equal what I would give to have my mug printed on one of those little pieces of cardboard. Remember, being a major league baseball player is a special fraternity and one that is worth a second look the next time you open a pack of baseball cards.
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