Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Batter Chatter Book Review: CARDBOARD GODS

I got a review copy of Cardboard Gods sent to me recently, and my first thought was, what a perfect Father's Day gift. Cardboard Gods is about a boy's obsession with baseball cards growing up, and how those cards helped the boy cope with some considerably difficult situations growing up.

My father collected baseball cards obsessively, and still laments trading the lot of them for some crappy jalopy over a half century ago.

But the more I read, the more I realized it wasn't the right book for my father. Yet it's very much the right book for someone my age, who collected cards throughout the '70s, and for whom non-stars with mellifluous monikers like Johnny Wockenfuss and Rowland Office and Kurt Bevacqua will always be burned into my memory cells.

Author Josh Wilker's mother hopped a bus to Washington for a freedom march when he was a kid, then fell in love with a guy on the bus, and moved Josh and his brother from Jersey to Vermont so she and her new beau could live off the land with their kids. While most everyone around him had the traditional Mom and Dad, young Wilker had Mom and Tom. Neither the live-off-the-land gameplan nor the relationship ended up working out, though the latter lasted longer.

After moving to Vermont, Wilker was friends with a "farm boy named Buster who would go on to become the primary baseball news oracle for a nationwide sports information monopoly," and who also had "contagious enthusiasm" for baseball history and baseball cards.

Of course, this is ESPN's Buster Olney. While there's something strangely noble about reverse name-dropping, why Wilker chooses not to cite him by full name, or mention Olney's ubiquitous employer, is perplexing, especially since the rest of the book is so damned honest and open.

[Reached via email, Wilker says Olney wasn't fully identified because the book is more about who Buster was as a kid, as opposed to who he is now, and adds that he wasn't sure if Olney would care to be identified by full name in the book. For the record, Olney loved the book.]

Regardless, it's a terrific book. It spawned from a blog, and it shows: Each mini chapter starts off with an image of a '70s baseball card, and Wilker uses the card as a metaphor for what he was experiencing at that stage of his life. At times these metaphors are a reach, but Wilker is a clever enough writer to make up the difference.

Like any kid, Wilker adores the game's stars, no more so than Carl Yastrzemski. But the author, a clumsy, lonely kid, a perpetual outsider, identifies with the have-nots of MLB too. Cardboard Gods is at its best, and funniest, when Wilker describes the sheer WTF? cheesiness of the cards showing these lesser players.
He writes of 1975 slap hitter Eddie Leon--and himself:

I needed Eddie Leon. I needed a guy posing in a Chicago White Sox uniform while the crooked, cut-off, erroneous card he is posing on identifies him as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals and the back of the card declares he is neither a White Sox nor a Cardinal but a New York Yankee. The back-of-the-card scripture also points out that he "has been among Chisox' leaders in Sacrifices in '73 & '74."

Among the leaders. On a single team. In bunts. I don't know how you could say any less about someone without saying nothing at all.

A 1976 card showing forgotten Astros pitcher Mike Cosgrove contrasts Cosgrove's grim photo with his upbeat, full of potential image on the year before's card.

He's no longer young. The bill of his cap is misshapen, as if it has been mangled by bullies or forgotten in the rain. He wears badges of desperation indigenous to his awkward, searching decade: a perm, a dust-thin mustache. Behind him, simultaneously claustrophobic and vast, loom the unmistakable high stands of a major league stadium. He has made it; there is no joy. On the back of his card, all traces of his minor league success have been expunged, leaving only the thin gruel of a big league mop-up man destined to vanish from the game altogether before next season's set of baseball cards hits the stores.

I could give 10 examples of dead-on and hysterical card descriptions from the book, but it's too much typing, and I'd probably run afoul of fair uses rules.

Cardboard Gods is a terrifically entertaining little memoir, with flashes of Nick Hornby's delicious rendering of male obsessions and Bill Simmons' brilliant sports-meets-pop-culture riffery, and ability to amplify seemingly gossamer things to find great meaning and humor.

And as much as Wilker finds refuge in his cards, he finds it in his brother, Ian, who often wants nothing to do with his little brother, as big brothers are wont to do. Ultimately the brotherly bond prevails, and the two reconnect over the most joyous occasion either could imagine: The Red Sox World Series parade in 2004.

I previously reviewed the '70s book Big Hair and Plastic Grass in these cyber-pages. It may be comparing apples and oranges, or Dewey Evans and Bruce Boisclair, but Cardboard Gods is an infinitely more entertaining look at the game during that era (the ChiSox' short pants, Oscar Gamble's afro)--and the men whose images are printed on the little cardboard sheets.

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