TRUE STORY 001
A box of old photographs sits nestled among many others on a bedroom shelf at my mother’s house. Inside this box, in all of its desaturated, washed-out, early 70s glory is a photo of me and my sister. We’re stiffly posed, squinting into the sun along with two of our cousins in front of their raised ranch on the outskirts of York, PA. Just another formality in a long line of pictures taken over the years when visiting relatives. It’s a fairly unremarkable picture, save for one small detail: clutched in my little six year old hands is a small stack of baseball cards. It’s documented proof of when my childhood obsession with baseball began.
It's 1972. We’d packed into the yellow Skylark for a barnstorming series of visits to both paternal and fraternal relatives dotted around a handful of working-class Pennsylvania towns. The stay at the aforementioned cousins’ house was the jewel. It was the first time I’d been around them since I’d worn diapers. They were older and bigger and I thought that was pretty cool. Cooler still was my cousin Scott. He had a bowl cut, an odd accent and a huge collection of baseball cards. Up until that point, I’d never seen a baseball card. I’d heard about them, but never held one. The colors, the designs, the uniforms, the statistics on the back…it all appealed to me on a gut level. Being the stand-up guy that he was, Scott gave me some of his cards to keep. It was only 10 or so, all lesser-known bench warmers, but to me they were all-stars. Names like Ike, Ellie, and Gates. But the one that stood out to me the most was named Bart. Bart Johnson. He was my guy. Why? No idea. He had longer hair than most players. My beloved Beatles had long hair, so maybe I associated the two. Maybe it was the script “Chicago” on his jersey. It could have been the colors or design motif of the card itself. The brute power of his name? Again, I’ve no clue why this thing was the holy grail.
For weeks after, Bart was my traveling companion. I kept him in whatever free pocket I had. I’d pull the card out, examine, put it back. Ad nauseam. By then it was getting well-worn and beaten. There were dings on the edges and creases through the middle, but they made no difference to me. While playing wiffle ball, I somehow thought that keeping the card in my pocket would improve what few skills I had at the time. My sister, tormentor par excellence that she was, once held Bart hostage for a few hours but was forced to return him when I reached epic meltdown level. All for a 2 ½ by 3 ½ inch piece of cardboard with a picture on the front and some words and numbers on the back. It was my world.
On a beautiful late Spring evening we took a family trip to Boardman’s, one of those 70s mainstays known as a “catalog showroom”. The light was golden and I was happy and content, Bart secured in the pocket of my blue hooded windbreaker. Boardman’s was otherworldly to me. Aisles and aisles of merchandise in which to get lost, but nearly all of which was familiar due the hours I spent studying their catalog. When you found what you wanted, you’d fill out a form with one of those stubby little betting pencils, take it to a store assistant who would then hand it to someone in the hidden warehouse. After a few minutes, the order would emerge, riding on a conveyor belt that ran along up high near the ceiling and then down a ramp to the floor. Pure magic.
After wandering the store for a while, I got the urge to pee. My dad took me by the hand and guided me to the restroom. It was small and utilitarian. Sink, bowl, a roll of paper, gray floor tile and not much else. With my father waiting by the sink, I went about my business. In the process of fumbling with my shorts and equipment, someway, somehow, Bart got dislodged from my jacket pocket and dropped face down into the toilet. I shrieked with holy hell terror. Dad investigated and assessed, providing me with the response I didn’t want to hear: “Oh…we’ve got to let that one go, son”. I stood in stunned silence, lip quivering as I watched the card saturate, turning its bright orange back to a shade of dark brown as it sank to the bottom of the sea. Performing the necessary euthanasia, my father reached out and turned the handle. Bart Johnson, my hero of heroes, swirled around and disappeared for good. The flood came soon after. I was inconsolable. Upon our return to the main floor, customers stared. Dad was patient and stoic. My mom was disturbed yet heartbroken. My sister laughed.