Saturday, July 14, 2012

Everything You Need To Know About Play

Between about 1967 and 1972, I was a baseball card collector. Not the kind of collector you see today who buys the entire Topps issue for the year, online, in one fell swoop, pre-arranged in boxes, which are then transferred into plastic sleeves and preserved for some future date, but rather a boy of 5 to 10-years-old who would peddle his bike to a neighborhood store with a dime in his pocket to buy one packet at a time, chewing the powdery pink bubble gum that came with them as a "bonus" on his ride home.

If you've been following the Teacher Tom chronicles here for some time, you might be aware that our family moved out of our large rambling home of 13 years about a year and a half ago, trading all that space for the tidy convenience of a downtown apartment, bicycle commuting, and zero yard work. Part of that process has involved ridding ourselves of not one, but two large storage lockers full of "extra" stuff we've accumulated over our 28 years of living together. Some of it has been pure garbage or recycling, but most of it is comprised of things like furniture, gardening tools, electronics and appliances, which I've been slowly selling on Craig's List. And then, of course, there are the keepsakes, the important things that refresh our memories about the past: photographs, artwork, trophies, and special correspondence, the irreplaceable things that one would mourn the most were they to be, say, lost in a fire.

Among those items I've found my baseball card collection, housed as it always was in this unfinished pine chest, a gift from my Grandma, who had expected that I'd "finish" it somehow with paint or stain, an expectation I never fulfilled. I was far more focused on what I kept inside. We've been storing this box of cards for well over a decade now, ever since mom and dad decided to clean out their attic, where they had been storing it for the three previous decades, and invited us "kids" over to take what of it we wanted to keep. When I came across it in the storage locker, bent upon getting rid of "stuff," I wondered what category into which it fit: keep or sell?

I brought the chest home with me that afternoon and opened it for the first time in 40 years. Inside, there is a removable wooden tray that sits like a like a lid over the larger section. I'd remembered that tray, but had forgotten the black and white Atlanta Braves team photo I'd taped to its bottom, my favorite team at the time, picturing the baseball heros of my youth; stars like Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, and Hoyt Wilhelm, but also the lesser names who are no less familiar to me even four decades later, like Ralph Garr, Milt Pappas, Clete Boyer, and Mike Lum. Scattered across the face of this photo were my baseball card collecting supplies: rubber bands, a pencil, and a stack of old mainframe computer programming cards. Except for the brittleness of some of the rubber bands, it was all as I'd left it the last time I'd closed that lid as a 10-year-old.

When I lifted out the tray, I found my cards, bundled in rubber bands, organized by team, organized alphabetically by last name, each stack topped by a team photo. This is how I had played with my baseball cards, always organizing them in one way or another. Whenever I'd purchased a new pack of cards, one of the first things I'd do was spread them out on the floor of my bedroom and organize them. I'd first separate the position players from the pitchers. Then, studying the statistics on the backs of the cards, I'd rank them by batting average or earned run average, then by home runs or strikeouts, then by doubles, wins, at bats, stolen bases, walks. I had a system of my own that allowed me to move the cards up and down in the rankings as I worked through the comparisons until I had them organized from "best" to "worst" according to my own invented calculations. 

I would then sort them according to team, alphabetizing them as I mentioned, struggling over whether or not to include the names that began with "M-c" with the "M-a-c" names, snapping those rubber bands tightly around them when I was done.

I used those computer cards to further organize my collection, employing mathematical techniques I'd learned from my teachers, dividing them into categories of "ones," "tens," and "hundreds," employing those rows of digits, marking them off like the "bubbles" we'd learned to fill in on the IQ tests we took each year in school. This is how I know that I had exactly 1,871 cards when I stopped collecting.

I had a computer card for each team on which I'd carefully written the team name in my best all-caps handwriting, then decorated with a rendering of the team logo.

Sometimes, however, I simply thumbed through my cards, looking at the players, their faces, their sideburns, studying how they held their hands on the bats or wore their gloves, comparing ages and eras or the subleties of baseball fashion or poses. Sometimes I'd examine the graphic design of the cards, deciding if I preferred the typeface on the 1968 series over 1970, or the color of the borders, or the organization of the statistics. Sometimes I'd read the little one sentence biographies on the backs.

By the early 70's I'd become aware that there was "big money" in baseball card collecting. One of the rare 1909 Honus Wagner cards had sold for some astronomical amount, probably over $100,000, which had put the "business" in the news (that particular card recently sold for $1.2 million). I recall reading an article in Sports Illustrated about collectors and how they were making thousands of dollars by buying and selling collections assembled by boys some 50 years earlier. That's what I was going to do with my cards: save them until I was "old," then sell them to the highest bidder.

And now I'm old. At least at 50, I'm what my 10-year-old self would have considered old. This chest of memories has been locked up in the dark for a long, long time, part of my "stuff," just another box to stack in a storage locker. After some soul searching, I've decided that now, after having thumbed through them one last time, reminding myself fully of how I'd once played with them, remembering every single face as I went through them, this is the time to honor the intent of my younger self. My dreams of great riches have not been realized, but the $350 I've pocketed would have been a proper fortune for that boy.

As the store proprietor held my cards in his left palm then used his thumb to gently slide those cards one at a time to his right palm in the classic card collector manner, studying them for the first time, hearing him enthuse over Micky Mantle or Lou Brock or Harmon Killebrew or Bob Gibson,  I knew I'd made the right decision. Baseball cards do not belong in storage lockers.

In the end, I still have at least a thousand cards leftover, "junkers" that the guy at the collectibles shop would just dump into the recycling. That's a bridge too far for me. I like that the cards he bought will now be displayed in plastic sleeves in his shop and then later in the collections of people who will regularly look at them, play with them, enjoy them, but the rest of these cards featuring no-name players deserve a better fate as well.

I'll keep them until I find a boy (or girl) who still collects baseball cards, someone who will thumb through them, organize, calculate, rank, draw logos, study the outmoded hairstyles and uniforms, and perhaps dream of some day striking it rich. I want my cards to be played with and dreamt over.

There are lots of tracts, treatises, and studies about the importance of play, play-based curricula, and how children learn through play, and that's a good thing. But really, it's only through our memories of play that adults can come to understand it through the eyes and thumbs of a child.

Everything I really need to know about play is found in my memories.

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ako said...

Oh the schema fans will wet themselves over this post :)

Tammy said...

Teacher Tom, you put me to tears as I read your blog tonight. I too found a box that had been stored for decades in my mothers house.

When I opened my box, I pulled out my memories and drifted back to a time I nearly forgot.

My box held Dawn dolls and all their paraphenalia. I loved my Dawn dolls a little girl. My brothers were both older than I am, but occasionally they would come into my bedroom and play Dawn with me. They would make up scenerios and help me comb my dolls hair.

We shared kid secrets over the course of our play. I had forgotten that too. I had forgotten that feeling of closeness to my brothers as a youngster. We've drifted apart as adults, but once, we shared secrets and dreams playing on a big blue rug in my 7 year old bedroom, playing with Dawn dolls.

Thanks Teacher Tom.