Hall of Famers recall their memories of baseball cards as the Museum opens The Ultimate Set
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Quite possibly the most famous marketing concept in history, baseball cards will be forever recognized as a timeless phenomenon in its relationship to the game and its fans.
The phenomenon continues today – and shows no sign of abating. For unlike other collectibles, baseball cards also enthrall the men and women who play the games and run the teams.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is celebrating that phenomenon with the new exhibit The Ultimate Set. Loaned by Ken Kendrick, long-time collector and managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the collection of 25 cards – which was unveiled at the Museum April 17 – spans decades and represents many players. This collection demonstrates how half a century of history altered the business of baseball cards and the game itself.
Kids grow up collecting cards, dreaming that one day they’ll see their face on one. For those lucky enough to play in the major leagues or appear on their own card, few – including future Hall of Famers – ever forget the feeling.
“When I got to see myself on a real baseball card – well, that’s every kid’s dream growing up,” said Rollie Fingers.
He wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Many Hall of Famers thought their first card was a thrill.
“I really couldn’t understand it,” said Sparky Anderson, unable to believe he was worthy of a baseball card.
“After I started playing, that was something you looked forward to, to get your baseball card with a picture on it,” said Brooks Robinson. “1957 was my first time to have a picture made, and the picture looks like I was pretty happy.”
“It was one of those reality-check moments,” said Paul Molitor.
Others felt that the moment meant they had finally reached their baseball dreams.
“I could show people that I really was a professional baseball player,” said Phil Niekro.
“It was making it big time,” said Gaylord Perry.
“Second to signing my first contract, for me to appear on my first baseball card was confirmation that I’d made it to Major League Baseball,” said Dave Winfield.
It evoked childhood memories for many players, who grew up collecting cards and idolizing Hall of Famers – a group they would one day join. The Hall of Fame’s collection contains more than 135,000 baseball cards – including two Honus Wagner T-206 cards, the card collector’s Holy Grail.
But for many Hall of Famers, their most cherished card is one that brings back memories of their childhood.
“I owned approximately 500 cards,” said Molitor. “Any Twin card was special, particularly Harmon Killebrew.”
“I had maybe 100, but most of them ended up in our bicycle spokes,” said Robin Yount. “My favorites were Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.”
“I liked Joe Medwick, he was my newspaper customer and I liked him as a player,” said Yogi Berra, who grew up in St. Louis rooting for Medwick, another future Hall of Famer.
“My favorites were Koufax and Mantle,” said George Brett.
Fans see Hall of Famers as the legends of the game. But just like us, they are fans too – who kept their collections of favorite cards in a shoe box. They traded cards with neighborhood kids and showed their love of the game that would one day make them immortal.
“When I got my first full length card, my dream had been fulfilled,” said Gary Carter. “Then I had the honor of playing the great game of baseball for 18 years, I was not only a player, but I was a great fan of the game.”
Samantha Carr is the manager of web & digital media at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum