Overweening Generalist

Saturday, April 21, 2012

From My Childhood Baseball Card Collection to Walter Benjamin: The Vortex of History

Recently, the now-famous Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $1.2 million. Around 1911, Wagner demanded the American Tobacco Company cease production of the card bearing his image, either because he was so square he thought it immoral for his image to be involved in potentially encouraging the vice of smoking among children, or he was pissed off his image was being used to generate money for a tobacco company and he wasn't getting a slice. Or something else. Anyway, there may only be around 50 of the cards in existence, many of them in a very bad state. The one that sold for $1.2 was in good condition, and another one sold for $2.8 million. I'm pretty sure that one was in very good condition.

Yes, we're talking about baseball cards.

Here's my story about cards. As a boy, I was crazy about the things, and a few of my friends were too. I mowed neighbors' lawns and washed their cars to make extra money to try to complete that year's set. I'd buy, for 15 cents, packs of 10 that had one very sharp-edged slab of hard, thin, pink bubble gum in them. We'd buy eight or twelve packs at a time, walk a few feet outside the store onto the sidewalk, rip open the packs and quickly rifle through the ten cards, noting with the dexterity of a Las Vegas croupier which ones were duplicates - which we could potentially trade with a friend who might have one we in turn didn't have - and which ones were new to us. There'd be about 600 unique cards per baseball season, and broken into series of around 110, released at different times during the season.  You'd get a call on some July morning: "The third series is out!," and feel your pulse quicken. The wrappers (and often the lousy gum) would go into the trash bin on the sidewalk, and we'd walk home talking about who we had, who we still needed to get. Boys as totally irrational collectors of images of romantic men we might be one day ourselves, if only we could hit the ball out of the infield. Our own little low-stakes micro-world version of Tulip-mania. Our entrance into the world of commodity fetishism. We would have no Critical Theory for another 15 years.

                                         The now-famous Wagner card, worth literally millions

Often we'd noticed some barely noteworthy player - a backup shortstop for the Brewers or some reliever with a high ERA - was the one card we couldn't find. When one of us found it, envy ensued. This may have been our first taste of a corporate conspiracy theory: to get us to waste as much of our allowances on cards as possible. Every kid I ever knew kept all his duplicates separate; they were little stacks of waste. They represented pitches swung at and missed. They were ordered pollution. May as well throw 'em away...but some other kid might actually "need" one of your banjo-hitting shortstops. You had five of that guy, or four more than you needed. It was stuff like this that was bothersome in our lives. (Did I really live that life?)

At some point, I think it was my dad who found an article in the Los Angeles Times about a very rare baseball card that might be worth $250. It was the Honus Wagner. Jeez, you'd think it would be Lou Gehrig, or Ty Cobb, or Babe Ruth. I knew Wagner was in the Hall of Fame. He was from the Dead Ball Era. He was so deep in ancient history it was freakish stuff. Who could afford to spend that much on a baseball card? I read the article with the same sense of irreality that attended an article about the history of the Hope Diamond, or how Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone: marvelous, uncanny, hard to believe.

One day, while reading the ads in the back of a comic book, I noticed some place on the other side of the country sold cards on demand - for five or ten cents each! I'd write them for a FREE catalog, and then send them cash in an envelope, noting exactly which cards I wanted. It took all the romance - and waste - out of buying packs of bubblegum, but I was able to collect complete sets, almost all in perfect condition, of the cards issued by Topps from 1969 through 1975, when I got tired of "all that" and moved onto other things. In the collecting years, I'd stumbled onto ways to obtain much older cards for relatively cheap prices, and I had all of those neatly bundled, by number in their own special shoe boxes I inherited from my mom. I had a few cards from the 1950s. I had a Mickey Mantle. I had...oh, nevermind.

                                       Here's a 1971 Hank Aaron card. I owned this one. 
                                       This was three years before he broke Babe Ruth's 
                                       all-time home run record. I remember the day he broke
                                       the record. I was glad for him. Hammerin' Hank is a 
                                       Good Guy. Always was. 

I had complete, mint collections of basketball, football, and hockey cards too. They eventually were stored in my closet, in the dark. If there were any shops that dealt in sports memorabilia, I had never heard of them. Sports cards were strictly kid's stuff, although over the years I had heard stories of some classmate's father who owned...everything. I assumed they were stories.

Around the age of 17, I realized if I wanted to have any realistic hope of getting laid, I'd require my own car, and therefore needed money fast. One way: I saw an ad in a local newspaper. Some guy would buy my sportscards. I remember he came out to the house and looked at them, and offered me $50, and I said okay. I don't remember haggling. I had ceased even thinking about those cards for a few years.

It only took about another three or four years before sports cards became a big deal. I thought, "Well, I was into that before anyone else was!" Then, closer scrutiny brought the devastating revelation that my collection I'd sold a few years ago would have probably been worth at least $5000 if I still had it. I saw a catalog of special cards that sold for $25 or $50 each. I had owned most of those. I told the truth to anyone who'd listen. I felt like a fool, but how could I have known that stuff would all the sudden become a Big Deal? The more I told my story, the more therapeutic it was, for some reason. Oh well: sometimes kids do hasty, stupid things, and how many people thought the earliest Apple stock was probably overpriced and passed?

There were storefront memorabilia shops all over the place now, and they sold cards, and I studiously avoided going in there to look, although I remember telling one guy who seemed to know the card market like a stock broker can talk stocks, and he thought I'd probably had a collection worth $8000. Which was not pleasant to hear.

Anyway: I was soon playing guitar in rock bands, enjoying college, smoking pot, having sex, teaching private music lessons to people aged 6 to 60, but mostly 16.

                                                       Walter Benjamin

On my own, one day, I was reading a book on Marshall McLuhan, who was a very trippy genius; I didn't quite "get" him, and I still don't. But to this day I enjoy reading him. I "get" him a little more every year. This book happened to mention an essay by someone named Walter Benjamin, who I'd never heard of. I found the essay, I forget where. It was called "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Here was this old German dude, heavy thinker, writing in the 1930s (and I soon learned he'd tried to escape from the Nazis to join his Frankfurt School friends in Unistat, only to be caught in Catalonia and committing suicide with an overdose of morphine in late September, 1940), and he was trying to convince us that films and photography rob individually-made works of their "aura." It didn't make sense to me, probably because I loved photography books. And I was crazy about film. But in the ensuing years I noted that this essay by Benjamin was becoming more and more famous.

One night I got stoned and read the essay again and it made sense. These things happen.

"To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return." - Walter Benjamin

I didn't know it until a few years later: Benjamin, an intellectual of astonishing depth and breadth, had been heavily influenced by Charles Baudelaire's writings on drugs, especially hashish. Benjamin has undergone a systematic program of using drugs and writing while stoned, or recollecting the stoned state, in order to build up a body of work - along with other painters, poets, and intellectuals - that would catalog the temporary moments of internal freedom from Ordinary Reality. It was theorized that, for humans to carry out a successful revolution away from the types of "mind" that led to World War I, the various fascisms in Europe, and the deadening of the senses that life under industrial capitalism brought, systematic inquiry into stoned (and other non-ordinary states) would lead to a jumping off point for true Revolution.

And Benjamin's idea of "aura" was arrived at during an investigation of hashish.

I thought about my relationship to the mass-produced cards I had been obsessed with as a kid. I still remember time alone, looking at the cards, studying the data of the player's career. Bats left, throws right. Hit .382 one year in the minor leagues! I think I perceived an aura with some of those cards. I think some of them "spoke" to me. To this day I vividly remember a handful of cards, for some odd reason. Why? Why should I have cared? What did it mean? These were not one-offs, invested with - and this is what Benjamin thought an aura was - a quality that was apart from its material signifier in the world. Like an afterimage, but more ethereal. He thought mass production of the same old cookie-cutter item washed out the aura of the Original. I like the idea. It's a great "stoned" idea, and indeed: Benjamin, a mystical quasi-secular Jewish intellectual, was one of the great stoner-artists of all time. (See Benjamin on Hashish. This is intellectual stonerism at its "highest" high...) A work of Art could, when the perceiver focuses upon it, return its own feelings of profound wonder of existence, beauty, truth. Let me be clear: you the viewer can perceive these things AND the Work Itself can permeate some level of existence with its own feelings about the Profound.

Benjamin's idea of "aura" - the now-famous essay was first published around 1935  - turned out to have a strong influence on Critical Theory and postmodernism. So when your professor had you read Frederic Jameson and you thought to yourself, "Maybe if I was stoned I could make sense of this stuff," you probably weren't far off.

Now rare baseball cards are bought by wealthy investors as if they were paintings by minor Expressionist masters. The idea of value in Art will never cease to be a wonder to me.

But I still think I had that experience of "aura" with a few mass-produced baseball cards when I was 12. I can't explain it. I remember feeling it. I think it best not to try to explain it. I remember that time as golden.

There is this French word flaneur. An idler, a lounger. It's often been used in the sense of...well, myself as the sort of blogger-writer the Overweening Generalist represents: the sort of bookish person you see in a cafe, writing poetry or some essay on the meaning of History. Benjamin thought the flaneur turned his back on history, all the while being swept up by it. The flaneur reads and ponders the endless expanse of ruins in history and is blown forward by history, into the future, a supermassive vortex of Progress carrying everything within its forces...

I must leave you with the supreme intellectually stoned feel of Benjamin. Here's the first paragraph of his essay, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," translated from German by Harry Zohn:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet's hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called "historical materialism" is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. - p. 253, from a collection of Benjamin essays called Illuminations: Essays and Reflections 

The Wiki for the Honus Wagner card, with hints and outlines as to its history and intrigues.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I kind of lost the thread when you wrote about Walter Benjamin. I don't "get" the idea that mass reproduction harms art. Isn't it a good thing that I can listen to all of the Beethoven I want?

But, anyway, your baseball card memories made me think about my baseball cards for the first time in many years (and yes, the gum WAS terrible.")

I like this sentence, "Often we'd noticed some barely noteworthy player - a backup shortstop for the Brewers or some reliever with a high ERA - was the one card we couldn't find."

Did you ever read the classic "Peanuts" comic about Charlie Brown's struggle to get a baseball card for his favorite player, a mediocre player named Joe Shlabotnick? (I may not have the spelling right, but it's close).

michael said...

Yea, I remember devouring all those Peanuts (sorry!). Charlie went nuts trying got get Joe Shlabotnick (I'm guessing you got it right), and IIRC, Lucy - who wasn't even into baseball cards - bought ONE pack and "Well, what do you know? Joe Shlabotnick."

All of us are happy about mass production. Benjamin - under the influence of hashish! - thought the Original had a special aura. It's a very stoned idea, or at least it seems that way to me. I like the idea (sorta borrowed [IRONY?] by the postmodernists as "the metaphysics of presence"), but totally agree that all those copies of Beethoven or Ulysses are a fantastic thing, and allow us to have that experience Benjamin had, even if the work of art we're perceiving was mass-produced or not.

Seriously: I saw an article about one of the Wagner cards going for over a million, had been reading Walter Benjamin, and thought, "can I somehow link baseball cards and Benjamin together?"

I think I probably failed.

Eric Wagner said...

Great blog, as usual, and Happy Shakespearemas!

As a child I fantasized at a geneological relationship between Honus Wagner and myself. In Bill James' Historical Basball Abstract he considers Honus Wagner the second best player in baseball history after Ruth.

I just watched the film A Dangerous Method which deals with Freud and Jung and Sabina Spielrein. Reading about Benjamin's death reminded me of Spielrein, whom the Nazi's killed in 1941. I first heard of
Benjamin reading Gershom Scholem.

Tom, I don't think mechanical reproduction harms art, but it does change our response to it. This goes back to our discussions of live music vs. recorded music.

michael said...

Hippie Bird-Day to Billy the Shakes! (And it's quasi the First Day in the Illuminatus! welt).

I'll look for A Dangerous Method.

Eric: are you into the SABREmetrics stuff?

There's a pretty cool book by Carl Djerassi, legendary chemist who is credited with inventing the bill control Pill. He's also a novelist and art collector. He wrote a book called Four Jews on Parnassus, which is imaginary conversations between Adorno, Schoenberg, Benjamin, and Scholem. Pretty cool...

The original for Benjamin has its own unique history, sorta like you do. If you were cloned your clone would have different life experiences in different environments, and other factors, so even though your clone was 100% your DNA, I think a lot of people would wonder about the Original: you. That's sorta what Benjamin's getting at. Beethoven wrote a string quartet, then there was the first public playing of it, live. It was around, say 1820, in THAT time and place. Listening to it in Berkeley or Cleveland in 2012 in wowee-gee stereo gizmos in your own home, via a digital replication of some hotshot quartet that was well aware of previous group's recording of the same Ludwig Van piece, etc, etc, etc: it's somehow very removed from the Original.

Now: we all negotiate Art works on our own terms, whether we're in the Louvre looking at the original Mona Lisa, or listening to a burnt CD of some band. Benjamin wanted to argue that the Original was in some sense alive, it seems to me. Alive in a way any reproduction is not. It's easy to disagree with him, and if you read the essay (which I linked to), it's a very intellectualized version of a thought he got while very stoned on hashish.

I really appreciate both your guys' comments.

michael said...

CORRECTION: Birth control Pill invented by Djerassi and friends. I need to enlarge the little box I respond to here; I often type in it and it's so small I can barely see it.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Yes, that's the comic. Charlie Brown tried to trade a bunch of his cards, including most of his superstars, for the Joe Shlabotnick card, but Lucy wouldn't trade because she thought Joe was "kind of cute." After Charlie Brown left in despair, Lucy tosses away the card, muttering, "He's not so cute, after all." Perhaps a hint of sexism, implying that girls didn't take baseball cards seriously enough?

Eric Wagner said...

I don't see myself as into the Sabremetrics stuff. I like how James uses a multiple model approach. In The New Historical Baseball Abstract he gives a variety of possible lists for the ten best players in history using a variety of approaches. I loved his books on the Hall of Fame and on the history of coaching. I also loved the film "Moneyball."

As a kid I became fascinated by baseball's history. I read my mom's old books on baseball. I considered Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner my favorite players, Johnson because he played for my hometown Senators.

michael said...

I haven't seen the film, but I enjoyed Michael Lewis's book Moneyball. What's sorta odd: the book was a best-seller, then his option was actually made into a Brad Pitt film, but the A's have gone nowhere since they were competing in the AL West and Lewis was hanging around Billy Beane, trying to get the story. The message about baseball and economics is not that SABREmetrics can work for you if you have no money to buy the best free agents; the message is that, if you compare the more egalitarian revenue sharing of the NFL vs MLB, the NFL has it right...if we believe teams should compete on a more metaphorically level playing field.

Every team uses SABREmetrics now, even the Yankees.

I'm a lot like you. In elementary school I LITERALLY read every sports biography in the library.

I love baseball lore, and it's bizarre how many little bits of trivia from my boyhood have stayed alive in little neural clusters, only to pop back up now and then, although many of the records I memorized have been broken since I was a kid and obsessed with all that. I grew up thinking no one would throw more than Koufax's 4 no-hitters, but have to remind myself that Nolan Ryan ended up with 7. Maury Wills had 104 stolen bases in one year! Then: Ricky Henderson. Not long ago I looked at the Wiki for guys with 500 career HRs and...Eddie Murray? Man, how things have changed. Etc.

I remember watching a Dodger game with my grandpa when I was 10 or 11. The pitcher had a 0-2 count on a batter, and I said, "Now he'll waste on, either high or probably low and in the dirt because no one's on base." And sure enough, the next pitch was in the dirt. My grandpa said, "How did you know that?" And I said I just read in a biography about Warren Spahn about how his dad taught him how to pitch.

Is your team the Washington Nationals now?

Eric Wagner said...

I don't really have a team. I considered myself a Pirates fan for years until they dumped Bonds and Bonilla in the early 90's. I really only follow the NFL these days, and I have remained a loyal Redskins fan for forty years.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I love that you could show your Grandpa sometime about the Great American Pastime.

Every collector who ever lived looks back to the "good old days" when the thing they collect was plentiful and cheap. If I've heard one story,

I've heard a dozen about how some card collection or another was disposed of - often by parents who were clearing out their stuff while away to college or life-in-general.

Now that Christmas has passed and Santa can take a break, maybe he'd like to get himself a cool baseball book - try Amazon for a used copy of The Dickson Basball Dictionary - 3rd Ed. (2009). There are something like 10,000 entries - so far I've only come up with two omissions: "bell ringer" and "world series share" (the latter is NOT obscure - I'm suprised it's missing).

Send an email if you want definition and reference for bell ringer

(remove the stars, etc.):

**j*a*h*n*ghalt( )yahoo(dot)com