Tag Archives: material culture

Magazine Acquired Recently: Baseball Cards, April 1990

My favorite hobby as a boy was collecting baseball cards, and in my infinite nerdiness–present even then–my first-ever magazine subscription was in 1990 to the now-defunct Baseball Cards magazine. I have been unable to ascertain when Baseball Cards stopped publication, though a safe guess is that the major mid-1990s sports card market crash caused its downfall. Its publisher, Krause Publications, is still in existence and publishes magazines and books on various hobbies.

I subscribed to Baseball Cards after receiving an advertisement in the mail for it sometime toward the end of 1989 (How was I already receiving junk mail as a nine-year-old? I suppose it is in junk mail’s [and now spam’s] nature to be all-pervasive. Maybe my Little League sold the address list of their players to vendors of children’s magazines?) and actually had enough allowance saved up to subscribe. It was something like $14.95 for a year’s subscription, which included twelve issues plus six special-edition cards per issue. The cards used the 1969 Topps design to showcase current players, and were the major selling point for me. Unfortunately, they came in sheets rather than separately, and my young hands mangled some of them pretty badly when I tried to cut them out.

I read the magazine thoroughly, and I still remember some of the articles vividly. However, unfortunately at some point I got rid of my copies. I still buy baseball cards occasionally, mostly for nostalgia’s sake, and during a recent card-hunting session on ebay decided to buy an issue of Baseball Cards as a part of this nostalgia. I bought the April 1990 issue because I found it for a good price (less than $5.00 including shipping).

While this issue does not have any of the articles that I remember (so I might have to buy more…), reading it was thoroughly enjoyable. Nearly a quarter-century after it was published, three points stood out to me from the issue:

1. I had a horrible sense of foreboding as I read the generally well-written and light-hearted articles knowing that in a few years all of the hype about rookie cards, limited-edition sets, and cards as investments would be proven hollow as the hobby came burning to the ground. The emphasis on cards as monetary objects, as business, rather than as an enjoyable hobby pursued because of the love of sport is what ultimately gutted the market (as Karl Marx says, capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction…) because it got too glutted with, not just special issues, but with cards in general: the card companies were to blame for the collapse just as much as dealers were. The hobby forgot its roots as a pastime for children, thus losing its fiscally-essential base along with its soul as it became over-professionalized by adults.

2. The hype about all of 1990’s rookies, the special focus of the issue, is hilarious because so much of it is inaccurate in hindsight, which goes to show how elusive baseball success can be. Todd Zeile was hot stuff in 1990, and he had a very respectable career, as did Juan Gonzalez and Larry Walker, but players such as Eric Anthony, Andy Benes, and Jerome Walton, all of whom get fawned over in the issue, did not. The only player mentioned in this section of the issue to make the Hall of Fame (or to have a legitimate shot) was Frank Thomas.

3. The numerous ads were a delight to read (unlike when I was a child and mourned my lack of funds), in part because they illustrate how different the card-collecting landscape is now than it was then, and in part because they make me wonder what happened to all of the businesses and their proprietors. Some might still be hanging on as dealers via the internet, but a good number must be out of business. What did their owners do once the bubble burst a few years later? Where are they now? Does anyone remember the businesses, or are they basically lost to history (thinking about this question always makes me depressed when thinking about businesses that close)? Answering these questions would make a fantastic research project, albeit one with a limited audience. My favorite ad, which is for The Card King in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, urges customers to make their purchases quickly because “These stunning… cards are disappearing faster than communist dictators.” Ah, those halcyon days.

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The Uni Watch Fifteenth Anniversary Party

Last Tuesday I went down to New York City for Uni Watch’s fifteenth anniversary party. I’ve written here before about how I love Uni Watch because of its attention to the tiny details of material culture, thus it was exciting to meet its creator, Paul Lukas, and some fellow fans. I have always wanted to go to a Uni Watch party, and this was the first time that I was living close enough to one to go to it. I had been planning to wear my New York Cosmos Johan Cruyff jersey, but a few weeks ago I found a vintage Harry M. Stevens vendor’s shirt from Shea Stadium on Etsy.com for only $10.00, so I wore that instead. I am delighted that, as Lukas says in his write-up of the event here (scroll down to the second half of the post) (as is par for the course for me, in the close-up photograph of the shirt that is linked to in the article I am doing something weird with my arms), the shirt was his “favorite item of the entire gathering.”

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Thinking About The Mezzanine and Participating in Capitalism

I was re-reading Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine this afternoon because I am teaching it in my American Literature After 1945 class tomorrow, and I was struck by a passage that I hadn’t thought about much before (which is the beautiful thing about the novel: basically every paragraph is thought-provoking if it hits one in the proper frame of mind, thus making the book eminently re-readable because different passages will stand out at different times of one’s life). The narrator describes mailing a batch of varied correspondence and his subsequent feeling of importance:

“I became aware of the power of all these individual, simultaneously pending transactions: all over the city, and at selected sites in other states, events were being set in motion on my behalf, services were being performed, simply because I had requested them and in some cases paid or agreed to pay later for them” (21-22).

While not all of the correspondence that the narrator sends is financial in nature (e.g., he mails a letter to his grandparents), what struck me is that part of why capitalism survives is that it parcels out bits of fun to everyone when we buy things, even during seemingly small transactions. I suppose this is simply another way of saying that commodity fetishes exist, but nevertheless, it is necessary to note that we support the system just as much when we make a few small, aesthetically-pleasing purchases as when we buy a house because society teaches us that such a purchase is necessary to be considered “successful.” I happened to run several small capitalistic errands today, acquiring a variety of goods: a tank of gas, a snow shovel, a wine decanter (my favorite purchase), some trail mix, and a cup of coffee at a locally-owned coffeehouse. I had the same subtle, pleasing sense of accomplishment as the narrator does, which highlighted just how deep into the system I am.

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Two Portrayals of Soccer Fandom

I am currently reading John King’s 1996 novel The Football Factory about soccer fan culture and its causes in 1980s/early-1990s England. I also just read Sarah Lyall’s recent New York Times article about attending English soccer matches, which I found via one of my favorite soccer websites, When Saturday Comes.

The contrast between the two pieces is striking. It is clear to any serious follower of the English game that Lyall’s piece is written by a rank outsider (which is, admittedly, in part the point, as she assumes that most of her readers will also be outsiders), and thus contains some major flaws. Aside from a smattering of factual errors (e.g., that the famous meat pies served at matches are traditionally filled with chicken rather than red meat, usually beef), there is no attempt to actually understand the culture. Instead, the article highlights its idiosyncrasies in order to demean them and the culture as a whole. It is an example of disgustingly U.S.-centric reporting.

The article is flawed in its depiction of sports fandom in general, not just soccer fandom. The usual elitist attitude toward sports that is shared by way too many otherwise rational intellectuals (i.e., the sentiment “Why waste time caring about sports? It’s just a game.” In contrast, the reason I love When Saturday Comes is that it shows that a love of sports and a life of the mind can coexist.) is present throughout the piece. For example, Lyall is puzzled by the fact that English fans often seem miserable when watching their team, but this is the case with the majority of serious fans of any sport, including Americans. It is difficult to watch a team that you desperately care about for a multitude of reasons (not just whether they win or lose) play even if they are often successful (like my beloved Manchester United) and you expect them to win. Once you understand the nuances of a sport, it is difficult not to focus on the flaws inherent in the way it is played. That doesn’t mean that the glorious moments of beauty and triumph aren’t enjoyable, but that the knowledge that they are rare leads to a sort of resigned pessimism.

Unlike the article, The Football Factory endeavors to show how soccer fandom fits within its broader societal context. The book is especially trenchant in its portrayal of how the Thatcher government’s policies destroyed the working and middle classes, and how responses to this calamity manifested themselves in soccer fandom. The novel does not celebrate troubling elements of fandom such as hooliganism, but it does offer a genuine attempt to understand them. Lyall’s article fails in this regard. It views fandom in a vacuum instead of considering how issues of class, race, and gender intersect with it.

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Books Acquired Recently: Mostly Mennonite/Mostly Canadian Edition

I’ve been thinking and writing about Mennonite literature a lot lately, and this latest round of book-buying includes some of the earliest novels published in the field. It also includes one of the more recent works of Mennonite fiction and a book by someone with a Mennonite-sounding name (Kroetsch), though to my knowledge he has no Mennonite ties. Aside from Flamethrowers, all of the books take place in Canada.

Friesen, Gordon. Flamethrowers. Caldwell: Caxton, 1936.


Flamethrowers is to my knowledge the earliest literary novel by a Mennonite published in the United States. It, like Kliewer’s book (and arguably like Wiebe’s), is rather critical of the community. I bought it from one of amazon.com’s booksellers. Hossack’s, Kliewer’s, and Wiebe’s books were also purchased via this method.

Hossack, Darcy Friesen. Mennonites Don’t Dance. Saskatoon: Thistledown, 2010.

I try to keep up on writing by as many contemporary Mennonite writers as possible, and just heard about Hossack’s short story collection from a friend. This person passed along the rumor that the publisher insisted on the title rather than on Hossack’s choice because books with “Mennonite/s” in the title sell better, especially in Canada where Mennonites are seen more as an ethnic group than as a religious one.

Kliewer, Warren. The Violators. Francestown: Jones, 1964.


This is another early example of U.S. Mennonite fiction. I am tickled by the juxtaposition between the cover’s bucolic illustration and the book’s violent title.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Stone Hammer Poems: 1960-1975. 1975. Lantzville: Oolichan, 1983.


I bought this at Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah, which is an excellent new-and-used independent bookstore. I’ve been wanting to investigate non-Mennonite Canadian literature more, and Kroetsch is an author in this category whom I’ve heard of, so I decided to buy his book. It is a lovely aesthetic object.

Wiebe, Rudy. Peace Shall Destroy Many. Toronto: McClelland, 1962.


I already have the 1964 Eerdmans paperback edition of Peace Shall Destroy Many, which is the most important early piece of Mennonite literature, but I wanted a copy of the McClelland and Stewart hardcover edition because of its unique back cover, pictured here. The front cover of both the hardcover and first paperback printing has a white background with red lettering for the title and author’s name, and black lettering for the controversial plot description (Wiebe was the editor of a church newspaper at the time, not a “theologian.” He strongly objected to this description, but the publisher insisted on it). The back cover’s reversal of these colors is striking and foreboding. I acquired this copy for only $7.00 even though it is signed by Wiebe.

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Random Friday Thoughts

I taught my final class of the school year on Wednesday, and for the past two days have just been relaxing and letting my mind wander. It hasn’t hit me on a visceral level yet that I don’t have to teach another class until late August, but my brain is already going on all sorts of tangents. Here are a few that are rattling around this afternoon:

Sometimes I have dreams that people have statistics for their lives just like athletes have sports statistics. Usually these dreams center around me having a low “life average” (akin to a baseball batting average), somewhere below .250. I’m always very worried about this in the dream until I realize that there’s no such thing as life averages. But it would be kind of interesting if there were. It would be fascinating to compare oneself to other people numerically like it is possible to compare one athlete to another. For instance, basketball-reference.com has something called “Similarity Scores” on each player’s page (scroll down to the bottom to see Patrick Ewing’s) that compares the player to other players (past and present) with similar statistics. If it were possible to do this in real life, it would be helpful because then one could see if one’s life was headed in a good direction or not based on those with similar life arcs.

I bought a regular-sized candy bar at the college bookstore this afternoon that cost $1.25. I realize that the bookstore is not the cheapest place to buy such an item, but even so, it points to how candy bar prices have exploded over the past decade or so. For all of my teens and into my twenties it was common to be able to find candy bars on sale for $0.50, and sometimes even less. Nowadays it is hard to find one for less than $0.75 even at stores that claim to have “low prices” (at least in Salt Lake City, and this was the case when I lived in Illinois, too).

Conversely, I also bought a pack of two Bic red pens for $0.99. What a deal! A pleasing quality product for under a dollar. Good office supplies are always exciting. The way things are going, though, they are an endangered species.

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Show and Tell

There’s a new post on Paul Lukas’s Show and Tell blog that is rather fascinating. Some of the objects are rare and weird and others are commonplace, but the stories surrounding the objects are just as interesting as the objects themselves. I love the idea of show and tell for adults in part because I enjoy the history of material culture, but also because I associate show and tell with a kind of awe and joy that I think many of us lose as we get older. I am a cynical person, but I like activities that are able to get me out of that headspace sometimes.

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Thoughts on Shopping and Lost History

This afternoon I was reading Elizabeth McNeill’s Nine and a Half Weeks, and of course I found the depiction of her relationship fascinating, but something else that struck me was her description of the various shops she and her lover visit on the weekends. The book takes place in the mid-1970s, and they go to all sorts of (generally high-end) businesses, most of which no longer exist.

I’ve thought about this before in thinking about how cities and towns change (when I lived in DeKalb, Illinois, the only business in photographs from thirty years ago that was still around was the town’s adult bookstore), and every time I think about it, it makes me a little sad, and it fills me with questions. What happened to these businesses and the people who ran them? Did they retire and simply close the business, feeling satisfied that it had run its course? Did the shifting economy claim the store as a victim, leaving its proprietors bereft? My guess is that this was primarily the case with the various department stores which McNeill names.

Change is inevitable, but the amount of history that gets lost as the memory of all of these mostly small shops fades is terrifying. The human element of our purchases often gets forgotten in light of the excitement surrounding the objects that we’ve bought. Thinking about this is a good reminder for me of the importance of shopping at local businesses rather than at faceless chain stores.

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My Grandfather’s Diary

My maternal grandfather died peacefully two weeks ago, and going through his things the family discovered that he had kept a diary for much of his life. It is surprising that he lived to be 96 and no one knew that he engaged in this practice. He wasn’t being secretive about it; he was just a humble man who didn’t realize that other people would be interested.

Last night I read through the volume which describes his time living in Boston while he completed his Master’s degree in Public Relations at Boston University in the late 1950s. Reading this document was fascinating not only because I learned more about his life, but also because it was interesting to hear about what life as a graduate student was like fifty years ago.

His wife and children were living in Virginia while he studied up north during his sabbaticals from Eastern Mennonite College (now University), so to make money for his living expenses in Boston he worked various odd jobs. These included typing up other students’ dissertations (he was an excellent typist and typed everything, including the check he gave me for my high school graduation), packing boxes of Christmas ornaments, and selling his blood. He got paid between $15.00-$30.00 for this last activity—an excellent rate when one takes inflation into account. For a while he lived at the YMCA, and later rented a room in a boarding house. He also rented a typewriter instead of bringing his own from home, which I found puzzling considering that it was such an important machine for him. He admits to skipping a class every once in a while in order to get a paper or project done for another class. I guess that bad student habits are timeless!

My favorite detail from his time in Boston is that he planned to go to a Celtics game against Philadelphia during the 1959-60 season just for something to do even though he was not a sports fan. I love that he tried to take full advantage of all of the experiences that living in a big city offered him when he had the chance (up to that point he had only lived in small rural communities: Greencastle, Pennsylvania, a brief time in rural Kentucky, and Harrisonburg, Virginia). If he had attended the game, he would have seen two of the greatest players of all time, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, engaging in one of the best one-on-one rivalries of all time during the season in which Wilt (one of the first NBA stars to achieve “first name only” status: Wilt, Oscar, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron…) averaged over 37 points per game as a rookie. My grandfather almost certainly did not realize the importance of the matchup, but it is neat to think about him going to the game, anyway.

However, in looking up the game in question, it appears from evidence in the diary that he did not actually attend the game. The entry for “Thursday, December 3 [1959]” states that he “Got ticket for Boston Celtics-Philadelphia basketball game next week.” The only time the two teams played the following week was on December 9 (here is the boxscore). The entry for that day reads in part that he “Got telegram saying Papa was seriously ill. Called Gladys [his sister who was still living on the family farm] in evening. Worked part of evening. Sent card to Papa and took a walk.” So apparently the news that his father was ill (he died on January 17, 1960) concerned my grandfather enough that he did not use his ticket. This decision is, of course, understandable, and it was special to read his entries from the time of his father’s illness and death while I spend time with my mother as she continues to grieve his death.

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Paul Lukas’s Fascination With Interesting Things

I’ve written here before about Paul Lukas’s Uni Watch site, which is a daily stop in my internet wanderings. One of the reasons I love Uni Watch is that Lukas’s material aesthetic is very close to mine: he’s obsessed with fine craftsmanship, enjoys older objects, and has an eye for fine detail (and, like me, is a Mets fan and likes Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine!). Today’s column is one in a series where he answers questions from readers about himself, and it’s worth checking out because it epitomizes what a thoughtful, intriguing person he is.

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