Trading Heroes


By Sam Garfield 


Oct 1, 1959

(Chicago) –I have a middle-aged confession to make.

There’s a little kid in me, always will be. And the little kid in me has a hobby. Maybe even an obsession. He likes to collect baseball cards, like many little kids. Every time I’m in a drugstore, or when I stop at the corner store for some smokes, he makes me dish out some change for a few packs of cards. “For my boy,” I tell the guy behind the counter.

My nephew Mark–he’s nine– also trades baseball cards. But, unlike me, he has plenty of friends who do the same. Because my grown-up pals at the newspaper don’t collect baseball cards –and don’t know I do (until now)– I’m forced to trade only with Mark. But we have a great time, just the two of us haggling over the merits of  a Wally Post or a Smoky Burgess or a Jim Rivera.

Mark has his own personal baseball hero. This guy won’t make Cooperstown. His space in the official major league record book won’t invite comparison with the all-time greats. And his bubble-gum card usually stays in the bottom of most shoeboxes. But Henry John Sauer is Mark’s hero. And he always will be.

Hank Sauer, a slow-of-foot outfielder, played for the Cubs for seven seasons (’49-’55), and will always be remembered by the Wrigley Field faithful for storing his tobacco pouch in the outfield ivy. Mark lives on the South Side, where devotion is reserved for White Sox players. Being a Cubs fan on White Sox turf is tough duty, however, mark does have one satisfying perk when it comes to trading baseball cards. Most every kid in his neighborhood, he says, tries to collect as many White Sox cards as possible. Like blue chip stocks in a financial portfolio, they’re the most valuable these days.

Mark’s goal is to trade for his hero –Henry John Sauer. He knows there’s got to be a Hank Sauer card in the neighborhood. And he is determined to get one, but his pals are making it difficult for him. So he’s got a plan –to stockpile as many White Sox cards as he can get. They’re a hot item these days, with the Sox in the World Series. Surely, he reasons, someone will trade him a Hank Sauer for a Nellie Fox, if he can get his hands on one. That’s where I come in.

He knows I have a Nellie Fox, the hottest card on the South Side, Mark tells me. How ‘bout we make a deal? Sure, I say, I’ll stop by and we’ll figure something out:

“So, Mark, make me an offer for Nellie Fox.”

“Gil McDougald and Jim Gilliam. How’s that, Uncle Sam?”

“Sure, that’s fine –” I try to say, but the little kid in me takes over. You nuts? You gotta hold out for better. You know he’s got a Duke Snider and a Warren Spahn. Hall of famers, for sure, these guys.

“On second thought, Mark, I don’t know. Fox is pretty good.”

“I’ll throw in Richie Ashburn.”

“What about Duke Snider?”

“No chance. I’m not getting rid of Snider. Look here…” Mark opens a shoebox and shows me a Mickey Mantle, a Willie Mays and a Duke Snider. Wow, that’s great. “I can’t break them up, Uncle Sam. How ‘bout Ashburn, McDougald, Gilliam and I throw in Johnny Podres? They all played in a World Series.”

“For a Nellie Fox?” You’ve got two Foxes; he doesn’t know that. Go get a Warren Spahn? Or an Eddie Mathews, at least. Common, the kid’s desperate. He’ll go for it. “Mark, how about Fox for Spahn, straight up.”

Mark didn’t even hesitate. It was like he was way ahead of me.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you Spahn.  But you give me both of your Nellie Foxes.”

“How’d you know, I’ve got –.”  Don’t worry about it. Take it, take it. Spahn’s for sure a Hall-of-Famer; who knows about Fox. “Sure, Mark, it’s a deal.”

*  *  *

Baseball cards measure a player’s worth, but that worth doesn’t always center on statistics –or ability, for that matter. Hank Sauer’s just a .260 career hitter, and Nellie Fox might never make it to the Hall of Fame. But they’re both heroes. And my little transaction with my nephew means Mark will finally get his hero. And it sure helps a kid’s comfort level to know that while he sleeps at night, his favorite ballplayer is there on the nightstand, by his side.

I hope the spirit of trading of baseball cards never changes. I hear investors are getting into the act. The Mickey Mantle ’52 rookie card, they tell me, already is worth plenty of money these days. I hope trading cards will always be centered on hero worship, not materialism. Baseball cards are icons for the young, not a futures market for kids. Or adults. It would be a shame if the fun Mark and I have trading baseball cards turns into a business…where one generation’s collection of heroes is turned into a buy-low-sell-high mentality.

One more note. Mark could probably buy that elusive Hank Sauer card from a kid in his neighborhood. Offer him a few bucks, and the card would be his. But I know Mark won’t ever do that. Heroes, he knows, are never for sale.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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