Cardboard Gods and Our Baseball Obsessions

There are many great baseball books and many great writers who write or have written on baseball. Some, like Roger Angell, describe the game beautifully and compellingly providing much needed baseball solace during the winter when the reader can’t go to the ballpark. Others such as Arnold Hano have written about a single game with such eloquence that the reader feels, in the case of Hano’s book A Day in the Bleachers, like he or she is watching game one of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds. Biographies are also rich vein of baseball literature. James Hirsch’s recent biography of Willie Mays provides a thorough tour of Mays’ life and career. Additionally, great biographies have been written about Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and many others. Memoirs, journals and statistical analyses are among the other genres of baseball literature that have kept me engaged for most of my life.

There are also a small handful of baseball books that while fun for the baseball fan, are also about something bigger. These books don’t just make you think about baseball differently, but they make the reader think about other questions as well. Bill James’ early Baseball Abstracts demonstrated the hazards of accepting conventional wisdom as well as ways to look at information differently regarding baseball and the broader world. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four provided an insight into the ubiquity of small mindedness and showed how rare professional or intellectual courage is. To this day, for example when somebody says something very obvious I respond, often silently, “Gee, thanks Eddie.” This was Bouton’s response when Seattle Pilots pitching coach Eddie O’Brien told a group of pitchers that “The key to pitching is to throw strikes.”

Josh Wilker’s book Cardboard Gods, based on his website of the same name, is also one of these baseball books that is both about, and profoundly not about, baseball. Wilker’s book is ostensibly a retelling of his 1970s childhood through riffing off of various old baseball cards from his collection. The story itself is fascinating, and will resonate for many of Wilker’s generations who, to one degree or another, experienced the social upheaval of that time as a child.

Wilker’s book is, however, more than that. It is a study of the role baseball plays in many of our lives. As a boy in an increasingly confusing and disappointing world, Wilker turned to thinking about, playing and reading about baseball to make sense of his world. His baseball cards were the physical representation of this. People who do not share Wilker’s passion for the game will be baffled by how a Dan Spillner card from 1979 or a 1977 Kurt Bevacqua card could provoke such memories and an ongoing link to Wilker’s childhood. However, for those of us for whom, like Wilker, the centrality of baseball to our youth cannot be overstated, this seems like the most natural thing in the world.

Cardboard Gods is also about relationships between brothers, and to some extent, the triangular relationship between two brother and baseball. The Wilker brothers, like the Mitchell brothers, have always communicated largely through baseball. It is the language of their youth, still able to elicit laughter, pain, frustration and for Josh and Ian ecstasy when, in 2004, the Red Sox finally won the World Series. The Giants have not yet provided my brother and me with that feeling, but when they do it will be a powerful shared moment in our lives.

Wilker writes about a time in his life when baseball cards, and the players they represented were simpler, better and more real than the “real” world around him. His own exploits on the diamond also took on greater significance to him than, for example, his school work or social life. The feeling is not uncommon. When people ask me, as they have for years, how I can remember details of ballgames I attended at Candlestick Park decades ago better than details about my own life I have not known how to respond. Wilker provides the answer-because those games were more real to me than the confusion at home, difficulty at school or almost anything else in my life at that time. In this regard, Cardboard Gods is not just about one man’s love for baseball, but it is an examination of how we as children create diversions, distraction and indeed worlds to ensure our emotional survival.

Wilker’s description of how baseball gradually faded for him as life became more real, and at times more painful, is really about the internal struggle between man and boy, or girl and woman, that is part of growing up. We see how baseball has become less important between 1978, when Wilker was about ten and 1986, when Wilker was about 18, through his portrayal of the agonizing Red Sox defeats in those two years. Bucky Dent is the subject of a hilarious tangent involving a wood chipper and an alternate universe. However, under the humor the pain the Wilker felt when Dent hit that home run is still clear. However, Wilker’s description of Buckner’s famous misplay in the 1986 while poignant and charitable does not convey a similar pain.

An Eddie Murray rookie card prompts Wilker to write a long essay about being a young adult including a description of attending a Mets game with his brother Ian which the two young men declare “the Last Baseball Game Ever”. The Wilker brothers, frustrated with the difficulties of adulthood were blaming their one constant companion, baseball. They hoped that by severing ties with baseball, they would close the door on their painful childhoods and turn their lives around. Life, and baseball, however, does not work that way. Ultimately, Wilker found it impossible to break with baseball, valuing instead the inexplicable support and comfort baseball provides. The metaphor here is eloquent, but straightforward as again for Wilker the lines between baseball and his difficult childhood are very blurred.

Wilker has written an extraordinarily honest book about growing up and forging adult lives and adult relationships which, while not really about baseball, still made me feel like I was back at an almost empty Candlestick Park watching the Giants lose, playing ball in the Presidio, reading yet another baseball magazine or book and, yes, buying a pack of baseball cards and giving the gum to my brother.