Josh Wilker launched his blog, CardboardGods (Motto: “Voice of the mathematically eliminated”) as a link to a simpler time, when all a boy needed to be happy was a nickle, a dime, or at most a quarter, to buy a pack of baseball cards. For a ten-year-old, these guys were, in fact, gods. All you needed to know about the players could be found on these little pieces of paper. Teams, position, size, home town, and stats. No need for superfluous info like arrests, PED used, babies fathered, etc.
Wilker has supplemented the site with a new book, Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards (Seven Footer Press) and took time out to answer a few questions about his pastime for the Bookshelf.
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Bookshelf: You created the site in 2006. What were you looking to accomplish?
Wilker: I was mainly looking to keep writing. I’d been working for several years previous to that on a novel, and I’d been unable to sell it, and that was demoralizing and also made the prospect of starting out on another long trek toward possible, if not probable, disappointment a little intimidating. I needed to find a way to play. So I started writing about my childhood cards, trying to reconnect to the feeling of holding them and loving them that I had as a kid. I figured this playful approach might pull stuff out onto the page that a stiffer, more serious approach would be unable to. I wasn’t sure where any of it would go at first, if anywhere, but I did hope to connect with an audience. Also, because as a writer I think in terms of books, I also thought there might be a book there.
Bookshelf: Do you actually have these cards in your possession?
Wilker: Yes, I still have the cards from when I was a kid. I have them in a shoebox, easily accessible. It’s important for me to be able to touch them and even carry them around with me for a while through my day if I’m working on an essay about the card.
Bookshelf: When did you get the idea to transform this into the book?
Wilker: Pretty early on I saw that there could be enough material for a book, and that it could be a book that was in the tradition of one of my favorite books ever, [Frederick] Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. But instead of forcing it toward any particular form too quickly, I just kept generating material for it until the stuff I kept circling back around to — mainly the theme of my brother and me being bound together by the cards — determined the shape of the book.
Bookshelf: Your blog is pretty much about the players, the card culture. You seem to enjoy “photo-analysis” aspects. Do you think the card companies put that much thought into the process? Were they trying to create art or just get a picture on a piece of cardboard?
Wilker: I don’t have any inside knowledge about the workings of Topps during the 1970s, when they were creating the cards I love so much, but if I had to guess I’d say that the photographers took pride in their work and also had to hustle to meet deadlines. I don’t know if they would refer to it as art or not, but to me it is art, in that the images, especially the posed still shots, are almost endlessly evocative to me. I think the mass-produced feel of the cards, a feel that carries down to the boilerplate poses, somehow adds to this, these little pieces of cardboard that are made strictly to turn a profit put the burden of imagination wholly on the shoulders of the viewer, the little kid who refuses the limitations of the for-profit setup to make the cards into something of true value.
Bookshelf: Your book struck me as much more personal than the blog, almost cathartic….Was this an easy or difficult project for you?
Wilker: The blog gets to the more intense personal pitch of the book every so often, but I can’t live at that pitch, and so the blog goes through different phases, ups and downs, times when I’m getting pretty deep into the past and times when it’s more just me and the readers jawing about baseball. When it came time to put the book together, I had experimented with almost all of the subject matter already, so it was like I’d been in training for a big fight. Getting it all together into a form that felt like it worked was a big fight for sure, a wrestling match, and a painful one at times when it felt like it was pinning me and not the other way around, but I felt like I was prepared for it. It was the book I’ve been trying to write for a lot of years.
Bookshelf: Do you think kids these days can full appreciate the experience of going to the store and buy a pack at a time, trying to find some “treasure”?
Wilker: I get the sense that this has diminished these days quite a lot, but I can’t imagine that a baseball-loving kid wouldn’t still get a charge out of leafing through a pack of cards. A lot has gone on in between my childhood and now, including the total adultification of baseball card collecting, meaning both that it’s something adults seem to do as much as kids and something kids do as if they are adults.
Bookshelf: If you were a kid today, do you think you would have been able to follow the same path as a card collector, or do you agree with Dave Jamieson, author of Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession when he reports that kids have too many other – and cheaper – distractions?
Wilker: I think there have still got to be kids out there who are drawn to baseball cards. Not to get too pretentious, but cards have a talismanic quality that a handheld video game, for example, isn’t going to give. I don’t know what kind of kid I’d be now, since I’m so much the product of growing up in the 1970s, but I think I’d probably be pretty solitary and inward, and that I’d love baseball, and I’m sure there are kids like that today, and that some of them find a certain connection to something magical in the baseball cards, a connection that they maybe can’t find anywhere else.
The back of Josh Wilker’s card:
“Day Job”: proofreader and copyeditor
Favorite player: past–Carl Yastrzemski
Favorite team: Boston Red Sox
Favorite card of all time: This is like trying to pick my favorite child. If forced to choose one, I’d probably pledge allegiance to Yaz (circa 1980)
Favorite book about baseball cards: The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book (Boyd and Harris)