Author Josh Wilker’s tells his moving coming-of-age story through brief reflections on the “Cardboard Gods” in his childhood baseball card collection.
In an isolated cabin in rural Vermont, wannabe novelist Josh Wilker scribbles in spiral notebooks waiting for his great novel to appear. To kill time, he starts pulling out baseball cards from his childhood collection, one at a time, at random, and writing little reflections about each one — scrubs, journeymen, solid starters, all-stars, and immortals alike.
Somewhere along the line, he realizes these reflections are the book he’s been searching for, after years of drifting from one dead-end job to another, one relative’s apartment to another, scribbling in notebooks in search of his great American novel.
Cardboard Gods is the coming-of-age story of a lonely, insecure child, whose mother and her boyfriend Tom take him from his New Jersey suburb to rural Vermont, to pursue their hippie dream of going back to the land. It’s the story of his biological father, who stays behind in the city, and his older brother, whom he idolizes and depends on.
And it’s his personal experience of the pain all Red Sox fans shared until 2004, when the team won its first World Series since 1918.
Topps Bubble Gum Cards
The only reliable relationship in the lonely Wilker’s life, as Mom and Tom’s back to the land dream crumbles a piece at a time, is with the names, pictures, statistics, and one-sentence biographical blurbs on his baseball cards.
The cards contain so much capsulized information about the player, and the pictures give a child even more to speculate about. Those subjective reflections on the players’ baseball card pictures are some of the most lyrical passages in the book.
An intimate part of every child’s baseball card memory is the bubble gum that came in every pack. It comes as hard and stiff as sugar-coated cardboard, cracks when the child puts it in his mouth, and quickly develops the taste and texture of hard rubber. Josh’s vivid description of the bubblegum experience should resonate with anyone who chewed the stuff when he was too young to know it was terrible.
Living and Mostly Dying with the Red Sox
Josh’s first personal Major League memories are his first trip to Fenway Park in 1975, and the manic-depressive elation and disappointment of the 1975 World Series.
Emerging from the concrete stadium insides, and seeing, for the first time, a baseball field in real space spread out like a giant, green handkerchief, is part of every child’s baseball memory. It’s a sight children never see on television, which can only show a sliver of the field at any one time.
The 1975 World Series is Josh’s first experience of the torture all Red Sox fans endured for 86 years until 2004, when the team finally won their first world championship since 1918, the year owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for cash to finance a Broadway show.
Game Six.of that 1975 Series was one of the most exciting games of all time. It ended in extra innings, after midnight, when Carlton Fisk hit a tie-breaking home run. The everlasting image from that series is of Fisk gesturing wildly, trying to will the ball into fair territory.
Unfortunately, Red Sox players and fans celebrated that epic win all night, apparently forgetting that they had to win one more game the next day for the world championship. The Cincinnati Reds won that World Series in a completely prosaic 7th game.
Game Six inspired a whole book by Mark Frost (http://www.suite101.com/functions/article/edit.cfm/231979) .
Come on Yaz
The most important thing Josh took away from his first visit to Fenway was the way everyone started shouting “Come on Yaz” each time Carl Yaztrzemski came to bat. Josh and his brother picked up the cry and shouted themselves hoarse urging Yaz to come through. He never did that day.
He also never responded to Josh’s letter requesting an autograph. And he hit a weak fly ball to end the deciding game of that World Series. Wilker forgave Yaz for all that. The final reflection in Wilker’s book is an ode to Carl Yaztrzemski, and all the hero meant to Wilker’s life.
Bucky F-ing Dent
In 1978, the Red Sox had a 14-game lead over the Yankees on August 14. The Yankees won 70 percent of their games in August and September while the Red Sox collapsed.
The teams ended in a tie for first place, facing a one-game, winner-take-all playoff for the pennant. In the 7th inning, New York’s weak-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent hit a windblown fly ball that barely cleared the Green Monster in left field. In any other ball park it would have been an easy out.
At least that’s how Josh and most Red Sox fans remember it. Actually the Sox won half their games in August and September. Though Dent’s lifetime batting statistics are weak, he’d been a big contributor during the Yankees’ 1978 pennant drive.
But Red Sox fans never think the Sox lose because the other team plays well. Someone on the Red Sox, the wind, Babe Ruth’s curse, or blind luck is always to blame.
Josh writes that, yeas later, he once got close enough to Dent to shout at him, “You ruined my life!”
Bill Buckner in 1986
In 1986, the Red Sox faced the Mets in another manic depressive World Series. In Game 6, the Red Sox were ahead 3 games to 2, five runs ahead in the game, with two out in the last inning, and nobody on base. But the Mets.never made the third out. They tied the score.on a wild pitch that brought another base runner to third base.
Mookie Wilson hit an easy ground ball to first baseman Bill Buckner, who was injured and could not bend. The ball went through Buckner’s legs, and the winning run came in to score.
Josh writes that he did not join the chorus of New Englanders who unjustly blamed Buckner for losing the World Series. For one thing, the game only tied the series 3-3. There was a 7th game the next day, but the Red Sox showed up too shell-shocked to compete. Big league players are supposed to shake off losses like that and come back fresh the next day.
There was plenty of blame to go around for Game Six. The bullpen blew a 5-run lead. It’s still unclear whether the pitcher or catcher was responsible for letting a pitch get by, allowing the tying run to score and putting the winning run on third. And the manager, knowing that Buckner could not bend, did not put in a defensive replacement late in the game.
Wilker still sounds bitter over the way Sox fans ran Buckner and his family out of town. He was still bitter years later when Buckner was invited back to Fenway, and fans held up signs saying “Welcome Back” and “We Forgive You.”
“We ran him out of town, and what does he have to be forgiven for?” Wilker writes.
Most unfair for Wilker is that Buckner, who had an outstanding 19-year career — a solid fielder with a lifetime batting average near .300, — is only remembered for a ground ball that went through his legs in the World Series.
Josh and his brother attended a one-room hippie school through 8th grade, where the students could study whatever they wanted for as long as they wanted. The school was actually a separate room in the regular elementary school, and the mainstream students called the hippie kids retards.
He was a bad athlete who wore long hair and glasses. He clung always to his more confident and athletic older brother, and was always conscious of behg an outsider. It got worse in the mainstream high school.
He followed his brother to a prep school, and was expelled for smoking pot. He got his GED, then drifted in and out of a couple of colleges, and several dead-end jobs, and relatives’ floors and guest rooms, He wrote one novel for young adults that was never published.
In the end, Wilker makes peace with his childhood, and develops warm adult relationships with the people who raised him. He falls in love, gets married, and the Red Sox win the World Series.
“Cardboard Gods” is a beautiful personal story. It has all the elements of a cult classic baseball memoir.
Wilker, Josh, “Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards,” 2010, Seven Footer Press, New York, NY, ISBN-13 978-1-9341734-16-2, 243 pp.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.