Nearly 20 years ago, Dan Gutman had an idea – an idea that would transform his life, make him a bestselling children’s author, and influence the card-collecting hobby. The idea was to write a novel about a boy who can travel back in time using baseball cards.
“I knew a lot of people collect cards, and a lot of people are fascinated by time-travel stories,” recounted Guttman. “So I simply thought it would be cool to put the two together – write a story about a kid who finds the most valuable card in the world and discovers he has the power to travel through time with baseball cards.”
That novel, Honus and Me, which centered on the celebrated 1909 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, came out in 1997 to wide acclaim, receiving numerous awards. Since then, Gutman has published eight more novels in the series, racking up still more awards and glowing reviews and selling more than two million books in the process.
His latest and 10th in the series, Roberto and Me, which focuses on Roberto Clemente in the days before his tragic plane crash in 1972, will be published by HarperCollins this month. The Clemente book, like other books in the series, is subtitled “A Baseball Card Adventure.” Gutman said he is now working on his next baseball card adventure; it is about Ted Williams, naturally to be called Ted and Me.
Surprisingly, considering his novels have a baseball card theme and are read by young card collectors as well as grown-ups, Gutman is not a collector himself. “I don’t collect anymore,” he said, “but I did when I was a kid. I had a big shoebox full of them, back in the 1965-1970 era. When I went away to college, my mother (oh, you know!) threw the shoebox away. So I always tell kids, ‘When you go away to college, take your stuff with you.’ ”
Gutman frequently talks to kids and visits schools in and around Haddonfield, N.J., where he lives with his wife and two children. Growing up in New Jersey, he played Little League baseball, became a Mets fan, and did what boys all across America did at the time: stuck baseball cards into the spokes of their bicycle wheels.
“Back in those days, we would flip our cards against the wall, flip them into a hat, put them in the spokes of our bikes to make the motor sound,” he recalled. “It never occurred to us that they would be worth something someday.”
When asked why children do not seem to collect baseball cards the way they did when he was a boy, Gutman pointed out that there are many more diversions now. “When I was a kid, everybody was a baseball fan, but nowadays it seems like more kids are into football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, NASCAR, whatever. Plus, they are obsessed with video games, the Internet and so on.”
Nevertheless, Gutman is doing his part to keep the baseball card flame alive among youngsters. One collector, Zach Rice, started reading Gutman’s baseball card adventures as a boy. Today, Rice is a professional card consultant who provides advice and information for Gutman when he is doing research for his books.
A long-time writer and editor, Gutman says he “spent 15 years trying to write newspaper articles, magazine articles, screenplays, books for adults, and just about everything else before I discovered the one thing I’m good at: writing fiction for kids. I aim for kids who don’t like to read, and hopefully the kids who do like to read will enjoy my stuff, too.” His readers are ages 9 or 10 and up.
In his baseball card adventures, Gutman mixes fiction and fantasy with history. For instance, in Ray and Me, his 2009 novel about the accidental 1920 beanball death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, the magician Harry Houdini appears in the story, as do Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Miller Huggins and of course, the central characters of Chapman and Carl Mays, the New York Yankee right-hander who threw the fatal pitch. An old baseball card of Mays is reprinted in the book, as well as photographs of the players and newspaper clippings from the time.
At the end of Ray and Me, as with all the books in the series, Gutman includes a “Facts and Fictions” postscript that tells his young readers what he made up and what actually happened, even reprinting the 1971 New York Times obituary about Carl Mays to show what happened to him after the beaning.
Other titles in the series – such as Babe and Me, Jackie and Me, Shoeless Joe and Me, and Satchel and Me (the top seller) – similarly focus on real-life figures and events in baseball history. The “Me” in these books, however, is pure fantasy. A fictional Louisville boy named Joe Stoshack has the magic ability to rub an old-time baseball card and go back in time. When he travels into the past he always carries a contemporary card featuring a player such as Alex Rodriguez. Rubbing the modern card allows him to return to the present when his adventure ends.
Possessed of this gift, the idealistic young Stoshack tries hard to change the injustices or tragedies of the past, such as Chapman’s death. If he can get Chapman to wear a batting helmet, or if he can somehow distract Mays before he delivers the deadly pitch, perhaps he can save the shortstop’s life and change history. Inevitably this quest fails, although the boy always learns life lessons that serve him well in the present.
In telling this and other stories in the series, Gutman conveys the appeal of baseball cards and what it means to have them and collect them. “I was so excited,” he writes in Ray and Me, speaking in the voice of Joe Stoshack. “I rummaged around my desk drawer until I found an unopened pack of baseball cards ... You see, a baseball card is like a ticket to me. Just like an old card takes me back to the past, a new card brings me back to the present day.”
So it is with collectors, too. Even for those without the gifts of Joe Stoshack, collecting baseball cards is a little like time travel. When you own an old card, you hold a piece of the past, a cardboard relic from another time. Dan Gutman has taken this idea and written books that help youngsters see the magic of collecting.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him at: www.operationbullpen.com.