As a kid, there were two things I looked forward to more than anything.
Rushing to the mailbox to see if my latest sports magazine had arrived and begging my mom for another wax pack of baseball cards while standing in line at the supermarket or drugstore.
Remember the annoying kid who always threw a tantrum in the cereal aisle because he wanted the box with the coolest toy? That was me, only it was sports toys I craved. Opening a new magazine or ripping a wax pack was like opening presents on Christmas morning.
I couldn’t wait to dive into the latest issue of Sports Illustrated or the old Sport magazine. The box scores and round-ups in the Sporting News, the Bible of baseball, were a godsend. I devoured Baseball Digest like it was a Batman comic book.
The photos and stories in those coveted treasures fueled my childhood dreams and fantasies. When I dug my feet into the dirt at home plate at the little league field, I was Hank Aaron or Johnny Bench ready to crush a home run over the outfield fence. When I toed the rubber, I was Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver.
The stories and stats in those magazines and fun facts on the back of baseball cards helped me memorize and reconstruct the rosters and lineups of my favorite teams. It was through those pages and cards that I learned to mimic the unique batting stance of heroes like Pete Rose and Steve Garvey or the swagger and cool demeanor of NFL stars like Joe Namath and Roger Staubach. When basketball cards emerged, I couldn’t wait to rip open a pack in search of Jerry West, Wilt or The Big O.
As I kid, I used to play baseball in my grandfather’s gravel driveway, using an old wooden bat to knock rocks over the trees and across the field. A shot onto the tin roof of the barn was a double, a blast over the barn a home run. After batting, — and running through the lineups I had created that day — I practiced pitching and fielding by flinging a rubber ball against the brick wall of our house or the old country church across the road.
The games allowed me to pretend I was the heroes I discovered through sports magazines and baseball cards.
When I attended my first major league game in the early 70s, it was the biggest thrill a kid could experience. The Braves played the Cincinnati Reds in Atlanta and it was like a big-league all-star game. Six players hit home runs that day — Hank Aaron, Dusty Baker and Darrell Evans for the Braves, and Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez for the Reds. Four of those six are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and hopefully Baker will join them soon.
Mesmerized by such moments and the stories and photos I read in magazines and books, I went searching for more cardboard, hoping I would pull one of my heroes from those mysterious, sugar-coated packs. Like many kids from the ‘70s and ‘80s, my room was filled with stacks of magazines and boxes of cards. I sometimes traded cards with friends, but they were too precious for flipping or flapping on bicycle spokes.
It was a thrill pulling cards of the game’s biggest stars, an Aaron or Bench, Ryan or Seaver. Even more special were stars from my favorite teams, Baker, Evans or Marty Perez from the Braves, or Yaz, Jim Rice or Fred Lynn of the Red Sox.
But like most kids, what I loved even more was getting a card of my favorite players. Often those were cards of the guys I thought were the coolest, most hip players, or the ones with the coolest names. A Joe Rudi, Sal Bando or Bert “Campy” Campaneris in their colorful Oakland A's uniforms and white shoes. Guys with unique names like Bernie Carbo, Bake McBride, Cesar Geronimo, Rowland Office and Biff Pocoroba. As a Red Sox fan, I even held onto a few Yankee cards — Thurman Munson, the gritty, mustachioed catcher, Roy White, who had a cool batting stance, and Oscar Gamble, he of the cool name and big hair.
I loved finding one of those players when I ripped open a new pack. But as wax packers know, more often than not, you wind up with Eddie Brinkman, who wore nerdy glasses and choked up on his bat so much he looked more like a science professor than a ball player.
My fascination with cardboard heroes and the games they played left me dreaming of a career in sports. I have been blessed with the opportunity to chase those dreams for nearly 30 years as a writer and editor for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites.
It’s been a fun and exciting journey, one that has allowed me to write about nearly every professional sport and cover games and big events all over the country. Writing about sports heroes and creating publications devoted to their superhuman feats takes me back to my childhood, when I followed those stars through my captivating magazines and colorful cards.
One of the biggest thrills of my career has been writing and editing for magazines that I once read as a kid, including the Sporting News. Now I’m blessed to get to work with another one as editor of Sports Collectors Digest.
As I collected trading cards, I read publications like SCD and Tuff Stuff to track the value and popularity of my cardboard treasures. When I graduated from wax packs to box sets, such publications were valuable guides to keep track of my collection and the hottest selling cards.
The industry has changed dramatically since those days. Who would have ever dreamed that the hobby’s most iconic cards would one day be worth millions of dollars and that collectors and investors would pay unimaginable sums for a piece of cardboard history?
It’s an exciting time to be a collector and follow the nation’s fastest growing hobby. I’m ready to jump in with both feet and swing for the fences. And maybe rip open a few more boxes and wax packs along the way.
Jeff Owens is the editor of SCD. Got an idea or story to tell? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter at @jeffowens_jeff and @SCDMagazine.