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The Sears Christmas Wish Book helped fulfill the dreams of a young sports collector

The annual Sears Christmas Wish Book helped fulfill the holiday wishes of many sports fans and collectors. One young fan recalls the sports collectibles he found in the popular catalogs.

The arrival of the Sears Christmas Wish Book was a major event in the Trutor household. It usually came around the time the Red Sox were eliminated from contention in the AL East.

Everyone in my family thumbed through the 700-page digest, making note of the items that appealed to them on a yellow, legal-sized piece of paper tucked among the order forms. Some of those items would inevitably end up under the tree on Christmas morning.

Sears Christmas Wish Book from 1992.

Sears Christmas Wish Book from 1992

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I treated the Wish Book a little differently than the rest of my family. I didn’t simply have a favorite item on every page. I had an opinion on every single type of product in the book. I had a favorite girdle, griddle, garage door opener and jabot. I had strong opinions on interior paint, camcorder tripods and sewing machines.

Most of all, I cared about the sports collectibles and clothing, which became ever more abundant in the catalog in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Sears Christmas Wish Book was created in 1933 as a seasonal extension of the grandaddy of all mail-order businesses, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog, which began in 1888 as a specialty dealer of watches and jewelry. Eventually, all the big department stores got in on the act, producing not only their own catalogs but seasonal wish books modeled after the Sears original.

Sporting goods were always part of the Sears Wish Book and, over time, officially licensed sporting apparel and memorabilia found its way into the publication. A survey of WishbookWeb.com, a glorious site which includes dozens of vintage Christmas catalogs, shows that Sears and their competitors had apparel, memorabilia and sporting goods autographed by star athletes intermittently through the 1970s.

The Sears Christmas Wish Book featured all sorts of trading cards and sports memorabilia.

The Sears Christmas Wish Book featured all sorts of trading cards and sports memorabilia.

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The first such item that became a fixture in the Sears Wish Book was Hutch kid’s football uniform sets, which started appearing annually during the 1970s. In his fantastic book, “From Darkness to Dynasty: The First 40 Years of the New England Patriots,” Jerry Thornton describes the experience of being a young Patriots fan looking at the Sears catalog in the early 1970s. Throughout his childhood, he never saw a Patriots uniform among the Hutch NFL children’s costumes, which were replete with a jersey, plastic helmet, plastic shoulder pads and football pants. There were Mike Phipps and Marty Domres uniforms but never Jim Plunkett (who later had one as a Raider in the early 1980s) or Randy Vataha.

I had the same experience years later as a Jets fan. If Hutch could produce a Dan McGwire uniform for soon-to-be disappointed Seahawks fans, why couldn’t it print a few Browning Nagle jerseys for this soon-to-be disappointed Jets fan?

Sports clothing and collectibles hit their stride in the Wish Book in the late 1980s, just as the card market was booming and apparel emblazoned with team logos became a fashion staple. In 1989, Sears devoted multiple pages to baseball cards for the first time. Apparel from the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and NCAA suddenly had a 12-page section of its own. By 1991, officially licensed sports clothing had a full 35 pages. Zubaz pants, Starter jackets and cartoon T-shirts of championship teams were available in abundance. On the memorabilia side, Sears ventured well beyond baseball cards as “Sports Collectibles” got their own eight-page spread.

Upper Deck, Topps, Donruss, Classic, Fleer and Score offered complete sets, various traded and rookie series and different size boxes of cards and value packs with out-of-print cards from previous years. The Upper Deck baseball card set went for a Cadillac price of $46.99, while the other complete sets were available at the Geo Tracker price of $29.99. Alongside baseball cards, sets of football, basketball and hockey cards were also available.

Sports cards from Topps, Fleer, Score and other companies were featured in the Sears Christmas Wish Book.

Sports cards from Topps, Fleer, Score and other companies were featured in the Sears Christmas Wish Book.

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Porcelain renderings of famous baseball cards, including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards, were available on a wooden frame that looked like a piece of a baseball bat. 8-by-10 color photographs of your favorite athletes, as well as Jose Canseco, were available in wooden plaques with an etched nameplate. An entire page was devoted to binders, boxes and miniature metal storage lockers for keeping all your cards straight.

An entire page of commemorative silver coins, priced $29.99, honored specific sporting achievements and milestones. You could purchase a coin recognizing Nolan Ryan’s 300th win or Brooks Robinson’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. One coin memorialized the 75th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 (specially priced at $39.99) and another Duke’s 1991 NCAA Basketball championship.

Collectible coins commemorating sports stars were also featured in the Sears Christmas Wish Book.

Collectible coins commemorating sports stars were also featured in the Sears Christmas Wish Book.

Some coins just featured player’s nicknames, such as the Will Clark coin, which simply said “The Thrill” on the back. Other coins included sentimental sayings, like the Ken Griffey Jr. and Sr. coin, which had “Father and Son” on the back. My favorite included truisms. The Dan Marino coin just said “A Sensational Quarterback,” while Barry Sanders was designated a “Running Back Superstar.”

Most exciting among the sports collectibles was a treasure trove of autographed baseballs, bats, footballs, hockey sticks and pictures. The Score Board Inc., the era’s biggest name in autographed memorabilia, provided the items, just as it did for the Home Shopping Network.

The 1991 catalog featured baseballs signed by current stars for $39.99, as well as comparably priced balls inscribed by several Hall of Famers, including Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. A price of $49.99 could get you Mike Schmidt, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench or a ball signed by both Griffey Jr. and Sr. For $89.99, autographed baseballs by Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial could be yours. The autographs came on official American or National League balls, signed on the sweet spot and cocooned in a clear plastic globe.

Baseballs and footballs signed by such famous stars as Ken Griffey Jr. and Sr. were also featured in the Sears Christmas Wish Book.

Baseballs and footballs signed by such famous stars as Ken Griffey Jr. and Sr. were also featured in the Sears Christmas Wish Book.

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To my recollection, my 1991 Christmas list consisted of:

1. A Roger Clemens-autographed baseball (page 484).

2. A sealed set of 1991 Upper Deck Baseball Cards (page 487).

3. Socks and underpants (pages 122 and 138, respectively).

Santa clearly had a look at the yellow piece of paper tucked into the Wish Book. On Christmas morning, I opened up a Roger Clemens autographed baseball and a set of 1991 Upper Deck cards.

Autographed Roger Clemens baseball and stand ordered from the 1991 Sears Christmas Wish Book.

Autographed Roger Clemens baseball and stand ordered from the 1991 Sears Christmas Wish Book.

I couldn’t really play with either one. While my brother enjoyed the action figures he’d gotten, I thought about the pieces of potential history I held in my hands. I’d been so excited to hold something that had once been in the hands of the “Rocket,” but it felt different than the autographs I’d gotten at a ball game or by writing a letter to a specific player. There was no story behind it. I started to realize that morning that what I loved about collecting autographs was the memories that were built into each signature.

The same went for the sealed box of Upper Deck baseball cards. My dad asked if I wanted to open and sort them but I explained that these cards were as much of an investment as a hobby. The cards I got at Ben Franklin’s department store were to be opened and enjoyed. These Upper Deck cards were my Klondike claim.

I tried to make the most of it. I gathered up my Roger Clemens cards and the copy of the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press I’d kept when Clemens won the Cy Young award a few weeks earlier. I used these assembled things to make a shrine to the Rocket, centered around my newly autographed baseball.

Several weeks later, I was watching the NFC Wild Card game with my mom and my Roger Clemens autographed baseball. I’d already cracked the globe. I dropped the ball earlier that week while conducting some kind of esoteric ceremony at the Shrine of the Rocket. While watching the Bears and Cowboys, I got to spinning the cracked globe and it came off the classy-looking wooden mantle, which was held in place with one chintzy nail.

But at least the autographed ball was okay. Temporarily. Before the next baseball season, Clemens’ signature started wearing off the sweet spot. His calligraphy is now barely visible but what I presume to be his reddish fingerprint remains on the ball.

The Upper Deck cards stayed sealed until I was in college. A brief perusal of eBay one night in the early 2000s made it clear that Santa had brought plenty of other kids complete unopened sets of 1991 Upper Deck baseball cards too. It seemed like there were a lot more guys like me trying to get rid of their sets than people trying to buy them, so I opened up the box and sorted them to my heart’s content. Finally, I was doing what I should have done with them more than a decade earlier.

The sports collectibles and clothing section remained a subject of fascination for me until Sears finally stopped sending us a Wish Book. After years of scaling back the size of the catalog, Sears did away with their big annual Christmas book in the early 2000s. There have been occasional revivals of the Wish Book but they lack the size, scale and grandeur of the original.

Receiving such heirlooms from the Wish Book lost some of its luster for me after actually getting such items on Christmas morning, but the hours I spent pondering every collectible listed in the catalog remains a fond memory.

Clayton Trutor is a writer and history instructor at Norwich University in Vermont. His first book, “Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports” was published in 2022 by the University of Nebraska Press. His second book, “Boston Ball: Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Gary Williams and College Basketball’s Forgotten Cradle of Coaches,” will be released by Nebraska in 2023.