Ed Wagemann's Reviews > Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards

Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker
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Aug 29, 2011

it was amazing
Read in July, 2010

Early this summer I picked up Josh Wilker's non-fiction book about baseball cards called Cardboard Gods.  I hadn't read a book about baseball since about 1981 (and that was just the instructions that came with my Johnny Bench Batter-Up), but Wilker's book so completely awakened my long lost obsession for baseball cards and baseball that I immediately sought out two other recent non-fiction books about baseball.  My hope was that these books could not just sustain the nostalgia, but help me figure out why I had ever lost my love for baseball and baseball cards to begin with... 


Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball CardsCardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards by Josh Wilker

I’m a notorious tightwad, my cheapness manifests itself in many forms. One such example is that each year, as a Christmas gift, I buy my biological father something that I want to inherit when he passes away. Generally this gift is a book, even though my father doesn’t even read books—except for THE book (the Bible that is). After getting less than 20 pages into Cardboard Gods, it became obvious that this was the one--the one that was going to be the old man’s gift for the Baby Jesus’s birthday this year. To use a baseball analogy, reading this book was like watching a little known big league hurler pitch a near perfect game. Right off the bat, as you start reading you realize that this guy has his good stuff. His curve ball is biting, his fastball has a sharp giddy-up, he is in command of the plate, pinpoint control. As the game goes on, he gets stronger, more confident—perhaps a lapse in judgment or a missed pitch here and there, but nothing to get him into trouble. By the seventh inning you are cheering him on with all you've got in total appreciation of being able to witness the greatness of a masterly executed shutout or no-hitter even. PhotobucketBy the final out Cardboard Gods may not have been a perfect game for everyone who reads it, but it was an absolutely perfect read for me (sorta like the Doc Ellis no-hitter that Wilker's references). Of course part of the reason this book resonated with me certainly has something to do with the fact that author Josh Wilker is the same age as me, that 95% of the baseball cards he mentions were ones that I owned and coveted, that he grew up in an alternative family situation that involved moving from house to house frequently, he had a step-father, he had a brother who is close in age, and that both Wilkers and I were UPS package handlers in the early 90s. But there are plenty of aspects of Cardboard Gods that anyone can appreciate, for instance his brilliant use of a “device of continuity” that ties the book together. Wilker starts each chapter out with a reproduction of a Topps baseball card circa 1974 to 1980 and then goes on to connect an aspect of his childhood (and/or an aspect of American culture and/or the nature of mankind) with an aspect of that card. Wilker’s observations about the poses, gestures and facial expressions of the ball players captured on the cards were especially brilliant as he insightfully wove these snapshots into the parallel narrative of his childhood in 1970s America. One great example of this was the side-by-side chapters in which Wilker juxtaposes a 1978 Bo McLaughlin card with a 1976 Steve Garvey card: Photobucket                                   
Photobucket“Everybody was going from before to after. Everybody had a look on their face like they’d just caught a whiff of a nearby landfill. Everybody was ambivalent about the length of their hair…Everybody went back and forth from having a regular job to laying on rusty lawn furniture all afternoon unemployed…Everybody began wondering how to file for divorce…Everybody was Bo McLaughlin…Everybody except Steve Garvey.”

As Homer Simpson would say "It's funny cuz its true!"  Also true, almost alarmingly so, was how similar Wilker’s sense of these player’s essense (as obtained from their cards) were to my sense of these player’s essense (from what I gleaned from their card), and the sense that thousands of other boys growing up in the 70s must have gotten from these cards as well. Wilker’s was right on the money-- from his ruminations on the 1976 Victory Leaders card with Jim Palmer and Randy Jones to the old school admiration triggered by the 1978 Wilbur Wood card and so on and so forth.
PhotobucketIt was also entertaining the way that Wilker used baseball cards to say so much about people, about the trials and tribulations of childhood and about 1970s America all at the same time.  As I flipped the pages from chapter to chapter, each revealing another lost treasured image of the Cardboard Gods from my childhood, I began to notice a sense of exhiliration—an exhileration that was similar to the exhiliration that (just like Wilker explained having as a kid) I also experienced in my youth every time I bought a new pack of baseball cards and then obsessively thumbed from one Cardboard God to the next. Wilker even pays homage to that lost experience of exhiliration (common to nearly every boy who ever bought a pack of baseball cards in the 70s) by opening the book with an offering (in image at least) of one of those rock hard miniature slabs of pink sugar/bubble gum that came inside every pack of Topps baseball cards from that era. Even the cover of Cardboard Gods is cleverly designed to replicate the packaging of a pack of baseball cards from the 70s era. This all resonated with me (a thrift store/garage sale junkie anyway) as Cardboard Gods displayed a rich understanding of that certain 1970s Americana vibe that only a kid growing up in that era could truly understand.

I imagine that a lot of guys in their 40s have experiences of wandering up to the storage area above their parent’s garage some weekend afternoon, looking for a tool or something, and stumbling upon a stack of shoeboxes that housed the thousands of baseballs cards that they once collected as a kid. Reading Cardboard Gods was like opening up those boxes and being bombarded with those long lost memories, and for this alone it deserves:
5 Wagemann Heads

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