These Questions 3: Josh Wilker

I first came across Josh Wilker in his blog, Cardboard Gods, a couple of years ago. Almost immediately I wondered, "When is this guy going to write a book?"

Well, he's written the book and it's fantastic. Thursday, I interviewed Josh via e-mail, mostly about his baseball cards.

Rob: Literally millions of young men have been obsessed with baseball cards, and Brendan Boyd's and Fred Harris' book is one the funniest baseball books ever written. But nobody's done anything remotely like what you've done, first in your blog and now the book. Was there a single moment at which you said to yourself, "Hey, I could use baseball cards as touchstones for all the crazy stuff that happened when I was growing up?"

Josh: I am too dense for eureka moments, I think, so figuring out what I wanted to do with the cards in terms of a book was more like slowly getting wet while walking around for hours in the mist, rather than getting drenched in a sudden downpour. I first noticed that the cards could help me open up new territory in my writing back in 1999, when I was living in a shack in the woods with no electricity or running water. Having little else to do, I started looking at my cards and writing about them in my notebook, and I could feel something there. I’d read and loved Boyd’s and Harris’ book a few years earlier, so that was certainly an inspiration to try experimenting with my own cards, but I think I was also drawn to the fact that the cards were the only things left from my childhood. Everything else was gone.

Between 1999 and 2006, I worked on other writing projects, mostly a novel trying to get at a lost world similar to the one I reach for in "Cardboard Gods." I felt pretty down when I couldn’t sell the novel, and I started blogging about my baseball cards partly because I wanted to shake that dispirited feeling -- loosen up, goof around -- and mostly just to keep writing.

Writing about the cards was like playing, and from the beginning the cards prompted me to riff on my childhood. I understood pretty early on that I might be able to tell a whole story of a life through the cards. Though there hadn’t been any books to do that with baseball cards, Frederick Exley’s "A Fan’s Notes," which told the story of a life in relation to a lifelong obsession with the New York Giants, provided the most encouragement to me out of all my favorite books as I worked toward a book of my own.

Rob: I'm oddly fascinated by the mechanics of your collection. How many Topps cards from the '70s and '80s do you have? How have they been preserved over the years? Where are they now? Old shoeboxes? Stacks of Mylar sleeves inside giant binders?

Josh: I’ve never counted my cards, or even done any kind of a rough estimation. I have a smattering of cards from 1974, when I bought my first few packs, and an equally sparse smattering from 1981, when I bought my last few packs (save for the very occasional “memory lane” pack bought since then).

From 1975 through 1980, I would guess, wildly, that I have on average about two-thirds of each year’s set (I never completed a set or even came close). Someone else can try the math on that. I actually don’t really want to know. I’ve decided to write about every card I own, and I think if I find out exactly (or even roughly) how many cards I have, it might be like knowing how many days I have left to live.

As for preservation and storage and where they are now: At the risk of offending and horrifying real collectors who take pains to preserve their cards, I use my cards now the same way I did when I was a kid. One of my cards, a 1980 one featuring a glum-looking Jerry Martin (that I am working on a blog post about) is currently loose in the pocket of my duffel bag, along with some pens, hand sanitizer and gum. Some other cards are spread around on my desk. The rest of the cards just barely fit in a single huge shoebox; luckily, I have large feet and the shoebox was for a pair of my Frankenstein hiking boots.

They are either in loose stacks if I’ve already written about them or plan to write about them, or they are still sorted by team and wrapped in a rubber band, just like when I was a kid. I didn’t know about Mylar when I was a kid, and I’m kind of glad about that. I liked being able to touch them and fling them around, and nowadays I feel like I need to be able to touch them for them to work their magic on me.

Rob: When I was in college, I must have blown a few thousand bucks on baseball cards, mostly in my obsessive (and vain) attempts to complete various sets (mostly Topps, but also the others: Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, even Score). Twenty-some years later, I still have most of those cards in boxes, but they don't mean anything to me. I do have some older cards, but frankly none of those mean anything to me, either. There's really just one card in my small collection that I would sort of miss: 1957 Topps #400, "Dodgers' Sluggers" ... because when I hold that card, I'm reminded of Peter Golenbock's "Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers", the single book that sparked my passion for baseball history. Is there one card in your huge shoebox that means more to you than the rest?

Josh: That’s a great “Dodgers Sluggers” card. By the way, I also owe a huge debt to Peter Golenbock, who expertly channeled the infectious yarn-spinning voice of Sparky Lyle for the diary-formatted book he co-authored with Lyle, "The Bronx Zoo", the book that made me want to start writing about my own life. The moment I finished laughing my 11-year-old ass off at that book, I started keeping a journal about my upcoming Little League season, hoping that hilarious cake-sitting hijinx would immediately ensue. They didn’t, but I kept writing anyway.

As for the question of missing cards from my collection, I think of that quote at the end of "The Catcher in the Rye:" “About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

Before I started writing about all my cards, I’m sure I would have most wanted to hold onto my 1980 Yaz card, since he was my childhood hero and I’d used the card for some time as an inspiration to stay in the box and wait, just like Yaz was doing in the card (even after racking up out after out, as Yaz had done). You’ve got to stand in there and take your lumps and make your outs and wait. But now that I’ve started writing about my cards I would miss them all, or all of those that I’ve written about. They have helped me hang on to all the lost moments, large and small, and to the present moment, and even to the moments still to come. Even old Garvey and Stanley. I think I'd even miss that goddam Bucky Dent.

Josh Wilker's new book, Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, was published this week by Seven Footer Press.