Bubble gum and baseball cards

Topps hasn't included a stick of gum inside its pack of baseball cards for years. But I still miss it.

Not because I miss chewing the gum. Lord, no! My friend Scooter gave me a couple-decades-old pack of cards a while back, along with an explicit warning not to chew the gum because so many years had passed that it probably was hazardous to my health. Hey, don't worry -- I wasn't going to put it anywhere near my mouth. That gum was stiff, brittle, stale and unchewable from the day it was first inserted in the pack. I suspect Topps had been slicing each stick off the same enormous gum block since 1939.

As a kid, I would occasionally stuff several sticks together in hopes it would somehow improve the experience, but it never did. Chewing the baseball cards themselves would have been more appealing (and probably tastier), even if they'd already been clothespinned to our bicycle spokes.

No, forget the taste of the gum. What I miss is the smell of the gum. If you're old enough to have collected cards in those days, you know what I'm talking about. That sweet, sugary aroma was as welcome a part of baseball as freshly cut outfield grass, freshly served garlic fries or a pit beef sandwich at Boog's barbecue pit in Baltimore.

They say the sense of smell is the most powerful memory trigger, and I believe them. I experienced the most amazing phenomenon with the James Hirsch biography of Willie Mays a couple of years ago. The pages of my copy somehow smelled just like Topps baseball-card gum. Seriously. I don't know how that happened or whether it was intentional or accidental, but the smell made me feel 40 years younger. I was transported back to the days of my youth when my brother and I would buy packs of cards at the store and then methodically open them. We always hoped for a Mays card, and we always settled for Jack Aker.

It was an overwhelming experience. I enjoyed the smell of that biography's pages even more than the sight of the words printed on them.

So I don't understand why Topps doesn't put gum back in its packs. Sure, nobody should ever chew the gum. Sure, it stained the card it was placed against. But so what? There is too much emphasis on the value of cards these days, anyway. You would sell more cards -- and create more young collectors -- if you made them more about fun and less about a financial investment.

Do what it takes to bring that experience back. Separate the gum from the cards with a plain piece of cardboard to prevent stains, if you must. Or artificially create the gum smell -- my copy of the Mays book shows it's possible. But give us back that wonderful aroma of baseball and childhood.

On the other hand, I am definitely not advocating that a pack of baseball cards should include tobacco or cigarettes again, as was done in the early 1900s. That's one smell we can do without ... especially now that Jim Leyland has retired.