Book review: Cardboard Gods

When Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods: An American Tale was published over a year ago, I remember coming across it the few times I would browse the sports section of a local bookstore. Having no knowledge of Wilker’s blog, I always assumed it was about the cultural significance of baseball cards or some dry piece about their history and the antitrust suit that faced Topps in the 1980s. Fascinating stuff, I’m sure.

Being asked to review this book around the time the paperback version is released, I quickly realized just how wrong my assumptions were.

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What Josh Wilker has constructed is an enjoyable memoir framed around 59 baseball cards with a single basketball card thrown in. The story goes that in 2006 Wilker came across his forgotten collection and decided to blog about it. In each entry he would present a baseball card and write about its significance. Sometimes that significance would center on the player like Mark Fidrych, where his 1980 Topps card recalls a man far removed from his brilliant rookie season only four years earlier. Other times, Wilker would take the anguish on a player’s face and recall a time in his youth when money was tight and he was told that Christmas would be lean.

In the book, Wilker takes these cards and presents them as a theme. He expands upon the Fidrych card as a template for all the good memories of the ’70s, a decade when everything seemed both serious and ridiculous at the same time. Looking at this certain Fidrych card, Wilker is reminded of the intrepidness of his mother and her choice to start a sign-painting business.

Wilker perfectly frames each card as a way to tell his story from being an awkward child who looked up to his older brother to a young man struggling to find his place in life. It’s also a story about a young boy who unconsciously gravitated toward baseball cards as a way to find structure in a life populated by a distant and buttoned-down father and a mother who embraced a carefree hippie lifestyle. As a young child Wilker was drawn to the recorded stats on the back of each card that would tell a story not easily glossed over. If a player was bad, the stats couldn’t do much to hide it but on the other side, where the face resides, a child’s interpretation could run wild.

Wilker never comes out and says it—he is too good a writer to do that—but it becomes very apparent that these cards, from their Steve Garvey perfection to their Vicente Romo ridiculousness, seemed to have the answer to each question that confused him throughout much of his life.

The 1975 Topps card of Dick Sharon is used to combat his young preconceived notions of his own Jewish identity. There is a moment in this essay that is especially moving when he remembers a connection he made with his father about embracing your past.

Issues about masculinity and the struggles of social conformity are integrated between Wilker’s personal stories and the cards depicting Johnny Bench and Kent Tekulve.

The book also perfectly balances humor with a story about hitch-hiking as a child with his brother and how it all comes crashing to a halt when he learns what a futile exercise it is in a town where only a handful of people reside. This story is well framed by George Brett’s 1980 Topps card, on which his profile picture seems to convey confusion as he tries to accomplish something only retired players and dead guys have done: hit .400.

Another theme of the book is acceptance. Wilker lays his soul out there about growing up as a Red Sox fan and struggling to gain the attention of his boyhood idol quickly nearing his end, Carl Yastrzemski. Growing up as a Red Sox fan during this time, Wilker puts it into perspective the long moments of drought made even more difficult by those few near misses.

Both the 1975 and 1986 World Series as well as the heartbreaking finish in 1978 are explored in cards showing Dwight Evans, Bill Buckner, Bucky Dent and even the 1975 Topps Texas Rangers checklist card. 1975 was the year Wilker made the conscious decision to make the Red Sox his team and the struggles he felt in chasing a certain elusive card from his collection that involved Rangers pitcher Bill Hands would let him know that sometimes mere praying won’t get you anywhere.

Despite the author’s decision to keep his blog running, he does find closure in his 1980 Topps card of Yaz. In these final few pages, Wilker comes to terms with a feeling that has haunted him throughout his young adult life. It’s a blend of perfect moments that tells us no matter how elusive or non-responsive these cardboard gods may seem, sometimes an old item from the past can have more healing power than a letter from some retired player can ever bring.

Well, as they say, so much for assumptions.

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