by Claire Taylor
The back of Robert Veach’s 1915 Cracker Jack card is printed upside down. Maybe all the 1915 Cracker Jack cards were printed that way. I don’t know, and I don’t care.
Imagine being a kid in 1915. It’s a hot summer day and—what luck!—your pop finally brings you along with him to the ballpark. Across the world a war is raging, but here you are, listening to the crack of the bat and digging your dirty fingers into a box of caramel popcorn that you can’t even believe your old man let you have. The tip of your finger finds the soft corner of thin cardboard buried inside the sticky confection, and you pull out the card, anticipation mounting.
The back of Robert Veach’s 1915 Cracker Jack card is printed upside down.
There in your hand is Robert Veach, husky browed and rosy cheeked. Perhaps you’re excited, or just as likely, you were hoping it would be someone else. You flip the card over to learn more about Mr. Veach only to find the damn thing’s printed upside down. For a moment, you’re disappointed. Rightfully so. What kind of shit is this? But you’re a smart kid. Forward thinking. A mistake like this? An error this rare? That’s gotta be worth something someday. But it’s not, kid. I mean, maybe to you.
The cost of this card in the year 2020 would probably blow your little turn-of-the-century mind, but in the wide world of baseball cards, a wonky Robert Veach is small potatoes. I know because my husband put in low bids on two separate auctions for a 1915 Robert Veach Cracker Jack card and unexpectedly won both. So now I have two upside down cards of some ballplayer I’ve never heard of sitting on the desk in our study, and they certainly aren’t worth any more to me than an actual box of Cracker Jack.
When you get married, you promise to love your person in sickness and in health. My husband’s sickness is baseball cards. They are everywhere. Cards from the 1880s and early 1900s. Cards from last year. A whole history of an American pastime told in cardboard increments. Some of the cards are the size of a standard photograph. We could put them into one of those folding picture frames. Old Heine Beckendorf side-by-side with a picture of me cradling our newborn son. Others, pulled from cigarette packs, and something having to do with Cuba, are the size of large postage stamps, the kind you would use to mail bar mitzvah or wedding invitations—something fancy that comes in a square envelope with an inexplicable piece of tissue paper tucked inside.
My husband claims to keep them all in binders, but there are not enough binders and too many cards, so they’re stacked in ever-growing piles on the shelves in our bedroom. There is an old six-thousand-ton card catalog shoved into the back of our three-year-old’s closet. We need to get rid of this thing, I remind him a few times a year. “Well if I ever had time to go through the cards,” he responds in frustration, as if I am the reason he has so little time, or too many cards, or the stupid card catalog to begin with. I suppose in a way, I am. I could say nuh uh, no more. Not another card may enter this house. I could remove the lilt from my voice when I jokingly tell him, it’s either me or the baseball cards; this house ain’t big enough for the both of us.
When you get married, you promise to love your person in sickness and in health. My husband’s sickness is baseball cards.
But the truth is, I kind of like it. Each card is a portal back to a time when I didn’t know him, to a child self whose eyes widen before his smile starts to spread in a way that is mirrored in our son’s face. I have heard at length about which cards were painted, how they were produced, what’s rare, what’s abundant, what happened during the years when most of the star players were off at war, and what kept the men who still have cards from that time period from being able to enlist. Though I mostly smile and nod politely while he chatters about the latest card to arrive in the mail, only taking in about half of what he says, I have learned more about the history of the sport than I would have thought possible for a casual baseball fan. I know Bennett Park, which later became Tiger Stadium, was named after Charlie Bennett, a catcher who played for 15 years with mangled, gnarled fingers only to have his career end suddenly when he slipped off a train platform and lost both of his legs. It’s possible this harrowing tale is a fairly well-known fact. But I also know Robert Veach was born in Kentucky and started his career in Peoria. That I know anything about Robert Veach is ridiculous. That I know the minutiae of his life before the major leagues is almost incomprehensible to me.
The experience of being repeatedly gently dragged into a world that I would never choose to explore is surprisingly joyful. For instance, when I sat down to write about his collecting habit, I asked my husband to name one of the players from those oversized cards. He quickly rattled off a half dozen, including three different Heines. I had no idea that Heine was such a common nickname, I told him, at which point he informed me he hadn’t even named the most popular one: Heine Meine.
“You made that up,” I said, but he assures me he did not. There’s a card to prove it.
CLAIRE TAYLOR is a writer who enjoys a good pitchers’ duel and refuses to learn what WAR means. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Capsule Stories, American Writers Review, SageCigarettes Magazine, and perhappened mag. She grew up in Michigan and remains a Detroit Tigers fan, though she has long since called Balimore home. Visit her website to learn more about her work or follow her on Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor.