Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cards are educational, too

Like most kids, I loved cereal. Cap'n Crunch, Frankenberry, Coco-Pebbles, Sugar Smacks, and many, many, teeth-rotting more.

It was a daily habit. Until my mother decided that those cereals weren't healthy anymore.

Our Lucky Charms and Honeycomb were replaced by Grape Nuts, Product 19 and Kix. There was one god-awful experience with something called All-Bran. I pray that they don't make that horrifying concoction anymore.

We pleaded with our mother to bring back our precious, artificially-but-brightly-colored cereal. Our argument was that although the cereals had much more sugar than, say, the dried leaves packed in a box of Wheaties, the cereal boxes themselves were more educational.

Boxes of healthier cereal basically droned on about how healthy the food was inside the box. Each box had the same numbing theme. But the sugary stuff had a variety of topics. Sometimes there was a game on the back, sometimes there were interesting facts about science or sports. There would be maps, or things you could make by cutting them off the box and folding them together. We spent a great deal of time actually reading the boxes during breakfast and we'd really learn something.

The same goes for cards. Those outside the hobby see cards as a play-thing or a collectible. To them, it is either a waste of time or a means to make money. A sugary nothing. Even for many within the hobby, the educational part of cards is lost. Upper Deck has built a reputation on cards that feature almost no educational content. There is a fantastic photo and a dumbed-down card back. That's it. The upscale cards have even less. The photo, which could be an educational tool, is replaced/shrunken down and a piece of fabric, or a signature, or a bat remnant is the central focus. The back is even less helpful. The card becomes more decoration, less education.

I come from a land of year-by-year stats on the back. A card gave you instant answers, from the position that a guy played and the team that he played on, to where he lived and how many runs he scored in 1977. To me, the perfect card has an educational purpose.

One of the best examples of that is Billy Hoeft.

Hoeft died last week. But news of his death wasn't released until Tuesday. The vast majority of fans didn't know who Hoeft was. But I did.

Even though I've never lived in Wisconsin (Hoeft's home state), or rooted for the Tigers (Hoeft's primary team), or even saw him play (he retired a year after I was born), I've known about him for more than 30 years.

I take no credit for this. All of the credit goes to Hoeft's 1956 baseball card.

This is one of the cards that I obtained from a co-worker of my dad's. I wrote before about how my brothers and I were the lucky recepients of a bunch of 1950s cards, mostly from 1956. In that post, I specifically mentioned Hoeft, and how I found out who he was from the back of his baseball card.

I know there is only one year's worth of stats on the back of these cards. But it's excusable because of the terrific cartoons. The best cartoons ever in my opinion. Educational cartoons.

I found out that William Frederick Hoeft was a fine pitcher with a great fastball, who led the league in shutouts in 1955. I looked up his career a few years later and knew that he won 20 games in 1956, that he once struck out three batters in an inning on nine pitches, and that he struck out all 27 batters in a high school game.

I knew all this as a teenager.

But again, I admit I was prompted by my card collection. Not just by the 1956 Hoeft card, but by the tremendous card at the top of this post.

That is Hoeft's card from the 1958 Topps set. I also received this card from my dad's co-worker. There were few '58 cards in the group we received, but I made sure to get this one. I loved the red background and Hoeft's pitching pose. Today, I have only a couple of 1958 cards that are not Dodgers. Hoeft is one of the last remaining, because it is one of my favorite cards in my collection. It's got to be in the top 100.

Hoeft didn't have the kind of seasons that he had for the Tigers in the remainder of his career. He was traded to the Red Sox, then went to the Orioles, and became a relief pitcher, bouncing around to the Cubs, Giants and Braves.

But Hoeft pitched more than 15 seasons in major league baseball and he is largely forgotten. Only death returned him to the spotlight. I am sure he was appreciated by his family and friends and old Tigers fans. Thanks to a bubble gum card, a random guy in New York state who stumbled across him 15 years after his retirement thought about him from time-to-time, too.

I learned of Hoeft's death from a post on Grand Cards. It's funny, because when I was a kid, I received all of my baseball education from baseball cards. Now, I receive a lot of my baseball education from blogs.

That's not an easy thing for a newspaper guy to admit, although I do admit it because I know that I still learn about baseball by reading the paper. Always have, always will. I'm a big believer in getting my info from a variety of sources -- internet, newspapers, television (but not the local news -- it's pointless), pamphlets, baseball cards, candy wrappers, Snapple caps, you name it.

But I hope there is a kid out there -- actually I hope there's more than one -- who still reads boxscores in the paper and finds education in a baseball card. Perhaps he'll unearth a card of LaMarr Hoyt or Danny Darwin and carry that knowledge with him until the day one of those ex-pitchers leaves this earth.

I have my doubts that the world still operates that way. That's too bad. Because when I was a kid, we read cereal boxes and the backs of our baseball cards. And we were the smarter for it.


  1. Amazingly poignant post! Great job! Much respect to the Hoeft family... May we all read the backs of cards and ask that the card companies not dumb it down for us. After all, reading is fundamental!

  2. Great post and I still can't get over my love of "kids" cereals. Ever had Froot Loops with sugar on top? (My grandpa did that for me once when I was a youngster.) Yum!

  3. Excellent post!! The companies need to remember that BOTH sides of the card matter.

  4. I learned SO much about baseball by reading the card backs!

    I was also a "cereal box reader." I still have to have something to read while eating breakfast. Now I usually read something on the Internet (news or blogs) while eating breakfast. In fact I'm reading this blog while eating my raspberry pop tarts and drinking my orange juice. :)

  5. Great post. If it's any comfort, I still read the backs of a lot of my cards (especially the Emmitt Smiths) and I'm only 24. Not all hope is lost, although I realize I am probably one of a few my age who like it old school.

    It's funny that you mentioned the new swatch and auto fads. While I like pulling them because they may get some a few bucks on eBay (so I can buy other cards I really want), I hate that they never even have a career stat line or hometown listed.

    Oh, and one last thought, I still eat kids cereal. My wife tells me she feels weird buying groceries because we do not have any kids yet, but she still comes home with Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, etc. Today I ate some honey cluster stuff, and the first thing I thought when I pulled it out of the cabinet was "You can tell this isn't a kids cereal, there's no game on the back!"

  6. That was a great post. You consistently set the bar very high for the rest of us baseball bloggers.