Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The helmet rule

When I write on the 1975 Topps blog, I take a trip through my childhood in each and every post. That's because there is category on each post that states "What I thought about this card then." I then must delve into my 9-year-old mind and try to remember what I was thinking on that day when I pulled the card with my fudgesicle-stained fingers.

It's a good way to get in touch with the kid in me, not that I'm not very well-versed with that aspect already (people who never talk about their childhood concern me).

It's almost like self-analysis, and I've figured out a couple things about me through the process of going back to my childhood days of collecting.

The first thing is that I don't remember half as much as I thought I did. I used to remember exactly where I found each card that I obtained in 1975. I'd know which drug store. I'd know which trade partner. But the deeper I get into that blog, the more the memories fade. Cards that I once knew the "who, what, where, when and why" for, are now just hazy memories of acquisition. Sometimes I stare at the computer, hoping the memory will come back, scolding myself and saying "you USED to know this stuff. Come on, stupid brain." But the memory usually doesn't come back.

The second thing is I find out things about my 9-year-old self that I didn't know. For example, before I started that blog, I had no idea I was so fascinated by ballplayers who wore helmets.

It took me awhile to put it together, but soon I realized that the cards that I thought were the coolest back then usually had the same theme: the player wore a helmet. The very first card that became my favorite card, and remains my most favorite card of all-time is the 1975 Topps Ron Cey card. He just happens to be wearing a helmet.

This card, a 1976 Topps issue of Greg Luzinski, became one of favorite cards out of the whole set. The chaw in his cheek most definitely helps, but the reason it was a favorite is because the Bull is modeling a Fighting Phils helmet.

The exact same rules apply to this card, right down to the chaw. How envious was I of my brother because he was a Red Sox fan and he had this card? What a fantastic helmet that was.

You didn't even have to be a star to have a cool card. You just had to don a helmet. In fact, I think there might be some airbrushing going on with Mr. Braun, and he is actually wearing a Twins helmet. It didn't matter. Steve Braun was one of my "Cool Players I Know Nothing About" and apparently it was all because he wore a helmet here.

Even players who normally would meet our derision because of their .208 lifetime batting average, like Rob Sperring here, would get a pass because he was wearing a helmet. So when it came time to laugh at the major league's most inept, we'd save it for soft-cap wearers like Rick Austin and Mike Miley. Sperring's helmet protected him from our insults.

Of course, now that I am an adult, I try to figure out why the helmet made such a difference for me. I don't know if I have an answer.

The only thing I could come up with is that the helmet signified that the player was immersed in the game. Even if it was a posed shot or a portrait shot like the Griffey card on the top of the post, the fact that the player was wearing a helmet meant that he was on the job, about to participate in the game, or in batting practice, or in something very exciting.

Wearing a helmet meant they were awfully close to this:

Or this:

They were close to doing what we all wanted to do: heading to the plate and taking some swings in a major league game.

Playing ball was all that I wanted to do when I was a kid. And seeing players in action was a way of participating in the game, even if I wasn't actually participating.

The helmet was the signal that "it was time." All of that other stuff was screwing around. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to play ball. See? I'm wearing a helmet.

Do you remember when you first wore a baseball helmet? I do. It was a big deal. Anybody could wear a baseball cap. I wore a cap when I was 2 years old. But a helmet took some doing, especially in the super-careful days of a youngster playing hard ball for the first time. You would squash that padded helmet onto your head and it would bend your ears back and you'd think it was too tight and, good God, it was so heavy. And you'd start to walk and you thought your helmet would pull your head down when you ran and you would end up doing a forward flip right there on the first base line and everyone would laugh and laugh.

But that never happened and you got used to the feeling. You didn't even notice it anymore. Because you were playing ball. The helmet made it official.

When I look at my baseball cards now there seems to be a hierachy:

NO CAP: There is no indication that this guy is even a ballplayer. He could be about to wax a customer's car for all I know. In fact, he should be working at the full-serve gas station, not pretending he's a Milwaukee Brewer.

CAP: This guy more than likely is a ballplayer, but a cap is nothing special. Everyone wears a cap from toddlers to those 50-year-olds who drink coffee and play golf on the weekends. Look, Valentine barely has it on his head. I bet he's wearing Dockers.

HELMET: This card is beyond awesome. If only this were a Dodger card. You've got the helmet, the batting glove, the mustache, the in-game action, the bright, yellow star. What more do you want? Just everything that a card should be right there.

CATCHER'S MASK: This is the best of the best. There is nothing that says "I'm playing baseball -- Serious Baseball" than a catcher's mask. You are definitely "in the game" when you see this card.

Given the progression I wonder what I would have thought if they decided to put a player in one of those haz-mat helmets.

I also wonder why I never became a construction worker.

So, perhaps there are other collectors who enjoyed helmets on cards as much as I did. Or maybe I was the only freak.

Today, helmets are no big deal, because action photos are all over the place. But back then it was something special, an invitation, to play in the game.


  1. I love that Luzinski 76 card. That Phils set was probably my first set that I put together. Good times.

  2. I loved the red batting helmet that I had as a 9-year-old. Too bad I outgrew it by the time I was 11.

    The kid down the street from me had a set of catching gear. I was jealous of him until I wore the stuff one June afternoon in Phoenix.

  3. I love the eccentricities that card collecting brings out in people. Your helmet obsession is just one of countless card tastes out there.

    An eccentricity I have is that I dislike cards that have photos depicting multiple players (unless they're all named on the front - like on a league leaders or teammates card). I feel like if I were to go senile, it would be difficult to figure out whose card I was actually looking at.

    Thanks for adding me to your blogroll, I've done the same for yours!


  4. *Slow claps*

    Excellent post Mr. Night Owl. This is why we keep coming back for more. I'm not at all biased that you recognize the greatness of the catcher's mask either.