I've told the first part of this story a few times, but not the second part.
I'm fairly certain that my first glimpse of Henry Aaron came when I opened the pack that I had shoplifted from the end cap of a local drug store when I was 9 years old.
It was 1975 and all I knew of television programming were cartoons and Oscar the Grouch. I wasn't watching baseball games yet and I certainly wasn't reading newspapers. But I knew the name Hank Aaron. Maybe my classmates mentioned him or maybe my third-grade teacher brought him up when he broke the home run record. That's the kind of impact he made at the time.
So when I opened that pilfered pack as the guilt washed over me, I knew who Aaron was. I knew he was the best player in the pack. I knew he had broken the record. Whose record, I had no idea. But that Aaron, he is probably the first baseball player I ever knew.
I pretended that I had found the pack of cards on the sidewalk a few houses down from where I lived. Aaron was the star of that pack, but I didn't hang on to the card for long.
A friend of mine owned the '75 Topps Ron Cey card and Cey was already my favorite player. I wanted that card so much and my friend was one of those kids who was interested in only the greatest and loudest -- his two favorite athletes were Joe Namath and Reggie Jackson. So I knew that I probably could only get that Cey card if I threw a big name at him, and no name was bigger at the time than Aaron.
The deal was done. Aaron for Cey. I didn't feel cheated. I probably didn't deserve the Aaron card anyway. And I went on my merry way.
The collecting years went on and I continued to lack an Aaron card in my collection. The following year, in 1976, I didn't pull either of the Topps cards of Aaron. And then he retired.
Aaron would pop up in various oddball sets after that. I remember staring at his card in the Renata Galasso set advertised in Baseball Digest in 1977 or 1978.
Aaron showed up in the 1982 Kmart set and my brother, who worked at Kmart, grabbed at least one set, but I don't remember seeing this card, or any of the highlight cards. It certainly wasn't in my collection. And even though Aaron appeared on a Woolworth set in 1985 and in the 1986 Donruss set (including the puzzle) and in 1987 sets by Hygrade and Nestle, I was in college and barely collecting at the time.
No, the only Aaron image on cardboard I could claim were a couple of these:
Not really his cards.
And in 1989, basically a reprint of card No. 1 in the 1974 set (I never know how to orient this card). This was really the first cardboard image of Aaron alone that I owned since trading away his '75 Topps card. One lousy card. And a reprint.
More years passed and other Aarons showed up. There were a bunch of them in 1991 Upper Deck. I didn't collect 1991 Upper Deck.
Then, in 1994, as I was beginning to enter another collecting hiatus, I bought around five packs of Topps cards that year.
This card was one of the ones I pulled. It marked the 20th anniversary of Aaron's record-breaking home run. I liked the way the card looked instantly. And, amazingly, it was the first card of Aaron with a unique image that was in my collection.
It took me 20 years to find another Aaron card. That's the lesson here. Hold on to that Hammer.
Since I've returned to collecting, I've accumulated a fair number of Aaron cards. Fifty-nine of them by my count. I'm not a Braves or Milwaukee fan so there was no real intent behind finding them.
Except this one, of course. This is the most recent Aaron card I've added. I did so this past summer and it's the most impressive one that I now own.
It's been extremely tough dealing with the baseball deaths of the past year. It's terrible any time any former ballplayer dies but lately it's been nothing but players I watched as a kid or appeared on baseball cards that I bought: Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Mike Sadek, Rogelio Moret, Dick Allen, Lindy McDaniel, Jay Johnstone, Tony Taylor, Adrian Devine, Claudell Washington, Biff Pocoroba, Bob Watson, Matt Keough, Bart Johnson, Ed Farmer, Jimmy Wynn, Ted Cox and Tony Fernandez.
Players from this era mean more to me than players from any other era. I always read about the blog devotion to Jose Canseco and Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas. But those are all younger guys and they simply don't have the impact for me that a Hal McRae, Greg Luzinski or Cesar Cedeno does. The '70s were a special time and nothing else can compare.
And that's why those names continue to stay alive on this blog and will for as long as I remember them. I need to hold on to those memories and those players' cards.
If Hank Aaron taught me one thing about collecting it is to hold on to those big cards with meaning. Hold on to those cards of Mike Schmidt and George Brett and Jim Rice. Hold on to those cards of The Hammer.
Because if you give them up, you may never get them back. It could take you almost 30 years.