Mantle, Boyer and their long fight for survival in my shoebox

I’ve loved this baseball card for a long time. It arrived in a shoebox with a thousand other cards, a hand-me-down gift from one of my big sister’s long past boyfriends, probably acquired around 1970.

I would have been nine at the time and this ‘Rival All Stars’ card from the 1960 Topps set wasn’t the most valuable or sought-after card in the box by any stretch. Inside this treasure chest were diamonds like individual cards of Mantle and Boyer, and also Mays, Maris, Koufax, Spahn, Banks, Clemente, Aaron, etc., etc., etc., all from the early 60s. In 1970, the cards weren’t very old yet — there was still a lingering shadow of the bubblegum smell on them, for goodness sakes. But they seemed ancient to me.

Too young to really appreciate the “value” of the cards, I was easy prey for a couple of local conmen down the block (two kids who were 12 or 13, you know, “big kids.”). So, I got ripped off in a few trades, but still managed to hold onto the bulk of the cards in the old shoebox, including this one.

Fast forward about 10 years. Now I’m 19 and savvy to some of the shadier practices in the collecting world, but I’m no longer “actively” collecting cards. For a few years in the early and mid 70s, though, I’d built up my collection a little, ordering cards through the mail, trading with friends (“Here, you can have my ’60 Clemente if you give me your ’63 Mays …”).

My pals and I got really interested after reading about someone who had paid the outrageous sum of $1,500 for a T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card. None of us had ever actually seen a tobacco card. The addition of high stakes to the hobby did make it that much more interesting to us.

So anyway, I’m 19 and my family has moved to the Chicago area. Now I have several shoeboxes of cards and they are stashed in the garage in moving boxes that we haven’t finished unpacking yet. One day while hanging out with a couple of local kids (my little brother’s new school chums), I pulled out a box of cards for some show and tell.

These kids were rabid Cubs fans and their eyes grew to the size of pies when I unveiled a 1960 Ernie Banks card, then the 1962 Banks with its fake wood paneling borders. Here was the hero of their fathers and big brothers. Ernie was long retired by now, but these imps knew all about Mister Cub. The scene of the crime gave them away. A few days later I noticed one packing box in the garage neatly open, and a gaping hole where the shoebox of cards used to be, as if the thieves knew exactly what they were looking for (which of course, they did, because I’d kindly shown them).

My little brother, loyal to the core, brought his friends over one afternoon after school, ostensibly to hang out and play. But he was really bringing them to an intense interrogation as the three Grillo boys — older brother Steve, younger brother Tony, and yours truly — surrounded the two thieves and battered them with questions. They confessed, finally, and while we held one kid hostage the other rode home on his bike to fetch the stolen booty. They had taken handfuls of my 1960 and 1962 cards (for some reason, my sister’s old boyfriend must not have collected much from the 1961 set, because I only inherited a few of those). Now the cards were back, including the one pictured here, a real survivor along with the rest of the cardboard gods stuffed away in little boxes.

So, why this card? I love it for a few reasons. Look at the smiles on their faces, the Mick on our left, Ken Boyer on our right. Two guys from different leagues who, when this card was printed, had barely played against each other at this point their careers, meeting only during Spring Training (when all baseball card photos were taken in those days) or All-Star games (when this photo probably was taken). There is no pressure on their mugs, just glee, maybe a sense of anticipation by two guys who grew up in the same part of the country, eager grips on the ends of their bats.

I also love it for its foreshadowing. These young stars (both men were in their 20s when this photo was taken) would eventually meet on the field of play in the fall of 1964, in one of the classic World Series. That year Mantle, playing his last great season, led the Yanks into the fall classic against Kenny B. and his scrappy St. Louis Cardinals, who had overtaken the stumbling Phillies to win a thrilling National League pennant race. With Bob Gibson throwing BB’s and Barney Schultz throwing knucklers, and Lou Brock stealing bases, and of course, Ken Boyer, the National League Most Valuable Player for 1964. The Cards beat the Yanks in seven games. Both Mantle and Boyer hit clutch home runs in that Series. Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam wrote a book about it.

Sadly, both men would die before reaching deep into old age (Ken in 1982 at the age of 51, and Mickey in 1995, when he was 63). I love this card because it has somehow survived under my sometimes loosey-goosey care, and because it depicts two of my heroes in the bloom of youth, and in spite of its age (60 years, about the same as me), this card looks forward to a universe of possibility. That’s what I love about it.

 

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