Reminiscing about sports cards

Kevin Wandra's picture

I have written before about, when I was younger, spending a copious amount of time collecting and trading baseball, football, basketball and hockey cards. I cannot even begin to fathom the exorbitant money I spent on those special pieces of cardboard.

Despite somewhat regretting the time and money I spent on sports cards, I still have vivid memories of the ones that meant the most to me. It got me thinking, “If I could pick my top five favorite sports cards of all time that I own, what would they be?”

After much thought, my list, in no particular order, is finally complete. All of my favorites happen to be rookie cards. As you can tell from my comments, I focused on players I admired as a kid.

1989-90 Hoops David Robinson rookie card: Robinson always will be my favorite basketball player of all time. He was great at both ends of the court, plus, perhaps most important, he was a good guy. Unlike most athletes, he truly was an exceptional role model for kids.

When I played basketball as a young kid at various locations throughout my hometown of Roselle Park, New Jersey — my driveway, high school, middle school, parks, friends’ houses — I pictured myself as Robinson. My size did not allow me to perfectly portray Robinson on the basketball court — I was under 6 feet tall; Robinson was a 7-footer — but I did my best to debunk the notion that white men (and boys) can’t jump by doing my best to swat shots and be an overall force in the paint. (It is easy to do that when you are defending kids who are a couple years younger and shorter than you, but shhhh, please don’t tell anyone.)

There are many cards of Robinson that display him exhibiting his vast skills, but this Robinson card means the most to me because it is his rookie card. And, at the time, it was his most valuable card.

1984 Topps Don Mattingly rookie card: “Donnie Baseball,” as Mattingly is often referred to by diehard Yankees fans like me, was one of two Yankees I adored as a kid growing up in Jersey (Rickey Henderson was the other). The Yankees were dismal during the 1980s — they failed to win the AL East from 1982-1989 — but Mattingly was one of the few reasons to keep watching the Bronx Bombers; he was a six-time All-Star selection, and, hands down, he is the best Yankee from the ’80s.

Every Yankees fan in my neighborhood wanted this Mattingly rookie card, which depicts him in perfect position to snag a line drive, something at which he was adept; he was a nine-time Gold Glove Award winner. Just thinking about this memorable card brings a wide smile to my face.

1989 Score Barry Sanders rookie card: Sanders’ rookie card is one of the most boring cards of all time; it is simply a close-up shot of Sanders smiling while wearing a T-shirt. How exciting! That said, anybody who possessed this card in my neighborhood in 1989 was considered the luckiest kid alive.

Most football fans realized Sanders was destined for greatness by the end of his memorable rookie year; he was an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection his rookie year, plus he was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Watching Sanders’ nimble feet, balance and electrifying moves was mesmerizing, and owners of his rookie card, myself included, saw dollar signs floating in their heads, with the thought that once Sanders concluded his career as one of the best running backs in NFL history, we could sell his card for suitcases full of cash.

Boy, were we wrong about the rain of cash coming our way. You can find the card for less than $50 on the Internet. So much for Sanders helping me get on “Cribs” one day.

1986 Topps Jerry Rice rookie card: I was a passionate San Francisco 49ers fan growing up, and Rice was one of my favorite players. Watching Rice haul in passes from Joe Montana in San Francisco’s West Coast offense was a thing of beauty. I lacked Rice’s speed, athleticism and, of course, talent, but I did my best to emulate Rice when playing football with my neighborhood friends. I even had a small white T-shirt with Rice’s number 80 written with a red marker hanging from my waistband when playing. (Rice was known for wearing a towel hanging from his pants.)

I could not get enough of Rice’s rookie cards. I own three, the last of which I acquired from a kid from my neighborhood during the 1980s who was a rabid Chicago Bears fan. The trade: a 1986 Steve McMichael card — McMichael was then a defensive tackle for the Bears — for Rice’s rookie card. It was the biggest heist since the Yankees stole Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for cash in 1919, and it made me want to sign along to “No, No, Nanette.”

I just hope that certain Bears fan (I won’t mention his name) does not reads this, hunt me down and hand me a beatdown. I found out a few years ago that he is a humongous bouncer in south Jersey, and he was in training camp as an offensive lineman with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1990s.

1982 Topps Ronnie Lott rookie card: Wayne Chrebet, Joe Klecko, Deion Sanders, Bill Fralic, Andre Rison, Montana and Rice are among the many players I have adored as a lifelong football fan. But perhaps my favorite of all time is Lott. He was a feared headhunter in San Francisco’s defensive backfield, and many pundits, myself included, feel the Hall of Famer is the greatest safety in the history of the NFL. His vicious hits, toughness and intimidating presence caused nightmares for receivers who dared to venture over the middle.

Lott also had exceptional hands — he finished his stellar career with 63 interceptions. He was one of the primary reasons the 49ers won four Super Bowls in the ’80s. When I played defense in games with my friends, I imagined myself as Lott, delivering crunching hits any time I got the chance. A few of those Lott-like hits — ok, I thought they were Lott-like — caused some friction with my friends, but they eventually got over their bumps and bruises.

Lott’s rookie card was a must-have for me. The problem was, no local sports card dealer had it, and it could not be found at the numerous card shows I attended. Finally, one day during the ’80s, Perfectly Centered, a sports card store in my town, had the Lott card displayed in its lengthy showcase of valuable cards. It took me a couple of weeks to come up with the money, but once I did, I made the quick trip to Perfectly Centered, located less than a mile from my home, and plopped down $30 to get my hands on a card that I still cherish.

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