By In Stuff

The Boog Powell Card

My mother, as I have written many times before, knows and cares nothing about baseball. She used to care nothing of any sport outside of the Olympics, but in recent years she has become more interested in these silly games, and every now and again she will want to talk about Tiger Woods or LeBron James or some college basketball team or one of the athletes on Dancing with the Stars (“That Emmitt Smith is a pretty good dancer”) or one of the people on one of the various poker tours — she knows way more than I do about the various poker tours.

Baseball, though, remains a mystery to her, and I suspect it always will.

Mom has become famous among my circle of friends for the time when she read an early baseball story of mine and said, “It was a good story. But one question. Who are YOU to say that it was an unearned run? Who are YOU to decide that the run wasn’t earned?” It’s actually a much deeper question than I realized at the time — really, if you think about it in the larger context, what IS an unearned run? — but the main point is that my mother never cared for baseball, never connected with it, never thought it was worth her time …

… except for a few months in 1976.

I was 9 years old and just then beginning to fall in love with sports. The writers of Sports On Earth were having dinner a couple of weeks ago, and one question was this: What was your first relatively clear sports memory? The answers were all fascinating. Shaun Powell, for instance, remembered being told again and again by his mother to clean up his room, and he emerged just in time to see Franco Harris make the Immaculate Reception. My first memory, sadly, was not that clear or prominent. My memory was of those Oakland A’s yellow uniforms. That’s all. Just the uniforms. I remember seeing them on TV. It was daytime. I have always assumed it was during one of the A’s three World Series of the early 1970s — I think it was the 1972 Series against Cincinnati* — but I don’t know for sure. I just remember those yellow uniforms.

*Sometimes, I convince myself that I remember the Reds uniforms too.

Every sports memory from that time is fuzzy. I remember seeing Gaylord Perry pitch in Cleveland … or, I should say, I remember being TOLD that Gaylord Perry was pitching. I remember relief pitcher Don Hood picking someone off. I remember Buddy Bell hitting a long home run. I remember Bingo Smith making long jumpers and Greg Pruitt having his jersey torn as he broke away from a defender.* But it’s all pretty much unfocused and bleary … until 1976.

*Pruitt is one of only four players — Ricky Williams, Willie Ellison and Mercury Morris are the other three — who rushed for EXACTLY 1,000 yards in a season.

That was the year that I started to collect baseball cards in earnest. Everyone in my school did then. Michael Schur remembers that in his school you had to choose between baseball cards and comic books. In my school, I recall no comic book option. It was all baseball cards, all the time, and that year I flipped cards, tossed cards, traded cards, spun cards and put cards in the spokes of my bicycle. That year I left a Dock Ellis card in the wash (where it undoubtedly went through some of the same emotions that the late Dock Ellis did over the years). That year, for the first time in my memory, I started to study the statistics on the back.

For pitchers: Games … Innings … Wins … Losses … Runs … Earned Runs … Strikeouts … Walks. … ERA.

For hitters: Games … At-bats … Runs … Hits … Doubles … Triples … Home Runs … RBIs … Average.

Oh, I loved those 1976 cards with their stupid multicolored stripes on the bottom and the goofy little trophy they would put in the bottom right-hand corner for the top rookies and the five-point star they would put on the left side for All-Star… and, man, I just loved those cards so … you know what, hold on a second.

OK. Back. I just put an eBay bid on a 1976 Topps baseball card set. Wish me luck.

My mother knows nothing about baseball … but one thing my mother knows A LOT about is hobbies. She has had a million of them. She collected stamps. She painted by numbers. She cross-stitched. She collected all kinds of tchotchkes. For a while, she was very into refunds — you know, get $2 back if you send in 10 soup labels or whatever. Please don’t underestimate this, she was VERY into the refunds thing. We used to get this magazine called (I’m not joking) Refundle Bundle*, and she read it and clipped it religiously. She put an ad in it once, earning her a bit of fame in Refund World. One year — probably 1979 — Mom decided to put all the money she made from refunds into a Christmas Fund, and friends helped out by bringing over their garbage, which we would sort through. What fun. She made about $500, though.**

*My mother just told me that she saw the publisher of Refundle Bundle on some shopping network show, so apparently this still exists.

**While she was focused on refunds, Mom was (on the side) also a world-class coupon clipper. One year, the local supermarket was going out of business and so offered triple-coupon value (with the much appreciated “Full Value” caveat, meaning that if the item was 40 cents and you had a 15-cent coupon they would multiply it by three and credit your account five cents). My mother reached into her coupon files (seriously) and bought about $120 worth of groceries for $2.10. 

So, while Mom knew nothing about baseball — and did not care to know — she wanted to be involved in her oldest son’s life. We shared a love of movies. We shared a love of games. But sports were beginning to take over my life, and she knew it, and so, in the spring and summer of 1976, Mom became a baseball card expert.

In those days, there were really two ways to buy baseball cards:

1. You could buy the wax packs, which were red, had a baseball on the cover, a stick of concrete-flavored bubble gum inside* and cost 15 cents (for 15 cards, I believe, though I’ve been told it was only 13 cards).

*In case you want to make your own Topps bubble gum, here are the ingredients: Dextrose; corn syrup; gum base (to make the gum scratch your tongue raw); softeners (I love how they don’t even say what those “softeners” are, they are just “softeners”  — they didn’t work anyway; the gum was harder than diamonds); natural and artificial flavors (there are NO natural flavors in there, come on); artificial colors and something called BHT, which stands for Butylated Hydroxytoluene. This was used, the package says, “to maintain freshness.” Here, according to The Good Human, are a few of the dangers of BHT:

• Combustible.

• Ingestion calls abdominal pain, confusion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting.

• This substance is harmful to aquatic organisms.

My favorite of those, unquestionably, is “combustible.” And we’re worried about players using steroids?  

2. You could buy the executive baseball rack pack, which had 42 cards for 49 cents. The advantage of the rack pack, in addition to getting more cards, was that the pack itself was see-through, so you could see the three cards on top and the three cards on the bottom. This was hugely helpful because, as you know, if you collected 1976 baseball cards, the Topps company decided to make 483 times more Sixto Lezcano cards than any other. Also Don Money. And Gene Locklear. A good pack would have only one of those three guys. Most packs would have two.

My mother learned to search the rack packs and make sure that there was no Lezcanos, Moneys or Locklears visible. Oh, they were always inside. Always. But at least she made the token effort to avoid them.

After a while, my mother got hooked. She bought for me a little filing box to put my cards. Together we would file the cards different ways. We filed them by number, but that wasn’t a lot of fun. I did learn over time that the Topps numbering system was set up so that players with numbers ending in 5 and 0 were really good players, players ending in 50 or 00 were superstars. Look at the 1976 set:

50: Fred Lynn (MVP of 1975)

100: Catfish Hunter (Cy Young of 1974, 2nd in 1975)

150: Steve Garvey (MVP of 1975)

200: A league leaders card

250: Fergie Jenkins (Cy Young 1972)

300: Johnny Bench (MVP 1970 and 1972)

350: All Time All-Star card of Lefty Grove

400: Rod Carew (batting champ for fourth straight year)

450: Jim Palmer (Cy Young of 1975)

500: Reggie Jackson (home run champ of 1975)

550: Hank Aaron (for legendary status)

600: Tom Seaver (Cy Young winner of 1975, for third time)

650: Thurman Munson (three-time All-Star … WOULD win MVP in 1976)

Someday, I’m going to visit the Topps plant and ask them to explain the numbering system to me.

Of course, none of this meant anything to us then. The cards in numerical order just meant they were kind of a mishmash. We filed them by team, but that wasn’t a lot of fun. We tried filing them alphabetically, but that wasn’t great either. Finally, my Mom suggested we file them by statistics — if memory serves we filed them by number of wins for pitchers and number of home runs for hitters. I remember getting out this graph paper, writing down the numbers, and I do believe that was where my insane love of baseball numbers began.

But that’s not the story.

The story goes that at one point we needed one card to complete the set. The card was a 1976 Boog Powell. It is, on its own merits, a thing of beauty.

51v7H7AcULL SS500

First off, the Boog doesn’t exactly look in great baseball shape. I mean, his butt does not quite fit into the photograph. He’s got the great red Indians top on with that incredibly cheap-looking Chief Wahoo patch on the sleeve. The orange “BOOG POWELL” and the pink “INDIANS” do not exactly flatter Boog, either. He does look focused, give him that, but the hat he’s wearing looks like it belongs to his 5-year-old son. And the middle finger is rather prominently pointed out through his glove. Also, the stylized cartoon first baseman on the left, what exactly is happening there? Is he catching an infielder’s throw? Because if he is, his foot is nowhere near the base. Is he fielding a high chopper? Is he running to first to get the pitcher’s throw? And is he wearing sunglasses? This is one of the greatest baseball cards ever made, simply by virtue of its own awesomeness.

But it meant 10 times more to me because (1) Boog Powell was my favorite player at the time; this was just before that gritty second baseman Duane Kuiper had pierced my consciousness. When you’re 9 and in Cleveland, you are going to love Boog Powell. He was a Cleveland Indian. He hit home runs. And his name was “Boog.” Done deal.* (2) This was the last card that we needed for the set, and my mother was becoming somewhat haunted by it. She did not know Boog Powell from William Powell (of “The Thin Man”), Dick Powell (who married June Allyson) or jazz pianist Mel Powell. She would pronounce “Boog” so it sounded like the first syllable in “Booger,” and she would wonder what grand conspiracy was keeping us from finding one. Still, this card was keeping us from happiness. We bought pack after pack, searched through all the Lezcanos and Moneys and Locklears on earth. Never got one. I would offer incredibly lopsided deals to my friends — trade you a Hank Aaron, Pete Rose and Steve Carlton for one Boog Powell — and no one bit. It was haunting.

*For these very reasons, Boog Sciambi remains one of my favorite baseball announcers.

Then, at some point, we stopped looking. The seasons changed. The summer light had faded, school had begun, the Indians were mediocre, Boog Powell himself was clearly at the end of a fine career (he hit just nine home runs and batted .215, and the Indians released him the following March; he finished his career playing 50 rather forgettable games for the Dodgers and then retired. And, let’s face it, our interests were moving on to other things. I was on to football and a Cleveland Browns infatuation that would overwhelm any emotion I felt about the Indians. She was on to whatever the next hobby was — it might have been the time she was buying small exotic plants (I remember she bought a venus fly trap, which died approximately 59 seconds later).

Then one day — I wish I remembered exactly when, I only remember that it was getting dark early and it was well after the baseball season ended — my mother came home from shopping with a big smile on her face. I recall it being around Thanksgiving, but it might have been around this time of the year. She called me to the kitchen and told me to help her unpack the groceries. As I went through them, I came across a rack pack of baseball cards. And there, in the slot on the left was a 1976 Topps Boog Powell baseball card.

What I remember most of all — even more than my own joy — was how happy Mom was. She had not only found the card, but had found it ON SALE in the “last season’s junk” bucket that they have in every grocery store in America. Oh, she was so happy.

As a parent, I think I understand this better now. It’s fairly easy to get your child something they will like, at least for a few moments. And it’s not all that difficult to get them something they will love for a while. But to get them PRECISELY the right thing, the thing they will remember not only for a week or a month or even a year, but for the rest of their lives, that’s something different.

I don’t remember many of the gifts I got as a kid. I remember a microscope, I remember when we finally got Pong, I remember … no, that’s about it. The rest are bright blurs, like the yellow uniforms the Oakland A’s used to wear when they played World Series games in the daytime. I remember a baseball glove. A board game. A toy of one kind of another. But even though 36 years have gone by, I remember exactly how that Boog Powell card looked in that rack pack. I remember precisely the expression on my mother’s face when I saw it for the first time.

I also remember the expression on her face, many years later, when she told me she had thrown out all my old baseball cards. She always says she did it because the basement flooded. That’s what mothers say, I guess, when they throw out your cards. They must learn it in some class.

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35 Responses to The Boog Powell Card

  1. Mark Coale says:

    I always envied my cousins who always got the Topps full set every year for Xmas.

    • David in NYC says:

      I collected way before Joe, and also way before Topps even offered full sets.* The only way to get a complete set was to buy enough packs (and remember not to *try* to chew more than one stick of gum a day so your teeth didn’t fall out).

      *Buying full sets, once they became available, was only for non-serious collectors and/or those who were allergic to bubble gum.

      In 1960, I managed to get one of every single card EXCEPT Zack Monroe of the Yankees (who, as it turned out, pitched the last 3.1 innings of his career in 1959).

      Which means I may be the only person outside his immediate family who even remembers the name Zack Monroe.

  2. Stephen says:

    Funny, my first memory is mom watching the ’75 Series (Luis Tiant running the bases) & first cards the ’79 set. I was 3 years behind.

  3. bahnbino says:

    Great story, and I can identify with it, especially the rack packs. I just got some cards on Ebay for my son (or so I say)…

  4. Bugaj says:

    I remember when I traded in about $8o “worth” of cards to a dealer for packs, including 3 $6 packs of 89 Upper Deck on the hopes I’d get a Griffey. If I didn’t get a Griffey, the trade would be a bust. It was in the second pack and I was ecstatic.

  5. The first team I ever really cared about was the San Diego Rockets, and I assume everyone knows how that ended. Sports teaches all sorts of lessons, pleasant and otherwise. Anyway, the PERFECT gift came on Christmas, 1970: two tickets to the 1971 NBA All Star game, the only time it ever was–or ever will be–played in San Diego. My parents tried for weeks to get tickets, but the game sold out quickly. I had resigned myself to watching the game on TV until I opened a small box under the tree. Great game, by the way, a one-point West win featuring, among others, West, Wilt, Kareem (a the time, Lew), Clyde, Hondo, the Hawk, the Pearl, the Big O, the Big E, and the current mayor of Detroit.

  6. Hoppin' John says:

    “…the Indians were mediocre.”

    Possibly the nicest thing ever said about the Indians of the 1970s.

  7. daveyhead says:

    My Mom got me BOTH “The Year the Mets Lost Last Place,” by Paul Zimmerman and Dick Schapp and “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. Those are two of the best sports books I ever read. Ball Four Is deservedly better known, but Mets fans, especially ones in their late 40s or 50s, ought to find a copy of the former and relive the magic.

    Great story, Joe, and glad you too had a cool Mom.

    • I tried to read Ball Four once. I took it back to the store after about 100 pages. I know it was supposed to be Earth shattering, and maybe it was at the time, but by the time I read it, finding out that ballplayers drank and chased women wasn’t much of a revelation.

    • It was at the time, so reading it would probably be more of a historical look at how sports reporting and books have changed because of Ball Four, and also a snapshot of the time.

      But, okay, sure, I can get not being into it. Yet you really took the book back to the store after you cracked it open and read a hundred pages of it? That’s pretty embarassing on your part. Hey, I just drank a third a bottle of wine, but I’ve decided I don’t want it now.

  8. BobDD says:

    My first game to ever go to was at Veterans Memorial Stadium in 1960 to watch new (new for the Portland Beavers anyway) Superstar Satchel Paige pitch on a Sunday afternoon. I also went down to the edge of the field well before the game where he was holding forth – he was a very funny storyteller I thought.

    I wonder if I could have ever got by telling my Mom and Grandmother at the dinner table about BOOG Powell.

  9. Great story. I got into it in ’78, and played with them so much i almost wore them out. I sorted by league, team, then position: p,c,1b,2b,3b,ss,of. Interesting how many players would be printed for each team. Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers teams would be 3″ thick (counting dupes), Mariners, Twins, inch and a half.

  10. Exodor says:

    My first clear sports memory is the Pine Tar game in ’83. I can still remember neighbors gathering in the adjoining backyards (no fences in that neighborhood) in suburban KC to discuss the outrage and curse the Yankees.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Thanks for sharing this great content, I really enjoyed the insign you bring to the topic, awesome stuff!

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  13. Ben Wildner says:

    Talking about earliest sports memories always gets me so angry JERRY RICE FUMBLED!


  14. Dan England says:

    I hope I do one cool thing that will inspire my kids to write about it or at least Tweet or update Facebook about.

  15. Rob Smith says:

    My earliest sport recollections were from my time in Chicago at age 5 or 6. I definitely remember Jack Brickhouse yelling hey-hey (and I believe it was flashed on the TV screen) whenever a Cub hit a homerun. I remember either Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo or Randy Hundley being the guys that probably hit the HR. I also remember most of the starting lineup, Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands and a few others. I also remember absolutely loving Tommy Agee of the White Sox. I remember they had Joel Horlen and Tommy John pitching. I was too young to pick between the White Sox and Cubs at the time…. although the Cubs did televise every game, or most every game, usually at 2:00 (for home games… before they got lights) after I got home from Kindergarten (half day was the norm then). So, I rarely missed a game. I’d give my Mom updates on the games, but I don’t think she cared much. She was usually doing something outside or around the house & that was during my younger brothers nap.

  16. doc says:

    For me, it was the baseball cards of 1959 that got me hooked (for about 5 years) on baseball cards. (I’d been a baseball fan since 1955 or 1956.)

    And for me, it was Jim Finigan that I could not get. Jim bloody Finigan and his dying career (1959 was his last year). Which you can see here, and for which someone wants $33.95: (A complete 1959 set of 572 cards seems to be going for $3200 or so, or a little less than $6 per card, so old Jim must still be something of a rarity.) I finally got a Jim Finigan in 1962…

  17. KHAZAD says:

    Great Mom story.

    My mom was not a sports fan when I was young, but my first sports memory still comes from her. When the Chiefs played the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, the Vikings were huge favorites. We lived in Virginia, but my Mom was from KC, and seemed to be the only person who thought the Chiefs would win. We watched the game, and though I didn’t understand much, the Otis Taylor TD where bounces off an attempted tackle and runs down the sideline and scores is my first.

    When the game was over, so was my Mom’s interest in sports. Mine was just beginning. She was a single Mother, so eventually she began to learn about the Chiefs and Royals (we had moved back to KC) and sports history. (I would come up and announce some arcane sports fact or stat or rule – several times per day – and she would pretend to be interested every time)

    Eventually over the years, Mom became a fairly passionate and knowledgeable fan from trying to share in my enthusiasm. Even now, when the Chiefs or Royals have a good or exciting game, (Few and far between these days) I will call her, knowing that she is excited and wants nothing more than to share that excitement with someone else.

    She was always there to share it with me.

  18. Smiledoc says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Smiledoc says:

    My first sports memory (age 6) was the 1961 World Series (Yanks -Reds for those (most) of you too young to remember); it was the first time I ever saw a color TV, at my grandmothers house. Wow, the grass was GREEN (well, sort of green, it was hard to get the right colors on the TV back then).

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  21. Unknown says:

    My “Boog Powell card” gift was the original Boba Fett Kenner action figure that you could only get with 4 proofs of purchase and had to mail in. I remember it because it was so unexpected and so awesome all at once. Even back then (I was 6) I sort of understood the effort my parents had make to quietly cut out the proofs of purchase and mail it in well in advance of Christmas.

    I remember getting other gifts and really enjoying many of them, but I remember the specifics of opening that Boba Fett.

    As for first specific sports memory it was a Nuggets-Lakers playoff game on TV in ’87, which is strange because I’m from Boston. I had been to Fenway many times and can remember snippets, but I specifically remember watching that playoff game and was amazed by the speed of the teams (the glory days of fast break basketball) and the colors (Boston teams seemed to only have two colors at that time). I remember watching at a video rental store in the town we lived in and I can even remember where that TV was situated in relation to the rest of the store. I would even guess we were returning Jason & the Argonauts but that might not have been true.

  22. yoyodyne says:

    Fantastic story.

    My first sports memory is watching high-draft pick K Mike Michel miss a FG to lose a playoff game to the Falcons. Perfect start for an Iggles fan.

  23. Great article, Joe. I believe your mom’s pronunciation of “Boog” is actually correct. There was an elderly woman in our Baltimore church in the 60’s who talked to him all the time, and she pronounced it that way. Brooks Robinson does too, and I presume he would know.

  24. Rufus says:

    I love your stories, Joe. When my son was born, he heard me talk about the greatest game on earth (baseball) for five years straight. So, when we went to a church camp-out and there was a pick-up game planned, he was literally shaking with anticipation. Then, when it was his turn at bat (big blue fat bat with the off-white plastic ball), he swung and shrieked with glee, even though the ball barely traveled five feet. He was staring at the ball in such a trance he almost forgot to run to first base. My mom story was when she heard Halsey Hall, announcer for the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium, actually swear on the air because it was bat day and those damn kids were making such a ruckus on the metal bleachers in left field! My mom was scandalized. She remained a Twins fan, though.

  25. Tim Burnell says:

    1976 was the first year I started collecting baseball cards (I was 10). I didn’t even come close to finishing the set … maybe got half the set. (Joe, you were getting all the Sixto Lezcano cards … I was getting all the Enzo Hernandez cards … Topps must have quintuple-printed that one … and then shipped them all off to Southern NH.) Anyway … my Boog Powell card …

    So … I collected with a couple of breaks here and there pretty much forever still, and, in the mid-90s I decided I had to go back and finish that ’76 set. I chipped away and chipped away … mostly needing commons (really, making it that much tougher, but, the dawn of the internet made it easier). Anyway … I got down to need two cards … somebody … and Pedro Borbon. Could. Not. Find. Them. Looked and looked. And then, in ’96, my first Christmas with my then-fiance … and lo-and-behold … probably the greatest Christmas present EVER. 1976 … uh … somebody … and Borbon. Set complete. (And, clearly, a keeper of a bride.)

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