The barrier that divides the past from the present, as it appears to the nostalgic sensibility, is the experience of disillusionment, which makes it impossible to recapture the innocence of earlier days.1

-- Christopher Lasch

For most, the practice of baseball card collecting is rooted in childhood. Originally, baseball cards were advertisements for accompanying products -- first for tobacco, later for bubble gum. These bubble gum cards were directed at children, and until the 1970s and eighties, baseball card collecting continued to be predominantly a child's preoccupation. But in the seventies and eighties, adult interest in card collecting and baseball memorabilia soared, as marked by the remarkable escalation in prices. A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, which may have been attached to a bicycle spoke decades ago, would be sold for over $25,000. Baseball memorabilia centered an entire subculture.

In House of Cards, John Bloom found of serious card collectors,

On the one hand, baseball cards recalled the heroism of men whom the boys admired and who excelled in competition, displayed grace under pressure, and exhibited manly strength. At the same time, however, baseball cards also evoked a longing for boyhood itself, a desire to recapture a feeling of innocence and playfulness popularly associated with white middle-class boys and baseball.2

Baseball cards, even for current players, bear with them a sense of the past; they mark a player's time in the game, and increase in value as that mark recedes into the past. Most baseball card companies today print cards celebrating past players -- cards stylized to suggest the past. "Fleer Tradition" cards feature autographs and faux rusticated cards from Negro Leaguer players and "Turn Back the Clock" cards,3 while the Upper Deck "Special" collection consists of nothing but former players, now Hall-of-Famers.  
image #1
Honus Wagner, Upper Deck Co.,
"Special" Series, 2001

In some sense, the commodification of baseball cards undermines any nostalgic sentiment that motivates their purchase; they become simply currency -- a serial item in a set -- and are thus stripped of their mythical value by quantification. However, Bloom's collectors often expressed disbelief at the escalating prices and demonstrated a valuation of the objects as reminders of childhood. The result, then, is that "baseball card collecting exhibits some contradictions central to a consumer culture that simultaneously detaches people from history and promises the fulfillment of memory through consumer products and commercial entertainment."4 Card companies sell adult collectors stimulants for their own childhood recollections, recollecting a simplified past -- relics to bridge the sense of discontinuity between the past and the present.

While some of the impetus for memorabilia surely resides in a hankering for the simpler days of childhood, the nature of spectating and affiliation carries with it act of identity creation and maintenance. The purchase of memorabilia is perhaps an attempt at active participation in the otherwise passive endeavor of spectating. Fans want to feel a part of the teams they follow -- a sense of "we" rather than "they." Following a certain team affiliates that person with not only that team, but that team's community and fans. To this end, perhaps, one might feel the need to demonstrate commitment. Collection is a demonstration of committment -- it is material sacrifice as a demonstration of sacrifice.

This commitment through consumption is perhaps more salient in the purchase of apparel. By purchasing a replica jersey from the past, one affiliates himself not only with that jersey, but with the past itself. To be "old school" is to be authentic, and to do things in the way it was supposedly once done -- with a sort of moral rigor largely absent today. Nicholas Davidoff described the Cooperstown Collection -- the line of replicated apparel -- as "mass-produced souvenirs for defunct teams such as the St. Louis Browns and the Washington Senators, items that appear destined to make those teams more popular now than when they existed."5 Apparel from the Senators and Browns does not assert a sense of team loyalty or community cohesiveness built around a team -- these teams are long gone, and now play in Minneapolis and Baltimore, respectively. This apparel, instead, is valued simply for the authority and authenticity something from the past suggests. A 1990 article in Esquire claimed that replica designer Peter Capalino "creates reproductions that are, for all intents and purposes, the real thing," collapsing original and imitation into one; upon donning a 1938 Joe Dimaggio jersery the author added, "when I slip the shirt on, I feel transformed. I feel, in a word, legendary."6 The jersey, now "real thing," is a vehicle not only to a mythical past, but being the stuff of legend oneself.

image #2
1924 St. Louis Browns cap
"Relive your pastime with the Cooperstown Collection. . . You'll surely stand out in your nostalgic apparal [sic] of yesteryear."7

-- advertisement, Cooperstown Collection Store

Capalino himself noted of a purchaser:

The male shirt buyers are decidedly white-collar and frequently emotional. I have a friend, a stockbroker, who never mentioned baseball until he came in one day and saw a '51 Ted Williams. He turned red and began to shake. He put on the shirt and said, 'I've got to have this. When I was nine, I got Ted Williams's autograph. I've had it in my wallet ever since.' To borrow that Notre Dame phrase, these shirts are waking up the echoes.8

This has not been, however, a purely white and male phenomenon. In 1995, the Negro League apparel line, featuring jerseys, jackets, and caps from teams like the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays, was the hottest selling item for the House of Nubian, a New York store specializing in hip-hop fashions.9

Today fans can purchase nearly any piece of the past imaginable -- replicas of extant ballparks, recordings of old radio broadcasts, lithographs of mythologized moments, paraphenalia from franchises long gone. Fans at ballparks are given souvenir cups, accentuating the team's past, to bring home a portion of that past. Bobblehead dolls -- ceramic facsimiles of players originating in the 1960s -- have become enormously popular, and are used as a means of attracting fans to the ballpark with designated give-away days.
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Contemplating the ball he hit for a home run in the 2001 All-Star Game, Cal Ripken noted, "[pieces of] memorabilia are supposed to make you replay that memory all over again."10 Some memorabilia -- like Ripken's ball -- are certainly connected to distinct memories, and serve as touchstones for the recollection of times past. Some items are not linked to real memories at all, but rather simply a sense of pastness. They work as connectives not to an experienced past, but an imagined one. Participation in the past at retro ballparks is one way of virtually reconnecting to the past; ownership of memorabilia and apparel is another.

Notes (click footnote number to return to text)

1 Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991) 83.
2 John Bloom, A House of Cards: Baseball Card Collecting and Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 10-1.
3 (
4 Bloom, 13.
5 Nicholas Davidoff, "Field of Kitsch: Is Nostalgia Wrecking Baseball?," The New Republic August 17, 1992: 22.
6 Peter Sikowitz, "Does Your Shirt Match the Sox?," Esquire April 1990: 60.
7 Advertisement, Cooperstown Collection Store, (
8 David Butwin, "Baseball Flannels are Hot," Sports Illustrated July 6, 1987: 105.
9 Otis Robinson, "In the Niche: Carrying Negro League Gear Is a Marketing Home Run for House of Nubian," Black Enterprise November 1995: 36.
10 Thomas Boswell, "Even in Twilight, Cal's Forever in Limelight," Washington Post 12 July 2001: D1.


#1 (
#2 Advertisement, Cooperstown Collection Store, (
#3 "Bobblehead Mania,", (
#4 Cup from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.