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Junk Wax Time Machine: 1939

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

My friend Mark recently posted a photo of some unopened 1981 Fleer packs he’s bringing to a bud’s house to open. These are cards I remember very well as they hit the shelves at what may have been the absolute zenith of my cardboard obsession. As collectors of the era know well, store shelves had largely been Topps, Topps, Topps for nearly two decades, so it was big news when all of a sudden we had choices, including my favorite choice: to “collect them all!”

Initially, the Fleer packs were the ones I bought the least in 1981, not because I favored Topps and Donruss but because I had already ordered a factory set of Fleer for $6 out of a magazine. This changed, however, once I learned of the rare errors I was missing out on. A “Triple Threat” card of Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, and Larry Bowa with no number on the back?! “How was this even possible?” wondered my not fully developed 11-year-old mind. A Steve Carlton card with the year 1066 on the back? I knew he was old, but was he really William the Conqueror old?

Of course the Holy Grail of the set was the “C” Nettles, a card of Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles that misspelled his first name as Craig on the back. The schoolyard chatter on this one, corroborated later by more reliable sources, was that this particular error was corrected much earlier than the others, making this card THE CARD I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO HAVE!!

I ultimately snared my white whale at a card show later that year, thanks to a dealer selling unopened “first printing” packs for $1.50 each. (That may sound cheap, but keep in mind $1.50 back then could also get you a 1973 Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente in decent shape.) With a crowd around me as I opened pack after pack, I finally pulled the “C” variation, at which point I promptly fainted. Literally. The card was that big a deal.

But alas, what does any of this have to do with 1939?

Just this. As Mark and friends open these 1981 Fleer packs here in 2023, they will be opening packs that are now 42 years old. Imagine then that a similar group of friends back in 1981 was doing the same thing—i.e., opening packs from 42 years earlier. Then the packs around the table would be from the 1939 Play Ball set, and the players they might hope to see would include Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and Mel Ott! Oh, and did I mention the Ted Williams was his rookie card?

Of course, the above scenario is unimaginable. Even in 1981 when vintage prices were still somewhat reasonable and a Wagner might only set you back $30K, I would be a lot against a single gathering of

collectors anywhere enjoying their pizza and beer while ripping packs of Play Ball. Not all “forty-two years agos” are created equal.

There are two reasons in particular that allow Mark, et. al., to open four-decades-old packs this month while the same would have been impossible in 1981. For one thing, who would have hung onto unsold boxes of Play Ball for 42 years? Most cards of the era, opened or not, were simply thrown away…imagined valueless. In contrast, a great many collectors by 1981 had come to understand their collections were worth something and potentially could be worth even more in the future. The price guides from James Beckett (yes, THE Beckett) and Denny Eckes told us even our “common players” were worth $0.03 in good enough condition.

The second reason nobody was cracking packs of Play Ball was that there weren’t nearly as many to begin with. Though I don’t have data on this, I suspect the number of baseball cards produced in 1981 was more than 100 times greater than in 1939.

So no, I don’t imagine there were many—really any—folks out there casually pulling pack-fresh Ted Williams rookie cards while waxing nostalgic on their memories of the set as a kid. Still, here’s the crazy thing, and I know this because it was only a couple years ago that I myself opened some packs of 1981 Fleer at a “junk wax party.”

Pretty much every player—Dennis Werth, Jeff Twitty, John Tamargo—evoked a memory. Sometimes it was a game I was at or a stat I knew. Sometimes it was simply the miracle of “totally remembering this card!” or some detail about it: Gary Weiss sitting in the Dodger dugout wondering if he’d ever get to play, Ron Davis holding his bat like a light saber, the Willie McCovey card back with the size 2 font, and so on.

Had the box of 1939 Play Ball somehow materialized at such a 1981 gathering then, I have to imagine the various 50-somethings around the table would have had the same reactions. Harry Gumbert, Hershel Martin, Bob Seeds…familiar names. Elden Auker, Harry Craft, Gilbert Brack…they’d have stories of these men. “Bill Dickey! Loved this card as a kid. Pretty much the 1976 Johnny Bench of its time!” or maybe, “Man, I think I traded this Ted Williams for an Ira Hutchinson.”

This is how baseball works, how cards work, how time works, and how memories work. Whether or not baseball cards are still a thing, physically or digitally, in 2065—that is, 42 years from now—I sure hope a group of old friends gets together and finally unwraps the various blasters and Hobby boxes they saved from way back in 2023. Maybe they’ll pull a rookie debut patch 1/1, an SSP of a favorite player, or a Hall of Fame autograph, or maybe—just maybe—their entire stack at the end of the night will be worth less than the cardboard box they took them home in. Either way, this wouldn’t be the point. The point, and really the only point, is to achieve something I believe impossible any other way: to be young once again, if not forever, fully and unmistakably in love.


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