Growing up, my dad was just about the bravest, strongest, and hardest-working man I knew. I’m sure yours was the same, right?
But my dad could work 150 hours every week, come home and play ball with me every night, and then spend the weekends “fixing” his car and moving buffalo-sized boulders around our yard with his bare hands.
He was also adventurous in his eating, willing and able to suck down noxious concoctions he whipped up on Saturday mornings using whatever spare parts we had in the kitchen cabinets. I can remember plenty of times being offered a “shake” that consisted of Karo Syrup, Jell-O, hot sauce, 10-year-old Nestle Quik, Tang, some unidentified yellow powder that lived in a rusty tin, and maybe a splash of milk.
Dad’s forte, though, was gum of all sorts, sizes, sources, textures … and ages. He always had a wad of gum in his mouth, and he was always jamming in a few more pieces of whatever was at hand.
Not only was Dad’s gastrointestinal fortitude amazing, I was able to use it to my advantage on at least one occasion.
It happened in (I think) 1985 during one of our regular trips to the huge monthly flea market held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. We had almost made our way through the whole show, and I had hit all my usual baseball card dealers. I may have scored a few cards, but nothing major.
We headed down the last aisle, where I knew there would be one last blast of cardboard delight, though I didn’t hold out much hope of nabbing anything there. The guy who ran that booth was a big player on the local sports card scene, and his prices reflected it.
He also sold comics, which just cluttered the place up, in my opinion.
But as I waded through the Spider-Man rags flapping in my face from an overhead line and the $50-and-up cards from the 1960s that would never be mine, I spied a strange looking box of unopened wax packs.
The box was orange-red and featured a garish painting of a pitcher delivering his goods. It was reminiscent of the box in which my Atari baseball game came packaged. The packs were red and featured a crouching catcher, ready for the pitch.
On the box, the dealer had taped a handwritten sign that told me what I needed to know: “1978 O-Pee-Chee — $3 per pack.”
By that point in my collecting career, I knew all about O-Pee-Chee cards thanks to Sports Collectors Digest and the yearly Beckett Price Guide, but I’d never actually seen one, let alone held one.
Now, $3 a pack doesn’t sound like a whole lot today, but in 1985 it was almost unheard of, especially considering each pack contained only 10 cards.
Since I hadn’t really scored anything else on our trip, though, it was pretty easy to convince Dad to pony up the three-spot.
Al Oliver Plays for Which Team?
It was a surreal feeling to walk away from that table with seven-year-old cards from Canada still wrapped tightly in their original packaging. It was like I was holding some long-lost treasure from a forsaken land.
The cards felt odd in my hands, and they looked even stranger. Although the design and photos were pretty much identical to the base 1978 Topps set, the O-Pee-Chees featured crisper cream-colored stock that made the backs much brighter. I also remember that the cards seemed harder than the usual mushy brown Topps stock.
For the most part, the pack was a bust in terms of player content, but the one card I clearly recall pulling was Al Oliver, #97. I know now that there are a couple of differences between this card and Oliver’s 1978 Topps card.
For one thing, Oliver sits at #430 in the Topps set.
For another, the script team name on the Topps card says “Pirates” to match the uniform he’s wearing on the card front. On the O-Pee-Chee card, Oliver is wearing that same Bucs uniform, but the team script says “Rangers.”
I didn’t really notice either of these nuances until much later. What I did notice was the block of text on the front of the O-Pee-Chee card that said, “NOW WITH THE TEXAS RANGERS AS OF 12-8-77.”
It was wild to think that O-Pee-Chee cards had been more current than Topps cards “back in the day,” but that’s what the evidence seemed to say.
No, Daddy Don’t Do It!
Meanwhile, my dad had noticed something, too.
“Is there gum in those cards?” he asked.
There was — it was a brittle-looking stick of orange glass, as far as I could tell. It smelled like gum, though, and there was some gum dust on the cards.
“Yeah, but it’s really old,” I told him.
“That’s OK. Are you going to chew it?”
“Um, no — it’s really old.”
“Give it to me, then.”
Both Mom and I protested, but Dad grabbed the nasty slab and jammed it in his mouth. He winced as the gum shattered in his mouth but then nodded his approval as the chicle grew moist and he got a sense of the flavor.
“That’s pretty good,” he said. “Orange gum!”
“I can’t believe you’re chewing seven-year-old gum!” I said.
“It’s fine,” Dad assured me.
We kept walking, Mom and I shaking our heads. Before we got to the end of the aisle, Dad stopped.
“Did they have anymore of those cards?” he asked.
“Yeah, a whole box full,” I said.
Dad pulled out his wallet and fished out three one-dollar bills.
“Why don’t you go ahead and get another one. You can’t go home with just 10 cards, can you?”
I was thrilled as I booked it back to the dealer’s table, but I wasn’t fooled. Dad just wanted more of that orange gum, a suspicion confirmed when he popped the second piece into his mouth on our way out to the car.
I have no idea what came from that second pack, but I do still have my 1978 O-Pee-Chee Al Oliver card.
And I’ll bet Dad still has chunks of that O-Pee-Chee gum stuck in his teeth, whether he’ll admit it or not.