There was no internet or cable TV (in our house, at least) to help me learn about the history of baseball, and all the baseball books at the local library were pretty old.
What I did have, though, was my burgeoning interest in collecting baseball cards and a couple of local retail outlets to feed my new hobby.
It was there on the shelves of our Hook’s Drugstore, nestled among the Snickers bars and regular baseball cards (Topps, Fleer, and Donruss), that I first laid my eyes on the glory of 1983 Topps Baseball Foldouts.
Postcard-Sized Baseball Lessons
Each cellophane-wrapped package of Foldouts was about the size of a postcard but thick enough to be a booklet or small writing pad. The front showed (I’d later learn) Ben Oglivie in full swing with the Milwaukee Brewers, as well as information about the issue and the individual package: “17 Home Run Leaders” and “Set 2 of 5,” for example.
The back of the package showed the active leader in whatever category the “set” showcased.
So there in the span of just a few inches of shelf space, I had the opportunity to learn about the highest ranking players in the most important statistical categories, at least according to Topps:
- Career Wins
- Home Runs
- Batting Average (“Batting Leaders” in the Topps parlance)
- Saves (“Relief Aces”)
- Stolen Bases
I knew I had to have all of them, and collecting the full set of foldouts became my first real hobby goal.
Kids Dig Home Run Leaders
Even with very little knowledge of the game, I did know that home runs were exciting, and I recognized Reggie Jackson on the outside of the “Home Run Leaders” package, so that’s the one I chose to start my set.
I couldn’t even wait to get home before I tore off the wrapper and unfolded the accordion of sluggers across the bench seat of our old pickup truck, and I remember them flapping in the wind that blew through the open windows as my mom drove along.
My dad had told me about the Big Red Machine, so those guys I had at least heard of.
And Mike Schmidt, who was already emerging as my favorite player, sat in fifth place on the active chart with 349 home runs.
And there, at the very end of the string, was a mustachioed chap in cold-weather Chicago Cubs gear with the shortest name of them all: Ron Cey.
Cey was intriguing to me for several reasons: the short name (obviously!), the fact that he had just squeaked onto the list of active home run leaders, and the vague notion that I had other cards of him in my stacks.
So when we got home, I dug through my cards and pulled out a Cey — likely his 1981 Topps or 1983 Topps base card given the composition of my collection at that point. What I found out was that he had been the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third basemen throughout most of the 1970s and had hit lots of home runs (duh!).
I also wondered why he had been traded to the Cubs and figured the move meant his career was about over. Even at that early stage, I understood the relative positions of the Cubs and Dodgers in the MLB food chain.
Rooting for the Underdog, Searching for a Hidden Gem
What my Cey research really did for me was to light a spark of curiosity and a love of possibility.
Were there other Ron Ceys out there who didn’t get much love (anymore) or who were obscure (to me at least), but who also were among the best at what they did? I was almost certain there were, and I soon discovered guys like Hal McRae, Dwight Evans, and Al Oliver.
None of them saw much play in The Sporting News or on This Week in Baseball by that point, but all of them had racked up impressive career numbers.
Cey and Schmidt were nearly exact contemporaries, but Ron seemed to be winding down while Mike kept cranking for the Phils.
While I loved Schmidt, and still do, I fell into rooting for Cey to somehow keep pace. Schmidt seemed a sure bet to join the 500 Home Run Club, and I really, really wanted Cey to follow him in.
I didn’t even consider that Cey was already 35 years old and not even halfway to 500 … I just wanted to pull for a long shot and see him make good.
As it turned out, Cey made it 45 games into the 1987 season before retiring at age 39 with 316 home runs.
He didn’t achieve the goal I had set for him, but he helped me understand the emotional pull that underdogs exert on fans across the full spectrum of sports.
If you search your memory and your baseball cards, I’ll bet you can uncover your own Ron Cey.