I knew something was different about Beulah as soon as I turned the corner on that cold, early spring morning.
Maybe it was the blue-red tint in her hair.
Maybe it was the way she held her pastrami sandwich.
Or maybe it was just the way the midday sunlight played across her wrinkled skin.
Most likely, though, it was the fact that she was up to her elbows in … purple baseball cards!
Whatcha Got There?
We were just coming off a harsh Indiana winter, and my parents and I had ventured to the big city to take in the monthly flea market at the state fairgrounds.
All through the first section of the first building, anticipation had grown like a fluttering bird in the pit of my stomach.
Would Beulah be there waiting for me in the middle, like she always was? Would she remember all we shared … like a love of the Cincinnati Reds and a desire for me to buy her cards?
As soon as I spotted her behind stacks and stacks of those exotic card backs, my apprehensions disappeared, replaced by curiosity and excitement.
Those must be the new 1984 cards!
“What are those?” I blurted out in lieu of any sort of proper greeting as I ran up to her table.
Her sister and business partner gave me an uncomfortable smile, but Beulah looked at me over the top of her thick glasses, barely raising her head from the pasteboards.
“Got my first batch of Topps cards,” she said and then continued sifting through the pile in front of her. “Trying to get them all sorted into sets.”
“Can I look through them?” I wanted to know.
Beulah sighed, clearly annoyed with me. After a few seconds, she must have decided I wasn’t going away, because she handed me a wax box with four stacks of sparkling, fresh-from-the-pack 1984 Topps cards.
“I’m thinking about selling singles from this box. You can pick something out of there if you want.”
I grinned and giggled and probably clicked my heels in the air as I bent over Beulah’s treasure chest.
The 1984 Topps cards were like nothing I’d ever seen before, if you discounted the picture-in-picture feature held over from 1983. There were so many special subsets that I lost track after the first stack, and I was particularly mesmerized by the Active Career Leaders cards that showcased three living legend each.
And the card backs were wild!
Red print on a purple background? Was Topps out of their collective minds? It was an unfathomable development.
It was garish.
It was hideous.
And yet, it was gorgeous.
My excitement was palpable as I thumbed through the cards with as much care as my trembling hands could muster, Topps gum aroma wafting into my nose.
The final doors of my adolescent baseball card Heaven opened when Beulah pointed to a stack of the dry pink slabs she pulled from each pack.
“You can have that gum if you want. I can’t chew it.” She pointed to her mouth. “Dentures.”
Ignoring her disturbing revelation, I plunged two or three pieces into my mouth and continued my search.
Jaw-Dropping, Teeth-Pulling Discovery
It doesn’t take long to flip through 540 cards (36 packs times 15 cards per pack), but I spent enough time on that box of 1984 Topps baseball cards to pump my mouth so full of gum that I could hardly chew.
It’s tough to say whether I was drooling because of that mouthful or because of the feast of new cardboard before me, but I’m pretty sure the front of my shirt was at least moist by the time I finished my prospecting.
And, although, there were 540 cards I wanted to buy from that box, my real target jumped out and grabbed me by the throat about halfway through the box.
Mike Schmidt was my favorite player and, in my mind, should have won the MVP in 1983 (and 1982, for that matter). On card #700, Schmitty was looking as intense and powerful as ever, even if Topps had chosen a relatively disappointing on-deck shot of the Philadelphia Phillies legendary third baseman.
I had to have it.
“How much do you want for Schmidt?” I asked Beulah, pointing to the card.
She didn’t even look up when she answered: “Forty cents.”
I knew it was a lot to pay for a card that I would be able to pull from a 30-cent wax pack within a month, but every pack was a gamble.
This was a sure thing, and it would give me bragging rights with the other collectors at school.
And besides, 40 cents was a small price to pay for my first-ever single-card purchase and a piece of my collection that I still treasure more than 30 years later.