There are certain formative experiences that just seem to stick with us, to mold us, for the rest of our lives.
Or maybe you tagged along to see The Empire Strikes Back with your older brother even though you’d never heard of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader … and you’ve been steeped in geekdom ever since.
And, if you’re a baseball card collector (and you are, obviously), there is no breaking free from the grasp of the first cards you pulled from fresh packs.
That’s part of the reason we still have cases and cases of 1990 Fleer and 1988 Donruss and 1982 Topps Kmart boxed sets just sitting out there taking up space, waiting. Deep in our hearts, plenty of us still love these things because they’re part of our past.
So it is, too, for Santa Barbara collector Rocco Constantino.
Rocco came to the hobby just as the hobby was becoming The Hobby. That would be 1981, in case you’re wondering. You know, the year Fleer and Donruss crashed Topps’ monopoly party and issued a couple of the most, um, interesting sets of the last 50 years.
Which is to say, Rocco loves the 1981 sets. All of them.
But more than that,those early influences of baseball and baseball cards stick with him today — from his work as an athletic director to the baseball books he writes to the cards he collects, still.
Here is Rocco’s collecting story …
How did you get started collecting?
My uncle owned a corner store and my dad used to take me and my siblings there to play arcade games. He sold baseball cards and stickers too. We were already watching baseball games and learning about the sport’s history, so we would always get cards and stickers when we went to visit his store. We used to sit and sort our cards for hours watching Yankees and Mets games. It was probably the only thing that could keep us quiet and in one spot as kids, so our family had no problems bringing us packs of cards or stickers on an almost daily basis.
What is the first card you can remember owning or buying?
I don’t remember a first individual card that I owned, but I remember so much about collecting the 1981 Topps cards when I was seven years old. I do remember some of my favorites from that set were the Reggie Jackson and George Brett cards. I also remember thinking it was strange that Dave Winfield was pictured in a Padres uniform even though he was playing for the Yankees. I don’t think I comprehended the idea of free agency at seven years old. One of the first cards I remember buying individually as a kid was the 1983 Topps Traded Darryl Strawberry. I was probably about 12 and the book price was out of my price range. However, I came across one in a store for much cheaper than the Beckett listing because there was a crease along the back. The card looked perfect from the front though and that was good enough for me.
Which sports do you collect?
I mostly collect baseball, but I still will have interest in NFL, NHL, and NBA, in that order.
What other memorabilia, besides cards, do you collect?
Lately I have been collecting autographs in my copy of a baseball history book I had published in 2016. My book (50 Moments That Defined Major League Baseball) takes a look at interesting games and moments from the past 100 years and I have been getting many former Major Leaguers to sign my copy. Reggie Jackson wasn’t too happy to sign the chapter I wrote about his fight with Billy Martin in Boston, but luckily he signed it before he saw what the content was. It was cool getting Pete Rose to sign my chapter on his 4000th hit. Other highlights include Gaylord Perry and Goose Gossage signing my chapter about the Pinetar Game, Paul Molitor signing my chapter about his hitting streak, and Ron Guidry signing my chapter about the game the Yanke
es played the night of Thurman Munson‘s funeral.
What is the focus of your collection?
Right now I am most interested in pre-1970s cards; the cards that seemed like unreachable historical artifacts to us as kids. The fact that I own 1934 Diamond Stars or 1951 Topps Red Backs now would have
blown my 13-year old mind.
Who are your favorite players?
The Mets are my favorite team and my favorite Mets players are Keith Hernandez, Dwight Gooden, and Mike Piazza. Historically, I’d choose Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, and Satchel Paige. From a collecting standpoint, my favorites are Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.
Which are your favorite teams?
I have been a big Mets fan my entire life. I moved to the West Coast last year and have been rooting for the Dodgers despite their upset of the Mets in the 1988 NLCS.
Do you have a favorite card or set?
I’d say my favorites are all three 1981 sets (despite the Donruss being printed on tissue paper) because that set is the most nostalgic to me. I also like the 1975, 1978 ,and 1982 sets too. My favorite cards are the Dwight Gooden’s 1984 Topps Traded, Tony Gwynn‘s 1983 Topps, George Brett’s 1975 Topps, and Tom Seaver’s 1968 card.
Do you have a collecting project or goals you’re working on now?
I don’t have any specific goals I am working on now. Just like adding pre-1970 cards of Hall of Famers that I do not have.
How much time do you spend on the hobby these days?
I don’t spend much time on the hobby on a daily or weekly basis now. When I have some extra spending money, I will look around for some interesting purchases though.
Where do you buy most of your cards?
Which card or set have you always wanted to own but has always eluded you?
Any of the Mickey Mantle cards from the 1950s; I don’t have any. Also Tom Seaver and Reggie Jackson rookie cards and early Sandy Koufax or Roberto Clemente cards.
What’s your favorite hobby memory?
My aunt lived in California when we were growing up in New Jersey. She used to ship us packs, sets, and individual cards she would find at swap meets. We never knew what we would get or when a package would show up. One day a package came in the mail and among the cards was a Nolan Ryan rookie that I still have. To a kid in the late 1980s, that was the Holy Grail, and somehow I had it. I also still remember being very happy to finally complete the 1981 set as a kid. I specifically remember that among the last few cards I needed were Jim Slaton and the Yankees Prospects cards. I ended up getting them both in a rack pack my father’s aunt gave me.
Do you have any other funny or memorable hobby moments to share?
One of my best memories connected to cards came when I wrote my first baseball book a few years ago. I interviewed over 50 former MLB players, many of them who played in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the process of interviewing them, I just kept thinking back to collecting their cards 30 years earlier. I must have pulled dozens of Fred Lynn, Rod Carew, and Rudy May cards from packs in the 80s, and 35 years later I was interviewing them. As a kid, I would have never thought in a million years that I would one day be talking on the phone to the same players I’d be pulling from packs.
Anything else you want other collectors to know about you or the hobby?
I think what makes baseball card collecting and baseball in general great is that it seems to span generations more than other sports. My connection to the game and to cards comes from my father and uncles passing their interest down to me as a kid. I would hope present day fans and collectors do the same. Collecting cards is the best way to learn about the history of the game for kids in my opinion.
How can other collectors get in touch with you?
So much of this resonates with me, and, I suspect other collectors.
Who doesn’t love to bask in the glory of cards from the 1980s hobby boom years or dream about all those Mantle cards we might yet lay our hands on … someday?
Thanks, Rocco, for sharing your story. It’s been a great ride!
Now, though, I have a hankering for some 1981 Donruss gum. Who’s with me?
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