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Books | Sports

September 30, 2010

Finding Salvation in Cardboard Gods

In his new memoir, Josh Wilker writes about how his childhood was shaped by his love of baseball and the player cards that offered entry into the game.

Eric Yun

In 1973, Josh Wilker's parents accepted Tom, his mother's boyfriend, into their house. Josh's father spent the days working to provide for his family and slept on a foam mat in a spare room. Think that's weird? It was the '70s. As Josh notes, major leaguers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson once swapped their entire families.

Josh Wilker. Photo by Seven Footer Press.
"I'm still swinging and missing quite a lot now, but I think when you get older, it becomes easier to take that stuff in stride."

Josh Wilker. Photo by Seven Footer Press.

By 1975, Josh's mom and Tom moved to Vermont, where they could live far away from civilization and Josh and his brother Ian could "grow up wild and free." There wasn't much to do in Vermont, so Josh, a Red Sox fan, spent his days walking to the general store and collecting baseball cards—his "cardboard gods."

Now, Josh writes about the cards he collected from 1975 to 1981. Anyone who has read his blog or his new memoir Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards can tell you Josh doesn't just write boring pieces about long-retired baseball players. Instead, he uses the cards as jumping-off points to try to decipher his childhood—or sometimes just to express silly theories. For example, Rick Miller is used to theorize that after the 1972-1974 Oakland A's dynasty, baseball owners instituted a "mustache cap that restricted the amount of total facial hair each team was allowed to carry on its roster."

In the following interview, which was conducted over the phone and edited for length and clarity, Josh talks about writing Cardboard Gods, his experiences growing up with three parents, and the tragic death of Bucky Dent in a wood-chipper accident.

Gelf Magazine: When you started your blog back in 2006, did you think it'd become as popular as it has?

Josh Wilker: Oh, not at all. When I first started it, I didn't tell anyone about it. I was just sort of playing around. So for the first few weeks, it was just kind of an exercise to see if it went anywhere, and to have fun with it.

Gelf Magazine: You first started writing about "cardboard gods" in a cabin in the wilderness, right?

Josh Wilker: Yeah, I wasn't blogging then, but I started writing in a notebook about the cards once in a while. When I started the blog in 2006, that was seven years after I was in the cabin. When I started the blog, it became a regular thing where I was writing every day.

Gelf Magazine: As you were putting the book together, did you find a card and write about what it meant, or did you have a story you wanted to tell and found a card to capture the moment?

Josh Wilker: It was a little of both. Sometimes the story came out of the card—the story just spilled out naturally. After I started working on the whole thing for a while, I got to understand there were some stories I wanted to tell that I hadn't written about it yet, and I found a card that would relate to that story.

Gelf Magazine: Were there any cards you wanted to get into the book but couldn't?

Josh Wilker: There were several. A painful part of the process of writing the book was making these final cuts of cards that didn't quite fit the arc of the story I was trying to tell. Also, I wanted to keep to the idea of 60 cards—four packs of 15 cards. I remember one of the last cuts was a Greg Minton card from 1978 that I really liked, but I couldn't find a way to get it in there.

Gelf Magazine: Your relationship with your three parents and your brother Ian is the driving force of the book. I think most people would understand if you harbored some resentment for your upbringing, but you never did. Why is that?

Josh Wilker: I never felt unloved. It was a loving family. Those were the people who stood by me the most in my sometimes-difficult life. To the contrary, I feel very grateful to them. I think for some people, the nontraditional aspect of my family might have seemed so unusual to them that it might have appeared more painful than it was. Of course, I think anybody's life growing up can be painful. That was no different, but as far as the actual unusual nature of the family, it was just what I knew. I didn't have any natural resentment to that, and, like I said, it was a loving, weird family.

Gelf Magazine: How did your family react to the book?

Josh Wilker: They've been supportive of it. They've always been supportive of my writing, and everyone has told me that they liked it. I think some of it has been painful to read because some of it goes back to some fairly intimate stuff from long ago that maybe not everyone wanted to relive. But people have always been encouraging to me to write whatever story I wanted to write. Everybody continued to encourage me after I wrote it, and they were proud of the book and me. So I was lucky, in a way.

Gelf Magazine: What was your motivation to keep writing during your 20s when you couldn't get your career off the ground?

Josh Wilker: It's all I wanted to do, so I couldn't really stop. I loved to write, so even if I wasn't getting any successes, there were good writing days that would encourage me just from the good feeling of getting some thoughts down or getting a story to open up. Also, great books that I liked pushed me along to try to match them. I understood it was not so easy; a lot of people take some time to get any kind of affirmation from the outside world that what they were working on was OK.

Gelf Magazine: On that note, you spoke a bit about how you took a baseball mindset to your work. You have to fail a lot to succeed.

Josh Wilker: Yeah, it's kind of embedded in Carl Yastrzemski, which is my favorite card. Here's a guy who went to the Hall of Fame, but I think only Pete Rose made more outs than he did. [Editor's note: Yaz is third all-time in outs (9,126) behind Hank Aaron (9,136) and Rose (10,328).] You have to swing and miss a lot and keep trying. It's easy for me to think about it that way now, but it wasn't as easy when I was swinging and missing all the time. I'm still swinging and missing quite a lot now, but I think when you get older, it becomes easier to take that stuff in stride.

Gelf Magazine: One of the things that drew you to baseball was the clear-cut rules of baseball statistics. Are you a fan of the new statistical analyses in baseball?

Josh Wilker: Yeah. I'm not bright enough to understand a lot of them, but I get the basic gist of it. I understand the more basic statistics like OPS and OPS+ and OBP, and the idea that with each statistic you have to make sure the context is clear or as clear as possible. I played a lot of Strat-o-Matic as a kid, and you kind of get indoctrinated to the world of contextual statistics. I think that's what made me open to that. I especially like it when it's related to me by a writer who understands I might not understand—that I might not be able to follow them through all the mathematical formulations. Bill James can write like that, or Rob Neyer. I like them a lot.

Gelf Magazine: One of my favorite tidbits in the book was that you first started collecting cards with Buster Olney of ESPN. Have you talked to him since then?

Josh Wilker: I hadn't talked to him for many, many years. Recently, he was nice enough to write a little column on his ESPN blog about the two of us playing Strat-o-Matic when we were younger. I exchanged a couple of emails with him.

Gelf Magazine: Once a year you became a Mets fan when you visited your dad in Manhattan. How did your relationship with the Mets change after the 1986 World Series?

Josh Wilker: Afterwards, it didn't linger. In 1986, it was painful. I never harbored any specific resentment towards the Mets. They were just this team that we coughed up this awful beautiful thing to. I didn't particularly like that edition of the Mets because they were completely opposite of the Mets I had grown fond of. They seemed more arrogant and swaggering, which are what winning teams usually are. That's probably sour grapes on my part. I was living in Vermont at that time, going to college, and it was very much Red Sox country.
When I moved to New York in 1990, my secondary fandom of the Mets picked up again because I liked going to games, and I certainly wasn't going to root for the Yankees. So I would go to Mets game and cheer for them—not with all my heart as if they were the Red Sox, but I wanted to see them do well. A lot of my friends are Mets fans, too.

Gelf Magazine: Now that you're in Chicago, do you cheer for the Cubs in a similar way?

Josh Wilker: Not quite as much. I go see the Cubs and I go see the White Sox. But I can't muster much enthusiasm anymore. I have my team. I have my Red Sox and everyone else is second to them. I feel for Cubs fan, though—they've been through a lot of down years.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle is one of your favorite books. What were some other inspirations for your writing?

Josh Wilker: It was mostly non-baseball stuff. Although, when I was a kid I liked Hang Tough, Paul Mather, by Alfred Slote. That was a great young-adult novel about a kid playing Little League Baseball. Other inspirations were The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, and Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. Two very direct inspirations and influences on my book were A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley, and a baseball-card book called The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book by Fred Harris and Brendan Boyd. That was a very funny book where they talked about their childhood baseball cards, so it was a precursor to my book.

Gelf Magazine: Finally, clear up some confusion for me. Is Bucky Dent dead or alive?

Josh Wilker: I like to think he never existed, or at least he didn't exist after 1975 or '76, so he wasn't around in '78. But there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary that's not so easy for me to refute. But I live in a fantasy world a lot, so it's easy enough for me to think that he tragically fell into a wood chipper sometime ago.

Gelf Magazine: Was I misreading the book, or is Bucky Dent one of the few cards you destroyed?

Josh Wilker: I'm not sure; I really think I must have, but I don't remember doing it. I look in my cards, and all I have is that one of him as a White Sox. But I have all the other Yankees from those years, repeatedly, so it would have been a real odd fluke for me to not have any other Bucky Dent cards. I must have gone into some rage at some point and gotten rid of them.

Eric Yun

Eric Yun is getting a second degree in communications and lives in Long Island.

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Article by Eric Yun

Eric Yun is getting a second degree in communications and lives in Long Island.

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