Book Review: Cardboard Gods
Baseball card fans will identify with this memoir
Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards
By Josh Wilker
Seven Footer Press, 2010
List Price: $24.95
A big chunk of Josh Wilker's childhood sat frozen in time for years, untouched, unseen, waiting. When at last the time came to clean out the storage unit in Vermont where his family's material treasures had been entombed, he found a box of memories in the form of baseball cards of the 1970s and early 80s. There was Yaz and Rickey and Rowland Office, just as he'd left them, rubberbanded together with their teammates in proper batting order.
Only now they were different somehow. Now they provided a bridge back to the simpler time when they first entered his life. This time around they brought introspection, his childhood heroes summoning lessons learned growing up in a one-of-a-kind, yet all-American household in rural New England.
In 2006, Wilker began blogging about his collection, card by card, reaching into the box to stir up memories. In the early days his writing appeared on a site called Baseball Toaster, under the title Cardboard Gods. In time he went solo, moving to www.cardboardgods.net, where he blogs these days. This laid the groundwork for his memoir, "Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards," due in bookstores on April 12.
Anyone who grew up hoarding baseball cards in the 70s will identify with bits and pieces throughout. But the whole belongs solely to Wilker and his brother Ian, who grew up in a family with three parents: Dad, Mom, and Tom. An early trial under one roof was doomed to fail, and in time Wilker's mother and her boyfriend Tom took the boys up to Vermont to "live off the land." The idyllic lifestyle didn't quite pan out as expected, though Josh adapted, modeling himself after Ian, two years his senior.
The boys, like most of New England, became infected with Red Sox fever. During annual pilgrimages to Fenway they screamed for Yaz—despite his lack of responsiveness to Wilker's letter requesting an autograph, a reply the boy faithfully looked for in the mail box every day. When Ian bought baseball cards, Josh wanted them too, and it didn't take long before he was hooked. He built his collection 25 cents at a time, venturing to the general store through the tough streets of East Randolph, where local children harassed him for attending alternative (hippie) school.
By the time his Little League days ended, Josh had become accustomed to being tuned out by his brother, whose longing to leave their tiny community eventually led him to boarding school in Massachusetts. Josh followed, only to be expelled shortly before graduation, after having been busted for smoking pot in his dorm room. That set him drifting for a number of years, and he details his stint working at a liquor store while living in New York with his brother, justifying his underemployment by devoting much of his private time to writing.
"Cardboard Gods" is a funny, honest, self-deprecating look back on Wilker's life. While it bares his family's wounds, including a group therapy session of relatively recent vintage, they were all okay with it.
"My family, I am really lucky," Wilker says. "They read it. They all like it. My mom went out of her way to tell me she loved it. My brother, my dad, Tom, they seemed to see what I was trying to say. I was trying to champion them, show them as the heroes of the story."
Fittingly, each of them, along with Wilker's wife, Abby, is immortalized on their own baseball card at the end of the book.
There are plenty of other cards, featuring faces familiar to those whose own collecting coincided with Wilker's. Each chapter ties a particular card into a memory of his life, from childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. The process of writing it forced Wilker to examine choices made over his four decades. He found no major regrets, though some moments certainly shine less brightly than others.
"I wish I had gotten my head on straight a little sooner," Wilker says. "I found out at a certain point that I really loved to learn and read and write. I lost some time there."
His mother, with whom he's always been close, learned a few things about that period after reading the manuscript.
"She was surprised to hear the extent of my wasted years in my 20s, sitting around a bar," says Wilker, who frequented the International in New York with his brother. "She always wanted me to be happy, and I think it was hard for her knowing I wasn't always happy."
Of course, a blissful life doesn't make for much of a memoir, no matter how many big league heroes you drag into it. For a small-budget title from a small publisher, written by a guy you may never have heard of, "Cardboard Gods" is gaining some momentum as Opening Day nears. Writers from Rob Neyer to Will Leitch to Wally Lamb have offered gushing blurbs. Vermont public radio has come calling, and Wilker has a reading scheduled at the Baseball Reliquary—a kind of alternative Hall of Fame—in Los Angeles in June.
Not exactly Oprah, but that wouldn't fit. The quirky, creative "Cardboard Gods" feels much more like a grassroots hit in waiting. If you're looking for something unique to add to your baseball reading list this season, search no further. Before you're done you may even find yourself digging out your own card collection to follow along.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.