Baseball season, having begun anew, brings to mind Nellie Fox, who once played second base for the Chicago White Sox. Fox was distinguished for the wad of tobacco that puffed one of his cheeks. I know because as a kid his baseball card was in my collection. In later years he would be remembered for something else among men of my generation. The Topps company produced the cards that had an action shot of the player in front and then trivia and statistics on the back. Included in the package was a slab of pink chewing gum. Enough gum and we too could puff out our cheeks, just like Nellie Fox.
Since the card came wrapped there was always a bit of mystery as to which player we would get. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays cards were off the charts in schoolyard trades. Then there were the players whose caps were tilted back on their heads. Word was that the Topps people took two pictures of each player; one with the cap positioned so that the team logo would be prominent, another with the logo obscured in case the player got traded during the course of the season. Clever, but they could not fool us.
Across the nation there were probably billions of baseball cards stacked in millions of shoeboxes and stored in thousands of closets. Most of the boxes, I suspect, eventually disappeared at the hand of a powerful force: Moms.
I am not sure when my collection met its demise, but it must have been when I was away at college and my parents moved to a new house.
Today, whenever I hear mention of the baseball players from my youth, I remember them best if I had their card — such as Nellie Fox’s.
I was in college when I heard the news that the former infielder had died of cancer. I was stunned. I had never thought about my baseball card players being mortal.
A few years ago I was in a bookstore in Chicago where I saw a history of the White Sox. I glanced through the pages and stopped when I saw a section about Fox. The author’s statement stunned me: To a whole generation of boys, he wrote, Fox’s death was their first experience with the passing of a player from their youth.
I hadn’t realized that what I thought was a personal sentiment was shared by males across the country. We were collectively hit in the face with the same splash of reality.
An earlier generation that saw the great Lou Gehrig succumb to a disease that would be named after him must have felt the same way.
In 1997 the late Nellie Fox was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. That will certainly add value to his baseball card among vintage collectors. Future generations will be able to know about him in the way that they should — for how he lived.
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