Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Harmon Killebrew 3-D Baseball Card


        In 1970 Kelloggs became my all-time favorite cereal company--even today I feel a special allegiance to them and only rarely purchase the cereal of rival companies. The reason they hold that place of honor is because that year they came out with a product that immediately worked its way into my pre-adolescent heart, an undeniable sign that they not only understood kids and nutrition, but they were experts at it. They came out with a series of 3-D baseball cards.
         These weren't just any baseball cards, mind you. They had some sort of space-aged technology that appeared plastic (little brothers and sisters became notorious for scratching the surface with their annoying little finger nails), and when you rotated them from side to side, the background seemed to move, making the players appear to stand out. At the time, I had no idea what 3-D was (I never even knew what the first 2 Ds were), I only knew that I wanted them. When I watched a Saturday Baseball Game of the Week on television and none other than Willie Mays appeared, extolling the cards (and Kelloggs cereal) in a commercial, assuring me that one card was free in every specially-marked box and encouraging me to collect them all, I was sold. "Mom, when are you going to the store?" I yelled. "We need some cereal!"

         The cards came in boxes of Corn Flakes and Raisin Bran. I had long been a fan of Raisin Bran, but Corn Flakes were a different matter. Corn Flakes had one critical weakness and every kid knew it: from the moment milk touched the first flake, you had exactly 30 seconds to hork the entire bowl down before it turned into an unrecognizable pile of mush. Eating them demanded total concentration and absolutely no interruptions--it was hard to deal with that much pressure so early in the morning.
        Alas, when we went to the store that week, they were sold out of Raisin Bran--the other kids must have believed Willie also. I tried to convince my mother that Corn Flakes had always been one of my favorites and, what the heck, why don't we get five or six boxes as long as we're here. Probably wise to my ruse (she always seemed to know), she only bought one box. That immediately presented another problem. You see, I had an older brother; an older brother who also liked baseball cards and did whatever Willie Mays told him to. With only one box of Kelloggs Corn Flakes (and one 3-D baseball card), my mother faced the classic mother-sibling conundrum.
        She proved to be wiser than Soloman when, instead of offering to cut the card in half, she announced that each week, if the previous box was completely eaten, she would buy a new box and we would alternate who got the cards. I don't remember how my brother was selected to get the first one--maybe they went by age, maybe by drawing straws--but I reluctantly agreed. I figured I could wait one week for mine.

         All I really wanted was a Harmon Killebrew. He was my favorite player and the reigning American League MVP. That spring and summer, I made a beeline for the newspaper each morning, immediately turned to the sports page and searched the HR section of the Twins boxscore, looking for the last name of my hero. Harmon was having a good year and would reward my efforts 41 times that season. To get a Harmon Killebrew 3-D card was suddenly the most desirable thing my nine-year-old mind could conceive.
        I watched with horror as my brother opened that first box and pulled out a, you guessed it, Harmon Killebrew! I was shocked. How could life be so cruel? It quickly became apparent to me that this was no random accident. With 75 cards in the set, the odds were just too great. No, I had obviously been targeted. This was one of those Job-things they talked about at church. But why? I went to Sunday School each week and tried to live a good life. Then it hit me: the well-worn copy of Ball Four, hidden in the closet under a stack of comics; the copy with all the dirty words underlined and the passages about female fans that I laughed at even though I didn't understand them. Dang it! Busted again.

          Of course, my brother immediately recognized what a fortuitous position he had unwittingly fallen into--the chance to torture one's little brother like that doesn't come along every day. With the fiendish fervor of a master criminal he took great pleasure in making the most of it. Whenever I was present, the card seemed to materialize in his grubby hands as he studied the stats on the back and seemed mesmerized by the floating 3-D image on the front--all the while making me drool in a green-eyed rage. I was consumed with a passion for the magical prize and could think of nothing else. I had to have that card! But my brother continually parried my attempts to trade virtually everything I owned along with the promise to do all of his chores until he was 85 years old.

       I was horrified when, a week later, he announced that he had traded the card to another kid. And it wasn't just any other kid, it was Carl Cowart. Carl was a nerdy little guy in my class who always seemed, in the words of Foghorn Leghorn, to be just a little bit eeEEEEeeeh. I didn't even know Carl liked baseball--he never joined in our daily games of hotbox on the playground--but, willing to deal with the devil himself if need be, I made diplomatic overtures at school the next day in an effort to soften him up.

       The next Saturday morning, I picked out all of my tradeable baseball cards, carefully put them in a shoebox and peddled my bike over to Carl's house in a noble attempt to repatriate the Harmon Killebrew. To my dismay, I learned that it would not be an easy task. With a gravity that would have put Henry Kessinger and the Russians to shame, we went at our negotiations all morning. I finally got him to agree to a 10-for-1 swap, but then he pulled a wild card. He announced that the deal seemed good to him, but he wanted to check with his dad first. He went into the next room and I heard his father loudly exclaim, "Ten cards for Harmon Killebrew? Heck no, he's worth at least forty!" While I later recognized this as the old good car-salesman/bad car-salesman routine, at the time I was so surprised and outraged that all I could do was sadly pack up my cards and begin the longest bike ride back home of my life. The name Carl Cowart would forever hold a place of honor on my list of arch enemies.

       We regularly ate Corn Flakes and Raisin Bran the rest of the summer and I ended up with a stack of great players: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Al Kaline--but neither of us ever again pulled a Harmon Killebrew out of a box of cereal. A few years later Harmon Killebrew, old and injured, retired and somehow my childhood slipped away.

        Twenty years later as I walked through a mall, I came upon a card show and found myself looking at a 1970 3-D Harmon Killebrew. It brought back such a flood of long-suppressed memories that before I realized what I was doing, I pulled out my wallet and bought it. It only cost two dollars--two lousy bucks seemed like such an insult to both Harmon and the anguish I had lived through that summer so long ago. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel a type of perverse satisfaction as I drove home, hoping that somehow this was actually THE Harmon Killebrew card and wondering if I should try to contact Carl Cowart, whereever he may be lurking, and tell him that, finally, forces of good had triumphed over evil; to summon up as much mature sophistication possible and give him a good-old fashioned "Neener, neener, neener."

         Sometimes, I still wish I had.

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