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Half a baseball card, chance, and memories

Ron Tompkins has cost me a lot of money over the years.

Tompkins was a little-known Major League Baseball pitcher who played for two teams in his career, which began in 1965. He never won a game pitching in the majors, but lost two. He had potential, as evidenced by the fact he won at least 10 games for four different Minor League teams.

The majors were a different story however.

And before you go thinking, What is Speer is doing betting on baseball?, let me assure you that is not the case.

No, Tompkins is the player on the other half of the 1968 Rookie Stars Topps baseball card, #247. The player on the half I still own — Johnny Bench, is a Hall of Fame Cincinnati Reds catcher. As of this week, the card could be obtained at one dealer I saw for $575, although Google researchers indicate that, because the card is so unique and rare, it has sold in the past for $2,500.

According to Google, the card is unique, since “this 1968 Topps card is the only officially recognized Johnny Bench rookie card out there.” The card has Bench wearing his cap backwards, as if he were ready to pull on the catcher’s mask over it.

Back in the day, I loved collecting baseball cards. I would save up my allowance and, once a week, my friends and I would ride our bikes to the corner grocery store (remember those?) and we would purchase as many packs of cards as our allowance would stretch.

We would head outside, sit down at the curb and carefully pull apart the wrapper. Immediately, we would stuff the stick of bubble-gum in our mouths and start chomping away on it.

Next, we would quickly flip through the cards, looking for any Pittsburgh Pirate — our hometown heroes. Then — and only then — would we slowly flip back through the pack and look for other treasures of well-known players in the day — folks like Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, or Willie Mays.

The rest of the day would be spent outdoors, playing various sports. In between, we would ride our bikes, which were customized to be “cool” by attaching baseball cards to the spokes so that, when the wheel turned against the card, it vibrated and made a fairly loud noise.

Indeed, baseball cards were pretty versatile, as evidenced by the fact that, when the sun got too hot, we would sit in the shade of a porch and play “Flip” with our cards. Cards were won or lost based on luck and the flick of of wrist. No Pirates cards or cards of important players ever made it to that game.

Except for my 1968 Topps card #247. Back then, I had no idea Bench would have the career that he did. Then, I had no idea I was sitting on a gold mine. All I saw was a Reds rookie, and, since the Pirates and the Reds were bitter enemies, I wasn’t worried using the card and potentially losing it in that game of mostly chance and little skill.

As fate would have it, the game the card was used in ended in a tie. My friend and I split the cards used, and, when it came to that card of the two rookies, we tore the card in half, with him getting the Tompkins half and I getting the Bench side.

I’ve often wondered who got the better half. Whenever I look at the card today, it brings back reminders of what could have been.

Still, it remains a great conversation piece in my collection.

Over the years, both my sons collected baseball cards with me. Recently, I have been hauling loads of cards to each of them so they can share the joy with their children.

And I was surprised recently — quite pleasantly — to read that collecting sports cards really has increased in popularity during the pandemic. I know the pleasure a collection can generate in a family.

It certainly did with me.

Some might argue that my half of the Johnny Bench card should be worth something, but I know financially it is worthless.

From a memory standpoint, however, that half is priceless.

One of these days, if I win the lottery, I might break down and purchase a complete card.

Then again, why ruin the story?

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.

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