To us they were just pictures of our favorite players, and we collected them because we loved baseball. The cards were included in bubble gum packs...I think you got five cards in every pack. The cards retained that bubble gum smell for months until too much handling by grubby little hands finally wore it off. Topps was the big manufacturer in those days, although there were other companies like Bowman who distributed them too. The trick was to get the really popular players like Mantle, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. Typically you had to go through a lot of no-names like Smokey Burgess and Virgil Trucks before finding a Hank Aaron or Bob Feller. Star players could be traded or used in side bets when flipping cards.
We didn't just collect baseball cards, we flipped them. The rules for card flipping were simple; from a standing position, the first player takes a card, holds it along his side and then, with a flip of the wrist, lets it drop to the floor. It lands, with the player's picture facing up (heads) or the player's stats facing up (tails). The second flipper then tries to match the card. If they match (both heads or both tails), player #2 wins the cards, if they did not match, the cards goes to player #1. We would sometimes flip 100 cards at a time, so Player #1 might flip 40 heads and 60 tails, and Player #2 had to flip the same number of heads and tails to win all 200 cards. Flipping cards was a real skill. A good card flipper, with a smooth motion, could flip 100 consecutive heads and no tails. I'm proud to count this skill among my life's accomplishments.
Here is another game that requires a subtle touch. Anywhere from two to five contestants can play at a time. In this game, the object is to get your card closer to the wall than any of your opponents. Players decide how many cards will be used per round and then mark a line a reasonable distance from the wall (something like 10 feet). Standing behind the line, the first player tosses his cards (one at a time), towards the wall. The next player then goes and tosses his cards, then the next player, etc. Ideally, you might get a card so close that it is actually leaning up against the wall. Of course, if your opponent is good and goes after you, he can knock it down and potentially land even closer. The player whose card is closest to the wall wins all cards tossed during that round.
After a while, being Brooklyn kids, we started making side bets. We might flip just 25 cards to save time, but if the winner won the game, he'd pick up not just the 50 cards flipped, but collect a side bet of say 100 more cards. Sometimes the side bets would be for a prized player, say a Yogi Berra or Duke Snyder. As much fun as we had with this pastime, it would probably be frowned on today. The moralists would complain that it encouraged gambling; some would whine that losing a flipping contest could hurt a child's self-esteem; and finally the germ-o-phobes would be hovering over their kids with the hand sanitizer. Today's parents are first-class killjoys.
Thanks to my ability as a flipper, I amassed a baseball card collection comprising a couple of thousand cards that were carefully stored in cigar boxes or shoe boxes. I had the cards separated into those only good enough for flipping, and those I truly prized, and would never trade or flip. I'm not sure when it happened, but one day they were all gone. It might have been when our old house on Somers Street was sold and my mother was looking to get rid of stuff. At the time it didn't seem like a big deal. I was older and the cards seemed like baggage from my childhood. Who knew that years later they could have funded my old age better than Social Security.
Note: Card game descriptions from Streetgames.com
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