Number 7 is a chapter from “The Last of the Bungalow Warriors” by Maurice Deats available for purchase at The Book Patch.
They smelled the bubblegum the moment they burst into the small shop on the corner, the wheels on their bikes still spinning where they came to rest after the two young boys leapt from them at full speed, and the shop door not yet having had time to slam shut behind them. No wonder. The shop owner, knowing his customer base, had stacked the new shipment of Topps baseball card packages on a small table just to the right of the door where the afternoon sun beating through the window would heat up the packages, releasing the irresistible aroma.
It was spring, and the season was just about to get started. The boys had saved their snow-shoveling money all winter in preparation for this moment. They were the first in the shop, easily out-distancing the other town boys who would be arriving on foot. That meant that they would be able to select first from the neat stacks of cards, five to a package plus the gum, for a nickel a pack. The gum was not very good, or at least not for very long. And it was usually hard and became less and less pliable as the season wore on, as enough stock to supply a shop of this size for the entire season could easily be ordered all at once. But today it would be at its freshest.
But it was not the bubblegum that was the object of the boys’ eagerness. It was the cards. Each package contained the hope of a Yankee card, or even more than one. There were other cards that held some mild interest, and the rest were valuable currency for trades or fodder for games of closest to the wall or flipping. But it was the Yankee cards that were the real prize. Each of those cards contained a picture of some Yankee, starter, reserve or prospect, while the back of the card contained his pedigree. These were the player’s stats, figures that would be memorized, discussed and argued over endlessly, and went a long way towards determining which player a person would “call” before pickup games commenced. There was an art to calling your player, at just the exact moment, so you could pretend to be him during the game. You could not call too early, as that was unsportsmanlike, but if you waited until someone started the bidding you ran the risk of losing out on your first choice. The timing was tricky, but everyone knew when bidding opened instinctively. You just had to not jump the gun.
Any Yankee card was a win, and if you bought five packs and got even a single Yankee you had had yourself a good day. But the ultimate prize was number seven. No matter what position you played, your favorite player was number seven, and you wanted to be him, and so you tried to time your “call” so that you could take on his persona, if only for a game. If that happened, you had had a very good day indeed.
Today, the young warrior and The Great Chief were not warriors. It was the start of the season and they were now baseball players. It was as such that they were sitting on the curb outside the shop, too-large Yankee caps on their heads, opening their card packs when the rest of the boys arrived, panting from having run all the way from the school. The other boys looked enviously at the two brothers, some standing over them half resentful, half curious, anxious to see what players they had gotten. Others pushed eagerly on into the store, still hoping that getting to select early would bring them luck.
As it turned out, there was luck to be had that day. Each of the brothers had scored two Yankees apiece. Neither of them, however, had been lucky enough to get a number seven. Bobby Richardson, Moose Skowron, Ralph Terry, and Hector Lopez. No Whitey Ford. No Mickey Mantle. The younger brother was happy because he had Bobby Richardson, his second favorite player, and a fellow second-baseman. He would later come to embrace Moose Skowron, as his future coach, making light of his slender build and diminutive stature would saddle him with the nickname “Moose”. But for now, it was Bobby Richardson. The older brother was not overly thrilled with his take, but he was philosophical. It was the first of many packs to be opened. If not by him, then by one of the other boys for whom money was not so much of an issue and who did not possess his skill at flipping cards. He was particularly adept at this and knew how to shame other boys into anteing up some of their more valuable cards. He wasn’t worried.
And then it happened. One of the other boys opened a pack and there at the top, a slight smudge of bubblegum coating covering the place where his bat met his shoulder, was the serious, purposeful likeness of number seven. Mickey Mantle.
The gathering of boys fell briefly silent, as if in reverence, and then erupted. Inside the shopkeeper grinned to himself. He had them now. Outside the boys, took turns pounding the lucky lad on his back and congratulated him, called him every kind of name they could think of with “lucky” in the title, and then one by one slunk off to nurse their disappointment. It should have been them.
The pecking order was now established. The boy with the Mickey Mantle card would get to choose first when picking sides for games on the little league field behind the school. His opinion on matters of player superiority would suddenly have more weight, and he would be deferred to in various other matters where validity was a matter of preference. At least until someone else was able to land a number seven. In the mean-time a period of reverence would be observed before bidding would begin in earnest to try to wrest the card away from him by offering any number of lesser players, some later to be Hall of Famers in their own right, as well as other treasures like old baseballs whose covers were not yet starting to come off, or a bat that only needed to be glued and wrapped but not screwed in order to continue functioning. Usually a week was sufficient. But being as this was the beginning of the season, it would be surprising if that level of patience could be maintained.
As it happened, the week was not yet up when the younger brother was to face his greatest struggle. It was to be a galvanizing moment in his life. He would face other challenges. He would be tested again and again over the course of his life, but none would compare to this. Time would be marked from this moment onward.
It happened at recess. The boy, now commonly referred to as Number Seven, was showing off his baseball card collection to a circle of rapt fellow graders. His father was someone of note in the town and the family had money. That meant that Number Seven was able to procure numerous packs of baseball cards. More than anyone else. He had managed to acquire several other Yankee cards, including the team card so he had not one but two cards with Mickey Mantle on them. He had spread the cards out on the grass for inspection and was happily absorbing the envy of his classmates when the bell rang, signaling the end of recess. The other boys sprinted away, leaving him to collect up his cards alone. This he did hastily and started half walking half running towards the school. The youngest brother, who had lagged behind for a last yearning look at the Mantle card, followed close behind at a jog. When it happened it was unexpected. A card dropped from the pile Number Seven was clutching awkwardly and drifted lazily to the ground in his wake. The younger brother stopped, scooped up the card and started jogging after the boy. He glanced casually at the card and stopped in mid stride. It was the Mantle card. He took a couple tentative steps towards the boy, stopped and started again. They were now perilously close to the school door where Miss Helga stood like St Peter, guarding the gate. The younger brother was awash with conflicting emotions. There was no time to resolve them, so he did the only thing he could possibly do under the circumstances. He slipped the card into his front pants pocket and walked gingerly into the school, trying hard not to bend his leg too much and damage the card. Miss Helga looked suspiciously at him as he passed by her, but then she always seemed to.
The ride home from school was even slower than usual. The older brother did not complain, as his breathing was becoming more and more forced these days. If he thought it odd, he did not show it. The younger brother rode behind and pedaled primarily with his left leg, letting his right leg dangle as much as possible. He was afraid to take the card out of his pocket for any reason and would not trust it to leave his person in any event. You do not trust the Crown Jewels out of your sight, or at least out of your pocket.
The younger brother was torn. He wanted desperately to share his dilemma with his older, wiser brother, but he was afraid that he would not like the advice he would receive, nor the disapproval that would inevitably accompany it, because he knew in his heart of hearts that he was not capable of following it. Knowing the right thing to do is seldom the comfort that one hopes.
There was a tiny nook in the attic behind the chimney that you had to reach your hand in and around to get to that he was sure even his older brother was unaware of. He had used this in the past on a couple of occasions, like once when Betsy whose last name he could never remember had given him a valentine that said things he didn’t want anyone to see. He somehow didn’t want to throw it out either, so there was nothing else to do but hide it. It was a printed valentine from the same box everyone’s parents bought them to hand out at school, but she had added “hope you have a happy valentine’s day” on the back in block letters and had signed it in cursive. Perhaps he read more sentiment into it than the sender had intended, but it was still too embarrassing to be seen by others, so he hid it. His brother was busy in the bathroom for a moment, so he took advantage of the brief moment of separation and hid the Mantle card there and returned quickly before anyone noticed his absence. He would find several opportunities to return here again, with a flashlight, so as to assure himself the poisoned fruit was still there.
It was not until two days later that the loss of the Mantle card was discovered. Number Seven, who technically no longer warranted the title, had made additional purchases and was eager to show the boys his new Elston Howard card. The tiny community was somehow unaware that there was a race issue in the country, so that card was cherished as well as any other. More so now that he was the regular catcher. It was in the spreading out of his cards on the grass as per usual that the loss of the Mantle card was discovered. Frantically the pile of cards was searched and searched again to no avail. The card was gone. There was an uncomfortable hush over the multitude not witnessed since the funeral of the alternate town drunk. The boys had not wanted to be at that funeral and they did not want to be here now. It was that kind of moment. The younger brother began to sweat. He never sweat. Some of the others looked like they were fighting back tears. It was a community loss. It was the only Mantle card known to exist in their whole world. The older brother looked puzzled as he glanced at his sibling, but he did not say anything. As usual, he took this in stride, much as he took everything else. “It will turn up”, someone said, and then the floodgates were open, and everyone chimed in with suggestions of where it might have been left and how it would be no time until he found it. This was followed with another search of all Number Seven’s books and jacket pockets etc. Suddenly someone noticed what looked like tiny traces of shredded cardboard on the freshly mown grass. There was a unified audible gasp. All but one gasped in horror. One gasped in relief. It was clear what had happened. Each shard of cardboard was examined, and some felt they saw what looked like traces of the Mick’s face. Others thought they saw writing that could have been the stats. It was very hard to do accurate forensics. There was too much damage. There was no consoling Number Seven who was understandably still in denial. No amount of sympathy would help, and empathy was impossible. No one had ever experienced a loss of that magnitude. Even reassurances that Number Seven could retain his title did little to console him. At last the bell rang and as a group they slouched back into the school, past a waiting Miss Helga, who almost looked happy.
For the days that followed, the younger brother at first seemed to become less somber, but then became more and more self-absorbed. He did not eat well and seemed less interested in things. His older brother noticed but did not comment. His parents were dealing with issues of their own and it didn’t register with them, or perhaps they were just enjoying the reduction in barometric pressure and didn’t want to do anything to disturb the less frenetic atmosphere.
It was two weeks later that Number Seven once again found the courage to display his cards. He had purchased several packs one day and had gotten three more Yankees, only one a duplicate. These he displayed proudly on the grass. The bidding for the duplicate was hot and heavy but ultimately no agreement could be reached. When the bell rang, the younger brother stayed behind to help him pick up and walked with him back to class, his step lighter than it had been in weeks.
Buoyed up by his recent luck, Number Seven again made purchases at the corner shop, and again he scored a new Yankee card. As usual the group was convened at recess the next day to show off the new Johnny Blanchard card. When he spread out the cards, there were a couple of Baltimore Oriol cards mixed in with the Yankee cards. When he moved them out of the way, his hand stopped suddenly in midair. There beneath the Brooks Robinson card was the Mantle Card. “Well I’ll Be” was all he said. There was much back pounding and excited chatter and I told you so’s.
When the bell sounded, the group brushing past Miss Helga was completely impervious to her usual demands for proper decorum when entering the school. The world was back on its axis.
On the trip home the younger brother rode ahead of his older sibling, circling and coming back only to ride ahead again, over and over. He did wheelies and slides and generally acted like a colt kicking up its heels. As they neared the house, his older brother, clearly winded, looked him in the eye and simply asked, “When did you decide to give it back?”
Four years later the two boys would be sitting in the front row of the right field bleachers in Yankee Stadium with their oldest brother, looking down at a man wearing the number 7 on his pinstriped uniform. It would be the first and only time they would ever see him play. It is customary when asked to divulge the happiest moment of your life to respond by mentioning your wedding day or the birth of your child…and perhaps that is so.