Josh Wilker was born to a pretty typical American family in the 1960s. But by the early 1970s, that typical family was anything but. His free-spirited mother, still married to his father, took a lover, Tom. Tom would soon move into their New Jersey home — where Wilker’s father also still lived. In 1973, his mother and Tom moved Wilker and his older brother to East Randolph, Vt., in a naive attempt to, as Wilker puts it, “get back to the land.”
In short, Josh Wilker had an unusual upbringing. To make sense of it, he wrote an unusual memoir, Cardboard Gods, released in hardcover in 2010 and republished in paperback this March.
Wilker was an avid baseball-card collector as a child. But, unlike most kids, who might collect cards out of fandom, fetish or simply to stick in their bicycle spokes, he sought emotional refuge in his stacks of Topps. A lonely misfit and the frequent target of bullying by his rural schoolmates, he found an escape in baseball cards the way others might lose themselves in books or movies. In his book, Wilker recounts his childhood through the prism of his glossy heroes. He pinpoints defining moments of his life by associating them with specific cards and players, ranging from icons such as Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver to long-forgotten players, a motley collection of has-beens and never-weres, such as Rudy Meoli and Mike Kekich.
Wilker’s critically acclaimed memoir is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. Through his so-called cardboard gods, he presents a moving, insightful and, at times, uncomfortably honest examination of both his early life and the 1970s generally, in a way that is equal parts Proust, “This Week in Baseball” and “The Wonder Years.”
In 1999, Wilker, then a struggling writer who was seeking inspiration after spending a year teaching at Johnson State College, moved to a remote Vermont cabin with no running water or electricity. On a whim, he revisited his baseball cards.
“When I started looking at them again, I found that some of my cards had already attached themselves to moments in my life pretty strongly,” says Wilker, who now lives in Chicago with his wife and child. He cites George Foster as an example, saying the Cincinnati Reds slugger’s 1978 card evoked clear memories of walking down Route 14 in East Randolph on his way to the general store to buy baseball cards.
“I had a lot of time on my hands, and was kind of casting around creatively and started playing around with the cards as a writing exercise,” he says. “And when I’d look at a particular card, it would just kind of gradually, or sometimes more immediately, suggest memories from my life. There would be a fusion between the cards and my own story.”
Wilker says he put those early musings aside for a time in favor of “more serious” writing, specifically a novel. Eventually, he came back around to his baseball cards and began to use them to write a blog, also called Cardboard Gods, about his childhood.
“It was a way to play around a bit,” he says. “But it was also a way to share my writing a bit more immediately.” Wilker adds that, before the book version of Cardboard Gods, he’d had trouble getting his work published. “I was sick of filling up notebook after notebook and having it just sit there.”
Writing his blog became a daily practice for Wilker. “It was fun,” he says. “And at times kind of ridiculous and absurd. But it kept kind of pulling me along and pulling stories out of me.”
Wilker says he would often begin his exercise by simply describing a card. In his book, he goes into vivid and sometimes fancifully inventive detail about his otherwise two-dimensional subjects. Pitcher Paul Lindblad’s cards were among Wilker’s favorites, and not because the longtime Oakland Athletics reliever was a particularly good hurler — though he was for a time. During his often tumultuous childhood, Wilker found comfort in Lindblad’s predictable sameness. Each year, he knew that Lindblad “always had been and always would be mustache free, a current or recent champion [as noted in the blurb on the back of each card], a member of the Oakland A’s, and puzzled.” Until 1978, that is.
That year, Lindblad moved from the championship-caliber Athletics club to the woeful Texas Rangers. He also grew a luxurious ’stache. The only remaining constant: that familiar befuddled look. Wilker uses Lindblad’s strained expression — and new lip tickler — as a springboard to riff on the impermanence of life, musing that Lindblad looked every bit a man whose world had been toppled, which it had. At the time, Wilker grappled with a fractured family as his mother and her boyfriend attempted to build an idyllic life in rural Vermont. Meanwhile, his father toiled away, alone, at his job in New York City, until funding for a project he had long been immersed in was cut.
“To grow a mustache or not grow a mustache? That is the question,” Wilker writes. “The implied answer — What’s the difference? — lingers on the horizon like some kind of cosmic tornado with the power to level your world.”
The comfort of predictability is a recurring theme. In baseball, Wilker saw structure, a defense against the cosmic tornado. Chalk lines clearly defined boundaries. Statistics and numbers were immutable. Baseball made sense in a world that didn’t. Writing about his baseball cards helped Wilker make sense of that world.
“It gave me a better understanding about my childhood,” he says. “The cards helped me bring everything back.”
Buster Olney grew up in Randolph Center and was a close friend of Wilker’s older brother, Ian. He was also a fanatical card collector. He’s not surprised Wilker chose baseball cards as a path to revisiting his childhood.
“Every time you look at an old baseball card, it conjures up memories,” says Olney, now a senior baseball writer for ESPN The Magazine. “I can remember specifically where I was … when I opened up a pack and saw a particular card. It makes sense he would use that method.” Olney adds that he’s never considered selling his collection because “it would be like selling [my] childhood.”
Wilker stops just short of calling the experience of writing Cardboard Gods cathartic, though he admits it’s helped put his peculiar childhood to rest. At least somewhat.
“The strange thing is that I feel different about my memories,” he says. “I’ve turned them into a narrative, and I’m less sure than ever about what actually happened.”
Perhaps Wilker needs his own baseball card?