The shortest distance between two points, I was taught in school, is a straight line. Either the textbook I used has been tossed into the waste-basket or people have lost interest in moving along a straight line. More and more, it seems to me, we live our lives by indirection.
We ask our young men to join the armed services, not because we believe with Nathan Hale that the deepest regret of which a man is capable is that he has only one life to give to his country but because it is an inexpensive way to become a radio mechanic. We don't go for our holidays to the far corners of the earth because travel uplifts the heart but because the journey can be listed as a deductible item on a tax return. And we allow our children to be infected with a passion for bubble gum, not because the habit is healthful or attractive but because it seems an appropriate way for them to pay homage to their baseball heroes.
For 12 months of the year bubble gum can be purchased anywhere in the United States in a nerve-racking variety of shapes and sizes, from the blunt nickel tube that looks like a scrofulous knockwurst to the penny square that resembles half a Daliesque domino. During the baseball season, however, anybody who buys anything but the flat pack is either a mental case or has just stepped out of a spaceship from Mars and has not yet had time to learn how seriously we take our national pastime.
These flat packs, which cost a nickel, contain two sheets of bubble gum, 2½ by 3½ inches square, plus seven cards of the same size (opposite). My two sons, ages 7 and 9, who are capable of eating anything they can lift and frequently do, discard the gum as soon as they tear open the pack. The cards, however, are treasured in a manner that makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning's more unbuttoned outpourings in the Sonnets from the Portuguese seem like cruel indifference.
There are, as everybody knows, 16 teams in both major leagues. Each team consists of a squad of at least 25 players, two coaches and one manager, or a total of 28 men. If you multiply 28 men by 16 teams—although you needn't bother, because I have already done so—you arrive at a total of 448 human beings who have earned the right to endorse cigarets in paid advertisements, be enshrined in every American boy's private pantheon of heroes and appear in four colors on bubble gum cards.
If you take one more simple arithmetical step and divide these 448 major leaguers by the seven cards that come with each nickel pack of bubble gum, you would seem to arrive at the conclusion that any boy who can afford to buy 64 packs of bubble gum should be able to own a complete set of cards depicting the faces and records of every player, manager and coach in the major leagues. Not so. No boy has ever obtained a complete set of baseball cards by buying the theoretical minimum of 64 packs of bubble gum. What's more, no boy ever will.
There are two reasons for this.
First, the boy who buys bubble gum does not know what kind of cards he is getting. As a result, he buys many duplicates. Second, to make certain that boys will continue to purchase bubble gum as steadily as alcoholics purchase gin, no bubble gum manufacturer publishes pictures of all the members of a given team. This is because our young baseball-card collectors trade their duplicates with other collectors. Thus, much too soon for the bubble gum manufacturers, every boy would own a complete set of 448 cards and be eliminated as a customer.
I stumbled upon this device last year when my sons discovered and announced, in mid-July, that neither of them owned a Roy Campanella. This discovery was distressing for two reasons. First, because they had already spent on bubble gum since the beginning of the baseball season more money than my wife and I had spent since the first of the year on clothes and fuel. And second, because my sons made their discovery in England, where we had taken them for the summer.
The nearest things to bubble gum that you can get in England are Yorkshire pudding and toad-in-the-hole, neither of which is served or sold with baseball cards. And in mid-July we still had more than two months of our English holiday ahead of us. In an attempt to stave off a crisis, I airmailed an immediate request to a friend back home for a couple of Roy Campanellas.
"Nobody has seen a Roy Campanella in the state of Connecticut since you sailed," he wrote back at once. "However, I understand your problem, since we are facing a similar one at our house, so I am sending you today by airmail 140 packs of bubble gum, for which you can repay me when you return. I suggest you hide these in the bottom of a suitcase and feed them to your kids one pack a day each. In this way they should be able to continue trading with each other, even though on a somewhat reduced scale, until you come back. And who knows? They may even find a Roy Campanella."
They found six. In the very first week after the airmail parcel arrived.
I did not mind that. I did not even mind the fact that the postage alone on this shipment of bubble gum came to $41.85. What I minded very much, indeed what almost drove me crazy, was the tension.
The last eight weeks of our trip—during which I waited uneasily for my sons to discover what had suddenly dawned on me, namely, that the bubble gum tycoons had changed, their holdouts—were a good deal like living inside a steam boiler while the pressure keeps mounting.
We just made it.
Not until we were air-borne in September in the BOAC plane that was carrying us back to America did my sons tell me with a troubled frown that it was awful funny, Dad, but the one card they couldn't seem to get was a Solly Hemus, and what did I think of that?
It required quite a bit of self-control on Dad's part not to tell them.