Marking time with the deaths of the baseball cards of my youth

One by one, chronicled by no less a chronicler than The New York Times, the baseball cards of my youth are dying.

Back in December, it was former Boston Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone. More recently, it was former Detroit Tiger second baseman Dick McAuliffe. Even more recently, it was Jim Ray Hart, who many years ago made something of a name for himself as a solid, if not great, third baseman for the San Francisco Giants.

"A good hitter, but an undistinguished third baseman," is how the Associated Press described Hart in an obit carried by the Times.

Obits can be cruel.

There are many ways to mark the passage of time. One way is to scour the obits in search of the somewhat macabre nostalgia induced by seeing the name of a baseball player whose long-ago baseball card remains vibrant in my mind these many years later.

I'm not talking about baseball superstars of yore. Everybody, even non-sports fans, takes notice when a Mickey Mantle dies. It will happen again (none too soon, we hope) when the great Willie Mays passes away. He recently turned 85. More than one of you now is shaking your head and saying, "Willie Mays is 85?" Say hey.

I find myself more entranced by the deaths of non-superstars; players who you really have to be a serious baseball fan to ever have known, players whose names hadn't crossed my mind in decades but somehow remain on the hard drive in my head, ready to display when prompted.

And the memory often is of a posed baseball card. Back then, those cards burned an image into your head. Back then, televised baseball was far from as omnipresent as it is today. And it was in black and white. So the cards with the color photos made the memories. The cards were the players.

I'm guessing I'm not the only baby boomer who remembers players like Malzone, an eight-time all-star; McAuliffe, a three-time all-star who, with his odd stance, hit the Yankee Stadium foul ball that came closer to me than any foul ball ever; and Hart, who tied for second in National League rookie of the year voting in 1964. (Bonus points if you know who came in first and with whom Hart tied for second.)

The numbers that strike me hardest in these obits are the ages. The semi-heroes of my baseball-card-collecting youth -- sadly, I no longer have the cards -- indeed are old enough to die. Malzone was 85. McAuliffe was 76. and Hart was 74.

A few more: Anybody else remember Walt "No Neck" Williams, a Texan who died in Abilene in January at age 72? How about Yankees relief pitcher Luis Arroyo? We lost him in January, age 88. Jim Davenport, another former Giants third baseman, died in February at age 82. I'll forever remember him for scoring the go-ahead run for the Giants in a 23-inning win over my Mets in 1964.

Yes, I might be able to make some progress toward a cure for a major disease if I could empty all the sports memories and trivia from my head.

Another notion: Each of these non-superstars would be multimillionaires if they played today. The back of the baseball cards of my youth often told me about the players' off-season jobs.

Depending on your age-appropriate perspective, all of these ex-players were, by some definition, old enough to die. One thing we all can agree on is that they did not die young. (Anybody else remember Chicago Cub Ken Hubbs, who did die young?)

Similarly, I scour the Times obits for the deaths of musicians of mid-level or niche or lower fame in my younger years. Keyboardist extraordinaire Keith Emerson -- the first name in Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- died at age 71 in March. Suicide, they said.

We all noticed and mourned the deaths this year of big-name musicians Prince, David Bowie and Merle Haggard. But, as with the lesser-known baseball players mentioned above, I also took note within the past 18 months of the deaths of lesser-known musicians such as Paul Kantner, 74, of Jefferson Airplane and Dallas Taylor, 66, the drummer on the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Deja Vu" album.

In his obit I learned Taylor also was the drummer for Clear Light, a no-hit wonder band that came closest to having one with its psychedelic version of a Tom Paxton folk song "Mr. Blue" in 1967. Anybody else remember that one from what we used to call "underground radio?"

Just like many of my old baseball cards are dying, so too, it seems, are some of my old album covers.

I recently turned 62. Measured another way, May 27 was the 49th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. (If pressed, I probably can recreate parts of the "Fiddler on the Roof" medley I played on the accordion for that occasion. There is no record of why we chose to punish the guests in that way.)

Sixty-two is not old, but it is old enough to start taking notice when the baseball players of your youth seem to die off by the day. A friend of my vintage says he's noticed that every ache, pain and malfunctioning part he brings to a doctor's attention produces an answer that begins with "As we age ... ."