THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Quite a collection

Josh Wilker's obsession with baseball cards yields a new book and a better understanding of his hippie-era childhood

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2010

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Josh Wilker was nervous. But that was nothing out of the ordinary. “I get nervous about anything,’’ he admitted. An hour before a Red Sox home game a few weeks ago, the writer was sitting alongside one of his childhood heroes, former pitcher Bill Lee, at the Team Store on Yawkey Way as the two men signed copies of Wilker’s new book, “Cardboard Gods.’’ The book is an exercise in (very) creative writing, with the 42-year-old Wilker relating anecdotes and observations from his fretful, Sox-worshipping formative years in rural Vermont through the prism of his youthful obsession with baseball cards.

The book is for baseball fanatics, but it’s also for those who wouldn’t recognize a knuckleball if it hit them in the keister. It’s the bittersweet tale of a self-perceived misfit, the product of a hippie-era open marriage and an “alternative’’ education, who found solace and a wry worldview in the heroic, sometimes unfathomably strange images of major leaguers on the pieces of cardboard he fetishized. For Wilker, as it’s been for generations of American boys, even the least accomplished big leaguers were role models of a sort. They had, after all, appeared on a baseball card.

Though Wilker is the guest of honor at the book signing, he is at a loss for words sitting alongside Lee. “I haven’t met any of my gods’’ until now, he says.

Fans beam at the famously gregarious Lee, the “Spaceman’’ in his khaki-colored revolutionary’s cap, who poses for photos and holds court on the Gulf Coast oil spill and his advocacy for “a hemp-based economy.’’ Wilker sits quietly nearby, content to explain the subject of his book to the odd passerby who asks.

“It’s about collecting,’’ he says more than once. “And brothers.’’

In “Cardboard Gods,’’ Wilker plays his boyhood insecurities for some Woody Allen-esque laughs. More than that though, he finds droll universal truths and poignant reminders of transience in his beloved baseball cards. Searching for ways to kick-start some memoir writing, he hit upon the idea of pulling one card each day from his old boxes, rescued from a storage barn. Beginning with an image of a player — some stars, others forgotten benchwarmers — each short chapter is a rumination. Some are about Wilker’s dependence on his more athletic older brother, Ian. Others are perfect strikes about the 1970s.

“Everybody had a look on their face like they’d just caught a whiff of a nearby landfill,’’ he writes, distilling the essence of the entire decade by linking it to the sad-sack visage of a journeyman Houston Astros pitcher.

Of course, the ’70s was a big time for baseball-card collecting kids like Wilker. Back then — pre-Internet, pre-Pokemon, pre-Harry Potter, kids bought, traded, and collected cards with abandon. According to the Wall Street Journal, baseball cards were a $1.2 billion industry in 1991. But it’s been downhill from there. In 2007, when former Disney exec Michael Eisner and other investors took over Topps, the company that had more or less controlled the card business for years, they got it for just over $385 million.

Suddenly Lee jumps out of his seat to greet an old friend. Wilker looks over his shoulder to survey the commotion. The well-wisher is Sox legend Luis Tiant, looking dapper in a charcoal suit.

“Holy [expletive]!’’ Wilker blurts, eyes wide behind his glasses.

Later, when a middle-aged gentleman buys a book for Father’s Day, Wilker starts to inscribe the title page.

“No, I’m gonna have Mr. Lee sign it,’’ the guy protests, apparently believing Wilker is the cashier. It takes some effort for the unassuming writer to explain that they’re both signing — and that he, Wilker, is in fact the author of the book.

Wilker doesn’t collect anymore. Asked about Topps Attax, the company’s latest ploy to engage kids by adding an online gaming component, he claims ignorance.

Wilker’s book is plainly based on the wry 1973 cult classic “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book.’’ Its co-author, Dorchester native Brendan Boyd (whose syndicated investment column ran for years in the Globe) said that although he “reached the saturation point of talking about baseball cards about 38 years ago,’’ he was glad to write a few words for the cover of “Cardboard Gods.’’

Lee, who also blurbed Wilker’s book enthusiastically, comparing it to “The Catcher in the Rye,’’ said he remembers buying cards as a kid, looking for that elusive Ted Williams but usually bringing home duplicate cards of Don Buddin. Over the years Lee has saved about a thousand cards from his own career “for the grandkids,’’ pocketing one each time a fan sends a handful for him to sign.

“I want to wallpaper an outhouse with them,’’ he jokes, letting out a roar.

Lee and his wife live not far from the Vermont house where Wilker once mailed a letter to his favorite player, Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski, asking for an autograph that never came.

“In a certain way,’’ the author writes, “my real life began that day, my life in the world.’’

Wilker, who now lives in Chicago with his wife, social worker Abby Theuring, was scheduled to drive up to Vermont after the Sox game for a series of events in his former home state. Among them was a weekend reading at Messier’s General Store in East Randolph, the same place he bought all those packs of cards years ago.

“It’ll be very nostalgic,’’ says Wilker, wearing Van Dyke facial hair, a custom black Celtics T-shirt printed with a Grateful Dead-style logo and, of course, a Red Sox cap. “There will probably be some faces I haven’t seen in 30 years. I hope it goes OK. I wrote about a kid who was sometimes unhappy growing up there.’’

He pauses for a moment, then adds, “Thomas Wolfe didn’t do so good when he went back to Asheville. But then, I’m not Thomas Wolfe.’’

Before his baseball-card blog, www.cardboardgods.net, caught the attention of an editor at New York’s Seven Footer Press, Wilker had been eking out a living writing non-fiction for young adults.

“It was kind of sapping all my creative writing time,’’ he said. “But I was always writing fiction, and publishing it once in a while.’’

He’s working on a book about “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training’’ — the sequel, he makes clear — for a forthcoming series on film from Soft Skull Press. And he’s thinking about adapting “Cardboard Gods’’ for a movie or television.

“It’s sort of like ‘Freaks and Geeks’ meets ‘Wings of Desire,’ ’’ he tells Bill Lee, who looks baffled.

Later, after the remaining books have been packed away, Wilker, his wife, and a few friends take in the Sox game from a standing-room area above third base. Over Fenway Franks, the author strikes up an animated conversation with a blogging friend, Jere Smith, who is wearing an authentic Bad News Bears jersey.

“Talk me up,’’ Wilker says to Smith, looking for some optimism amid a mediocre stretch for his team. “I’m starting to lose faith.’’

James Sullivan can be reached at james@jamessullivanauthor.com.