THERE should be a support group for fathers who didn't keep any of their baseball cards."
The fiftyish dad who made this plaintive remark grew up on a different coast, but we had shared one defining experience of American childhood. We both had collected shoe boxes full of baseball cards, "commons" and stars alike, and both of us had sometime in our late teens sold, given away or thrown away every single one of them.
Our sons have not neglected to remind us of this catastrophe.
A rookie Mickey Mantle, of which I no doubt had dozens, sells for $30,000, and its value increases $1,000 per month. Willie Mays goes for $2,000, Roy Campanella for $1,800 -- even Andy Pafko draws $1,300.
Monthly price guides feature a directory of dealers and a calendar of card shows in every city.
The bull and bear market for blue chip cards commands the spellbound attention of our boys, as actual players commanded ours in the early '50s. We thought baseball was the game of life.
We were wrong; the traffic in baseball cards was the unacknowledged model of postwar social dynamics.
The anthropologist James Clifford wrote recently that "collecting and displaying are crucial processes of Western identity formation." Is this news?
In five minutes a man from Mars who watched my friends and me open our gum-scented packs, lovingly lay out the cards for trading, then flip them against the garage and collect our winnings, would have concluded that the species has a profound psychological need to surround and identify itself with images of magical significance, the more the better.
Adults tend to measure their status against the parade of celebrities on TV. Children achieve self-esteem by grasping and manipulating their cherished possessions, gazing at the players' faces with parental fondness, perpetually arranging and rearranging them in combinations varied as the grammar of language itself.
For some of us, books were the idols that replaced baseball cards. In his essay on book collecting, Walter Benjamin claims that "the most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them."
Whatever generational tensions divide us, my two sons and I share this occult bond.
They pooled their cash from paper routes to purchase a 1952 Enos Slaughter and mount it between hard plastic plates as an object of devotion.
I did nearly the same with my first edition of Hart Crane's "The Bridge." As we admire our trophies together, a family of happy fetishists, my mad give-away of 1960 is forgotten. For a moment.
Then the corrosive memory comes creeping back. "How many Roberto Clementes did you have, dad? They're $1,400 each in the new Beckett [Baseball Card Monthly]."
No, the reproaches will never stop biting, not even when I snap back that someday their kids will make them feel just as guilty. My sons too will backslide from the iron American law: Thou shalt not let any collectible pass from thy house.
Even now they regret disposing of their old He-Man and Star Wars figures at last summer's yard sale.
But there's no comparison with my irreparable loss that they can never forgive. "Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects," Benjamin says.
Tell me about it. Me who unwittingly threw back into the sea the pearl of great price.
Laurence Goldstein is professor of English at the University of Michigan, where he edits Michigan Quarterly Review.