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Don Mahler: House of Cards; At the CCBA, an Old Hobby Is Given New Life

  • CCBA Fitness Coordinato Larry Ruffing considers trades with young baseball card collectors during the weekly summer card trading session at the CCBA Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on July 31, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    CCBA Fitness Coordinato Larry Ruffing considers trades with young baseball card collectors during the weekly summer card trading session at the CCBA Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on July 31, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A young card collector flips through a stack of cards while pondering a trade to make at the CCBA Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on July 31, 2013. (Valley News — Sarah Priestap)

    A young card collector flips through a stack of cards while pondering a trade to make at the CCBA Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on July 31, 2013. (Valley News — Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • CCBA Fitness Coordinato Larry Ruffing considers trades with young baseball card collectors during the weekly summer card trading session at the CCBA Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on July 31, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • A young card collector flips through a stack of cards while pondering a trade to make at the CCBA Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on July 31, 2013. (Valley News — Sarah Priestap)

Sixth grade ... P.S. 86 in the Bronx. I’m standing on the roof of the six-story elementary school, about to turn structure into chaos.

Below me, the entire student body — grades kindergarten through 6 — were standing at attention, preparing to leave the freedom of recess behind for the restriction of afternoon classes.

Not on this day.

With a yell of “Free for All!!!” my friend and I launched boxes of baseball cards into the air, cascading down onto our unsuspecting classmates. At first no one moves. Then, first one, then 10 then 100, the kids break ranks to collect their sinful rewards.

It is a full out moment of anarchy — one that I paid for dearly later on, I must confess.

But back in those days — the days of our youth in the late 1950s — baseball cards were like cardboard gold. They were currency and status. They were more than worth a week’s suspension.

Imagine opening a pack of six cards for a nickel — plus the piece of frozen pink bubble gum — and turning over a Mickey Mantle or a Ted Williams or a Hank Aaron or a Willie Mays. It was like Christmas.

Kids would get together and riffle through their stacks — “Got it, got it, need it, got it,” you could hear the refrain all over the neighborhood.

We would trade them, flip them, use them to add a touch of music to our bicycle spokes ... anything that catered to our passion for collecting those 21/2- by-31/2 portraits of our sporting heroes.

It is a passion that Larry Ruffing has cultivated all his life. And a passion he is now sharing each week during the summer with some 20 CCBA campers.

“It’s about keeping the hobby alive,” says Ruffing, the CCBA fitness director, who started the card program about seven years ago, figuring he has given out upward of 4,000 cards to kids during that time. Many of the cards have been donated by community members.

“It’s all about having fun and the pureness of the hobby. You can’t trade jerseys or autographed cards; there’s no price guide here. This is just for the pure enjoyment.

“It’s a lost art. I want the kids to discover how much fun it is to collect your favorite player or favorite team.”

Looking around the small conference room, it’s easy to see how well Ruffing’s message is being received.

At one table, about a dozen kids are poring over stacks of baseball cards, while Ruffing sits with a big smile, handing out cards by the hundreds. Many of the kids, though, have brought their own — carried either loosely in hand or lovingly saved in plastic-sleeved notebooks — and have begun the age-old process of bartering.

“I started with one card that I got from my brother, and now I have 100,” bragged one young camper.

“I’ve got 200,” another chimed in.

The kids collect cards for different reasons. There’s the most popular angle of favorite team or player, but then some kids collect major league cards because they played on a team with that same name in Little League.

“I had one kid who only wanted cards with the catcher in his gear,” laughed Ruffing. “Another wanted cards that showed pitchers hitting.”

And it’s not just baseball cards. There are football cards on the table, hockey cards as well as a large number of Pokemon cards in play.

“Pokemon is a whole new world,” enthused one young girl. “It’s so much fun to find and trade the cards. I just spent $20 in Walmart on a new set.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you do it? It’s a waste of money.’ I say, ‘No. It’s awesome!’ ”

All over the small room, small hands are reaching out — little entrepreneurs making big deals, immune to the noise around them. A deal is quickly made: Cards change hands. One of the dealers looks to Ruffing with his new purchase and asks in a quiet voice, “Is he any good?”

Another young Red Sox fan is looking through his book, pointing out his Dustin Pedroia card — his favorite player on his favorite team. But suddenly there’s a commotion at the table. Like Ben Cherington wheeling and dealing on the major league level, there’s a blockbuster in the air. Pedroia is on the block for a pair of basketball cards — Dirk Nowitzki and Al Jefferson.

You could cut the tension with a knife. Pedroia being traded? Say it ain’t so!

But after a few moments of high drama, the mood lightens. No deal. The two traders backpedal away from the table. Pedroia is safe.

But not for long. Moments later, the young trader has pulled off a major deal. He ended up trading his Pedroia card to a friend of his sister’s at the other end of the table. Triumphantly he shows off his prize: David Ortiz. Smiles all around.

Another young girl is looking to make a deal with her hockey card. But she won’t be easily swayed by color portraits — it’s hockey or no deal.

Finally, she finds a like-minder trader. Quickly the cards change hands and quickly they both go to opposite corners of the room to check out their acquisitions.

Gently, she examines her card, then she opens her pink purse and puts the card away.

For Ruffing, and his 16-year-old son Ryan, collecting is a serious hobby. Ryan figures he has has close to 7,000 cards. The older Ruffing is nearing a milestone of his own. A lifelong Mets fan, he needs just eight cards to complete his 1962 Topps series New York Mets set.

These kids aren’t ready for that kind of dedication yet.

As the hour-long session comes to an end, the kids pack up their possessions and get ready for the rest of their day. Like high-powered Wall Street players, the campers don’t brag about conquests or ruminate over missed deals. Time to move on. The baseball cards will be there again next week.

But right now, someone said something about ice cream sandwiches.

When it comes to free-for-alls, ice cream trumps everything — even baseball cards.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.