Berger’s baseball cards made me a poker player

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Poker and baseball have much in common. They are both highly competitive; and both require skill to be a winner. How about baseball picture cards?

Sy Berger died last December. He was 91 and had lived a long and productive life. I never met him; and, yet, he was an important part of my growing up – and learning to enjoy the game of poker.

You see, Berger created the baseball card frenzy kids relished so highly in my youthful days. He didn’t actually invent them, but saw the vast potential and developed an industry of sorts related to baseball cards. A cardboard rectangle depicting one of our hero baseball players – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and so many other stars – came wrapped in the package along with a stick of Bubblegum. For 1 cent, we could buy the card; the gum was sort of a bonus.

Starting as a hobby for Berger, in the early 1950s he turned baseball cards into a booming industry promoting the sport while feeding on our boyhood interests. In a recent issue of Time magazine, Josh Walker quotes Berger: “We’re basically in the children’s entertainment business.” (Note: Walker is the author of “Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards;” published in 2011.) Little did Berger know how this might influence my poker life – and probably those of many others.

Born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1923, as a youngster Berger enjoyed collecting and trading baseball cards, often winning some from friends in some form of competition. In 1952, at the age of 28, he was working for Topps, a candy manufacturer that had just started offering its own brand of chewing gum. To help promote sales, Berger designed its first baseball card set, working with a friend on the kitchen table of his apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. Interestingly, the kitchen table is where we kids learned to play poker.

In 1988, Sy Berger was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He also earned his own baseball card in the 2004 Topps series of “All-Time Fan Favorites.” In 2012, Berger was acknowledged by the New York State Senate for this achievement.

In the days of my youth, the boys in our neighborhood collected baseball cards. At first, we traded them with each other, challenged to complete our collections. Then, one of the kids got the bright idea to gamble with them. It started by pitching the cards against the bottom step of a house stairway. Standing on the curb of the sidewalk, whoever’s card came closest (better yet, a “leaner” against the step) won all the cards pitched. I’m not sure how it happened, but before long we were playing poker using the baseball cards as our wagers.

In those days, it was mostly five-card draw poker. There was no bluffing – just the original wager. That was the ante. You could only lose one picture card per hand. And the only poker skill was knowing how many cards to draw from the deck.

Our parents never complained. It kept us out of mischief. But, time passes… Baseball cards are still available. Vintage baseball cards can be bought and sold. The kids today rarely play “pitch” to win the cards; and, I doubt if any play poker using baseball cards for wagering.

Time marches on… Along the way, poker has changed considerably. Whereas in those days, draw poker was the big favorite, today it is Texas hold’em that has replaced seven-card stud as the players’ favorite; while Omaha is gaining in popularity and seven-card stud is still available in some casinos.

Personally. I too have aged. The skinny, little 10-year-old kid who played poker with his neighborhood friends, is now in his late 80s – but still enjoys the challenge and excitement when playing poker. That is the case whether we play in a home game with family and friends, in a huge casino, online, or on a cruise ship.

What does the future hold?

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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