It came on us like a fever. A handful of schoolboys huddled over a pile of baseball cards behind Saint Ignatius Catholic School. Within a month it would transform a hyperactive playground into an open-air gambling casino. It was 1961, the year of the Initials craze.
For the boys of Saint Ignatius, Initials was our first taste of greed and corruption. Like all rites of passage, it brought out the best in some — and the worst in most. As a collective obsession, Initials forged strange alliances, severed lifelong friendships, and scrambled the pecking order, at least for a while.
It was a simple variation on War. The first player drew the top card from his pile and placed it face up in the pot, calling out the last letter in the ballplayer’s surname. The second player drew the top card from his pile and placed it on top of the first player’s card. If the last letters matched, number two took the pot. Moose Skowron, n; Richie Ashburn, n. Winner: Ashburn.
Any number could play and the action was fast and furious. Snider, r; Banks, s; Lopata, a; Mota, a. Quick wins were hardly typical. More often a pot would last fifteen or twenty rounds. During any given recess, hundreds of baseball cards could change hands. Fortunes were squandered in a single lunch break.
Pots of a hundred cards were rare, but not unheard of. The first one I saw took my breath away. As the pot grew, the pace of the game slowed dramatically. At a certain point, the buzz of excitement spilled over into neighbouring games, and a crowd began to gather. At seventy-five cards all playground activity came to a halt. By ninety everyone had converged, and at ninety-nine Larry McDevitt actually burst into tears. In the end Clay Dalrymple topped Lew Burdette. The winner ran in circles, screaming, “Dalrymple! Dalrymple!” then collapsed in a whimpering heap.
Individual cards were of no interest to us. It was all about quantity. Oddly enough, the good sisters of Saint Ignatius did little to discourage our addiction. Perhaps they knew it would pass. More likely they preferred the low-level hum of serious gambling to the standard playground bedlam.
Norris Tweakle was the undisputed Initials champion. Until that fateful spring, life had not been kind to Norris. He was small and clumsy, and he had that unfortunate name. For kids like Norris, Initials was the equalizer. Athletic ability was not required and size was not a factor. You didn’t even have to be smart, just lucky. Tweakle was the luckiest kid I ever saw. Like many players he developed a style all his own: a distinctive crouch, a certain touch with the cards. Finesse was the name of Tweakle’s game.
On the last day of school, my brother Rob challenged the champ to a showdown. As lunchtime approached, a buzz passed through every classroom. When the bell finally rang, all eight grades emptied over to Tweakle’s regular spot by the basketball court. The champ carried his cards in a shoebox, stacked in banded bundles of a hundred. Ever the dilettante, my brother favoured a caddy, who produced cards as needed from a dozen pockets. Rob played from his knees, with running commentary lifted from cousin Dom, the family card shark.
“The champ looks worried. Ladies and gentlemen, the champ is crappin’ his pants here. Y, h — step back, folks, you’re starting to crowd me.”
Tweakle took the first big hand with an unlikely pair of k’s, jogging the cards into a perfect block with quick turns of his wrists. My brother then topped Tweakle’s Roberto Clemente with a Billy Pierce, and a murmur went through the crowd. The game went back and forth, with neither player gaining the advantage. As the hour drew to a close, it became clear that, barring a late rally, there would be no decisive winner. After a lacklustre couple of hands, Rob leaned back on his heels and heaved a sigh.
“Okay, Tweak. Tell you what I’m gonna do. This hand’s for all the marbles — winner take all, sudden death. Whaddaya say?”
It was suicide. No one beat the champ at sudden death! For all his bravado, Rob’s Adam’s apple gave him away. He’d gone too far and he knew it. If a year’s work could go in one hand, what was the point of it all? He signalled his man, who emptied his pockets — easily a thousand cards in four perfect columns. Tweakle glared for a full minute, then slid his shoebox into the pot.
I looked around for the sisters, but they were across the parking lot, pretending not to see us. Fully five minutes remained of our lunch hour — plenty of time to kill or be killed. A hush fell over the basketball court as the players took up their positions.
When it was over, the enigmatic young Tweakle packed his winnings in a shopping bag, lugged it up to the second-floor boys’ room and, without a word, dumped the whole
load out the window. In the ensuing melee, four girls were trampled and a school bus was badly damaged.
Visions of Tweak’s mad gesture haunted us through the summer. The passing months cooled our passion for Initials, and the lack of alternative uses for baseball cards led many to question their value. Efforts to revive the game in the fall were unsuccessful. The champ had shown us the error of our ways. In time, playground chaos returned, the pecking order reverted to normal, and our beloved cards got stashed away until they were worth enough for our moms to throw them away.
I’d like to say the Initials craze taught me something about the evils of gambling, but it didn’t. If I had an old baseball card for every losing lottery ticket I’ve tossed, I’d be a wealthy man.
What I did learn is that it’s better to be lucky than good, the breaks rarely even out, and ballplayers with names ending in q never make it to the big leagues.