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The Wax Pack: Looking for Richie Hebner

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs
Good ol’ Richie Hebner, around 1976,
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Full disclaimer: I received an advance copy of The Wax Pack for review. Thanks to Adam Refenberick of Press Box Publicity for setting me up with the author.

On a summer day in 2014, entomologist and writer Brad Balukjian was spread across three seats at Oakland Coliseum, taking in an A’s game. He’d made out his scorecard, but suddenly realized that he knew very few of the players. As a young boy in Rhode Island in the eighties, he’d happily collected baseball cards. He came up with the idea to buy a pack of cards from 1986, the first year he remembered collecting, chew the gum in it (he did, and unsurprisingly it was disgusting), then track down all the players in the pack and find out what happened to them. He began his journey the following summer, armed with nothing but extensive research and a 2002 Honda Accord, and the end result is The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

Those who like their baseball books heavy on the baseball part may not be too enamored with The Wax Pack, which is more a voyage of self-discovery for Balukjian and his subjects than career recaps of the players in the pack, although those are involved too. It is often funny, sometimes sad, a little TMI at points, but it’s never boring. The mix of players he tracks down runs the gamut from legitimate stars like Carlton Fisk and Rick Sutcliffe to solid everyday players like Garry Templeton and Rance Mulliniks to a guy like Jaime Cocanower, whose post-baseball accounting career has lasted much longer than his time on the Brewers.

One of the Packers is the Bucs’ own Richie Hebner, with whom Balukjian caught up while he was the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons’ hitting coach. Out of the fourteen players in the pack, Hebner was the only one who’d never had downtime after retiring from active play, going straight into coaching in 1986. If you know Richie’s story, it’s here too—how he chose baseball over hockey, the money he lost during his playing days, the gravedigging, etc. However, unlike the other Packers, Hebner didn’t reveal a lot of himself, with Balukjian noting that while he didn’t avoid personal questions, he didn’t elaborate either. In a project such as this, it’s not surprising that someone involved wouldn’t be all that forthcoming. To his credit, Balukjian didn’t push Hebner too hard, having been somewhat warned off by Hebner’s younger brother, but he openly admits he wishes that Hebner had spoken up a little more.

Richie Hebner isn’t the only former Pirate in The Wax Pack. On Thursday, we’ll take a look at Lee Mazzilli, who spent three years on the team in the early eighties. We’ll also have some exclusive comments from Maz that weren’t included in the book—thanks, Brad!