Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Indoctrinating Children

I have two little kids.  I'm a bit torn about whether I want to encourage them to collect baseball cards like I do.  I mean, why would I?  Kids will pursue whatever interests they like and  my role is just to encourage them in whatever that is, rather than trying to steer it to what I like.

But I'm kind of psyched that my kids have taken an interest in collecting cards recently, particularly kid #1 (the elder).    Supermarkets here are now stocked with "Super Mario Bros. History Card Wafers", a snack produced by Bandai. Each of them comes with one card from a 22 card set, featuring the cover art from various Mario Bros. games from the 1980s to the present.  

I bought one for him a few weeks back just because he likes Mario and not really thinking about the card.  He ate the snack pretty quickly, and then I noticed that he was really excited about the card too.  He carried it around with him all day.  He brought it to the table with him at dinner.  He even brought it to bed with him when he went to sleep.  

Neat, my kid likes cards too.

So since then we've made a point of buying one every time we go to the super market.  I also sometimes stop on my way home to pick one up for him.  And I bought him a little album to put them in.  He's got about half the set.  He gives me his doubles.  Its fun.  It actually reminds me a lot of my own experience as a kid getting interested in baseball cards and my dad sometimes stopping on his way home from work to get some for me.  I now appreciate why he did that for me way more than I used to.

I'm also encouraged that he likes to play baseball with me.  Well, he likes to go to the park with a bat, glove and balls with me and mess around with them.  I'm really on the fence about encouraging him to join a team though.  In Japan, baseball is not played by kids for fun, its an extremely rigid and intense activity which (to me at least) seems to suck all the fun out of it.  If he decides that he wants to join a team, I'll be all in and support him all the way. But if not, I'm not going to pressure him. Anyway, if he ends up getting interested in baseball, he might get interested in baseball cards at some point.  If not, I'm sure he'll find something else cool to be interested in. 

Anyway, anybody else out there have kids who they are gently nudging towards an interest in baseball cards?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Most Valuable Card is a Lucky One

This is the most valuable card by far that you can get in packs of 2020 Calbee Series 2.    It is a "Lucky Card".  

Calbee Lucky Cards have been around for a while.  Back in 2004 I tried putting the Calbee set together the old fashioned way: buying lots of bags of chips.  I didn't get anywhere near to finishing it (and 16 years later I am still short), but one thing I did get that year was a few lucky cards.  In 2004 you had to collect three of them, then cut the tabs off the top of them and glue them to a postcard which you would mail to Calbee.  In exchange, Calbee would send you a pretty cool boxed set of "Star Cards" featuring gold embossed signatures on them.  There were 3 of those boxed sets for each series and I was able to get the first two, but fell one Lucky Card short of being able to get the Series 3 one.  

It was fun though, slowly accumulating them over the course of the summer, then sending the envelope off and waiting by the mailbox until my sets arrived.

The Lucky Cards work roughly the same way this year, when you get one you cut the green tab off the upper left hand corner of the back, glue it to a postcard and mail it in.  In fact, the card looks almost identical to the ones I remember pulling back in 2004, with the colors changed a bit.  

This year instead of collecting three you just have to get one.  But also instead of getting a box set you just get two cards out of a 24 card set featuring various stars ("Kira Cards"), so there is a bit of a tradeoff there.  You would need at least 12 of these cards to finish that set.  You are allowed to designate which of the 24 cards you want, so you don't receive random cards and can avoid getting doubles, though they actually ask you to nominate two alternative card choices in case they run out of certain players, so it isn't guaranteed that you will receive the ones you want. 

Back in 2004 there wasn't much of an online market for Japanese cards so I had no idea how much they were worth.  But these things are really "Hot" on Yahoo Auctions, I've been following auctions of them and they always sell for over 3,000 Yen each (about 30$ US).  The photos I'm using here come from an auction that just ended at 3400 Yen.  There are dozens of them up at any given time and they don't seem to be having trouble finding buyers.  

At that price, factoring in shipping and also the cost of sending the postcards, you'd be looking at spending about 43,000 Yen (430$ US) to complete that 24 card set.  Which is way too much for me to be interested.

Happily though this also explains why I can buy complete base sets of Calbee for  900 Yen including shipping.   The Calbee case breakers basically make all their money off the Lucky Cards and everything else is just leftovers.  

I've bought a few bags of Calbee chips this year despite having purchased the base sets, in part just to see if I could land a Lucky Card, but I've come up empty so far.  I'd like to land one just so I can mail in the postcard and wait by the mailbox for the cards to come.  Actually, that is another thing that makes 2020 much different from 2004.  Back in 2004 getting baseball cards in the mail was a huge novelty since I didn't have a Yahoo Auctions or even Ebay account back then and made all my purchases in person at stores.  Now I get cards in the mail all the time so the novelty value is kind of lost.  But it would be cool nonetheless.

Incidentally another interesting thing about these cards is that they are ticking time bombs.  They expire on March 31, 2021 after which they can no longer be redeemed and basically become worthless.  Yahoo Auctions has a ton of 2020 Lucky Cards being bid on like crazy, but any remaining Lucky Cards from 2019 or earlier are basically worthless and very few sellers even bother to list them for sale.  I still have my two unredeemed 2004 Calbee Lucky Cards sitting around somewhere, I held onto them for sentimental reasons!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

2020 Calbee Series 2 Complete! And Boring!

This is Taisei Makino's card from Series 2 of the 2020 Calbee set.  I just picked up the complete base set of 87 cards off of Yahoo Auctions.  Dave did a great write up of the set's details which you can read here so I won't repeat what he's already written there about it.

But I wanted to bring the Makino card to everyone's attention since its the only one (save the manager checklist cards) which deviates from the dreaded Three Rules of Contemporary Calbee Card Photos.  With every other card in the set, including the average leaders subset, every photo features a player either at bat (all position players except catchers), in his catchers gear (catchers) or on the mound (pitchers).  

The Makino card is the only one which shows a player doing something else, in this case fielding.  

This is a huge step back from Series 1, which featured a much better selection of photographs than usual.  I guess that was just an exception rather than the start of something new.

As I've complained about many times (and since Calbee is still doing it, I'll complain again) none of the photos on their own are bad, but when you've got the whole set in your hands the standardized photography gets extremely boring.  

This is made worse by the fact that the photos are almost all taken in the player's home stadium and from the exact same angle.  So for example here are all of the cards featuring Hiroshima Carp pitchers:
You really get nothing in the photos other than the same grass and dirt background because of the stupid angle.  Hiroshima has a really great stadium, I'd like to see more of it on the background of these cards!  Again, none of these cards looks bad on its own, but when you've got the whole set looking at you the monotonous repetition gets really boring.  With Hiroshima at least they are playing outdoors under natural sunlight which make the photos a bit brighter.  The cards of teams that play in domes, like the Nippon Ham Fighters, Yomiuri Giants and Orix Buffaloes look way darker and the players don't really stand out very well.  Its just awful all around.

The only kind of "interesting" thing that I have noticed is that the set contains some of the first cards of the Pandemic.  Years from now collectors will probably be able to tell the 2020 cards (and with the way things are going  I fear maybe also the 2021 cards) by the empty stands in the backgrounds of a lot of cards:

At the same time this of course also contributes to the general misery of looking at this set, so while interesting it isn't helpful!

On the plus side, the whole thing only cost me 900 Yen (about $9) with shipping.  Which is a kind of stupid thing to say I suppose after devoting the whole post to describing how much I dislike this thing.  But yeah, its way better to spend 900 Yen to discover I dislike it than to spend 10-20 times that much on bags of chips which I also don't like trying to put the thing together by hand.  And as a collector its not like I could just NOT buy it, right?  Its what we do after all. 

PS: This was my 300th post on this blog!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

These are a fortune. Literally.

 I made a neat new "discovery purchase" the other day: Baseball pull fortunes (Yakyu Hikuji)..

I got a big pile of them, display backing and all!
This are a type of product that doesn't exist in North America but has a long history in Japan. Each of these packs contains ten strips of thin paper which stick out at the bottom (in the above photo the black and white player head shots at the bottom are the parts of the paper that sticks out).  Each strip has a fortune written on it, like you would find in a fortune cookie.  The best one you can get is "Daikichi" which is really good luck.  The worst is "Hazure" which means you are a loser.  And there are a few in between.  So each kid would get one of these packs, then with their friends they would each pull one of the strips out and see who would get good luck and who would get bad.
 If you ever visit a shinto shrine in Japan you'll probably come across something very similar as they sell similar fortunes there. The ones sold at shrines are called "Omikuji" and come in folded pieces of paper rather than being pulled off of tabs like these baseball ones are.

These are a couple that my wife and I got at the Hakozaki shrine in Fukuoka many years ago (the chocolate banana was also purchased there, it was a festival day).

My baseball ones feature colorful wrappers with six different players on them: Senichi Hoshino, Sadaharu Oh, Masahiro Doi (I think), Shigeo Nagashima, Koichi Tabuchi and Koji Yamamoto.   The players whose head shots are featured on the ten strips peaking out at the bottom don't necessarily match the player on the wrapper (The one with Senichi Hoshino for example has a picture of Isao Harimoto on the strips.  Though most of the others do match).
 The backs of the wrappers have some cool color images of various players.

Judging from the fact that Isao Harimoto is featured as a Giant and Masahiro Doi is featured in a Taiheiyo uniform I would date these to 1976.
 I decided to try my luck and pull one of them.  Instead of tearing them off as they were designed I decided to just unwind the wire at the top holding the bundle together so I could put it back without damaging it.  This is what I got:

"Losing pitcher with a 5-10 record, so sad!"  "HAZURE"

Oh no, I got the loser one!

Back in the day these sold for 10 Yen each.  Looking around the internet it seems these "pull fortunes" were pretty popular back in the 1970s as there were similar bundles with various anime characters also sold from around that time.  These seem to have been the only baseball ones made and they are pretty hard to find.  Or at least I think they are, these were the first I've ever seen though I hadn't even known they were something I should be looking for in the first place until I found them!

Kind of a neat thing to add to my collection, they have a strong "Showa retro" look to them which I find appealing!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Covid Baseball Card Bubble?

The reaction of the baseball card market to the Covid 19 recession is weird.

A few months ago I thought for sure the card market would collapse along with employment levels and everything else in the US.  But I seem to have been proven wrong so far on that count.  Unemployment is sky high, companies are going bankrupt left right and center and the virus is spreading more or less out of control now in that country.  Yet anecdotally at least all I am hearing these days are stories about card prices going up rather than down.  Which is weird.

This is also happening here in Japan, albeit at a much smaller scale.  Back in March I thought that card prices would  go down and I could pick up some bargains.  That never materialized and the competition I face on Yahoo Auctions for cards if anything seems a bit more intense now than it was before the pandemic hit.  Public health and the economy here haven't been hit anywhere near as badly as in the US, but at the same time the country like everywhere is in a recession.

What did I miss?

There is of course a parallel debate going on about another disconnect with the real economy, which is the stock market.  Actually, that isn't really a debate, more just an observation that stock prices do not move in lockstep with broader economic indicators - when GDP goes up or down stock prices don't necessarily follow.  This is because the value of stocks are generally determined by how investors evaluate the future cash flows they expect from a company weighed against risks associated with it.  Since both of these are future variables, how the economy is doing today is not itself a major consideration.

Cards are different from stocks though and the disconnect between their value and the overall shape of the economy can't be explained in the same way.  They don't produce cash flows and risks associated with them (like the risk that a card you spent 100$ on is going to be worth only 10$ in five years) are impossible to quantify.

So what factors are driving collectors through their buys and sells to value a card today at $1,000 when they valued it at half that a year ago?  Despite all the chaos happening.  And why was I so wrong in my prediction?

My guess would be the following.

1) Wealthy collectors aren't getting hammered like everyone else.

Its self evident that the value of expensive cards is only determined by the people who have enough money to throw some of it away on a hobby centered on the mere ownership of stuff.  So understanding changes in card values really just requires you to understand how those wealthy collectors are doing.

Wealthier collectors, like wealthier people in general, haven't been hit as hard by this as people in the middle or lower income tiers.  Few of them have lost their jobs and even for those that have they are way more likely to have income from investments and other sources of income to tide them over.  They are called "wealthy" for a reason after all.  So even with 10s of millions left unemployed and at risk of eviction and so forth, the people with money still have money.

2) The spending habits of wealthy collectors have changed

Despite being way more financially secure than most, the recession hasn't left the wealthy entirely untouched and they are cutting back spending on a lot of stuff.  This is having a disastrous impact on people who provide services to them for a living.  They aren't getting manicures, aren't going on European vacations, aren't getting their yachts cleaned, aren't going out for expensive dinners at fancy restaurants.  A lot of these are things the Coronavirus itself, rather than economic limitations, have taken off their spending menu.

Cutting back on those things probably leaves a lot of wealthy collectors with more discretionary cash on hand than they would normally have.  So why not spend it on cards?  No risk involved, its a hobby they can pursue completely at home!  Which is where most of them are these days anyway.

Basically cards are part of a broader category of discretionary purchases which are completely safe from the virus and therefore it makes sense that more would be spent on them now than before among the people who are insulated from worries about job losses, etc.  Money they would normally be spending at the golf course is now finding its way into the card market instead.

3) Cards are seen as a safe haven asset

I mentioned earlier that the stock market hasn't moved in tandem with the broader economy, which is true, but its also true that there has been a ton of volatility in the markets and there is a huge amount of unquantified risk hanging over all of it.  Investors don't know how long this pandemic related chaos is going to last, what systemic risks in the economy it is going to lay bare, and who the winners and losers are going to be 5 years, or even 6 months, from now.  Basically, stocks are a huge risk and other types of investment with a fixed return (bonds) aren't paying out much.

So they've got a lot of "dumb" money sitting around and aren't sure where to put it, they see cards going up in value and think "why not?" and throw more of their money into that simply because it seems the best out of a list of bad options that they have.  It becomes a bit of a self reinforcing cycle as more money enters the market the signal it sends becomes stronger and more money follows.  This becomes easier to justify for people who have cut back on other hobbies, since money spent on baseball cards is money they expect to get back at some point in the future, unlike money spent on the golf course or getting a manicure which is gone the second you spend it.

Where it Goes from Here?

The problem with all of these factors,  particularly the latter two, is that they are temporary situations which are only going to last as long as the pandemic is with us.  When a vaccine or treatment comes along, the motivation to return to old spending habits is going to be pretty high.  And the attractiveness of cards as a place to park your money is going to diminish.  Ironically while the recession has been good for cards, the recovery might be really bad for them. We might just be seeing a bubble in the market that will burst as quickly as it has inflated.

Or not, I have to admit my confidence in making predictions about this stuff has been shattered by how wrong I was in March.  I do think its an interesting thing to speculate about though, hence this post.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Stuff on Cards: Beer

 Here is something you don't see everyday: a baseball card with a bunch of beers dead centre in the photo!

This is card 11 from the 1977 Calbee set (Jc 5(a-j)).  And I love it.

If anyone out there is pursuing an "odd stuff to find on cards" type collection, I'm finding that Japanese cards, especially Calbees from the 70s, are a gold mine.  You've got everything from cards with girls in kimonos on them to cards with vintage cars on them to cards with American pro wrestlers on them.  And now a card with beers.

My casual Google search for "beer baseball cards" doesn't turn up any other baseball cards with beer visible on them.  I see a lot of 1958 Hires Root Beer cards, and cards of some rookie prospect named Seth Beer and a bunch of doctored fun cards people have made over the years (Rob Deer gets a lot of these since the D in his last name can easily be rendered a B).  But no baseball cards with a beer just casually sitting in the background or anything, let alone three of them prominently featured in the foreground. So unless somebody corrects me (and please do if you find something I've missed) I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is the only baseball card from a regular set in history to ever feature guys drinking beer on it.

This makes sense of course, its definitely not a good idea for a product for kids to feature alcohol on it.  I mean, there must be rules somewhere about that sort of thing.  Right? Anyway, obviously those rules didn't apply to Calbee back in 1977 as this card's existence attests to.
The reason for the beers and smiles all around is that this picture features members of the Hankyu Braves celebrating their victory over the Giants in the 1976 Japan Series.  Pictured are star pitcher Mitsuhiro Adachi  who won the series clinching 7th game, Braves manager Toshiharu Ueda, and series MVP Yutaka Fukumoto.

I am starting to work on this set, so this card is going with the rest of them, but if I can ever track down another copy (these are not easy to find) I'll put the other one in my new "stuff on baseball cards" type collection!

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Destroyer!!!!

I like this card.  Its probably one of the most famous Calbee cards from the 70s.

This is card 178 from the 1977 Calbee set which Engel catalogues as JC 5(a-j).  As I noted in an earlier post there are eleven different Calbee sets from that year, so its pretty hard to keep track of which is which.  This series has the weeds on the back border.

This was another one of those white whales that I've been chasing around for a while.  One seller on Yahoo Auctions has had a copy of it for a while with a BIN price of about 800$ which is insanely overpriced (Engel lists it at 80$).  Its a very popular card so that has been the only copy of it I've seen for sale for the past couple of years, but recently somebody put a lot of a couple dozen Calbee cards from the 70s up which included this and I put a high bid in and won (for less than the 80$ this card alone lists for).  I was so excited.

The card features Sadaharu Oh on the left and Dick Beyer, AKA the Destroyer, on the right.

The Destroyer is a really interesting guy.  He was a wrestling star in the US in the 50s and 60s, going by various identities before settling on his mask wearing Destroyer persona.

He has an interesting connection with the post I wrote last month about Hankyu Braves star Roberto Barbon, who as I mentioned had a run in with a Japanese wrestler named Rikidozan who was later stabbed to death by a Yakuza gangster.

After a match with Giant Baba in Los Angeles in 1963 the Destroyer came to Japan to go head to head with the same Rikidozan.  You can watch their match here:
Incredibly that match took place on December 2, 1963, just 6 days before Rikidozan received his fatal stab wound.  I'm not sure but it was probably his last time in the ring.

After that, the Destroyer went back to the US for a few years.  But in 1973 he returned to Japan and spent most of the 1970s here, both as a wrestler and as a major TV personality.  Definitely WAY more interesting than his wrestling is his output as a TV talento.  Here you can see him freaking out Wada Akiko and contributing to the general chaos and mayhem of a 1970s Japanese variety show, which is.....hard to describe in words but definitely worth watching:

My card of him with Sadaharu Oh would have come out at the height of his fame on Japanese TV and I assume he was at Korakuen for some sort of TV event.

One weird thing about this card is that it is a straight up normal Sadaharu Oh card.  The text on the front and back just mention Oh, but doesn't say anything about the guy he is standing next to.  Its basically a cameo appearance by the Destroyer on an otherwise normal Sadaharu Oh card.  Even in Engel card #178 is just listed as "Sadaharu Oh".  I get that this is a baseball set, but come on ,there are hundreds of Sadaharu Oh baseball cards out there, but only one with the Destroyer on it!  This deserves some sort of mention.

Anyway, after retiring from wrestling in 1984 he went back to his regular job as a high school PE teacher in Akron New York.  Before becoming a pro wrestler in the early 50s he had trained as a teacher, and in fact had a Masters in Education from Syracuse University.  That must have been pretty cool for Akron high school students in the 80s and 90s to have a guy with such an interesting background as a teacher.  Well, maybe, I could also see how having a teacher called "Destroyer" would be somewhat intimidating.

In 2017 he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his contributions to cultural exchange between Japan and the US.  He passed away last year at the age of 88.

All in all, a great card.