Wednesday, July 3, 2019

2019 Calbee Series 2 is Here (Yawn)

I just realized that it is already July and I am only just now getting around to doing a post about this year's Calbee set.  I'm so late Series 2 is already out, so I'll skip the first one and do a post about the second, which I just bought in complete form off of Yahoo Auctions.

Since last year I've decided that my way of evaluating new Calbee sets is based on photography, since the base design only seems to vary slightly from year to year now (between using Roman letters and Kanji for player names).  As I noted last year Calbee sets have become dreadfully predictable in their use of photography, to the extent that it is all based on three rules.  1) position players except for catchers are only shown batting, 2) pitchers are only shown pitching and 3) catchers are the only ones who sometimes are shown fielding at their position.  So my way of evaluating a new Calbee set is based entirely on how much they were willing to "wow" me by deviating from these three rules.

This year, unfortunately, the boring photography trend has continued.  70 out of the 72 cards in the base set (such as the entire Swallows team, pictured above) conform to the rules.  Individually none of the photos are bad, but collectively the repetitive site of everyone doing more or less the same thing gets very monotonous.

Its not just the poses that are boring, but also the framing - the players are always cropped so that they take up all the card.  Again its not a bad thing individually, but sometimes its nice to see a bit of variety (like a picture of a player with an impressive backdrop taking up a bit more or the card, see the Nagashima and Oh card at the head of this blog).

The monotony in framing leads to odd things, like the fact that every card of the Chiba Lotte Marines has the same infield dirt taking up the exact same amount of the bottom of the card - it almost looks like a colorful border but no, its just the result of near identical photo framing.
These are the only two cards that deviate from the batters batting/pitchers pitching/ catchers catching photo selection: one guy running the bases, the other fielding.  Neither are particularly exciting and suffer the same identical framing problem, but at least they are a bit different.  But I mean come on, just 2 cards out of 72?

In addition to the regular 72 card set I also got the 12 card opening day pitchers subset (boring!  Same photo problems as the regular set), and the 4 card checklist set which has the only interesting pictures in the entire thing:

See?   This is what I want Calbee cards to look like! Both of these cards show guys doing exciting things other than batting/pitching and both of them are framed to allow some background to be visible in the picture.  Wouldn't it be nice if Calbee made the entire 72 card set like this instead of just the 4 card checklists!  I mean, they used to do that back in the 70s for crying out loud, why not now???

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Set Building and Wall Hitting

As I've detailed in earlier posts, I'm working really hard on the 1975-76-77 Calbee "Monster" set of 1472 cards.  I've added quite a few cards to it over the past year and I'm about 75% of the way to completing it - I now have more than 1,000 of them!  I even have made decent headway on the rare (and expensive) regional issues and am about halfway to completing those series.

 But I've entered a new phase in my pursuit recently which has caused the pace at which I cross these cards off my checklist to drop significantly.  Basically the collection has had two phases which preceded this one:

Phase 1: just randomly amass as many cards as possible, buying them in lots whenever I could find them and not worrying about getting doubles since there were so many cards that I needed any lot I bought was bound to have a lot I didn't yet have.  Since the lots I could find were small and rarely exceeded about 50 cards at most (less than 5% of the set total), this was feasible for a long time.  This lasted about 5 years and got me past the halfway mark.

Phase 2: Stop buying the cards randomly in lots because once you pass a certain threshold the lots start producing too many doubles and it no longer makes sense as a collecting strategy.  Switch to buying the cards you need one by one.  This strategy lasted a little over a year and got me to where I am now.

Now I'm at a difficult point because I realize how few of these cards are in circulation and how small the number of dealers there are out there who actively deal in them.  I've basically stripped every dealer who has a stock of these of the cards I need, so now when I go through each dealer's list I only find cards I already have (and its getting frustrating).  So phase 2 has more or less run its course and I'm still several hundred cards short of completing the sucker.

Phase 3 is where things get tough.  I now have to wait for "new finds" of the cards I need to spring up, which is a real long game to play.  Some of the cards I still need probably aren't all that rare but rather its just coincidence that nobody happens to have any at this point and as they break up collections or whatever they do to put cards up I'll probably find them one by one for reasonable prices.

Some of the others are from the rare regional issues, which I know I'll have to pay real money for and am fine with picking those up over a long time period as it helps balance the monthly card collecting budget better that way.  I suspect though that there are also some "hidden" rarities lurking out there.  I've noticed with other vintage Calbee sets that there are a lot of cards which the guides (Engel and SCM) don't put a high price on and aren't part of any known regional limited series but they get bid into the stratosphere whenever they show up nonetheless.  I've unexpectedly lost a couple of bids on 1975-76 cards that the guides tell me aren't rare, yet they sold for several times more than what they are listed for.  Card #948 of Tanizawa Kenichi for example lists as a common that I thought I would pick up for 200-300 Yen in an auction a few weeks ago, but it ended up selling for 10 times that much (2280 Yen) much to my chagrin!  I'll try to record the existence of these as I find them for information's sake. Its obvious to me that I am not the only person in Japan working on this set, and other collectors (who are my competition) seem to be aware of which cards are rare and which aren't, despite what the guides say.  Despite all I have learned about this set over the years, there is still much that I do not know.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting to note that I've hit "the wall" at about 75% of the way to completing the Monster.  That percentage probably varies quite a bit from set to set.  With junk wax era cards, there is no "wall", you just buy the set for five bucks.  With US sets from the 60s and 70s too the "wall" probably only exists as a financial constraint.  Even the harder short printed series in most of those sets are available for sale on Ebay at any given time, and difficulty in buying them may be more related to waiting for one to come along at the "right price" rather than waiting for one to come along at all.

Hitting the wall where I have is probably not only the result of limited supply, but also of the limited circle of dealers who sell vintage Calbee cards.  There are about half a dozen guys selling on Yahoo Auctions that I deal with regularly to get cards from the set and that is about it, anything else is just somebody who specializes in other stuff but happens to lay their hands on a few old baseball cards. The brick and mortar card shops, at least here in Nagoya, don't really have anything at all and specialize in modern stuff.

Anybody else hit a wall in their attempts to put together a full set of something?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The 1980s Calbee Sets Ranked by Difficulty

 As I’ve been documenting on this blog over the years, my main (though not exclusive) collecting interests are Japanese Calbee sets from the 1970s and 1980s. These two decades produced radically different Calbee cards.  1970s cards are closer to standard sized and tend to depict scenes from games rather than of individual players.  Though many cards of that era do feature a single player, the back of the card usually focuses more on describing the specific game or scene depicted rather than general biographical information on the player.

In the 1980s that changed radically.  The cards became smaller, about the size of 1950 Bowmans, resulting in the decade being called the “mini card era” among Japanese collectors.  Also the cards moved away from depicting scenes in games and instead adopted the more conventional card depicting a single player on the front and having biographical information about the player on the back.  

The 1980s Calbee sets aren’t quite as popular as the 1970s sets, in part I think because the photography on the 70s sets is a lot better and also because the bigger card size displays them better.  But they do nonetheless remain among the most popular for Japanese collectors, depicting a lot of guys like Ochiai and Randy Bass who didn’t appear on cards from the 1970s.  

The sets vary widely according to how difficult they are to collect.  Compared to American sets from the 1980s they are infinitely more difficult: this was not the junk wax era in Japan and a closer comparison would probably be lie between the 1950s Topps and Bowman sets (on the easy side) and the T-206 set (on the harder side) in terms of difficulty.  Though even this is inaccurate since some years are nearly impossible to complete due to the rarity of some cards and sheer sizes of the sets, while others are actually quite do-able as collecting projects, albeit still challenging (especially if you are outside of Japan).  So here I thought I’d list the sets from the mini card era (1980 to the first series of 1990) in terms of difficulty, starting with the easiest at the top and going to the most difficult at the bottom.

1. 1990 First Series
Overview: This is in a league of its own in terms of ease of collection for three reasons.  The first is its small size – only the first 55 cards of the 1990 set are mini cards, for the upper series they completely redesigned them and the cards of the higher series are effectively a completely different set (though they continue the numbering from 56).  The second is the fact that there are no short printed cards in this series, so there aren’t any individual cards that are insanely hard to find (and expensive) compared to the rest. Finally, having been released in 1990 it seems that more of these cards have survived than ones from earlier in the decade.  There aren’t a lot of them out there but they are a bit easier to find than the cards from the early 80s, and generally can be found in a bit better condition.

My Collection: This is the only mini card set that I’ve been able to fully complete thus far. At about 100 Yen per card it cost about $50 (though that is fancy accounting as there were some doubles produced - if I sold those I could get it down to $50)!

2. 1986

Overview: The 1986 set is significantly harder to complete than the first series of the 1990 set, so there is a huge gap between the #1 and #2 spot on this list, but its definitely the easiest of the sets that encompass an entire year (in contrast to the 1990s minis which are only part of that year’s Calbee card release).  At 250 cards it is a lot smaller than the average set of the 1980s, which helps a lot.  The biggest reason for its relative ease though is that it’s the only full size set that doesn’t have any short printed series of cards: all 250 in the set are equally easy/difficult to find. It does feature the rookie card(s) of Kazuhiro Kiyohara, which used to be quite sought after and expensive, but in recent years his popularity has fallen off a cliff and they don’t command anywhere near as much of a premium as they used to (which is great for set builders).

My Collection: I am about 80% of the way to completing this set, with about 200 out of the 250 cards.  I haven’t had to shell out big money on any of them, I’ve been averaging about 100 Yen per card, so if I keep that up I could conceivably complete this set (in mid grade condition) for about $200-$250 US (though this will require a lot of patience on my part!)

3. 1987

Overview: The 1987 set is noticeably more difficult than the 1986 set, but still ranks among the easier to complete.  The bump in difficulty is explained both by the larger number of cards (382) and the fact that one series (cards 75 to 99) was short printed and is more difficult and expensive to complete than the rest of the set. These make it more difficult than the 1986 set, but two other factors make it easier than most other 1980s sets.  The first is that 1987 was a good year for baseball popularity in Japan, the Giants doing well that year, which I’ve heard boosted the sales of Calbee baseball chips that year and resulted in a somewhat higher supply of these cards being out there.  Second is the fact that while it does have a short printed series, that series is not super rare like some in other sets are.  The premium you pay for them is pretty modest and they can be found.

My Collection: I’m almost finished this set, with 378 out of 382 cards down.  The only 4 I have remaining are from the short printed series.  I’ve probably averaged about 100 yen per card for the regular cards and more like 300-400 Yen per card in the short printed series (though some of those I obtained through a trade).  So I’m looking at having spent about $400-$500 to complete this one, in upper mid grade condition (probably averages about EX).

4. 1988

Overview: For the most part collecting the 1988 Calbee set isn’t much different than collecting the 1987 or 1986 set: the cards cost about the same and are about as easy/difficult to find.  Number wise it lies between the two, at a manageable 329 cards.  The thing that puts it lower down the list though are the short printed cards, which there are a number of.  These are significantly more difficult to find than the 1987 short printed series and prices reflect this: singles in the short printed series usually sell from 30$ to $100 each on Yahoo Auctions.  There are three main blocks of short printed cards in this series.  The first are cards 101 to 115, the second are cards 251 to 265 and the final ones are cards 305 to 329.  Interestingly only the first and last of those blocks are priced highly in both Engel and my (now out of date admittedly) copy of Sports Card Magazine.  I’ve been able to determine that the cards from 251 to 265 are rare both by the fact that I don’t have any and that I’ve seen cards from those numbers sell at auction in about the 3000 Yen range, which is way out of whack for regular cards in that set.  The cards in the final series (305 and over) seem to be the most expensive and generally sell for over 5000 Yen each.  Its worth noting that there are two versions of card 305, one of which features a “fine play” with borders looking like film strips, and the other featuring Kiyohara.  The Kiyohara version is the more valuable of the two.

My Collection: I have about 70% of this set complete, but that is almost entirely made up of cards from the easier to find series. I only have 4 of the short printed cards, and none of them from the most expensive series above 305.  I’ve probably averaged about 100 Yen per card, but with the short printed cards selling for so much you’d probably be looking at spending nearly 1000$ US to complete this sucker, more than what you’d likely pay for the 1986. 1987 and 1990 first series combined.  Those short prints are wallet killers!

5. 1985

Overview: The 1985 set is a tough one.  At 465 cards it is a bigger set than the later 80s sets higher up the list.  It also has some hard to find short printed cards that are extremely expensive, notably cards 441 to 465, which have gold borders and usually sell for 5,000 Yen or so each.  Cards 276 to 325 are also short printed, though not as expensive.  One other thing that sets this one apart is that even the singles in the easier to find series are harder to find than they are for the sets of the late 1980s.  The non short printed cards in the 1986 to 1990 sets are, while fairly scarce, notably easier to find that the pre-1985 sets.  I’m not sure why 1985 is the drawing line for this, perhaps baseball chips were a more popular snack after that year.  You can see evidence of this on Yahoo auctions, despite their being more cards in the set a search for “1985” in the Calbee section only gets you 242 hits, while a search for “1988” gets you 909.  The set is also notable for having Choji Murata’s rookie card, one of the earlier examples of a higher priced (about 5000 Yen) rookie card in a Japanese set. It also has Warren Cromartie’s first Japanese cards. 

My Collection: I have a little over 100 cards from this one so I’m nowhere near completing it.  I don’t have any of the short printed ones either. I’ve probably averaged a little over 100 Yen per card on this one, though again that doesn’t include any of the valuable ones.  You’d definitely be looking at around $1500- $2000 or so to finish this one and it could take decades to track them all down.

6. 1982

Overview: This is a big set, 651 cards, and was the first of a three year run of Calbee sets with more than 650 cards.  Confusingly it is numbered to 751 because 100 cards (452-551) don’t exist! It has three short printed series (201-250, 351 – 401 and 702 – 751) which are quite expensive.  The cards from the rest of the set aren’t too hard to find, but there are a lot of them which makes it much more challenging than the 1985 set.  Its also quite hard to find the cards in this set in nice condition (most of the ones you find are in mid grade or lower). Its notable for having the rookie card of Tatsunori Hara. 

My Collection: I have over 100 cards for this set, so I’m not very far into it.  None of the ones I have are from the short printed series and most of the ones I have are mid to low grade.  This set will probably set you back about $5,000-$6,000 if you try to put it together, it’s a doozy.

7. 1984

Overview:  This set is a really hard one to collect.  At 713 cards it is massive, the biggest Calbee set of the 1980s and almost triple the size of the 1986 set.  Its also got a lot of extremely expensive short printed cards.  The entire run from card 591 to 690 – 100 cards! – is short printed and every one of those is going to set you back $30-$50 each if you can find them (at the moment not a single one is available on Yahoo auctions, they only show up from time to time).  Another 90 card block, from 401 to 490, was also short printed so overall you are looking at nearly 200 expensive short printed cards to finish this set.  As with the 1985s, even the non-short printed cards from this set are harder to find than the ones in the sets from the late 1980s.  This is especially the case if you are looking for them in upper grade, probably 90% of the early 80s Calbee cards are in mid grade (vg-ex) or lower (the ratio is probably more like 50% with late 80s cards).  The set is notable for the fact that most cards in it have a unique design that is different from the standard full bleed photos of other 80s Calbee sets.

My Collection: I have about 250 cards from this set, which means I am over 1/3 of the way there!  But I only have 2 of the short printed cards, and I don’t think I’ll be making any headway on them in the near future.  I’ve averaged about 100 Yen per card on this set, but its in lower grade condition than my later 80s Calbee sets are (probably averages about vg or vg-ex).  Completing this one could easily run $6,000- $7,000 because of all those short printed ones and is beyond my means (barring an unexpected lottery win).

8. 1983

Overview: At 710 cards this is one of the bigger 80s sets, almost the exact same size as the 1984 set.  It has some very hard to find short printed series, particularly cards 401-450,  501-550 and 601 to 700 – between the two of those you have about 200 Short printed cards that sell for 3,000-5,000 Yen each to track down.  In addition to that you have 10 cards that aren’t numbered which are the hardest to find.  I’ve never seen any on Yahoo Auctions, my old SCM lists them at 6000 Yen each but I suspect they would sell for more (prices on the short printed 1980s cards have risen quite a bit in recent years, my SCM is from 2010).  The set is notable for having the first cards of Randy Bass.

My collection: I have about 300 cards from this set so I’m actually getting close to the halfway point.  As with my other early 80s sets though I am severely short on the rare ones: I only have one of the short printed cards.  I probably averaged about 100 Yen per card for the ones I have, but like my 1984s the condition of my set is significantly lower than my late 80s sets (probably vg or vg-ex).  I guess this would be a $6,000-$7,000 project if I were to seriously pursue it. 

9. 1981

Overview:  This is a tough one.  At 450 cards its about average size, and it actually only has one hyper rare short printed series (201-250).  But what sets it apart and puts it so low down this list is that the non-short printed cards are also quite hard to find, much more so than even the 1983s or 1984s.  There are no easy to find lots for this set – every one out of those 450 cards is going to be one you have to track down and pay something for.

My collection: I have about 25 cards from this set, none of them from the short printed series. I paid about 300 Yen each for them, and that was quite a deal.  This would be about a $6,000 to $7,000 project if you were to ever try it, not for the faint of heart.

10 . 1980

Overview: At this point down the list its getting harder to justify differences in rank since they are all so damned hard, but the 1980 set is one that definitely belongs somewhere down here.  It does have one advantage, which is its small size.  At 296 cards it’s the second smallest Calbee set of the 80s after the 1986 set.  Technically speaking you could even shave 96 cards off that list though since the first 96 are actually bigger sized cards more like the 1970s Calbees, for some reason they changed the design mid year to the mini card style (much like they would ditch the mini cards half way through the 1990 set a decade later), but for our purposes we can treat it as a single set.  Its “easy” points end there though.  About half the cards (basically everything from 49 to 196) are short printed and extremely expensive.  And actually even the non-short printed cards are pretty rare, singles from this set across the board are the hardest of any from the 1980s to come by. 

My collection: I only have two cards from this set so it’s the 1980s set I am furthest from completing.  Even the commons from the non-short printed series usually sell for 500-1000 Yen each, and the short printed ones for many times that much, so despite its relatively small size this set is probably going to be a $5,000- $6,000 endeavour (maybe more) that will take years of work.  I am not actively pursuing this set due to the sheer cost of it right now.

11.  1989

Overview: I’m a bit torn about putting the 1989 set as the most difficult because depending on how you define it, it might be closer to the 1988 set in difficulty much higher up this list.  It’s a 414 card set and most of the cards are about as easy/difficult to find as cards from other late 80s Calbee sets.  But cards numbered 111 to 220 were short printed and sell for a premium similar to what the short printed series in the 1988 set sell for.  Those aren’t the real deal breaker that drops the 1989s to the bottom of the list though.  That belongs to the last cards in the set, 391 to 414.  These are short printed, but so short printed that nobody seems to know if they were ever even distributed in packs.  They are kind of legendary among Calbee card collectors and so rare that they are the only 1980s Calbee cards that SCM refuses to put a price on since there are so few transactions involving them.  I’ve never seen one come up for auction on Yahoo Auctions.  So if you include those 23 cards in the 1989 set, it’s the most difficult.  Without them this set would probably be between the 1988 and 1985 sets in difficulty.  The set is notable for having cards of Cecil Fielder, the only Calbee set to do so.

My Collection:  I have about 60 cards from this set, it’s the only late 80s Calbee set I’ve never made a serious attempt to collect mainly because those mysterious super short printed ones discourage me from doing so.  Most of the cards in the set are about as easy and cheap to get as 1988 or 1987 Calbees, but I can’t speculate on how much a full set would cost.  Those hyper short printed ones could easily sell for thousands of dollars each, making this the most expensive 1980s Calbee set out there if you were to include them.

Extreme Collecting: How do you Distinguish Your Collection?

Today's collecting hobby is pretty extreme.  I don’t mean “extreme” in a bad way, but more in the way it is used in phrases like “extreme sports” – collectors are just doing amazing things with their collections that would have been almost impossible back in the late 80s/early 90s when I was a young collector. A side effect of this has been a significant raising of the bar for what the hobby considers to be an “impressive collection”.  

There are two analogies that are useful in understanding this.  The first is this side by side montage of Olympic gymnasts performing in the 1950s compared to what they are doing today.  Its pretty insane how simple the stuff from the 50s looks today. The cumulative effects of advances in technology, training methods and medicine have made this change possible.

Another somewhat different process is illustrated by a comparison of a picture of Mount Everest in 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to successfully climb it:
And today, when you’ve literally got hundreds of people cued up waiting to reach the top as if they were waiting for Wal Mart to open on Black Friday:

Like the Olympic gymnasts this change has also been made possible by technological, training and medical advancements.  But it also illustrates a change that comes about when someone does something that nobody had ever done before: it motivates others to follow in their footsteps because they now know it is possible.

You can see some obvious parallels in these comparisons across time with a look at baseball card collecting today and back in the 1980s.  I’m mainly thinking about vintage collecting here, but the same applies to contemporary stuff.  I remember back in the 1980s thinking that collecting a complete set from the 60s or 70s would have been mind blowingly difficult.  And it would have been.  Even if I had an unlimited budget (and I didn’t), finding the cards would have taken years of work – going from card shop to card shop, card show to card show, hoping that dealers had what I wanted.

Then technology came along in the late 90s and Ebay meant that you had dozens or even hundreds of every card from the 60s and 70s available and suddenly collecting sets from the 1960s and 70s (and earlier) didn’t seem impossible anymore, it was something way more collectors could do.  In addition to the time factor, the price of those cards also came down a bit, reflecting the increase in supply that everyone had access to (even though the actual supply was the same as always). The sudden ease of amassing vintage cards meant that the standards for what might be considered an “impressive” collection also went up.  Back in the late 80s/early 90s I remember furtively trying to put together a 1968 Topps set.  In four years of work (with a very limited budget) I was able to accumulate a pile of about 50 mid-grade commons with a smattering of lower level Hall of Famers (Joe Morgan, Juan Maurichal and a couple other guys).  I worked so hard on finding those and all my collecting friends thought it was such a cool project.  Today though it would basically be one out of dozens of lots that go up on Ebay and fetch maybe 20-30$ on a good day.  Its nothing.  

The increased standards have led a lot of collectors to projects that either didn’t exist or wouldn’t have been thought possible back in the 1980s, much like the Olympic gymnastic moves of today or the idea of an inexperienced hiker scaling Everest would have been unthinkable in the 1950s.  Part of this is obviously done out of interest, but I think partly there is also a strong competitive element to it: a lot of collectors want their collection to be deemed “impressive” to their fellow hobbyists in some way.  And the internet has had two big effects in this regard.  Its not just that Ebay has made collecting easier, its that the proliferation of information on blogs like this or forums about collecting have made collectors way more aware of what people are collecting and how they are collecting it, which probably provides some fuel to the “keeping up with the Jones’s” competitive element to it.  In the old days you only had to make your collection impressive by the standards of your immediate collecting friends who probably lived in the same town as you and faced all the same collecting constraints you did (since you were all limited by what the local dealer had).  Now your basis of comparison is everyone on the internet, which includes people with insane amounts of time and money on their hands to devote to this hobby.  It’s a fool’s errand to try to compare yourself to that, but at the same time its also hard to ignore, at least for collectors who want to make their collection unique.

I think there are three forms of extreme collecting by collectors pushing the boundaries of what constitutes an “impressive” collection which can be summarized here in turn.

1. Throwing wads of cash at it.

This is really the old fashioned way of doing it and the practice is alive and well.  Probably the PSA registry of regular sets is the main exemplar of this trend.  Want your collection to be famous?  Throw a ton of money at PSA 9s and 10s of cards from a given set and you can have your name acknowledged as the owner of the BEST set of 1979 Topps card in the world.  Its basically the same as collecting a 1979 Topps set used to be, only it costs 50 times as much.

2. Feats of Endurance

If you don’t have the kind of cash necessary to buy your way into fame, there are still some interesting ways of working your ass off to create something impressive.  My favorite example of these are guys who are working on getting every card from a given set autographed. Like I was surprised to learn that there are a lot of peopleworking on completing the 1987 Topps set with all the cards autographed.  Most of those guys are doing it the old fashioned way, mailing letters to players, tracking them down at card shows or wherever they happen to be, and only resorting to buying autographed cards when its unavoidable (such as with players who are already deceased).   That takes a lot of time and effort and is a genuinely impressive feat.  But it kind of reminds me of Mount Everest.  Somebody had to have been the first to complete a 1987 Topps autographed set (and that is just one of many out there) and when they did they probably thought that was an unmatchable feat.  But having shown that it was possible, there are now a huge gaggle of other collectors working on it, exchanging tips on how to get certain guys to sign and so on.  So its still impressive, but more like scaling Mount Everest in 2019 than doing it in 1953.

Personally, I have way more respect for collections put together this way than I do for PSA registry sets, which have a way stronger whiff of “rich person vanity project” to them. Autographed sets put together one by one have more of a “labor of love” feel that I find more compelling. 

3. Ingenuity

A third way of creating an impressive collection is to find some inventive way of distinguishing it from others, or collecting something that nobody else has collected before.  This might require both wads of cash and feats of endurance, but they aren’t its distinguishing feature and it might not require either (collecting a card of every player whose middle name was "Ned" for example).    There is a guy on Net54, Nick, who is putting together a collection of one career contemporary card of every member of theJapanese hall of fame (save for a few like Eiji Sawamura for whom no such card exists).  That is a pretty original thing to collect and I’m pretty sure nobody has ever done that before (at least nobody outside of Japan) so he’s got a unique and interesting collection on the go which counts as impressive.  Seeking out projects like that which are truly unique is of course going to get harder and harder as more and more people “discover” and achieve more and more of them, but its cool to think that there are still more out there.

Where My Collection Fits

Collecting cards in Japan I'm well aware that I am considered a "niche" collector within the wider hobby (at least in the US, which as an English speaker is my online peer group).  I'm definitely not throwing wads of cash at it, or at least wads big enough to make it distinguishable on that basis.  But I think mine has elements of types 2 and 3 above in it.  Collecting vintage Calbee sets like I am is a pretty intense feat of endurance.  I had to move to Japan, learn the language and live here for almost twenty years to get to where I've gotten on those Calbee projects.  OK admittedly I didn't do that stuff for the purpose of putting Calbee sets together, but its pretty hard to do those sets without doing something like that since having access to the cards in sufficient quantities to complete a vintage set necessitates a physical presence in Japan and an ability to work in the language (or having someone there for you, I do act as a proxy for some American collectors looking for older Calbees).

Also, those sets are hard.  Like REAL hard. Engel in the guide notes that very few complete Calbee sets from the 70s and 80s exist out there and from personal experience I can say that putting them together even if you move to Japan and learn the language is going to take years.  Its a feat of endurance.  Its also somewhat original though, in the sense that I don't think any foreigner (at least that I know of) has ever put together entire sets of 70s/80s Calbees out there. Certainly I've known some who have tried (or are trying right now at the same time I am) but I don't know of any who have succeeded in putting one all the way together.  I'm 4 cards away from finishing my 1987 Calbee set for example and I'm wondering if I'm going to be the first foreigner to ever put that thing together. With the 1975-76-77 set I'm way more confident that I will be if I ever finish it since I doubt that more than 10 people in Japan have ever done that monster.

Where does yours?

Do any of you have extreme (or regular) collections that you try to distinguish in some way?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Most Beautiful Card?

I picked up another card I had been hunting for a while last week.  Its not one I need for a set I'm working on, but rather one that I have wanted because it just looks so damn good.

Its from the 1978 Calbee set, the Pennant Race series, and features Koichi Tabuchi taking a big swing against a Giants pitcher.  I ran across it in Yahoo Auction a few months ago and ended up losing that one.  But I couldn't get it out of my mind, its such an amazing photo - there is so much going on in it. You get the back of the umpire dead center in the image, which is odd but somehow works as he adds to the action between Tabuchi's swing and the pitcher coming off his throw.  The billboard in the stands and the mass of spectators is the perfect backdrop.  Its one of those cards that define everything I love about 1970s Calbee cards.  

Unfortunately the 1978s are kind of hard to find and it took a few months for another one to show up at auction.  I put a higher bid in this time and won it for 2100 Yen, which is a bit on the high side for me (especially for a card that isn't in a set I'm working on) but it was so worth it.  

I now have to decide if this displaces my previous "most beautiful 1970s Calbee card" at the top of the list: this Oh/Nagashima card from the 1974 set:
I can't really make up my mind on this one.  They are both so good....

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Book Review: Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide (2nd Edition) by Gary Engel

After years of collecting vintage Japanese cards using mainly Japanese language resources as a guide, I finally splurged on a copy of the definitive English guide book to them: Gary Engel's Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide.  Part of the reason I had been taking my time was that I had heard a new edition was in the works, and it was finally released in 2018, 6 years after the previous one. I thought I would devote this post to giving the book a proper review since I don't get many chances to write those on a blog about Japanese baseball cards (its basically the only book).

I bought the guide last Friday and my overall impression after spending a weekend with it and giving it a thorough reading over is positive.  I definitely recommend buying it to anyone who collects or has an interest in vintage Japanese baseball cards (its available on Prestige Collectibles website, I bought the emailed PDF version and received it within minutes of making payment. It is well worth the $25 asking price).

The book, which is the "vintage" edition, covers the time period from the earliest cards in the 1930s until 1990.  The justification for cutting it off there seems to lie in 1991 being the year that BBM issued its first set, which caused a radical change in the hobby from that year on.  This is a reasonable way of drawing a line between vintage and modern in Japan, though from a Calbee collector's perspective (admittedly that is a highly niche perspective) I note in passing that it feels a bit arbitrary since Calbee sets, at least in terms of rarity, didn't really enter the high production/high retention years until much later in the 1990s, and early 90s Calbee sets are about as hard to find as the ones in the late 80s.

Unlike most American card guides, this one is not organized chronologically year by year, but rather by card type (though within each type it is done year by year).  It has separate sections for Menkos, Bromides, food/candy/gum cards, Karuta, vintage game cards, Takara and Calbee.  Given the radical differences in the cards across these sets, organizing it like this makes much more sense than trying to do everything year by year, so I think that was a good choice.

I was extremely impressed by the depth of the catalogue, particularly with the earlier Menko and Bromide sets the author clearly spent a great deal of time in tracking down and listing some very hard to find cards which (to my knowledge) have never been catalogued elsewhere, even in Japanese.  Going through hundreds of sets, most of them un-numbered and many even lacking the player's name on them, and creating a well systematized catalogue of them must have been a gargantuan task.  As the author notes it is not comprehensive and there remain quite a number of Menko and other early sets that have yet to be listed (this set of mine here, for example, isn't listed), but what they have here is extremely impressive and covers the majority of what must be out there.

The PDF version that I have comes with color illustrations of cards from each set, which is quite handy given the fact that the color is often necessary to identify certain sets, making black and white images kind of limited in usefulness.

An interesting feature of the guide is that it lists pre 1973 sets with a "Scarcity Factor" ranging from R5 (less than 5 copies known to exist) to NS (not scarce, more than 1,000 copies), something I haven't seen in other baseball card guidebooks before.

The Calbee sets from 1973 to 1990 are well catalogued here, so it is a great resource even if you are just interested in Calbee cards.  Of particular note is that the author even catalogues the 1978 and 1979 issues, which was a difficult task since they were issued in multiple different series with different designs, many of them un-numbered (Sports Card Magazine in Japan doesn't bother to list the Calbees from those years, probably for that reason).

There are a couple of suggestions I have with regard to their Calbee sections for any future editions.  One is that the write ups introducing each set don't make any mention of the existence of short printed or regional series within the set.  For example the 1975-76(-77) Calbee set has three series in it which were only released in either Hiroshima or Nagoya and are much harder to find than the rest of the set.  The prices for these cards as listed in the guide accurately reflect this scarcity, but there is no mention of it in the write up, which would probably be confusing for the average reader who would wonder why these cards (mostly featuring common players) are so expensive.  Its also kind of an interesting detail to explain regardless of the price difference.

Another issue I noticed is with the pricing, which is actually quite a bit harder to fix.  As the author notes, it is quite difficult to price a lot of these cards due to the thin nature of the market - its just not as deep as the American one and therefore there are a lot fewer transactions to base prices on, especially with older cards where there might only be a handful known to exist.  The prices are described as taking into account both the American and Japanese markets and are based on the higher of the two when they don't agree, though they add appropriate caveats about the uncertainty of prices.

With the Calbee cards I think there is a more established collector's market in Japan which makes that a bit less of a concern.  The prices for most Calbee cards in the guide seem about right and roughly square with what they are listed for in SCM, though Sadaharu Oh cards and those of some American players are listed for quite a bit higher than what they go for in Japan, presumably reflecting the price they realize in the US where they are more popular.

Going the opposite way, however, the guide severely undervalues a number of vintage Calbee cards that are being hunted down by Japanese collectors (but mostly ignored by American ones).  For example, the guide values card #125 from the 1973 Calbee set (featuring Motoi Mitsuo and Higashida Masayoshi) for $250 in Near Mint condition, but the same card in mid-grade condition sold at auction for about $3,000 here back in February.  Likewise card 288 from the same set featuring Sachio Kinugasa sold just last week for about $1400, but the guide lists it at just $150.

The point here isn't to nitpic outlier sales data, but rather to point out that some prices in the guide are missing pieces of information that drive market prices in Japan, but not in the US.  Those two cards are among the hardest to find for anyone working on a 1973 Calbee set and thus they sell for insanely high prices whenever they show up at auction here because there are several set builders out there looking for them (to my knowledge, there aren't many vintage Calbee set builders in the US, certainly not enough to have an effect on card prices there like they do here).  The Japanese Calbee card market has become a lot more aware in recent years of the relative scarcity of certain vintage Calbee cards which are harder for set builders to lay their hands on and market prices have started to really go up for those (as a Calbee set builder, I'm acutely aware of stuff like this).  This also applies to more modestly priced cards from later years, like the short printed block in the 1987 Calbee set (#75-100) which sell at a premium in Japan but are listed at the same price as cards from other series in the guide, and a few others (cards from the 250s in the 1988 Calbee set for example which have recently been selling for much more here).

So my advice in terms of price might be to try to do a bit more in depth research on Japanese market trends, since they don't seem to be reflected in the values as listed (again, this applies to a very small number of the cards listed in the guide and isn't a major problem, but if a collector had that Mitsuo/Masayoshi card for example they would be WAY better off selling it in Japan via Yahoo Auctions where Japanese collectors would bid it into the stratosphere than they would listing it on Ebay where American buyers would pay way less for it, so its worth trying to catch stuff like this even if the guide is mainly marketed towards American readers).

These minor issues aside, this is really a great book and I am completely satisfied with it as a valuable reference piece.  If you collect Japanese cards (pre 1991), then this is a must have book.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

1949 Calbee Set?

Over the past few weeks there have been some really interesting listings on Yahoo Auctions for Calbee cards that I didn't know existed, including the above.

I had always assumed that the first Calbee baseball cards were the 1973 set because....well, that's what everyone says.  But one seller has been listing cards from a 1949(?) Calbee set that I had never heard of but which appears to be legit (not sure if Engel catalogues this?)

In 1949 Calbee wasn't actually called Calbee yet, it was founded as the Matsuo Food Processing Corporation in that year.  One of its main products though was a snack called Calbee Caramel.  The word "Calbee" is actually a portmanteau of the English words "Calcium" (cal) and "Vitamin" (bee, the closest Japanese comes to "vi") - in the immediate postwar period the population was severely malnourished for a few years so any product that offered these was a guaranteed sale.  The company changed its own name to Calbee in 1955.

The card features Tetsuharu Kawakami on the top and a redemption offer for Calbee Magazine (send in five coupons from them and they'll give you a children's book for 100 Yen) is on the bottom.  
On the back it says "Calbee Caramel" across the top, and identifies Matsuo  Food Processing Corporation on the bottom (with some biographical text about Kawakami in the middle).

The cards are pretty small, about 5cm top to bottom (about the size of 1980s Calbees).  As you can see this Kawakami is in pretty rough shape, with a huge ink blot on both the front and back.  Despite this, bidding is already up to 9500 Yen and counting with 3 more days on the auction.

I'm not sure if the set was issued in 1949 (the listing is a bit vague on this point), but given the use of Matsuo Food Processing as the corporate name it must date to sometime between 1949 and 1955.

The design of these early Calbees seems to have varied widely based on some other cards from the same period that are up for auction right now, like this one of Kotsura of the Carp:
 And this one here of  Hirai of the Giants

And this one of Fujimura of the Tigers (this auction finished a few days ago at 10,500 Yen):
In all my years of browsing Yahoo Auctions I've never seen these cards before, the seller must have lucked into a small cache of them.  Judging from the prices they are realizing collectors are aware of them and getting into mini bidding wars on them, which is putting me off of getting one for myself (much though I want one now that I know they exist!)