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!)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Collecting Cards in Japanese: A Guide to the Language

During my visit to Mint Ponyland with Dave last week I noticed there was a bit of an odd language gap between Dave and the owner.  It isn't odd that they spoke different languages of course, but rather that the card collecting nomenclature in English and Japanese don't match up, despite the fact that much of the Japanese is based on English loan words.

Dave wanted to know if they sold complete sets of a certain BBM set and he used the term "complete set" in English, which the storeowner didn't understand.  I then jumped in and asked in Japanese if he had it "furu conpu" and he immediately comprehended.

The weird thing is that the words "complete" and "set" are known to Japanese collectors and used in Japan, but not in the same way they are in English (and not together like that as one phrase), hence the confusion.

The phrase I used - furu conpu - is the Japanese term for "complete set" and its actually English - furu is the closest the Japanese language comes to replicating "full" and "conpu" is an abbreviated form of "complete" - so I was saying "full complete".

Its very hard to understand the way in which the Japanese vocabulary around card collecting has developed.  The English phrase "full complete"  is understandable, but its not a phrase any North American card collector would use to describe a complete set (the two words together create a redundancy that would annoy us - if it is "full" it is by definition "complete" and vice versa).  How the Japanese collecting world decided to put these two together is a bit of a mystery to me!

Anyway, in this post I thought it might be useful to create a little vocabulary guide for any English speakers out there wanting to know how to use the jargon of card collecting in Japanese correctly.  I've set out some of the terms that get used a lot below, organized into three categories based on their relationship to English: 1) words that are borrowed directly from English and have the same meaning, 2) words that are borrowed from English but have a different meaning in Japanese, and 3) purely Japanese words (or mixed Japanese-English words).

1) Words or phrases that are borrowed from English (just the pronunciation is different) and have the same meaning in both.

カード (Ka-do) = Card.

ボックス (Bokkusu) = Box.

パック (Pakku) = Pack.

シリーズ (Shirizu) = Series.   Basically means a series in a set (High series, etc)

パラレル (Parareru) = Parrallel.   A parallel series

2) Words or phrases that are borrowed from English but have a different meaning in Japanese

レアブロック (Rea burokku) = Short Print.  Based on the English words "rare block".

フルコンプ (Furu conpu ) = Complete set.  Based on the English words "Full Complete".

セミコンプ (Semi conpu) = Near complete set.  Based on the English words "Semi Complete".

サインカード (Sain Ka-do) = Facsimile Autograph card.  Based on the English words "Sign Card".  

3) Words or phrases that are purely Japanese (or mixed Japanese and English)

おまけカード (Omake Ka-do): Basically means a bonus card of some sort.  Can be used to describe either something a seller is throwing in for free in a deal (as in "I'll toss this in as a bonus") or something that was originally distributed as a bonus (Calbee cards are sometimes described like this since they were a "bonus" given away with bags of chips).

直筆サインカード (Jikihitsu sain Ka-do): autographed card (not a facsimile but a real autograph).  Putting the Japanese word "Jikihitsu", which means "directly written" in front of "sain ka-do" distinguishes it as a real autograph.

未開封 (Mikaifu): Unopened (as in "unopened pack" or "unopened box"). 

美品 (bihin): Mint condition (literally "beautiful product").  This doesn't convey the same exactness as "mint" does in English since the hobby here isn't as nitpicky about condition, and is maybe more accurately translated as "high grade", cards that could be about EXMT or better would probably be described this way.

限定版 (Genteiban): Limited Edition.   

地方限定版  (Chiho Genteiban): Regional limited edition.  This term describes the rare Calbee series that were distributed only in certain regions.  
第3弾 (Dai san dan): Third Series (second series, etc).  Even though "Series" is used as a loan word directly from English, they use this phase to describe a specifically numbered series. 

10枚 (Juu Mai): 10 cards (9 cards, 8 cards, etc).  "Mai" is a counter for flat objects, so if you want to buy for example 10 cards you would describe them as juu (ten) mai (cards in this case).  

This is by no means an exhaustive list, its more or less what I thought of off the top of my head while composing this post.  I'll try to add to it as I think of more (and maybe if anyone has some suggestions please post them in the comments)!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

1987 Calbee: Just Down to Four Cards

I got some cards in a trade with Ryan a little while ago: 1987 Calbees that I need for my set.

I am now down to just needing 4 more.  I am 98.9% of the way there - 378 out of 382 cards down.  It is so close I can almost taste the satisfaction of finishing it more than 5 years after I started with a 60 card starter lot.

The cards I need are:

82 Toshio Shonozuka
84 Sadaaki Yoshimura
89 Kazuhiro Yamakura
92 Yoshitaka Katori

There are a couple of copies of the Katori card available on Yahoo Auctions right now but I find I'm becoming picky about condition with these last few ones and have decided to hold off since they aren't in the best shape.  My overall set probably averages about EX, and I am trying to avoid cards with creases or heavily rounded corners.  I'll probably need to upgrade about 20 or so cards which are in "filler" condition once its complete, but for present purposes they all count as part of the set.

Its no coincidence that the ones I still need all fall so close to each other numerically in the set, they are all from the "rare block" that runs from 75 to 100 and is noticably harder to complete than the rest of the set.  And they are all Giants players.

I'm hoping this is going to be there year I finish this one, I started in January with 15 cards left and have now got just these last four to go: the last 1%!  Its going to be a very happy day for me when I compose a post detailing the completion of this baby!

Monday, June 3, 2019

42 Year Old Potato Chips for Sale

There is a kind of neat thing available for auction right now: an unopened bag of Calbee baseball snacks from 1977. I've seen the empty wrappers for sale before, but never an actual full bag of chips still intact.

Its kind of weird, the chips actually still look like chips, they haven't decomposed or anything in there (vacuum sealed!).  Well, actually they technically don't look like "chips" since they are actually "snacks" - look closely and you'll see that they are some sort of snack with a bunch of holes in them, not the standard potato chips they sell today.  Still though, they look about as new as they probably did in 1977.

The seller has it listed with a 5,000 Yen starting bid.  I have no idea if it is worth that but I guess it certainly could be.  I'm not sure if its something I would ever want in my collection though.  It seems like the sort of thing a die hard Calbee collector like me should want, but I have no idea what I would do with it if I bought it. It'd be a neat display piece for anyone with a vintage Japanese baseball themed man cave, but I live in a tiny Japanese house that doesn't have room for man caves.   So I think I'll let it go, interesting though it is.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Nagoya Card Shop Tour with Dave Part 3

After our visit to Mint Ponyland we realized we had been on our feet for quite some time (especially Dave, who had come down all the way from Tokyo that morning) and it was getting late so we decided to draw our card shop tour to a close.  We had actually taken in 2 out of the 3 specialized card shops in Nagoya.  The only other one, a shop called Match Up near Yabacho station, would have to wait til another day.  Due to poor timing we also missed out on a fourth shop, Caps, which had just closed down in March.

We returned to Nagoya station and made our way over to Dave's hotel as he said he had something to give me.  I was absolutely astonished by what he had: two massive Yamakatsu Jumbo DX cards! Still in their original box!
These cards are massive, probably the biggest baseball cards ever produced.  I should have put something for scale in the photo but didn't think of it. So perhaps I'll do the next best thing here and express how big they are with a series of "they so big" jokes:

"Your Yamakatsu Jumbo cards are so big I swerved to miss running over one in my car and ran out of gas."

"Your 1977 Yamakatsu Jumbo card is so big, they only just finished printing it."

"Your Yamakatsu Jumbo cards are so big if you drop one in the ocean off the coast of Okinawa Japan and China will immediately get into a territorial row over who owns it."

"Your Yamakatsu Jumbo card is so big I had to look three times to see all of it."

"Your Yamakatsu Jumbo cards are so big that 17% of seismological activity in the Japanese archipelago is explained by their movement."

"Your Yamakatsu Jumbo cards are so big that when you buy them in bulk at Costco they come in packages of one."

"Your Yamakatsu Jumbo card is so big they make you buy a ticket for it if you want to take it on the Shinkansen."

And on and on (feel free to come up with your own in the comments).

These ones in fact were so big (not a joke) that Dave had to use a specific suitcase big enough to hold them without getting them bent.  How do you thank someone for going to that much trouble to bring cards across the Pacific to you?  It was really the kindest gesture I've ever experienced as a card collector and I just really love these cards and am massively appreciative of them!  

The two cards he gave me were of Tomio Tashiro of the Whales and Masayuki Kakefu of the Hanshin Tigers.  These cards are pretty hard to find and, in a bizarre twist, the only one I'd ever actually seen before was the actual Kakefu card that he gave me, which he had featured in a post on his blog a few years ago!

I was a bit worried about getting them home safely since it was raining and they wouldn't fit in my backpack, but fortunately I had some plastic bags that did the trick and they now safely reside in my home.

His generosity didn't end there though, he also gave me these beauties here:
A fantastic set of stuff that just 100% aligned with my interests: some 1989 Mermaid Data cards, two 1994 Calbee Hokkaido-Kyushu-Sanyo cards (veyr hard to come across), and some other vintage Calbee including a beautiful 1979 Yutaka Fukumoto.

We sat in the hotel lobby for a few minutes as I looked through all of these amazing cards, feeling a bit guilty that I hadn't thought to bring him a gift (I will though!!!) and then we said goodbye and I headed for home.

It was a great afternoon, being able to both connect in person with a fellow Japanese baseball card blogger (we're a pretty small community!) and great guy, and to take in some of Nagoya's baseball card shops for the first time.  Dave is now off on the rest of his trip, which he shared some of the details of with me but I won't spoil it here.  Stay tuned to his blog to see some amazing posts, bearing in mind that the  3 posts I've devoted here to it only made up a very small portion of it!

Sometime in the near future I'll try to head out to the only card shop we didn't get to, Match UP, and do a post about it.  I also discovered there is a baseball card show happening here in Nagoya in July, so I'll try to take that in and do a post about it too (though work/family scheduling might preclude that, I'll try at least!)