Monday, September 16, 2013

Just how Rare are Calbee Cards?

I was intrigued to read this article in the Asahi Shinbun last year which stated that Calbee baseball cards had cracked the 1 billion cards sold mark in 2012.

It is so rare that one gets a hard number to work with for how many cards a company produced in a given year.  This, of course, is actually a print run for 40 years but it does provide some tantalizing ways of trying to figure out how many Calbee cards were produced each year and how many might still be out there.

First it is worth noting that while 1 billion sounds like a lot it actually isn`t.  There exists no definitive answer to the question of how many cards the big US companies were cranking out each year, but the consensus seems to be that for the junk wax era they were making millions of copies of each card. Given 792 cards per Topps set, that means that a single set like the 1989 Topps set alone probably had more cards printed than Calbee has made in its entire 40 year existence.

That said I guess we can approach the numbers from the most obvious and simple direction.  If we divide that 1 billion number evenly over the 40 year history we get a print run of 25 million per year.  With roughly 18,000 Calbee cards having been issued in that time frame you get an average of 55,500 copies of each individual card. 

Of course there is a lot of variation which makes that number problematic.  First there was wide variation in the number of cards issued each year, with some of the early sets in the 1970s having more than a thousand cards while some sets from the 80s and 90s had fewer than 400.   Then we have to additionally factor in the fact that the number produced each year would have varied quite a bit.  The Asahi article notes that the 1987 set was a good seller because the Giants won the Series that year while the 2002 set didn`t sell so well due to the popularity of the World Cup that year, which Japan co-hosted with Korea.

Still though, that 55,500 number is quite low compared to American sets.  Even sets from well before the junk wax era, like the 1960 Topps set, are estimated to have had print runs about 10 times larger than that.

With cards from before the late 1990s you also have the fact that most of them haven`t survived.  Like American cards from before the late 1970s they just weren`t viewed as being worth anything and most were thrown out.  Of the few that do survive not many are in top condition.

We can get some idea of how rare Calbee cards are in comparison to vintage American cards by comparing their availability on Yahoo Auctions - the main online auction site in Japan - with the availability of early American cards on Ebay.

I did a little look at the availability of cards from the first five years of Calbee sets (1973 to 1977) on Yahoo Auction compared to the availability of cards from the first five years of Topps sets (1952 to 1956) on Ebay.  With the American ones I did this by simply doing searches (`1952 Topps`, etc) in the baseball cards section on Ebay.  I did a cut off for only cards above 10$ to weed out most of the cheaper modern repros that get improperly listed, but these numbers probably contain a few of those.  With the Japanese ones I followed the same process (`73 カルビー, etc) but I didn`t need to set a price cut off since there were so few and I could just browse through to spot any fishy looking entries

The numbers are pretty crazy:.

1952 Topps
1973 Calbee
1953 Topps
1974 Calbee
1954 Topps
1975 Calbee
1955 Topps
1976 Calbee
1956 Topps
1977 Calbee

As the table indicates, for every one 1973 Calbee card available on Yahoo Auction (there are virtually none available on Ebay or other auction sites I should add) there are more than 100 1952 Topps cards available on Ebay.

And, of course, the 1952 Topps set is one of the hardest post-war sets out there to complete.

When you look at complete sets available online there is a big difference too.  There are hundreds of complete or near-complete Topps sets  from the 1950s or 1960s available on Ebay at any given time (not many 1952 Topps sets mind you, but plenty from the later 50s onwards).  With Calbee on the other hand there are a grand total of zero complete sets from before the year 2000 available on Yahoo Auctions at the moment, which is pretty normal.  There are a couple of sets from more recent years like 2005 and 2007, selling for several hundred dollars and that is it.

So the bottom line is that Calbee cards, particularly the older ones, are just insanely hard to find when compared to American sets from the 1950s and 60s.  This is not surprising given the smaller size of the Japanese market, but kind of interesting nonetheless.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Pile of 1954 Bowman and Why I Collect VG-Ex Condition Baseball Cards

I have a pretty decent sized collection of vintage (pre-1980) American baseball cards in addition to my Japanese ones.   Most of these I`ve accumulated off of Ebay over the past year or so since my interest in collecting cards was rekindled.

With vintage cards I tend to eschew higher grade cards.  My policy is to go for cards that fall into the VG-Ex range for cards prior to about 1973.  Partly this is because, especially for earlier stuff, vintage cards in Nrmt condition are just way out of my price range.

There is, however, a much more pragmatic reason for collecting old cards in VG-Ex condition, which I think can be summed up in this photograph:
Yup, that is a pile of 1954 Bowman cards in VG-Ex condition.  Note what I am doing with them.  Yes, I am actually holding them in my bare hands without any sort of plastic between my fingertips and the card surfaces whatsoever!

That is the great thing about cards in VG-Ex condition: you don`t have to be anal retentive with them.  You can pick them up, sort through them, arrange them however you want, enjoy them, even turn them over:

I haven`t looked at a Beckett`s in a while but I`m guessing the high value of this pile of 54 Bowman commons and minor stars would be about $300 or $400 in Nrmt condition.  If these were in Nrmt I would not be able to do any of those things with them.  I would just be too afraid to even touch them.  They would all be in rigid plastic holders, which are no fun to flip through at all.

VG-Ex is exactly the perfect grade if, like me, you like to handle old cards au naturel.  The corners are already a bit rounded so you don`t have to worry that any slight bump is going to cut their value in half, which is something I constatly do when I have valuable Nrmt condition cards in my hand. It is a very annoying feeling to have.  At the same time though they aren`t destroyed like cards in fair or poor (or even good)  condition are.  VG-Ex cards are generally pretty attractive to look at, without any major creases or other serious damage. 

Post-1973 (ish) it makes less sense to collect VG-Ex cards simply because there are so many higher grade cards still preserved that there isn`t much point.  But for earlier cards, why bother with all that plastic?  I keep these cards in a simple cardboard box, the way they were meant to be kept!

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Literary Offences of BBM Copywriters

One thing I like about Japanese baseball cards - and particularly BBM premium cards - is that some of them have a lot of broken sounding English written on them for no reason whatsoever.

A few cards in my autograph collection have some of the most ridiculous things written on the front.  It makes me kind of like them. Like this 2006 card of Hawks reliever Takahiro Mahara:

"One of the great players has ever owned.  He will be rememberd by supporters for long years to come."

It is kind of cryptic.  One of the great players has ever owned what exactly?  Inquiring minds want to know!!

Or this Hiroki Kokubo card:

"He shines like a star at the ballpark.  He is one of the excellent players in the team.  Don`t miss his splendid ability.  He will come up to expectations of the fan."

This is a bit less grammatically confusing but the wording is so clumsy it just brings a smile to my face.  If brevity is the soul of wit then this card has no soul, but I mean that in a kind of good way.

Lets see what this card of Yakult's Tetsuto Yamada has to say for itself:

"A new star appears in a ballpark.  He is a promising baseball player."

This one is at least completely free of grammatical errors, but is even more cryptic than the Mahara card.  Why use the indefinite article? Is Yamada this new star you speak of?  Or is it someone else? God, the suspense!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why I like Calbee more than BBM

My Japanese baseball card collection is mainly made up of Calbees.  I like Calbee a lot.  BBM is the only other maker I`ve ever tried collecting, but I have pretty much given up on them.  I just can`t bring myself to actually collecting BBM cards. .

I think my preference for Calbee over BBM simply boils down to the fact that Calbee keeps things simple (good) while BBM makes everything ridiculously complicated (bad).  There are a few different ways in which Calbee`s simplicity trumps BBM`s complexity, here are a few off the top of my head:

1. Card design

Calbee cards have almost always followed the simple equation of a full-bleed photo of the player with a minimal amount of information (name and team) inconspicuously printed in the lower corner.  With a few exceptions (the 1975, 1990 and 1995 sets come to mind) they`ve stuck to that formula and it works great. I mean how could anybody beat the pure awesomeness of a card like this 1987 Calbee Warren Cromartie?
BBM on the other hand has rarely been able to prevent itself from mucking up their card fronts with unnecessary stuff that just distracts from the photo.  Some of the BBM sets aren`t too bad in this regard (like this year`s) but others (like both series of the 2002 regular set) just add some cheap looking graphics to the front that do nothing but detract from the card`s appearance.

And that is just the regular cards, BBM leads the world in producing massively ugly sets covered in foil crap, which leads me to point 2:

2. Production of way too many sets

Calbee in recent years has been pretty consistent in just producing one set a year released in 3 series. There are always a few subsets that go along with the main set, but my only real complaint with these is that they number them seperatly rather than as part of the main set.  Usually one or two of these is a harder to find series of star cards which are almost always distinguishable because they have a bunch of glittery crap on them.  I don`t like those sets but I at least appreciate the fact that they keep it to just one per year.

BBM on the other hand seems to churn out new sets almost everyday.  There are just way more than there can possibly be demand for, with each team getting its own seperately issued set now and a ton of useless and ugly premium sets.  Most of these have atrocious designs like the premium BBM Touch the Game set which just looks awful:

3. Number of cards in the Sets

I guess this is also related to the previous two, but the fact that BBM produces, for a league which only has 12 teams, more regular cards than Topps usually produces for the 30 teams in major league baseball just rubs me the wrong way.  My first abortive attempt to get back into cards actually happened back in 2002 when I tried to put a set of BBM together.  Between the two series I think there were about 800 cards in the regular set alone, which just made me completely lose interest in them.  It is just really obnoxious to put that many cards in a set for a league with so few players.  Calbee sets have varied a lot in size over the years but recently they`ve been in the 300 or so range with about 100-200 more in the subsets, which is way more reasonable.

4. Cablee isn`t actually a baseball card company

This is an admittedly odd reason, but I like the fact that Calbee cards are basically just promotional items intended to boost chip sales. It is just so....innocent.  It harkens back to a day when cards in North America were basically the same - things to encourage people to buy tobacco or gum.

This also makes them popular items among one demographic which BBM seems to ignore: kids.  One of the things that makes collecting a set of Calbee cards in near mint condition so difficult is the fact that so many of them, even today, are collected by kids who put them in their pockets, throw them around and do general kid-like things with them.  While I don`t like getting dinged up cards in the lots I buy, I do really like that fact.

In that sense, Calbee cards have way more in common with American cards from the 60s than today.  They are something that kids buy at the corner store in the summer and play with. And at 90 yen or so per bag they are something kids can easily afford.

BBM cards on the other hand are very clearly marketed at an adult market.  They are sold in packs at high prices and they don`t come with anything else.  Any time you by a lot of BBM cards on Yahoo Auctions they will be in pack-fresh mint condition.  While I like getting cards in nice condition, I also find this fact a bit depressing.  It means no kid has ever played with or loved these cards like they do with the Calbee ones.  They were bought by an adult collector (like me, sigh) and are basically just meant to sit in a box existing in mint condition for the rest of time.  Its just not a very uplifting thought.  Where Calbee cards bring to mind classic American cards like the 1957 Topps set, BBM evokes the dreggs of the 90s like 1992 Donruss or 1995 Score.

Anyway, those are just a few reasons I way prefer Calbee over BBM.  I do have some BBM cards kicking around, but those are basically just ones I bought out of curiousity because they were cheap and not because I wanted to collect them specifically. The ramblings of a thirty something who misses the old days....

Sunday, September 1, 2013

80s Hair Cards: Sadaaki Yoshimura (Giants) vs Ken Hirano (Dragons)

Photography on some of the Calbee sets from the 1980s suffered from the same problem that Topps sets in the US from the 1960s suffered from: too many pictures of players without hats.

While this makes for some awful-looking cards (1961 Topps Willie Mays, that is directed at you) in Calbee`s case it had the benefit of creating, time-capsule-like, an excellent repository of 1980s hairstyles that were popular during Japan`s bubble era.

So I`ll be doing a series of posts on here comparing some of the better ones, contest like.  Today`s contenders are Ken Hirano of the Dragons (left) and Sadaaki Yoshimura of Kyoujin (right).  Both of these cards are from the 1987 Calbee set, which has some great 80s hair.

I think I have to give a hands down victory to Hirano on this one.  Yoshimura`s is a decent effort, daringly teased for effect, but Hirano`s is superb.  It literally looks like he went into a novelty store like the Loft, bought one of those sculpted plastic fake-hair pieces that they make for halloween costumes (usually samurai style) with an unusually specific name like `middle infielder, Central League, 1986` and just decided that was going to be his look.