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.


  1. From the linked article: "There was also a time when the company did not release cards featuring players from a team owned by its rival, Lotte Co." Wasn't aware of that factoid nor was I aware until now that Calbee and Lotte are snack food competitors. I don't think this was the case, but has Calbee (like its rival) ever owned a baseball team?

  2. I hadn`t been aware of that fact either until I read the article, it is kind of interesting. Lotte is a snack food maker as the article says, the company was founded by a Korean resident in Japan right after the war and they are also a major company in Korea. In fact they own one of the most popular teams in Korean baseball too.

    Calbee has never owned a baseball team, I`m not too sure why not though given the obvious connection!

  3. Calbee didn't start including cards of Lotte players until 1985. I'd be curious to know what changed to make them start. I wonder if it was some licensing issue. I'd also be curious who's idea it was for them not to included - Calbee or Lotte. I could see Calbee saying "we're not including players from the team owned by our competitor" as well as Lotte saying "we're not allowing players from our team to be on cards published by our competitor"

  4. It is an interesting question all right. I would think that Calbee would have been the one to say no. For Lotte their team is basically just an advertising tool so I think they would have welcomed anything that would have gotten their name out there, even if it was on a product made by a competitor.