Friday, February 21, 2014

My 1987 Calbee Set and the Difficulty of Collecting Japanese Cards from the 80s

Behold my partially complete set of 1987 Calbees.  It is the crown jewel of my Japanese baseball card collection and the only vintage set that I am anywhere near close to actually finishing.

Close is I guess a relative term, I have about 3/4 of them so there are still plenty to go.   I keep track of them the old fashioned way, with a hand written paper checklist that I mark off with each one I get:

I started on this quest a couple years ago when I bought a starter set of 60 different cards.  Since then I have been painstakingly tracking them down one by one, which is the only way to find them.  I love doing this because I feel it is the closest you can get to a `pure` baseball card collecting challenge these days.  There aren`t any gimmicky rare insert cards to track down, it is all just about finishing the set.  They are hard enough to find that it poses a challenge - singles pop up every now and then, usually just a handful at a time, and I have to whip out my checklist and go through them to find ones I want.  At best I might luck into 3 or 4 that I need at a time.

Fortunately despite their rarity, the prices aren`t too steep.  I pay on average between 50 and 100 yen per card, a bit more than that for some of the short printed ones (the Japanese collector term for those is レアブロック - `rare block`). 

 The 1987 set is probably the ideal vintage set to try to collect.  Unlike some of the other pre-1990 sets it doesn`t have any near-impossible to find cards (the 1989 set in contrast is notorious for those). Also the player selection is pretty good.  If you have read Robert Whiting`s You Gotta Have Wa, he wrote that shortly after 1987 so a lot of the players mentioned are in it.  That includes some former MLB stars who only played in Japan for one season like Ben Oglivie (Kintetsu Buffaloes):

 And Bob Horner with the Yakult Swallows:
In terms of condition, 1980s Calbees are very hard to find in top shape.  My set has a fair number with corner wear and other blemishes.  As I`ve mentioned before, I`m pretty flexible about condition with older cards, I just try to avoid ones with heavy creases or names written on the backs of them (which a lot of Calbee cards from the 80s have).

There is a Japanese collector who is trying to finish all the Calbee sets from the `mini card` years that lasted throughout the 1980s, right up to the 1990 set, and kept an interesting blog about it.  I thought some of what he said was interesting enough to be given an English explanation, so I thought I`d mention a few of the highlights.

According to him, the easiest sets from those years to collect are, in order:

1990 Calbee - due to its small size, they only released 55 cards that year.

1986 Calbee - There are only 250 cards in total, which is a reasonably small number, and none of them  were short printed.  The Kiyohara rookie card and Ochiai cards sell for a bit, but otherwise there aren`t any particularly expensive cards in the set.

1987 Calbee - The cards between number 76 and 100 are short printed, but they aren`t too hard to find relative to short printed cards in other sets from the 80s.  There are some parrallel cards , but he doesn`t take those into account.

The above 3 sets are the ones that collectors have the most realistic shot at being able to complete.  He also mentions the 1981 set as being only somewhat harder, with more short printed cards (201 to 250, 401 to 450), but that they can still be found, while a couple of other series (1 to 50, 150 to 199) are a bit tough to find.

In contrast he puts the 1989 Calbee set as the hardest to complete. The gold border cards from 391 to 414 are incredibly hard to find, with some people expressing mixed opinion as to whether they were eveer actually available in packs at all, or just distributed as presents to people who contacted the company.

His blog has a few other interesting bits and pieces, I might introduce some more later.  Anyway, for now I am content to just focus on my 1987 set!


  1. You mentioned generally paying 50-100 yen for the cards, with the exception of short prints. Does that apply as well to cards of players like Oglivie and Horner, or is there something of a premium with regard to the foreign players (since you have an extra layer of demand coming from North American collectors)? And apart from the reason you mentioned (the company may have distributed cards on request rather than sold with the chips), what's the general cause of Calbee short prints?

  2. Interesting question. I don`t think there is enough extra demand from North American collectors to make much difference on the price of foreign player cards from the 80s - there aren`t after all that many Ben Oglivie or Bob Horner collectors out there. The exception might be the 1989 Calbee Cecil Fielder card, which can go for a lot and is of actual interest in the US. Japanese players who have played in MLB like Ichiro or Nomo probably have their cards affected by demand in the US.

    I`m not sure why some series in these sets are short printed and harder to find than others. Calbee distribution is pretty hard to figure out, they might have just not sold that many chips during those series or something.

  3. To piggy back off of Sean, I haven't noticed a premium for foreign players, though sometimes they seem to be in shorter supply in the Tokyo area. There are more foreigners here to buy the foreign players. I rarely see older Calbee cards for 50-100 yen each around here though! Many of the pre-'90s Calbee sets start at 200 yen here. If I could pick up some bulk lots of 1980s cards on the cheap I'd be tempted to build some sets, though I think I have too much on my plate as it is.
    And I'd second the notion that some series are printed in different quantities due to demand at different times of the season; some of the early sets had regional series that are then probably more limited.

  4. Yes, I should have specified that 50 to 100 yen is cheaper than average, I mainly stick to bargain finds and buy stuff in slightly lower grade (usually about Ex condition). For 80s cards in Nrmt condition probably 200 yen is the starting price.

    I simply can`t afford to make a serious effort at collecting anything other than the 87, though I do pick up cards from other 80s sets when I find them cheap. The 1984 set I have about 50 or so of, but the cost of putting that massive one together would probably break me! Other than that I don`t think I have more than 10 cards from any pre-1996 Calbee set.

    I do have a few doubles if anyone is interested in trading though :)

  5. I am one of those Ben Oglivie collectors!

    Anyone have one to spare?

    1. I might be able to hook you up (not sure, gotta check my doubles). Send me a DM to my twitter account (link on the upper right of the blog).