Thursday, August 27, 2015

Calbee Series 2 and My First Post in, like, Forevers

 It has been a few months since my last post, which is unusual given that it is the middle of the baseball season which usually coincides with my peak collecting time in any year.

All I can say is that it is true what they say about parenthood - being a father becomes your only hobby because it kills all the others.  I have a 10 month old at home who can now move around and get himself into all sorts of mischief (I mean that in both an endearing and a "Oh my god, that is so dangerous stop that right now" sort of way) so pretty much every minute of my day is either spent at work or at home with him. 

Which is great, but it leaves no time for collecting baseball cards, let alone blogging about baseball cards, hence the lack of posts here recently.

I did just manage to pick up my first bag of Calbee Series 2 though so I thought I would do a quick post about them here during my lunch break as I eat the chips. 

As usual the stores seem to be stocking bags of Series 2 way later than the official release date provided by Calbee, it is almost September already but its only in the past week or two that these have started to appear on most store shelves here in Nagoya.

The bags are green.  They pretty much look like every other bag of Calbee chips released in the past 15 years or so.

My first bag contained (drum roll)

Regular cards of Takahiro Shiomi and Hirokazu Sawamura!

OK, not exactly the best cards I could have gotten but since they are the first they are both on my want list so I cannot complain.

I definitely won't have the time to be going to shops buying these very often so I'll probably just get the odd bag at lunch rather than trying to put the full set together (a job I will likely delegate to Yahoo Auctions).  Still, it wouldn't seem like a proper summer without getting some bags of these chips so I am glad to have found them.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Calbee Baseball Chips in the Wild

 When I look around baseball card websites, blogs and magazines I see a lot of pictures of baseball cards.  Pretty much any baseball card out there you can see a picture of it in an instant.

What there are a lot fewer photos of out there are baseball cards in their everday context, particularly in the time at which they were issued. I can see a picture of any 1952 Topps card, for example, but it is almost impossible to find pictures of shops in 1952 with wax packs of Topps cards available for sale.

This latter thing is much more interesting from a historical point of view but for some reason nobody ever thinks to actually take pictures like that and post them.  I`d be really interested to see what a counter display with 1952 Topps packs would have looked like back in the day. We can easily find out what the packs and boxes looked like, but what did the rest of the shelf look like?  What kind of products were being sold next to them?  Candy and the like?  Or toys?  I`m sure for people old enough to remember buying packs of 1952 Topps cards (like my dad) this sort of thing seems second nature, but for the rest of us its a bit of a mystery.  Heck, you don`t even need to go back to 1952, try finding pictures of interiors of baseball card stores from the 1980s and there aren`t that many of those on the internet either.
 Anyway, I thought I`d do my own extremely small part to alleviate this lacunae in internet image search engines by putting up some pictures of this year`s Calbee cards as they appear in shops near my place in Nagoya, for posterity`s sake. 

As you can see, they generally get put on shelves with potato chips and other snacks on them. If you live in Japan this probably seems ridiculously obvious, but I suppose for any collectors out there who have never been here this might be at least a bit interesting.  The top photo here is from a supermarket (AEON), while the lower two are from convenience stores.  They all charge 98 Yen per bag, plus tax.  The bottom photo is my favorite display, not only are the bags sold on the candy shelf rather than the chips shelf (some convenience stores do that, others don`t, I am not sure why), but they also have a cool hand-written sign for them.  Its kind of a nice touch.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Baseball Card Liberation Front (BCLF) Strikes its First Blow! 1964 Topps Ernie Banks Freed in Daring Raid on Graded Card Holder

Above is a 1964 Topps card of Ernie Banks, the great Cub who recently left us for that doubleheader in the sky.

This is not a happy baseball card.  He is trapped in there, entombed by some Ebay dealer who sent him off to Beckett a few years ago to be graded.  He needs help.  He needs to run free.

One of my collecting goals is to have all my cards grown free-range, so I have always felt particularly bad about poor old Mr. Cub, trapped as he is in there. 

Therefore I am happy to announce that the much anticipated Baseball Card Liberation Front (BCLF) has struck a first blow against the Yankee imperialist dogs (er not those ones in the Bronx but more generally) in a minutes-long operation that succesfully released our brother Banks from the clutches of an evil Beckett card holder.

The operation began at 13:00 hours, the freedom fighter  using a single pair of rusty 100 Yen shop plyers (fellow freedom fighters take note: if you are planning a similar operation the rust is optional).

The struggle for freedom began where the card holder least expected it, in the upper right hand corner so as to avoid any risk to the innocent hostage held captive below:

The initial snip took that corner off nicely

We then moved on to the opposite corner, again being careful to keep as far away from Mr. Banks as possible

Finally, with an additional blow struck against the centre, an opening was created along the top ridge:

Removing the piece of paper with the condition (Good) we plunged the plyers deep into the belly of the capitalist machine of oppression (figuratively speaking of course):

The mission ran into a slight hiccup at this point as, instead of popping the two halves of the holder apart as envisaged, the outward pressure just broke the top part in half, leaving the hostage precariously nestled beneath its jagged edge

Undaunted, a bit of delicate pruning brought one corner of the card completely out of its prison for the first time in probably about a decade:

The rest of him soon followed.  1964 Topps Ernie Banks: the BCLF proudly declares you a free man (card)!

Among the privileges this entitles you to is the inalienable ability to be held in the hand of an actual human being as your creators intended for you back in 1964.

This was a sort of test operation, with the 1964 Topps Banks card in part chosen because being in Good condition there was a relatively low risk of any further damage being done.  We got him out safely.  Be warned, graded card holders, emboldened by our success in this battle we intend to move up the value chain and onto other, potentially more difficult to destroy, holders like the PSA one currently oppressing my 1964 Topps Pete Rose.

The war has begun.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Yamakatsu Taba - Star Wars, Voltron and Space Runaway Ideon

 Japanese baseball card collectors will be familiar with the post-card sized Yamakatsu cards from the 1970s, which are among the more attractive vintage sets out there.  One of my side-hobbies is collecting non-sports Yamakatsu sets from the late 70s/early 80s, in particular those with a sci-fi theme. I thought I would do a little post about them here because they are....just really awesome.

One of the more famous of these are the Star Wars cards.  The copyright on the back says 1977, but I believe these were actually released in 1978 (the film itself was originally released in spring of 1977 but would have come out later in Japan).  Topps had the license to produce Star Wars cards in the US and entered a joint venture with Yamakatsu to distribute these.  This actually makes these cards an oddity in trading card history - they are a Yamakatsu set but they do not have the Yamakatsu logo or name anywhere on them, the back just says Topps Chewing Gum Inc

There are 36 cards in this set, which all feature either scenes from the film or publicity photos of the stars in character

They were released in taba, pull-off envelopes which came 30 to a bundle and were sold individually for 20 yen each (kids just ripped one envelope off at a time).  Typically these taba would be displayed with a sample card taped to it, like mine here which is about half full (15 envelopes left on it) and has a Jawa card taped to it

I have a few others.  The popular animated series/toy line from the mid-80s known as Voltron was originally known as Beast King Five Lions in Japanese and was quite popular.  I have a mostly full taba of cards from that series which is in pretty beat up shape:

I actually remember watching that show when I was a kid and I had one of the lion toys (Yellow lion!)  If you had all 5 you could make the complete Voltron but nobody I knew had parents rich enough to get them all.

Space Runaway Idion is another early 80s animated series that got the Yamakatsu treatment. I am under the impression it was some sort of  Gundam spin off.  It must not have been too popular judging by the condition of my Yamakatsu taba, which is complete and looks like nobody even touched it back in the day:
There are quite a few other series out there and they make for a kind of interesting thing to collect, especially if you are someone like me with a fondness for 80s sci-fi kitsch.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fun Stuff: A big pile of 1985 Calbees

Among my favorite recent purchases has been a stack of 52 cards from the 1985 Calbee set.  This is one set I only had a handful of cards for so I figured this would be a good way to get a start on building the whole thing.

The lot had some beauties in it, like this card with an excellent in action photo of the Iron Man Sachio Kinugasa:

Or Randy Bass in those awesome 80s Tigers uniforms with the white helmets:

What surprised me most on receiving these cards (they were a Yahoo Auction purchase) was the condition.  Every one of them looked brand new like they had just come from the bag.  This almost never happens with Calbee cards from before the mid-1990s, especially not in big lots.  I had bought them assuming they were the typical somewhat beat up lot that usually appears (the photos were a bit out of focus and the seller, who doesn't specialize in cards, didn't mention the condition int he description).

This is what the stack (left) looks like in comparison to a typical stack of 80s Calbee cards in my collection (right):

One thing I really like about the 1985 set which sets it apart from others is that a lot of the cards have hand drawn artwork of the players that was sent in by kids on  them.  These were winners of a contest to draw the best picture of each player and I think it is absolutely fantastic that Calbee did that.  Not only are the color drawings a big improvement on the normally bland card backs of their typical 1980s sets, it is also quite endearing that they would do that.  Its something it would be hard to imagine a card company doing today.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The New Holy Grail of my Collection: 1974 Calbee Frank Howard

With the new season underway my enthusiasm for collecting has been taken to a higher level, buoyed in part no doubt by how well the Dragons have been doing so far.

I have made quite a few acquisitions over the past couple of weeks, mostly Calbee cards from the 1970s, and I hope I`ll have the time to do a few posts about them (I have a 6 month old son bouncing on my knee as I try to type this so spare time for blogging is in short supply these days).

Today`s haul was the above card - Frank Howard`s 1974 Calbee #70!

This is by far the most valuable Japanese card in my collection.  Or perhaps I should say it is by far the card I have paid the most for, I`m not sure which card I own is the most `valuable` which is something hard to measure when there are so few sales out there to go on.

Anyway, NPB Card Guy did a post about Howard`s two cards from the 1974 set which is partially what got me interested in tracking one down.  1974 Calbee is one of the harder to find sets out there and it is the only one with Frank`s cards in it.  The other Howard card,#127, is the more valuable of the two and way out of my price range but this one, which Engel values at $300, was a bit more do-able.

My copy isn`t in the best of shape, which is why I was able to afford it.  I picked it up off of Yahoo Auction for about 3500 yen including shipping.  The front looks presentable but there is a heavy crease in it which you can notice on the back (which also has some tape remnants on it), which explains why I got it that cheap.  I`m not overly fussed about the condition of cards so long as the fronts look OK, so this was perfect for me.

Howard is of course one of the most famous major leaguers to ever play in NPB, having had an all star career in which he hit 382 homers.  In contrast, he may have the worst career numbers of any player in NPB history, having exactly one at-bat for the Lions in 1974 in which he struck out.  He injured himself while doing so and ended up retiring shortly thereafter.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lights Out Meiji Jingu Stadium

I am not sure if this has made the English language news or not, but there is some extremely disappointing news for Japanese baseball fans out there.  Meiji Jingu Stadium, home of the Yakult Swallows and, along with Koshien Stadium, one of only two historical baseball stadiums still in use in NPB is slated to be demolished.

Built in 1926 it is the oldest baseball stadium in Tokyo and in addition to the Swallows it has also hosted countless high school and university tournaments in its long history.  To most baseball fans it is considered sacred ground (Robert Whiting in You Gotta Have Wa in fact uses that exact phrase to describe it).

According to the news report I saw, the stadium is going to be torn down as part of a larger plan to redevelop the area in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics.  The Stadium which hosted the 1964 Olympics, an important historical landmark in its own right, stands quite close to Jingu.  Or perhaps I should say stood, as the Olympic Stadium is in the process of being demolished to make way for a bicycle helmet that will host the 2020 games.
Jingu will remain in use until the 2020 season while a Rugby stadium located next door is demolished (in keeping with Tokyo`s apparent determination to obliterate its historical landmarks, that stadium is also historically valuable).  A new baseball stadium will be built on the site of the former Rugby Stadium and after it is completed in 2020, Jingu will be destroyed.

As someone with a love for Japanese baseball history I find this both sad and a bit angering.  I have never been to Jingu but it is the one stadium that I want to see a game played at. 

The news report didn`t include any artists conceptions or other description of what the new stadium will look like.  If it is a Dome like  we have here in Nagoya I will be immensely disappointed.  The design of the new Olympic Stadium fills me with dread that whatever they have in mind will be awful.  If they do, however, build something like HIroshima`s Mazda Stadium, I will be somewhat mollified as that actually looks like a fun place to watch a game.  Either way though, I am really upset about the upcoming loss of an important piece of Japanese baseball history.

Friday, April 3, 2015

2015 Calbees are here! And the set seems to consist of 2 cards.

Spring is here, the season has begun and the Dragons just swept a series against the Giants.  I am a happy camper.

And with the new season has come the annual ritual of visiting multiple convenience stores trying to get that first sighting of this year`s Calbee cards.  After taking in a few I finally found a 7-11 which had them last week at lunch so I bought a bag and brought it back to my desk at work.  I got Yamazaki and Higa.

The next day I bought another bag.  I got Yamazaki and Higa.

I wonder what the odds of this happening are. Probably pretty slim.  If only I had placed a bet on this happening beforehand, I could probably retire off the winnings.

Anyway, except for getting the exact same pack, which I assume is related to the way Calbee packs these (though it has never happened before to me), I kind of like the new set.  They made a slight change to the design this year, the player`s name is in a larger font and in black lettering with a thin white border.  While by no means a major change, it actually does give the cards a somewhat bolder look than previous sets with the solid white lettering, so I give them high marks for it. 

So I am looking forward to pack #3 and hoping it will have somebody - anybody - other than Yamazaki and Higa (though Ido  love the photograph on Yamazaki`s card).

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Unfortunate Demise of Kanji on the Front of Japanese Baseball Cards

The first time I ever visited a baseball card store in Japan was in 2002.  It was a shop in Himeji which has long since gone out of business.  I didn`t know much about Japanese cards at the time and I remember going over to have a peak in the glass case where they had all their valuable single cards on display.  In addition to the usual suspects – 1993 BBM Ichiro and the like – they had a fair number of older Calbee cards from the 1970s of players like Nagashima and Oh in there.  It was the first time I had ever seen older Japanese cards.  In my eye the thing that set them apart the most from contemporary cards wasn`t their smaller size or the lack of glossy foil borders.  It was the use of kanji on the fronts of the cards to indicate the player`s name and team.

This I found to be immensely appealing.  This was something that no American card ever had.  It harkened back to a pre-globalization era when countries actually mattered and products were designed for local tastes rather than for generic international markets.  The kanji on the fronts of the cards just screamed “These are Japanese cards intended for Japanese people who happen to like baseball. Nothing more, nothing less.”

I loved them.

I long wondered why Japanese card companies abandoned that practice and started using the Roman alphabet to display information on the front of the card.  Today pretty much all sets with a few exceptions like the odd Calbee Star Card subset don’t have kanji anywhere on the front of the card (the card backs, of course, are still written in Japanese).  If we look back at the development of cards year by year, it is easy to spot an exact point at which this transition happened – 1990.  The 1990 Calbee set started pretty much like any other that had preceded it – the first series was mini-card sized and featured the names on the front written in Japanese.  Then suddenly BLAMMO!  Series 2 comes out and not only are the cards much bigger in size, but the player names are now displayed in alphabetical form on the front.  A few months later the 1991 BBM set was released, also with alphabetized names on the front, and kanji card fronts basically died out.

If you haven’t read this excellent post on Japanese Baseball Cards about Larry Fuhrmann and the development of that first BBM set, I highly recommend doing so. In part I suggest it because it is an engaging and thoroughly well-researched article, but I also do so because it sheds some light on this very question that I have long grappled with.  Apparently the idea of using the Roman alphabet originated with Furhmann, who suggested that Calbee put player names in roman letters on the backs of the 1989 Calbee cards as a way of making the cards appeal not only to Japanese collectors but also to American ones.  His relationship with Calbee ultimately went sour, but the timing of the radical changes to the design of Calbee cards which occurred midway through the 1990 run, which seemed to presage many of the features of the 1991 BBM set that Fuhrmann had a big role in creating (larger cards, alphabetized names on front) seem likely to have been a result of his contact with Calbee (though the article does not explicitly state this).

Aside from this rather intriguing question, I find the abandonment of kanji on Japanese cards to be a bit of a lamentable development even when viewed from the standpoint of a foreign collector.  From a functional point of view, it is fair to say, having the names in alphabetical form makes them much more accessible and easy to read.  Kanji are hard to learn, especially those used in first names, which are often quite obscure.   From an aesthetic point of view, though, removing kanji from the fronts of Japanese baseball cards really robs them of their most appealing quality when seen through foreign eyes: their exotic nature. The kanji tell us something in addition to just the player`s name – they tell us that NPB isn’t just an independent minor league. Rather it is the Japanese league which is embedded within a completely different culture that uses a completely different form of writing to express itself.  Hey, isn’t that neat?  It kind of has the same appeal that the Dude’s T-shirt of Kaoru Betto in the Big Lebowski does:
That t-shirt would have been way less cool without those kanji.

Its not just the aesthetics though. Collecting cards where all the information is written in another language adds another challenge to collecting, which is kind of unique.  It forces the collector to actually learn something about the cards which they don`t have to with American cards - how to read basic stuff.  I have learned a lot of baseball related kanji, including a lot of player names, from having to read the info on their cards.  Having the basic stuff written in English feels like its adding a shortcut - dumbing down the challenge and enjoyment of collecting Japanese cards.It just sort of feels....wrong to me for some reason.
Post 1990 cards just don`t have the same kind of appeal that earlier ones do and I think a lot of that is attributable to this change.  They are incapable of impressing the way those 1970s Calbees did to me back in 2002.    They look just a bit blander and a bit too generic without those lovely kanji on them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Nippon Ham Sausage Cards

I picked up a couple of new cards for the collection this week, Nippon Ham Sausage cards of Isao Shibata and Kenji Awaguchi. According to Rob Fitts these were released in 1975 with...well, sausages I guess.

I have been trying to find some cards from this set for the longest time, mainly because I love the design on them, it kind of reminds me of the 1963 Topps set only better.  The color border on the bottom with the team name looks pretty cool, as does the full bleed photos on the top. The backs are pretty mundane but about par for the course for a Japanese set from the 1970s.

One problem in collecting these is that they are extremely difficult to find, even in Japan.  There are only about half a dozen singles available on Yahoo Auctions at the moment (compared to thousands of BBM and Calbee cards).  I`m guessing they almost never turn up on Ebay. I lucked out on these two, one seller had an auction with about 10 of them and I put bids in on most.  I lost some of them by a wide margin but these two for some reason only attracted moderate interest and I was able to score them for only a few bucks each, which is surprising since they are both in really nice shape (exmt-nrmt or so).

 Nippon Ham is, of course, the owner of the Nippon Ham Fighters so this set was actually put out by a company which owns an NPB team, an interesting conflict of interest.  I haven`t seen a checklist so I`m not sure if there are more Fighters cards than those of other teams or if they went the Calbee route and drowned the selection in Giants players (the fact that my randomly acquired cards are both of Giants players suggests this might be the case).  Another interesting question arises from the fact that these cards were released just a couple of years after Nippon Ham purchased the Fighters (previously the Nittaku Flyers).  I wonder if there was some sort of connection there?  Seems logical, perhaps there were some baseball fans on Nippon Ham`s Board of Directors back in the 1970s.

Anyway, I love these cards and will be keeping my eyes peeled for more....

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

1991 Calbee Hideo Nomo and Some Others

 I made another Yahoo Auction purchase the other day.  It was a bit of a splurge item, a large lot of 55 1991 Calbee cards, along with an album.

I only had a couple of 1991 Calbees before getting these so I guess this can be added to my list of Calbee sets that I am working on.  The 91 set is pretty cool, its design is simple and looks the same as the higher number cards from the 1990 set.  Among the highlghts are this card of current Chunichi Dragons catcher/manager Motonobu Tanishige back in his younger days:
 Of course the main highlight of the 1991 set are the rookie cards of Hideo Nomo.  I think there are 4 cards of Nomo in the 1991 set and this lot contained three of them, which was pretty awesome (though one did have a dinged corner, the only card with any damage out of the whole lot!)

55 cards still leaves me pretty far from a complete set so this will be another work in progress probably for another 20 or 30 years!