Monday, August 29, 2016

Busting Japan Post Smart Letter Packs: Better than Busting Wax

For the past couple of years I have minimized my purchases of bags of Calbee chip bags to just a few per series.  This is partly because of a desire to avoid eating potato chips (screw you, salt) and also because of the impracticality of putting together Calbee sets one bag at a time.  I tried that once in 2011 and ended up with less than half a set and so many bags of chips that I didn`t know what to do with them (and it cost quite a bit too).

So these days I try to put my sets together via the purchase of large lots of singles off of Yahoo Auctions, which seem to be getting easier to find (at least for recent stuff).  I like it because getting one of the lots in the mail in a Japan Post Smart Letter Pack is sort of like getting a huge wax pack to open. I picked up one 72 card lot of 2016 Series 1 cards which arrived in the mail yesterday and just cracked it open:
The seller used part of the cardboard box that the bags originally came in as packing material, which is kind of a neat touch (actually the box is from series 2, so maybe the same seller will have some of those soon....):
And the cards are all nicely stored, the seller even inserted them individually into their own flimsies (not necessary but still a nice touch):
Voila.  72 different cards including some from the base set, Title Holders subset and Star Cards subset.  Best of all: no doubles!
With current Calbee cards I like those featuring Hiroshima, Hanshin, Yakult, Rakuten, Lotte and Yokohama the best.  Photos of the players are almost all (in fact, maybe all) taken at their home stadiums (kudos) and those are the teams that don`t play in domes, so the photos don`t have that ugly flourescent sheen/fake grass backdrop like ones of Dragons, Giants, Hawks and other Dome teams do.
I have to admit to still not understanding how the business models of sellers who put these lots up on Yahoo Auctions works.  I paid only 300 Yen for the lot (not including shipping), which works out to less than 5 Yen per card.  Purchased retail at 98 Yen per bag with 2 cards would work out to more than 10 times that much. 

Obviously if you buy bags wholesale in quantity you would pay a lot less, but it would still work out to way more than 5 Yen per card.  The seller seems to make it up by selling the insert and parrallel cards (gold signature  and Wins Leaders) at a premium, but even those don`t seem to sell for too high (250-600 Yen each on the same seller`s listings).  Given the amount of work that would go into it I can`t imagine it being a particularly profitable venture, but I do thank them for making these things available to me!  I am not quite close to finishing the Series 1 base set this year.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Yahoo Auction Scams: Watch out for "sign1114306"

If you have ever looked for Japanese baseball player autographs on Yahoo Auctions you may have run into one prominent seller, sign1114306, who literally has thousands of signed cards up for auction at any given moment.

I`m going to recommend that you don`t buy from him.  At all. Unless you really like fake autographs, in which case bid away.

A lot of his autographed cards are sold in lots of 9 based on team (ie 9 autographed cards of Tigers players in one lot, etc). In the description of each lot he makes clear that he is only the consignor, the cards themselves were collected by an acquaintance who got the signatures from various sources including trips to ballparks and auction purchases.

The lots start with a starting bid of 3000 Yen.  If they don`t sell he relists them at a reduced price and keeps cutting the prices until they get down to ridiculous levels - 300 Yen per 9 card lot seems to be the minimum.

A few years ago when I was new to buying cards off of Yahoo Auctions one of his auctions popped up in a search I did and I was intrigued. It was a bunch of Tigers player autographs, including a signed card of Randy Bass. He has really good feedback on Yahoo Auction, 99.9% positive on (at the time of writing) over 38,000 transactions (only 9 of which were negative and only one of those raised any issue with regard to the authenticity of the autographs).  The price was cheap so I thought "why not?" and bid. And won.

My suspicions were aroused not by the cards themselves (I am not an autograph expert and they looked plausibly genuine) but by the sheer unlikelihood of one person being able to amass so many signatures - literally thousands and thousands of them in a never-ending stream of new listings - and sell them for so little. 

Suspicion turned to certainty when I noticed the impossibility of some of the signatures.  In mid 2013 he put up one lot of Hankyu Braves players that included a 2013 BBM Foreign legends card of Brad "Animal" Lesley.  Animal passed away shortly after that card was released and had been living in a nursing home receiving treatment for the kidney ailment that (sadly) claimed his life for the entire time that card had been in existence. The likelihood of someone in Japan having taken that card, travelled all the way to the US, somehow getting access to the dying Animal Lesley and asking him to sign it, then returning to Japan and throwing into a random lot to be auctioned off for a few hundred yen was about zero.

Looking around the internet at the time, I discovered a massive thread (in Japanese) on 2 Channel devoted specifically to this guy. Its been up there for over 5 years now, has hundreds of replies and the bottom line is that this guy is well known as a faker (and has been for a long time).

The weird thing is, this guy has been running this blatantly obvious scam in the same way under the same account and with everyone being aware of it for years now, but Yahoo Auctions continues to blithely turn a blind eye to it.  After buying my cards and realizing I had been scammed (but only out of a few hundred yen) I just thought "lesson learned" and assumed he would be banned or arrested (the messages on 2 Channel indicate complaints have been raised).  So I was surprised to notice today, a couple of years after the last time I looked him up, that he is still in business with the exact same con running.

Yahoo Auctions is a pretty good place for some cards, but it is also well known to have a much weaker system of fraud prevention, weaker buyer protection, a weaker feedback system and weaker means of weeding out criminal activity than Ebay. So its worth bearing in mind that at least for player autographs it is rip-off city on that platform and buyer beware.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

1991 Calbee: What is up with the lousy photography?

I just picked up a small lot of 1991 Calbee cards off of Yahoo Auctions.  The set is mainly known for the Hideo Nomo rookie cards in it, which this lot did not contain (though I already have 3 out of 4 of them).

I bought this lot mainly because it was too cheap to pass up and not because I particularly wanted it. To be honest the 1991 Calbee set is probably the only set that Calbee has ever produced which I dislike to the point that I actually prefer the BBM set from the same year.

The main problem is the photography.  As I have stated in a lot of posts here, one of the main attractions of Calbee cards is the wonderful in-game photography that they capture.  That is particularly evident in the amazing sets of the 1970s with the slightly bigger card sizes that really complimented the images.  The mini card era of the 1980s also contained a lot of really high quality photography (the 1988 TV screen grab card fiasco aside). 

In 1991 though something at Calbee went wrong - the photography in this set absolutely sucks.  Look at the above cards (half of the cards in the lot I bought) - its dreadful. Uninspired close-ups, sometimes of players without their hats on and usually against the backdrop of a green wall. Ugh.  Most of the photos in the set seem to have been taken during warm-up sessions at spring training facilities rather than in-game at regular ballparks. While some other sets had the occasional boring photos, these were generally the exceptions rather than the rule.  In 1991 Calbee flipped that on its head - there are almost no exciting action photos anywhere to be found.

The odd thing is that 1991 seems to be the only year where Calbee photography was this bad.  The 1990 set has tons of action photos taken during games.  Same with the 1992 set.

1991 was a kind of transitional year for Calbee, having just moved to the bigger card format in 1990 and facing competition from BBM, but in some ways that makes the poor photography even harder to understand (competition usually encouraging you to step up your game rather than the opposite).  I wonder what happened.  Maybe they moved the release schedule up and had to get the photos really fast, sacrificing quality for speed?  Maybe they cut the budget for photographers in a cost saving move?  I`m not sure what the explanation is but the result is basically the most unattractive set Calbee has ever produced.  Since I`m a Calbee collector I will begrudgingly buy these things when they come along cheap, but I`m nowhere near as enthusiastic about it as I am for their other sets.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Baseball Card Market`s Demographic Problem

One of the sometimes-acknowledged but usually put-putted issues facing the American baseball card hobby is its demographic problem.  This is often approached as a problem of there not being enough young people entering the hobby, but it can also be viewed from the opposite perspective: there are an awful lot of old collectors around.

I was thinking the other day that this is probably going to be the thing that results in the next baseball card market crash.  The baby boomers are the generation of collectors that really started the modern hobby - revisiting nostalgic childhood memories from the 1950s when they reached adulthood in the 1980s.  Its probably no coincidence that the baby-boomers hitting their peak earning years coincided almost exactly with the explosion of vintage card prices in the period from 1985-1992 (there is a pretty good analysis of that here).

Its also probable that the vast majority of baseball card wealth (big vintage collections worth lots of $$$) is currently in the hands of baby boom collectors.  The subsequent generations (Gen Xers and Millenials) generally came along after the market had exploded and thus had limited means of entering - partly because the prices had risen so high on the back of boomers hoovering up the stock, and also because of the general erosion of middle class incomes that limited their disposable income.  With Millenials in particular you also have the fact that collecting baseball cards in general is an activity that they found less appealing in their childhood.

The "problem" (if you want to view it as such) is that the boomer generation is going to be hitting its natural life expectancy within the next 10-20 years, which means that ownership of huge volumes of vintage baseball cards are going to be transferred into estates whose beneficiaries are largely going to be made up of Gen Xers and millenials.  While some of those people may be collectors themselves who decide to keep them, I think it is safe to say that a large majority of them will be entering the market since most people don`t share the same interests as their parents and, even among those who do, sitting on piles of cards worth thousands of dollars may not make financial sense.

So we have a situation now where the market is set to be flooded with vintage cards within a relatively short time frame, and with the people who until now had been most likely to buy them (baby boomers) no longer around to keep demand up. Its hard to come up with any scenario in which prices for most vintage cards do not collapse when this happens.

Since baseball card collecting is a relatively "young" hobby, it has no experience with this (its founding generation dying off), so its hard to predict exactly how it will play out.  The dynamics of a market crash based on a big demographic shift like this are likely to be way different from those associated with the previous market crash of the 1990s (caused by a lot of things but mostly over-production by card-makers). If you look at older collecting hobbies like stamps though it looks pretty simple - the stock in online auctions and brick and mortar stores is almost entirely made up of estate sales (very easily identified since they are often sold as such).  A collecting hobby where the market is dominated by mass dumping of lovingly built up collections of old and hard to find pieces is way different than a hobby in which the market is dominated by intra collector sales and trading (of course estate sales are also a source of cards even now, but on nowhere near the same scale as in the stamp collecting hobby).  Prices for everything outside of the very elite stamps have collapsed (in fact several times over the stamp collecting industry`s long lifetime), including on a lot of stuff that was once considered high end.  Probably something similar will happen with baseball cards. 

When the baseball card world enters that phase when the market is little more than an estate-sale dumping ground (and I don`t see any way of avoiding it), prices will be affected accordingly.  My general predictions are:

Pre-war cards (tobacco, Goudeys, etc): Prices on this stuff might actually be relatively unchanged since supply is so low and there is probably enough latent demand for it among the "elite" collectors with cash to burn.

Modern stuff (post 1980): Most of this stuff is worth so little now that prices probably won`t change much.  The contrived scarcities of some parrallels, etc follow a different market logic than vintage stuff, so I`m not sure how they will be affected (long term I view them as having a value of zero, but I don`t think they will realize that price collapse because of the baby boomers leaving the hobby).

Post-war vintage (1948-1979):  This is where I think most of the collapse in prices will happen, particularly for sets in the latter years of this era.  Partly this is because these are the cards that boomers themselves prized the most - the prices they command is partly a result of the boomer nostalgia factor, which will become irrelevant in the future.  Partly its also question of numbers: this stuff is way less common that post 1980 modern stuff, but there is still a lot of it out there as any random Ebay search (or of PSA population reports) will reveal.  Stuff from the late 40s/early 50s might not be too badly hit since there are fewer of them out there, but for sets from the 60s and 70s where there are probably 10-20 thousand copies of most cards still in existence (except for some high number series) the prices will probably drop pretty far. How far I`m not sure, its equally possible they might drop only 10-20% or that they really collapse by 90% (or that different cards fall at different rates).  It depends a lot on how many new collectors come along to stimulate demand (once prices fall and the hobby becomes more affordable it might become easier to entice people into it, which will stabilize prices at some point).

An interesting side question is whether the passing of the boomer generation might resolve some of the odd relative price discrepancies that exist in post-war cards.  The comparative value of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays cards is usually held up as example #1 in this regard - by most measures Mays was the superior player (perhaps the best of all time) but Mantle`s cards are always valued several times higher.  This price differentiation is based solely on the fact that baby boomer kids in the 1950s and 60s were much more likely to be Mantle rather than Mays fans.  For post-boomer collectors this factor is probably way less important - personally as someone who grew up after both players retired I find myself much more interested in Mays cards than Mantle ones.  My prediction is that most post-war vintage cards will go down in value, but I`m thinking Mantle cards in particular will see their values level off at a greater rate than other stars from the era.  The 1952 Topps Mantle might be an exception since the market for that one follows a totally seperate logic than that for any other post-war card.  But I don`t see a more run of the mill Mantle card like his 1966 Topps one continuing to command 3-4 times what 1966 Topps cards of similar or even superior stars from the era (Mays, Aaron, Clemente, etc) go for.

I guess this story can be interpreted in two ways.  If you want to build up a big collection of post-war vintage cards then just wait - they`ll probably be a lot cheaper in a few years than they are now.  Conversely if you have a big collection of post-war vintage cards, now might be a good time to sell - its hard to see how prices on those will go anywhere but down. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Interesting 1970s Japanese Baseball Stuff: Backwards Pink Uniforms

One of the things I find particularly interesting about Calbee sets from the 1970s are cards of the Lions.  The Lions today play in Saitama and are owned by Seibu, but back then they played in Fukuoka and had several owners (Nishitetsu, Taiheiyo and Crown Lighter).

What interests me most about them though is that they went through an experimental period in which their uniforms were designed backwards - with the front of the jersey looking like the back and vice versa.  One of the cards that best presents this unique style is #911 from the 1975-76 set.  Its from the 1976 All Star game series and features Lions outfielder Masahiro Doi rounding the bases. 

The front of his jersey has that big 3 in the middle and looks exactly like the backs of most conventional jerseys (and the backs of Lions jerseys feature the team name or sometimes "Fukuoka" like the fronts of most look like).  At the time the Lions were officially the Taiheiyo Club Lions.

I`m not sure why the Lions experimented with this interesting design - it didn`t catch on (no other contemporary team had their jerseys like that) and the Lions abandoned it not long after this card was made. The Lions weren`t a particularly popular team in the 1970s and this may have been an attempt to spur some interest in the team by giving them a radically different look from others.  Sadly it didn`t work and the team relocated from Fukuoka to Saitama in 1979.  A friend of mine who was a kid in Fukuoka in the 1970s has regaled me with stories of how devastated he was when they moved. Being a Montreal Expos fan I was able to relate.

Another appealing point is that in addition to the backwards look, the pink color of the uniforms also really stands out - not many baseball teams have gone that route and it makes Lions cards really noticeable when you are flipping through a stack of 1970s Calbee cards. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

1977 Topps O-Pee-Chee Steve Rogers Moustache Variation

Fellow Japanese baseball card collector Jay and I just completed a trade, I sent him some of my Calbee doubles and he sent me a mixed lot of cards, mostly Expos cards from the 1970s that he was kind enough to hunt down for me (I remain a huge Expos fan despite their no longer existing). Most of them were Topps cards but there were also a few O-Pee-Chee ones.

Among the cards he sent me were the above two 1977 cards of Steve Rogers, one Topps and the other O-Pee-Chee.  O-Pee-Chee cards in the 70s and 80s were released a bit later than the Topps set so they would sometimes catch off-season trades that the Topps sets missed out on.  On occasion this would mean a picture of the player in his new uniform, but more often than not it involved just putting a little "Now with Dodgers" notation on the front of the card.

Anyway, the 1977 Steve Rogers O-Pee-Chee card I discovered was able to capture the most awesome off season change in the player: a new moustache!  The Topps card (on the right) shows him clean shaven as he had appeared in 1976, but the O-Pee-Chee card on the left shows the new look Steve Rogers avec moustache that would appear on all post-1977 O-Pee-Chee cards of him.  

It makes me very proud as a Canadian to know that our baseball card sets were on the cutting edge of moustache related developments in the 1970s.  I`m curious if they were ahead of the curve on other well known changes in that field (like Rollie Fingers and his A`s team-mates) from that era. 

(Edited to note: I just checked and sadly the O-Pee-Chee cards of Rollie Fingers during his 1972-1973 Moustache transition era use the same photos as the Topps cards).