Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Monster: My 1975-76 Calbee Baseball Set

 Last week was the Golden Week holiday and I set about doing something I have been meaning to do for years: Sorting out all the 1975-76 Calbee cards that I have.  Finding time for this is no small task for someone with two very small children, but in the wee hours of the night after they had gone to sleep I was able to sneak into the extra room and do some serious sorting.

I have been collecting the 1975-76 Calbee set for about five years now.  It is a 1472 card monster, probably one of the most difficult baseball card sets in the world to put together (more on that below), though at the same time not so expensive that it would destroy your bank account like some pre-war American tobacco card sets that are also difficult to put together.

I had never really gotten these cards organized until last week. I would just buy them, look at them, and put each purchase in some random box somewhere (a by-product of the above mentioned having two young children).  This wasn't a problem at first since when a set has 1472 cards and you are just buying them in lots of 5-10 cards each  its very unlikely you will get many doubles.  But over time they do accumulate and I was shocked to discover after pulling out all those disparate blocks of cards I had scattered around that I had accumulated more than a thousand of them!  It was time to organize.  So I got myself a huge pile of ultra-pro pages, two binders (there isn't a binder out there big enough to hold this set) and the May, 2010 issue of Sports Card Magazine which has a checklist of most of the set (more on that below too) and got to work.  And voila:
There is something very satisfying about having a partial set in pages organized numerically with empty pockets for the cards you are missing.  Its just so motivating.  With every card that goes into a pocket from now on I will feel a great sense of accomplishment, which will just spur me on to the next.  Set building is addictive.

I was also very surprised to discover just how close I am to the set.  I had roughly estimated I probably had 500-600 different cards, meaning I was less than half-way there, but actually I am already over the halfway point at 843 different cards!  This actually seems like it might be a do-able thing rather than just a pipe dream.  Wow!

Anyway, I thought I would do a little write up about the set here, highlighting some of the basics, why it is one of the most difficult sets in the world to collect and why it is also one of the greatest.

1975-76 Calbee: The Basics

The set is numbered #1 to #1436.  Cards #1 to #324 were issued in 1975 while from #325 up they were issued in 1976, hence the confusing "1975-76" moniker. This confusion is compounded by Sports Card Magazine, which lists the 1975 and 1976 cards separately despite obviously being part of the same set, a convention I reject since it makes zero sense.

The set is basically broken down into series, each of which has some sort of topical theme.  The first series for example features scenes from the all star game.  For this reason there aren't really any regular player cards in the set, though most cards do feature a single player on them.  Some players are featured on numerous cards - Sadaharu Oh even has an entire series (#789 - 824) devoted just to himself (in honor of his 700th home run), and additional cards in most of the other series as well.

There are four series within the set that are more difficult to find than the rest.  They are:

#37-#72 - These cards, featuring Dragons players, were only distributed in Nagoya and are extremely rare.  Three of these cards feature Hall of Famer Senichi Hoshino (45, 57 and 69) which are among the highest value cards in the set.

#145-180 - These cards, featuring Hiroshima Carp players, were only distributed in Hiroshima and are also extremely rare. Hall of Famers Sachio Kinugasa and Koji Yamamoto have cards in this series, but the most expensive (for some reason) are #157 and 174 which feature....(drumroll)....Hiroshima Municipal Stadium!

#609- 644 - These cards also feature Hiroshima Carp players and were also only distributed in Hiroshima and are also extremely rare..  They are the "red helmet" series (named after the Carp red batting helmets), but not to be mistaken for another similarly titled "red helmet" series (#289-324) which is not rare.

#1329-1436 - these are the high number final series and they are a bit of a mystery to me.  For some reason Sports Card Magazine doesn't list them (its checklist ends at 1328) and Calbee collector's write up about the set also ends at #1328. They definitely exist, however - I have several of them and some are available on Yahoo Auctions right now (usually with descriptions like "High series" or something in the title).  I'm not sure why they aren't in the SCM checklist but they seem to command a bit of a premium over the common cards based on Yahoo Auctions prices, but are quite a bit less expensive than the Nagoya and Hiroshima regional issues.

In addition to these it is worth mentioning that there are two versions of all the cards from #289-324.  One version is a Hiroshima red helmet subset while the other is a Star he no Ayumi (Path to stardom) subset featuring childhood photos of the stars next to a current image.  These cards explain why this is a 1472 card set despite the numbers only going to 1432.  Both versions of these cards are about equally common and neither commands a premium.

The card designs are the same almost throughout the set: full bleed photo with a little text at the bottom telling you which series the card is in and the player name.  The big exception to this is 325-396 which have a vivid pink border that looks very similar to the 1975 Topps set. Also there are a few oddball ones like a subset dedicated to artificial turf and some team leaders cards with their own design, though these are few and far between.

Another point of confusion comes from the backs.  The 1975-76 is distinguishable from other 1970s Calbee sets from the back design (the fronts on all Calbee sets from the 70s are basically the same). The backs are white with a border of stars and baseballs in the corner like the above card #580.  There is a confusing exception to this though.  The first series (#1-36) featuring the all star game don't have that star border.  And very confusingly Calbee used that star border on the first series of its 1977 set, so there are low number cards that look like 1975-76 Calbees on the back but aren't.  These are from the famous scenes series and have this on them: 名場面特集.  

Why it is one of the hardest sets in the world to collect

The sheer size is of course a big factor, 1472 cards is a lot.  Mind you, completing the 1989 and 1990 Topps baseball sets would require you to acquire more cards between them so obviously size isn't the only factor at work here. Scarcity is the big one.

The biggest initial hurdle for the set collector is the lack of starter sets out there.  I have a few vintage American sets that I am casually collecting (lower grade, cheap1960s-70s stuff) which I started by buying big starter sets that usually got me halfway or more of the way there.  Basically anyone looking to buy a vintage Topps set, even the 1952 Topps set, has this option since they always pop up on Ebay (with a 52 starter lot money will likely be an object of course, but they at least are available).

This doesn't really happen with the 1975-76 Calbee set.  The biggest lots that ever pop up are usually 50-100 cards and that is barely going to get you 5% of the way to the total IF you can find them.  At the moment the only thing available is this lot of 80 cards which seems to have heavy duplication and may contain some from other 70s sets.  There is also this one of 450 cards, but has cards from several different years...and it costs more than $3,000 (it has some key cards though so not necessarily overpriced).

Needless to say the pickings on Ebay are a lot slimmer.

Ironically while starter sets are next to non-existent, there is a complete set that came up for sale recently and is available.  Its worth looking at if for no other reason than to drool.  The starting bid is 1.28 million Yen (about $11,000 US) so its not cheap, but its there.

If you don't have that kind of cash lying around though, collecting this set means extreme patience, and doing what I have done (only perhaps with a bit more initial organization): pouring over Yahoo Auctions listings, snapping them up in small lots as they appear and over time accumulating enough that you have put a dent into them.  Its a bit more like the way one would collect the harder to find pre-war baseball cards in the US.

A second reason this set is so hard is those Hiroshima and Nagoya regional issues.  Those are really hard to find and they never show up in lots - I have zero of them.

Its a bit funy to read collectors complain about how hard it is to find the high series cards from the 60s and 70s Topps sets because they were printed in smaller quantities.  Oh yeah?  Imagine how hard those cards would be to find if they were only distributed in about 1/100th those quantities and some of them only in Cincinnati and some of them only in Dallas.  If that had been the case, then you could trade war stories with a 1975-76 Calbee collector!

And I'm not even getting into condition here because I'm not that kind of collector.  But if you are, forget about it.  Finding these cards in top grade is very difficult.  Partly this is just due to wear like American cards of the era, but these have an additional problem.  Japan is extremely humid and the white backs on most of my cards exhibit discoloration from that.  I don't care, but if you are a PSA guy, this set is pretty much impossible as even cards that look perfect on the front usually have some discoloration on the back which they'll probably ding you for.

While the regional issues are difficult to find, they aren't impossible as there are some of them available on Yahoo Auctions (for a significant premium of course).  The downside though is that most of them are not - if I bought up all the regional issues available on Yahoo Auctions right now I would only be about 20% of the way to completing them.  Most card shops don't have piles of these available either.

Why the Set is Among the Greatest of All

Right off the bat one of the best things about collecting this set is that despite how difficult it is to find, the prices are still relatively down to earth on most cards.  The commons can be found for 100 Yen or so if you are patient and don't mind mid-grade and even the most expensive cards in the set from the rare regional issues are in the 3 figure range (in dollars) rather than the 5-6 figure range more typical of US sets.  Heck if you are OK with cards in lower grade even the most expensive card in the set could probably be had in the 2 figure range if you use a little patience.

So its not super expensive and the fact that it can take years to put together allows you to spread the amount you spend on it out over time.  Its like a built in self-financing system.  I'm more than half way to completing the set but I've probably only  spent an average of about 1,000 Yen (about $9) per week on it since I started collecting them.

More than that though, the cards are awesome!  You've got:

Full bleed photos - yes!

Amazing photography - tons of action shots, very few posed shots or hatless wonders.

Pictures taken in actual stadiums during actual games - no spring training pictures (except, perhaps not coincidentally, for the cards that look like 1975 Topps ones some of which have a spring training theme)!  I love my 1970s Topps Expos cards but it just infuriates me every time I see a palm tree in the background of a card of a Canadian team.  Calbee shows you what the Japanese stadiums of the 70s look like and they are awesome.

Player selection - I've written about this before, the selection of key hall of famers is pretty deep in this set.

Another thing to like is the challenge.  You have the difficulty level of extremely hard to find pre-war tobacco cards like the T-206 but its still a challenge you can take up (if you live in Japan at least) without having to worry about impossible cards (Wagner, etc) or the fact that beat up commons are expensive.  I love that.

Other Oddball Stuff about the set

One other thing to like about 70s  Calbee sets is the lack of rookie cards.  From a set collector's point of view, the concept of a rookie card serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily make one or two cards in the set much more expensive than the rest.  Since Calbee sets from this era usually had dozens of cards of the same player, its pretty much impossible to assign a rookie card to anyone.  Those didn't really appear in Japan until the mid 1980s.

That said, there is a bit of a premium in this set places on some players who were early in their careers. Cards of Masayuki Kakefu, who debuted in 1974, are more expensive (SCM lists all of them at 3,000 Yen).  Yutaka Enatsu's cards are also listed for 3,000 Yen, though he had already been playing for a few years so I'm not sure why.

Davey Johnson who played for the Giants for a couple of seasons is featured on numerous cards and is probably the foreigner with the most (Clyde Wright is on a lot too though).  Clete Boyer despite being probably the biggest name among foreign players in the set, only appears on one card (374) which is a bit expensive.  Matty Alou is the only other big name former MLBer in the set, appearing on a couple of cards including this awesome one of him batting at Nishinomiya Stadium.

Also, as is typical with Calbee sets from the era, the Giants are way over-represented with their players appearing on a whopping 440 cards (according to this).  In contrast members of the Nippon Ham Fighters only show up on 27, and the Lotte Orions on zero (since Lotte and Calbee were snack food rivals, Calbee banished their team from cards completely, which is a real shame).

There were some albums Calbee made as redemptions for this set which look pretty cool, I put some pictures of those up on an earlier post here.

Where I go from here

So now that I am really motivated to get this thing complete my big milestones I'd like to hit are getting to the 1,000 different card threshold (just 157 to go) and getting some of those regional issues.  The regional issues are a glaring hole-of-shame in my binders now since they are hard to miss.  3-4 blank pages in a row sitting in a sea of "an average of 6 cards per page" pages is a really discouraging site.  So I'll put some money aside to get a crack at some of them, though I suspect it'll be at least a decade before I've got those pages looking more populated, by which time hopefully the other pages will be complete!


  1. That's amazing that you've got that much of that set. Good luck with the rest!

    1. Thanks! I'll keep updating it on here as I make new acquisitions from now on, I already have some bids on cards I need on Yahoo Auctions!

  2. Wow, this is a great write-up and it was fun to read. What does Engel's book have to say on the set checklist with respect to the high numbers? Does he have the checklisted in there.

    Good luck getting to looks to be right around the corner. Maybe you can sell off your doubles to fund some of the cards you don't have. I'm a set builder by heart so I would have had the set already in binders.

    1. Thanks! Actually I don't even have a copy of Engel's book so I don't know what he says - if anyone out there does please let me know if that has the answer!

      I might sell off some of the doubles once I get them organized, there are a lot of them including some stars like Oh.

    2. Engel does include the high numbers but he doesn't have any comment about them in his write up of the set.

    3. It is a bit curious, I wonder if maybe they were issued in early 1977 and that is why SCM doesn't list them in the 1976 part of their listings (another annoying thing with my copy of SCM is that they don't list the Calbee sets from 1977 to 1979 for some reason, so I'm not sure)

    4. I've always been amused that SCM didn't want to try to tackle the nightmare that is trying to catalog the 1977-79 Calbee issues. Checklists do exist for these sets though - Engel has them and I think he used the 1973 Calbee book as one of his sources.