Thursday, June 20, 2019

The 1980s Calbee Sets Ranked by Difficulty

 As I’ve been documenting on this blog over the years, my main (though not exclusive) collecting interests are Japanese Calbee sets from the 1970s and 1980s. These two decades produced radically different Calbee cards.  1970s cards are closer to standard sized and tend to depict scenes from games rather than of individual players.  Though many cards of that era do feature a single player, the back of the card usually focuses more on describing the specific game or scene depicted rather than general biographical information on the player.

In the 1980s that changed radically.  The cards became smaller, about the size of 1950 Bowmans, resulting in the decade being called the “mini card era” among Japanese collectors.  Also the cards moved away from depicting scenes in games and instead adopted the more conventional card depicting a single player on the front and having biographical information about the player on the back.  

The 1980s Calbee sets aren’t quite as popular as the 1970s sets, in part I think because the photography on the 70s sets is a lot better and also because the bigger card size displays them better.  But they do nonetheless remain among the most popular for Japanese collectors, depicting a lot of guys like Ochiai and Randy Bass who didn’t appear on cards from the 1970s.  

The sets vary widely according to how difficult they are to collect.  Compared to American sets from the 1980s they are infinitely more difficult: this was not the junk wax era in Japan and a closer comparison would probably be lie between the 1950s Topps and Bowman sets (on the easy side) and the T-206 set (on the harder side) in terms of difficulty.  Though even this is inaccurate since some years are nearly impossible to complete due to the rarity of some cards and sheer sizes of the sets, while others are actually quite do-able as collecting projects, albeit still challenging (especially if you are outside of Japan).  So here I thought I’d list the sets from the mini card era (1980 to the first series of 1990) in terms of difficulty, starting with the easiest at the top and going to the most difficult at the bottom.

1. 1990 First Series
Overview: This is in a league of its own in terms of ease of collection for three reasons.  The first is its small size – only the first 55 cards of the 1990 set are mini cards, for the upper series they completely redesigned them and the cards of the higher series are effectively a completely different set (though they continue the numbering from 56).  The second is the fact that there are no short printed cards in this series, so there aren’t any individual cards that are insanely hard to find (and expensive) compared to the rest. Finally, having been released in 1990 it seems that more of these cards have survived than ones from earlier in the decade.  There aren’t a lot of them out there but they are a bit easier to find than the cards from the early 80s, and generally can be found in a bit better condition.

My Collection: This is the only mini card set that I’ve been able to fully complete thus far. At about 100 Yen per card it cost about $50 (though that is fancy accounting as there were some doubles produced - if I sold those I could get it down to $50)!

2. 1986

Overview: The 1986 set is significantly harder to complete than the first series of the 1990 set, so there is a huge gap between the #1 and #2 spot on this list, but its definitely the easiest of the sets that encompass an entire year (in contrast to the 1990s minis which are only part of that year’s Calbee card release).  At 250 cards it is a lot smaller than the average set of the 1980s, which helps a lot.  The biggest reason for its relative ease though is that it’s the only full size set that doesn’t have any short printed series of cards: all 250 in the set are equally easy/difficult to find. It does feature the rookie card(s) of Kazuhiro Kiyohara, which used to be quite sought after and expensive, but in recent years his popularity has fallen off a cliff and they don’t command anywhere near as much of a premium as they used to (which is great for set builders).

My Collection: I am about 80% of the way to completing this set, with about 200 out of the 250 cards.  I haven’t had to shell out big money on any of them, I’ve been averaging about 100 Yen per card, so if I keep that up I could conceivably complete this set (in mid grade condition) for about $200-$250 US (though this will require a lot of patience on my part!)

3. 1987

Overview: The 1987 set is noticeably more difficult than the 1986 set, but still ranks among the easier to complete.  The bump in difficulty is explained both by the larger number of cards (382) and the fact that one series (cards 75 to 99) was short printed and is more difficult and expensive to complete than the rest of the set. These make it more difficult than the 1986 set, but two other factors make it easier than most other 1980s sets.  The first is that 1987 was a good year for baseball popularity in Japan, the Giants doing well that year, which I’ve heard boosted the sales of Calbee baseball chips that year and resulted in a somewhat higher supply of these cards being out there.  Second is the fact that while it does have a short printed series, that series is not super rare like some in other sets are.  The premium you pay for them is pretty modest and they can be found.

My Collection: I’m almost finished this set, with 378 out of 382 cards down.  The only 4 I have remaining are from the short printed series.  I’ve probably averaged about 100 yen per card for the regular cards and more like 300-400 Yen per card in the short printed series (though some of those I obtained through a trade).  So I’m looking at having spent about $400-$500 to complete this one, in upper mid grade condition (probably averages about EX).

4. 1988

Overview: For the most part collecting the 1988 Calbee set isn’t much different than collecting the 1987 or 1986 set: the cards cost about the same and are about as easy/difficult to find.  Number wise it lies between the two, at a manageable 329 cards.  The thing that puts it lower down the list though are the short printed cards, which there are a number of.  These are significantly more difficult to find than the 1987 short printed series and prices reflect this: singles in the short printed series usually sell from 30$ to $100 each on Yahoo Auctions.  There are three main blocks of short printed cards in this series.  The first are cards 101 to 115, the second are cards 251 to 265 and the final ones are cards 305 to 329.  Interestingly only the first and last of those blocks are priced highly in both Engel and my (now out of date admittedly) copy of Sports Card Magazine.  I’ve been able to determine that the cards from 251 to 265 are rare both by the fact that I don’t have any and that I’ve seen cards from those numbers sell at auction in about the 3000 Yen range, which is way out of whack for regular cards in that set.  The cards in the final series (305 and over) seem to be the most expensive and generally sell for over 5000 Yen each.  Its worth noting that there are two versions of card 305, one of which features a “fine play” with borders looking like film strips, and the other featuring Kiyohara.  The Kiyohara version is the more valuable of the two.

My Collection: I have about 70% of this set complete, but that is almost entirely made up of cards from the easier to find series. I only have 4 of the short printed cards, and none of them from the most expensive series above 305.  I’ve probably averaged about 100 Yen per card, but with the short printed cards selling for so much you’d probably be looking at spending nearly 1000$ US to complete this sucker, more than what you’d likely pay for the 1986. 1987 and 1990 first series combined.  Those short prints are wallet killers!

5. 1985

Overview: The 1985 set is a tough one.  At 465 cards it is a bigger set than the later 80s sets higher up the list.  It also has some hard to find short printed cards that are extremely expensive, notably cards 441 to 465, which have gold borders and usually sell for 5,000 Yen or so each.  Cards 276 to 325 are also short printed, though not as expensive.  One other thing that sets this one apart is that even the singles in the easier to find series are harder to find than they are for the sets of the late 1980s.  The non short printed cards in the 1986 to 1990 sets are, while fairly scarce, notably easier to find that the pre-1985 sets.  I’m not sure why 1985 is the drawing line for this, perhaps baseball chips were a more popular snack after that year.  You can see evidence of this on Yahoo auctions, despite their being more cards in the set a search for “1985” in the Calbee section only gets you 242 hits, while a search for “1988” gets you 909.  The set is also notable for having Choji Murata’s rookie card, one of the earlier examples of a higher priced (about 5000 Yen) rookie card in a Japanese set. It also has Warren Cromartie’s first Japanese cards. 

My Collection: I have a little over 100 cards from this one so I’m nowhere near completing it.  I don’t have any of the short printed ones either. I’ve probably averaged a little over 100 Yen per card on this one, though again that doesn’t include any of the valuable ones.  You’d definitely be looking at around $1500- $2000 or so to finish this one and it could take decades to track them all down.

6. 1982

Overview: This is a big set, 651 cards, and was the first of a three year run of Calbee sets with more than 650 cards.  Confusingly it is numbered to 751 because 100 cards (452-551) don’t exist! It has three short printed series (201-250, 351 – 401 and 702 – 751) which are quite expensive.  The cards from the rest of the set aren’t too hard to find, but there are a lot of them which makes it much more challenging than the 1985 set.  Its also quite hard to find the cards in this set in nice condition (most of the ones you find are in mid grade or lower). Its notable for having the rookie card of Tatsunori Hara. 

My Collection: I have over 100 cards for this set, so I’m not very far into it.  None of the ones I have are from the short printed series and most of the ones I have are mid to low grade.  This set will probably set you back about $5,000-$6,000 if you try to put it together, it’s a doozy.

7. 1984

Overview:  This set is a really hard one to collect.  At 713 cards it is massive, the biggest Calbee set of the 1980s and almost triple the size of the 1986 set.  Its also got a lot of extremely expensive short printed cards.  The entire run from card 591 to 690 – 100 cards! – is short printed and every one of those is going to set you back $30-$50 each if you can find them (at the moment not a single one is available on Yahoo auctions, they only show up from time to time).  Another 90 card block, from 401 to 490, was also short printed so overall you are looking at nearly 200 expensive short printed cards to finish this set.  As with the 1985s, even the non-short printed cards from this set are harder to find than the ones in the sets from the late 1980s.  This is especially the case if you are looking for them in upper grade, probably 90% of the early 80s Calbee cards are in mid grade (vg-ex) or lower (the ratio is probably more like 50% with late 80s cards).  The set is notable for the fact that most cards in it have a unique design that is different from the standard full bleed photos of other 80s Calbee sets.

My Collection: I have about 250 cards from this set, which means I am over 1/3 of the way there!  But I only have 2 of the short printed cards, and I don’t think I’ll be making any headway on them in the near future.  I’ve averaged about 100 Yen per card on this set, but its in lower grade condition than my later 80s Calbee sets are (probably averages about vg or vg-ex).  Completing this one could easily run $6,000- $7,000 because of all those short printed ones and is beyond my means (barring an unexpected lottery win).

8. 1983

Overview: At 710 cards this is one of the bigger 80s sets, almost the exact same size as the 1984 set.  It has some very hard to find short printed series, particularly cards 401-450,  501-550 and 601 to 700 – between the two of those you have about 200 Short printed cards that sell for 3,000-5,000 Yen each to track down.  In addition to that you have 10 cards that aren’t numbered which are the hardest to find.  I’ve never seen any on Yahoo Auctions, my old SCM lists them at 6000 Yen each but I suspect they would sell for more (prices on the short printed 1980s cards have risen quite a bit in recent years, my SCM is from 2010).  The set is notable for having the first cards of Randy Bass.

My collection: I have about 300 cards from this set so I’m actually getting close to the halfway point.  As with my other early 80s sets though I am severely short on the rare ones: I only have one of the short printed cards.  I probably averaged about 100 Yen per card for the ones I have, but like my 1984s the condition of my set is significantly lower than my late 80s sets (probably vg or vg-ex).  I guess this would be a $6,000-$7,000 project if I were to seriously pursue it. 

9. 1981

Overview:  This is a tough one.  At 450 cards its about average size, and it actually only has one hyper rare short printed series (201-250).  But what sets it apart and puts it so low down this list is that the non-short printed cards are also quite hard to find, much more so than even the 1983s or 1984s.  There are no easy to find lots for this set – every one out of those 450 cards is going to be one you have to track down and pay something for.

My collection: I have about 25 cards from this set, none of them from the short printed series. I paid about 300 Yen each for them, and that was quite a deal.  This would be about a $6,000 to $7,000 project if you were to ever try it, not for the faint of heart.

10 . 1980

Overview: At this point down the list its getting harder to justify differences in rank since they are all so damned hard, but the 1980 set is one that definitely belongs somewhere down here.  It does have one advantage, which is its small size.  At 296 cards it’s the second smallest Calbee set of the 80s after the 1986 set.  Technically speaking you could even shave 96 cards off that list though since the first 96 are actually bigger sized cards more like the 1970s Calbees, for some reason they changed the design mid year to the mini card style (much like they would ditch the mini cards half way through the 1990 set a decade later), but for our purposes we can treat it as a single set.  Its “easy” points end there though.  About half the cards (basically everything from 49 to 196) are short printed and extremely expensive.  And actually even the non-short printed cards are pretty rare, singles from this set across the board are the hardest of any from the 1980s to come by. 

My collection: I only have two cards from this set so it’s the 1980s set I am furthest from completing.  Even the commons from the non-short printed series usually sell for 500-1000 Yen each, and the short printed ones for many times that much, so despite its relatively small size this set is probably going to be a $5,000- $6,000 endeavour (maybe more) that will take years of work.  I am not actively pursuing this set due to the sheer cost of it right now.

11.  1989

Overview: I’m a bit torn about putting the 1989 set as the most difficult because depending on how you define it, it might be closer to the 1988 set in difficulty much higher up this list.  It’s a 414 card set and most of the cards are about as easy/difficult to find as cards from other late 80s Calbee sets.  But cards numbered 111 to 220 were short printed and sell for a premium similar to what the short printed series in the 1988 set sell for.  Those aren’t the real deal breaker that drops the 1989s to the bottom of the list though.  That belongs to the last cards in the set, 391 to 414.  These are short printed, but so short printed that nobody seems to know if they were ever even distributed in packs.  They are kind of legendary among Calbee card collectors and so rare that they are the only 1980s Calbee cards that SCM refuses to put a price on since there are so few transactions involving them.  I’ve never seen one come up for auction on Yahoo Auctions.  So if you include those 23 cards in the 1989 set, it’s the most difficult.  Without them this set would probably be between the 1988 and 1985 sets in difficulty.  The set is notable for having cards of Cecil Fielder, the only Calbee set to do so.

My Collection:  I have about 60 cards from this set, it’s the only late 80s Calbee set I’ve never made a serious attempt to collect mainly because those mysterious super short printed ones discourage me from doing so.  Most of the cards in the set are about as easy and cheap to get as 1988 or 1987 Calbees, but I can’t speculate on how much a full set would cost.  Those hyper short printed ones could easily sell for thousands of dollars each, making this the most expensive 1980s Calbee set out there if you were to include them.


  1. Holy cow! Supply and demand sure driving up prices. I can see why they are so hard to complete. Good luck on them all!

    1. Yeah, its really more of a pipe dream now, I can't afford to seriously go after any of those early 80s sets, I'm mostly concentrating on getting the non-short printed ones complete, since they are affordable. I'm only really spending $$ on the harder to find cards I need for the 75-76 set for now!

  2. >my (now out of date admittedly) copy of Sports Card Magazine
    Unfortunately there aren't any copies of SCM that aren't out of date. Have you seen any websites featuring the price guides that used to be in SCM?

    >The set is also notable for having Choji Murata’s rookie card
    Kind of weird that's considered his rookie card - he'd been playing for 10 years before this set came out and had Yamakatsu and Takara cards starting in the late 70's. The only reason his first Calbee card wasn't until this year is that Calbee didn't feature Lotte players until this set. Is Ochiai's "rookie" card similarly high priced?

    Oddly enough I think the 1981 set is the one I have the most cards from. Don't know the count off hand but it's probably more than 100.

    1. No are there websites with those price guides?

      And yeah, it is kind of weird that SCM lists the 1985 Calbee Murata (and Ochiai) as their "rookie" cards, so late in their career and despite the fact that Yamakatsu issued several Murata's in the late 70s/early 80s. Not sure why but it lists the Murata at double the price of the Ochiai, despite being in the same series (5000 Yen versus 2500 Yen).

      That is amazing that you have so many 1981s relative to the other 80s sets, they are the hardest set to find cards for except maybe the 1980 set.

    2. Wow, the Murata is twice the value of the Ochiai? But there's a lot more Murata cards pre-1985 than there are Ochiai. The only pre-1985 Ochiai cards I know of are Takara. I wonder if it's because there are comparatively fewer Murata cards in all - he retired in 1990 so there's no BBM cards from when he was a player while Ochiai played until 1998. And Murata's been a no-show in BBM's OB sets until this year while Ochiai showed up a lot until 2011.

      All the 1981 Calbee's must have left Japan and headed for the States!

    3. Yeah I was surprised that Murata was more than Ochiai (mind you, these prices are from 2010, they might have changed since then). Its very hard to understand the pricing of some player's cards in that SCM, the highest priced guys in a lot of sets are almost never the ones you'd think they'd be based on career accomplishment, fame, etc.

      And Ha, your collection must explain the drought of 81s over here!

  3. Can I sell a Japanese baseball cards here ?