Monday, June 8, 2020

1973 Calbee: Japan's Most Valuable Set?

 The above is a 1973 Calbee card of Carp second baseman Mickey McGuire.  McGuire had a short career with the Baltimore Orioles in the 60s, recording only 4 major league hits (4 more than me of course), and later played a couple of decent seasons in Japan with the Hiroshima Carp in 1973 and 1974 where he hit .265.
The card is low grade, with pretty heavy wear on the corners and some discoloration on the back.  Probably it would grade about "Good" or so at best.

So anyway this is a beat up card of a guy with "common card guy" written all over him. But this card just sold for 101,950 Yen (about $1,000 US).
This is why I am not actively collecting the 1973 Calbee set, the prices are out of this world.  The McGuire card is part of a short printed series running from #261 to 297 where every card is hyper valuable like this.

And that ain't all, there is another equally rare series (210 to 237) and numerous other high demand cards that will sell for thousands of dollars even in lower grade.  The set is just littered with them.

I think the 1973 Calbee set is emerging as the most valuable one in Japan.  You could be looking at shelling out  $100,000 US if you were to try to put the set together in decent grade. And even then it would take you many years to do so since cards like this one don't show up for auction very often.

The only other set I can think of which might approach it is the 1967 Kabaya Leaf, but I don't think it comes close.  That set has four hyper rare cards that will set you back several thousand dollars each, and five other short printed cards that will probably run you close to a thousand.  But that is just 9 expensive cards, the 1973 Calbee has close to 100 that will cost you in the $500 plus range and quite a few that would be in the thousand dollar plus range.  The non short printed 67 Kabaya Leaf generally sell for more than the non short printed 1973 Calbee, but again there are way fewer of them (119 cards in the 67 Kabaya Leaf set verses 368 cards in the 1973 Calbee set).

This is also one of those sets where you can basically ignore what the Engel guide says in terms of price (though it is still quite useful as a checklist and for figuring out which ones are more expensive relative to others in the set).  Prices really seem to have taken off over the past couple of years and the prices in the guide are completely out of date.  The McGuire is listed at $400 for a near mint copy and yet here we have a very low grade copy selling for $1000.  This is by no means the only example, across the board the harder to find 1973 Calbees are exploding in price.

Its kind of crazy, but 1973 Calbee isn't just one of the most expensive sets in Japan, but in the world.  For comparable American sets you'd have to go back to the rare early 20th century Tobacco ones.  Post war, the 1952 Topps set makes for an awkward comparison.  On the one hand it has the Mickey Mantle card which has gone into the stratosphere in terms of price. No card from the 1973 Calbee set comes close to selling for the same as that Mantle. On the other hand, except for the Mantle the other cards in that set are way cheaper and easier to find than the harder to find 1973 Calbees, so its a bit of a toss up.

I'm holding out hope that this price explosion won't affect Calbee sets from subsequent years, particularly the 1975-76-77 set I'm working on, at least until after I've finished it (which is going to take a while).  For the moment at least none of the cards in that one sell for anywhere near this much.


  1. It’s funny you mention this set. Just yesterday I was looking at the #1 card on the set contemplating buying it. One of the most iconic Japanese baseball cards out there.

    The 1973 Calbee Suko set will put you back at least $3-5K.. and that is only for 36 cars. Crazy.

    1. yeah those 73 Calbee sumo cards are hard, I've long wanted to land just one for my collection but always get outbid (by far).

      The #1 card from the baseball set is expensive but actually not that hard to find. The first series is relatively a lot easier to find than the rest of the set, I actually have more than half of it completed (but don't have #1 yet!)

  2. Is it known, and if not, has anyone ever tried to figure out what the print run was for cards 261-297?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Its not known, but I think there are only a handful of most of these. For this McGuire I wouldn't be surprised if there were only a dozen or so copies of it in existence. Certainly I don't think there would be more than 100.

  3. Wow. This is pretty crazy stuff. You can get graded HOFers from T206 and 1952 Topps for a fraction of the price. The good news is that there are people out there competing for these short printed 1973 Calbees. I've always thought vintage Japanese baseball seemed to be undervalued. This is great evidence that I'm mistaken.

    1. Yeah, you could probably get a decent Christy Matthewson or Walter Johnson card for that price!

      This shows that a lot of people with deep pockets are trying to collect the 1973 set. The short printed cards only show up occasionally, so they all pounce on one when it does.

  4. What this really shows is that Japanese collectors are set collectors. How many American sets have commons that go for >$1000?

    Here's what I'll do, I'll look at how many sets says have VG commons that go for >$1000:

    There are 17 N- sets like this. Most of these are *extremely* rare, like, one copy known kind of rare. And it includes cards like the 1869 Peck & Snider (which they call an N card even though it doesn't have an ACC designation; if you want to exclude cards with no set designation, subtract nine from that figure).

    Two D- sets. Both issued in 1910.

    Seven E- sets.

    Four M- sets.

    One R- set. (1935-6 Batter Up Premium. Only one or two examples of each card known.)

    Four T- sets.

    That's 35 sets. I think the set from the 30s is the most recent. (I tried to exclude sets in which all of the cards feature stars.) More than I would have guessed. But half of them are from the 19th c. and many of them have known copies in the single digits. (I presume there are some CdVs or tintypes or whatever that aren't part of any set that could go for these prices too.) But for the most part, expensive American cards are expensive because both set collectors and player collectors are going for them.

  5. Good research there. So the hard to find 1973 Calbee series would be more like the 19th century hyper rarities? It doesn't surprise me too much.

    I'm not sure I would fully agree with the conclusion that Japanese collectors are set collectors. Certainly some are, but a lot aren't. Team collectors are quite common (card shops often have cards organized by team rather than set).

    That said, I think most of the people who collect Calbee cards from the 70s are in fact set collectors (like me) and it is definitely them who are driving up the prices on cards like this because I doubt even the most ardent Hiroshima Carp fan would be driven to spend this much on a Mickey McGuire card.

    One thing which probably distinguishes 1970s Calbee from those hyper rare 19th century US sets is that there are a lot of affordable "gateways" into 1970s Calbee. If you are going to collect one of those US sets, you go into it knowing you are going to spend $1,000 per card and up.

    With the 1973 Calbee though there are quite a few cards that remain affordable. Like the first series is way more available and you can find commons for that in mid grade for less than 5$ each. I suspect those cheap series act as a kind of lure for collectors who buy in on the lower end, get hooked, and then gradually find themselves throwing more and more money into the project until one day they wake up, check Yahoo Auctions, and realize they just spent $1,000 on a beat up Mickey McGuire card!

  6. I just saw a 2-card lot of 2012 Calbee Baseball Card 1973 Reprint #2012 M02 and #2012 M-01 Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima cards on E-Bay. Apparently they're mini-cards, as well.

    1. I have some of those. They were a special sub set that were part of the 2012 Calbee set, meant to commemorate Calbee's 40th anniversary of making baseball cards. It was one of my favorite subsets at the time as I didn't have many original vintage Calbee in 2012 yet.