Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Don Newcombe the Dragon

Don Newcombe passed away yesterday at 92.  The baseball blogosphere is full of tributes, and I thought I'd just do one here that focuses on a claim to fame that he has which nobody is talking about: he was the first MLB player to play in Japan.

In 1962 he came to Nagoya, the very city I am writing this post in, to play for our Chunichi Dragons.
He wasn't the only former Major Leaguer to come over that season, Hall of Famer Larry Doby also played for the Dragons that year.  But Newcombe made his debut on June 23rd while Doby made his on June 30th, so Newcombe beat him by a week to claim the honor.

On a side note, that really makes Doby the perennial second man.  He was the second African American to play in MLB, the second to manage a team, and also the second MLBer to play in NPB.  The guy always had someone just a bit ahead of him (and Newcombe is the only one of those guys who wasn't named Robinson)!

There is a pretty cool picture of Newcombe with the Dragons here.

Another odd tidbit about Newcombe's time with the Dragons is that he was mainly a position player (splitting time between the outfield and first base) rather than a pitcher like he had been with the Dodgers.  He only appeared in one game as a pitcher during his Japan days and 82 as a position player.  He put up decent numbers for a pitcher, hitting .262 with 12 home runs.  For any other pitcher this would be a really weird way of ending their career, but Newcombe had been one of the best hitting pitchers of his generation.

Anyway, he'll be missed here in Nagoya too!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Rivals: 70s Style

 Another week, another new find in my ongoing quest for the 1975-76 Calbee set.

This week's discovery: its actually the 1975-76-77 Calbee set.

As I mentioned in my overview post on the set, it is numbered from #1 to #1436.  It is pretty well established (according to Sports Card Magazine) that cards #1 to 324 were issued in 1975, which cards from #325 to 1328 were issued in 1976.

But what about those last 108 cards from #1329 to 1436?  Sports Card Magazine doesn't list them at all.  I'm pretty sure that the reasons for that omission is that some or all of those high numbered cards were issued in 1977 rather than 1976, making this a 3 year rather than a two year set.
 I picked up three cards from the very highest series (additional tidbit of information: there were 40 series in this set), cards 1402, 1419 and 1431.  These are pretty interesting and carry the title "77 Central Pacific Rival Player Series".  Each card features a player from a Central League team and a Pacific League Team which have some trait that ties them together.   Card 1402 for example features Hisashi Yamada and Koujiro Ikekawa as the representative "Ace" starting pitchers for each league.  In addition to saying "77" on the front, the card backs present the full stats for the 1976 season, so they must be 1977 issues.  The other two I got are "matchup between the new players with the highest expectations" featuring Yasushi Tao and Masao Tamura (1431) and "Pitchers with the fastest pitches" featuring Takamasa Suzuki and Takashi Yamaguchi (1419).
In my overview post I mentioned that the high number series above cards 1328 are rarer and command a premium, but I think this is partially correct.  It seems it is only the 40th series which commands a premium and not the entire run above 1328.  I'm not sure but it seems to start around card #1400 (need to verify this though).  Not all cards in that 40th series feature two players like these, they are broken up between these ones and another simply titled "76 Star players" which feature lone players.

I'm not sure how rare these are compared to the regional Nagoya and Hiroshima issues, but they seem to be close.  A seller auctioned a bunch of them off last week and I put 1000 Yen bids on a bunch, but only won these three (for nearly that amount), which is almost as much as I paid for the regional issues.

Another interesting bit of info I gleaned from these three cards is found at the bottom of the backs of each:
These are the names of three different Calbee snack products.  The top one is Calbee Kappa Ebisen (a kind of shrimp flavored snack), the second is good old Calbee Potato Chips, and the bottom one is Calbee Sapporo Potatos, which I think is another kind of chips.  The lower series cards in this set don't have these printed on them, so its kind of neat to see, I guess Calbee cards in this series at least (possibly earlier ones as well) were sold with different kinds of Calbee snacks unlike these days where you can only get them with (boring) plain potato chips.  I would much prefer for them to be released like this again, I need more variety in my snack life!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Oh God, What Have I Done?

 Behold!  The entire 1995 Choco Snack/Calbee set!  Complete in all its glory!  Its mine!

Until a couple of days ago I only had one card in this set.  Now I have all of them.

I'm not sure what happened.  With my vintage Calbee sets (with Calbee, 1995 counts as vintage, these are hard to find) I've been pretty much putting them all together the old fashioned way, one card at a time.  This is made easier by the fact that full sets of pre-1998 Calbee sets almost never come up for sale (and when they do the prices are out of my range).

Then I found myself browsing Yahoo Auctions looking for 1995 Tokyo Snack/Calbee singles - the "other" Calbee set from that year - since I'm getting really close to finishing up the first series of that one.

And I noticed at the top of the listings this beauty - the entire 72 card Choco Snack set.  The starting bid was 9800 Yen, which works out to just over 1$ per card.  It has two Ichiros in it which alone are worth about that much.  And, only having one card so far, it was tempting.  So I put a bid in not really expecting to win - the set lists for twice that much in SCM and is pretty hard to find.

Then, as you can probably imagine, I won!  Nobody else put a bid on it!

Finishing this set wasn't even on my radar until I saw this, its a great set that I wanted to work on but was sort of on the backburner while I worked on others.  Now it has leapfrogged to "complete" status, it is the oldest Calbee set that I have complete (though the 1987 is bound to overtake it quite soon, I am only 8 cards short of finishing that one).

 I had some misgivings as I always do when I win something that I thought I had put a bid way too low to win on.  Why didn't anyone else bid on it?  Is something wrong with it?  Do all the Japanese bidders have some kind of radar that allows them to detect red flags that foreigners like myself are oblivious to?

I nervously waited for the package to come in the mail and discovered....everything was OK!  In fact, better than OK, this set is amazing!

The most impressive thing about the set is that every card came still sealed in its original pack.  Unlike other Calbee sets, the cards in this one came packed in transparent packs so you can see the card perfectly without opening them.  Its the only major Calbee set that I know of which was distributed like that.   A fair number of the listings I've seen for cards from this set are for singles still in their original package, which usually command a premium over ones being sold loose.  So finding an entire set still in its packages, while not something I would have necessarily set out to collect in itself, is just a kind of cool bonus.
 The set is crammed with stars.  Hideki Irabu before his tragic American odyssey:
 Shane Mack after his non-tragic one:
 Ichiro in just his second Calbee year (appearing on two cards, both of which are among his best Calbee cards):
 Atsuya Furuta:
 Hideki Matsui (also appearing on two cards):
 And a ton of other hall of famers or stars.

I'm totally ga-ga over this set.

As a bonus the set also included an Atari card, also still in its pack. Send in 8 of these and they'd send you a soccer ball (not so unusual as it sounds for a baseball prize since the Atari marks distributed with Calbee soccer cards that year were interchangeable with these).  Send in 3 and you'd get a card album.  Send in 2 and you'd get a baseball or soccer magazine of your choice.

This set is pretty hard to find, slightly more so that the other Calbee set, Tokyo Snack, of that year.  That is because this was one of the regional issues, only sold in Tokyo and Saitama that year.  Since Tokyo is a pretty big market its probably easier to find that some other 1990s regional issues like the 1994 Hokkaido one which was sold in a much smaller (population wise) region.  Still though, its pretty tough to find, Yahoo Auctcions currently has only 283 listings for all 1995 Calbee products and most of those are for the Tokyo Snack set which, despite its name, was released nationwide and is a bit easier to find.

The final thing worth mentioning about this set is the color of the player names on the front of the cards.  I have what could be called the "base set" since all the player names are written in black.  Calbee issued a parallel set which is identical except the player names are in gold.  The gold ones are said to be a bit harder to find and thus command a premium, usually selling for about double what the black letter versions sell for (a gold letter Ichiro is currently for sale for 10,000 Yen on Yahoo Auctions, not in its original pack.  The black letter version in contrast can be found for 3,000 to 5,000 Yen).  If this had been a gold set I probably would have been outbid by a wide margin on it.  Not being a parallel collector though I don't really care!

Still I'm of mixed feelings about this mainly because between this and my recent 1975-76 Calbee pick ups, I have already blown my entire 2019 budget for cards and we're barely halfway through February now.  Its hard to resist deals when they come around, but buying big ticket items like this radically throws off the pace of my collecting which I generally like to keep a bit more down to Earth.  So I'm left with a "Wow this set is a great pick up" feeling on the one hand and a "Oh god, what have I done" feeling on the other.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Key Cards for the 1975-76 Calbee Set

 My 1975-76 Calbee project took a major leap forward last week with the above two cards, which were Yahoo Auctions wins.  Both depict Hall of Famer Senichi Hoshino during his prime days as a pitcher with the Dragons.  I'm a huge Hoshino fan and was extremely sad when he passed away last year.  If for no other reason than his being the leader of the anti-Giants resistance, I had a lot of respect for him.

These two cards though were tops on my want list because they are among the "key cards" in the whole set. Both of them (57 and 69) are from the rare Nagoya only regional series and, since they feature Hoshino, are the most valuable cards from that series (according to my copy of SCM anyway).  In fact, they, along with the Hiroshima Municipal Stadium cards in the Hiroshima only regional series, are the most valuable cards in the whole set (again according to my copy of SCM).

They were a lucky find.  A seller I had never dealt with put a dozen or so cards from the Nagoya regional series up for auction with 1 Yen starting bids.  The other cards were commons in various conditions (from about fair to ex or so) and I put 1000 Yen bids on most of them, to see if I could get them for the same price I scored my Hiroshima regional issues for the other day.

Something came over me with the Hoshinos though, I just felt I HAD to have them.  I'd never seen them come up for auction before.  So for those I put 5000 Yen bids on each and walked away from my PC.

When I came back the morning after the auction had finished I found that I had been outbid on all the commons, but the Hoshinos were mine!!  Yes!

So I think I can say that I am "making good progress" on the Nagoya regional issues too now!  And my set now has two of the keys to its completion, proudly in their pockets!

The only downside is that there are actually three Hoshino cards in that Nagoya regional series, so I still have one more to track down.

Monday, February 4, 2019

How Many Bags of Chips it takes to Complete a Calbee Set

I was strolling around Youtube this morning and found this video which asked an interesting question: How much money does it take to complete a Calbee set one bag of chips at a time?

I've only really made two serious efforts at completing Calbee sets that way.  The first was in 2004 when I was living in Himeji, working as an English teacher, and made a point of coming back from the grocery store with at least 2 or 3 bags of Calbees each time.  The bags only cost 63 Yen back then, but they also only came with 1 card.  I didn't even get halfway on any of the series, but had fun trying.  I was newly married at the time and this was my way of introducing one of my eccentricities to my wife.

The next stab came seven years later in 2011 when I was living in Fukuoka.  Don Quijote, a huge discount retailer, in the summer that year had a glut of bags of Series 1 chips (at least the one near my place did) and put them on sale at 39 Yen per bag, less than half the normal retail rate of 98 Yen. I thought to myself "this is a sign" and once again would return home each day with 2-3 bags that I could never eat with me.  I probably bought about 100 bags that year for just that one series, but only got about half the set.  My wife just thought "Ah, he is at this again."

Since then I haven't really made the attempt, though every year I buy at least a few bags. You just end up with way too many bags of chips and nowhere near to completing a set.  But I always wondered if anybody actually does it.

This video answers that question: Yes, but only insane people who can pay for the chips via lots of YouTube advertising revenue.

The video is by a comedian who bought 2500 bags of 2018 Series 1 to see if he could reach the goal of completing the set with that many bags.  To succeed he wanted not just the regular set and 24 card Star Card insert set, but also the harder to find Star Card gold sign parallel set.

So he actually opened 2500 bags of Yakyu chips which retail for about 250,000 Yen (about 2,000$ US) (though presumably he bought them wholesale in bulk so probably paid less than that).

Unsurprisingly he was able to finish the 72 card base set without difficulty early on in the opening.  And the Star Card insert set was completed next.  And.....in the end he was able to successfully complete even the gold signature parallels too, though he had to open every case to get them.

The video unfortunately doesn't show some interesting data, like which number out of 2500 packs he found the last card needed in, or how many regular sets he was able to put together out of all those (2500 packs equals 5000 cards so probably quite a few). He does tell us that he only pulled 16 Lucky Cards (redeemable for an album) so those are quite rare.

The real takeaway from the video for me though is the sheer futility of trying to do a Calbee set bag by bag.  It cost 250,000 Yen to put that set together - and that is only Series 1!  They'd have to do that two more times to finish the whole 2018 set, which is definitely not worth 750,000 Yen!

Postscript: You might wonder what he did with 2500 bags of chips he had left over.  In a follow up video he reveals that 500 of them he gave out to friends and family, and the other 2000 he took to this Ramen shop (he seems to be friends with the owner) to use in a one month special "chips and ramen" dish.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Clete Boyer the Whale

I picked off another card on my 1975-76 Calbee want list last week: 374 featuring Clete Boyer and Daisuke Yamashita of the Taiyo Whales.

Boyer is, with Matty Alou and Dave Johnson, one of the most famous foreign players to appear in the set, and unlike those two he appears only on one card (which he obviously shares) and did so after his playing days were over (1975 was his last as a player, he appears here as a coach).

Boyer features a bit in Robert Whiting's You Gotta Have Wa, mainly mentioned as one of the few foreign players who were able to fit in in Japan, hence his reward of a coaching position at the end of his playing days, which this card commemorates.

So this is kind of a cool card for that reason.  Its a bit hard to find, though it wasn't short printed it seems to be popular among Japanese collectors too since it doesn't show up in auctions as often as other cards from the same pink-bordered series.

Incidentally, there seems to be a huge error on Clete Boyer's Wikipedia page which I came across while writing this post.  It says there:

"he played professionally for the Taiyo Whales from 1972 to 1975.  His roommate was Sadaharu Oh."

Obviously Sadaharu Oh didn't play for the Whales in those (or any) years, so I have no idea where the author got that info.  There is a footnote to an obituary of Boyer as a supporting reference, but that says nothing about being Sadaharu Oh's roommate either (EDIT: Actually, it does contain a quote from Tony Kubek to that effect which I missed, see comments below).  Not sure what is going on there.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

1979's King Above Heaven

 In addition to Charlie Manuel, my recently acquired 1979 Calbee lot also contained this gem.

This card is awesome on many levels.  The player, whose name I'll get to shortly, has the perfect 70s tinted cop glasses/moustache combo I have ever seen on a card.  He kind of reminds me of Father Guido Sarducci, just with slightly shorter hair and in a baseball uniform.

The best part of this card though is the player's name. In 1979 Calbee didn't put any writing on the front of a lot of cards, making them look very similar to the 1978 Yamakatsu set.  On the back though you can find out the name of the player and this guy is:

王 天上, outfielder.


This took me aback a bit.  The guy looks like a foreigner.  And 王 天上 isn't really a Japanese name either, but it is written in kanji.  It means "King above heaven".  The 王 character is the same as Sadaharu Oh's last name, which is not commonly used in names in Japan.

Looking at the fine print lower down on the card clears up the mystery though.  This is Frank Ortenzio of course!  (Incidentally, the perfect name for a guy with the perfect 70s cop glasses/moustache combo too).

His kanji name 王 天上 is actually a play on his last name - it is read Ou Ten Jo, which if you say it fast sounds like "Ortenzio". He is probably the only foreign ballplayer to use a kanji name rather than having his regular name spelled out in katakana like everyone else.  According to his wikipedia entry this is also how he was referred to on scoreboards, and the team used it as his offical name.  

It also made its way onto at least one baseball card of him! Probably the only one showing a foreign player's name rendered in kanji (except of course for those from China or other countries where kanji are used).  

Ortenzio, who had breifly played in the majors for Kansas City, only played two years with the Nankai Hawks, 1979 and 1980. 1979 was his best season, hitting 23 home runs.

The card notes that he had another nickname, "Moose", which was the same as Katsuya Nomura (then playing with the Lions).  

There is an interesting recent interview with Ortenzio here, most of it is about his minor league career but about 1 hour into it he talks about his time in Japan.  Some interesting tidbits:

1. The team gave him his odd nickname and he went with it (also, he definitely doesn't speak Japanese, he calls katakana "katakani" which is kind of endearing)

2. He likes the movie Mr. Baseball a lot and thinks everything in it is accurate except the idea of dating the manager's daughter.

3. He felt awkward playing in Japan due to the conflicting expectations placed on foreigners to both help the team win but at the same time not play so well that you show up the Japanese players (which seems to be a common complaint).

4. One frustrating incident happened in a game in which he saved the team's 1 run lead in a game by throwing out a runner at home plate (from the outfield).  After the game he was called into the manager's office expecting to be complimented for saving the game, but was instead chewed out for throwing home instead of to the cutoff man.  This was one of the experiences that made him feel like he didn't want to play in Japan anymore.

5. His wife was injured in an accident and moved back to the US to get treatment with their young daughter, which was a big factor in him deciding to retire mid way through the 1980 season.

6. His interpreter cried when he announced his decision to leave Japan.

7. He appeared on the cover of a Japanese sports magazine eating sushi.  He doesn't like sushi.

8. He had converted to Christianity before going to Japan and became a minister after going back to the US.