Tuesday, March 2, 2021

1948 Baseball Source

These are ten cards from the 1948 set Engel calls "Baseball Source"  (JCM 103).  I think they are called that based on the text on top of the back, which means the same.  

Its a pretty colorful set with some simple artwork as you can see.  My cards aren't in the best of shape but its a pretty rare set (R3) so they are the best I've been able to find!

 The baseball source on the back is the floating head in the upper right hand corner who asks a trivia question, the answer to which is the player on the front of the card.  So for Toshio Kawanishi's card for example it asks who the Hawks fastest runner was on the back.

These cards were part of a small pile of menko I recently picked up and on sorting them out I discovered that Engel's checklist of the set is incomplete.  Three of my cards aren't on it: Hisanori Karita, Michio Nishizawa and Shigeru Chiba (all three of them Hall of Famers).  So you can add these to the 15 listed in the guide.

The key card to the set is Victor Starffin which, unfortunately, I don't have.  But with the addition of these three to the known checklist that means there are 18 cards in this set (possibly more), and with ten so far I'm more than halfway to completing it.  

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Only Copy of the Only Card of This Guy Ever Made


In my previous post I talked a bit about this pre war menko I recently acquired. I identified it as  Kenjiro Matsuki on the grounds that the card says "Matsuki" and he was the only player with that name which I could find from that era, and the the fact that he wore glasses and looks quite a bit like the player depicted in the image.

What confused me though was that the card also clearly says Waseda University (the kanji on the right hand side of it), which Kenjiro Matsuki never attended (he went to rival Meiji University). I chalked this up as an error.

Then Prestige Collectibles contacted me on Twitter and pointed out that there was actually another guy with the same last name, Yoshio Matsuki, who was recorded on Waseda's roster from the same period (these rosters aren't available online, he literally had to look that up in an old paper copy - old school research is the best!).  So in all likelihood the card was not an error, but simply featured a different Matsuki!

I appreciated the work that went into tracking him down since  unlike Kenjiro Matsuki (who went on to play professionally and ended up in the Hall of Fame) Yoshio Matsuki is a pretty anonymous guy.  He never played professionally and Google searches for anything about him in Japanese turn up zero information.  Other than the fact that he was a pitcher for Waseda University between 1929 and 1933 we don't know anything about this guy.  I can't even find out if he wore glasses!

In some ways this makes this card even neater - its got to be the only card of this guy in existence.  I mean that literally, there is just one known copy of this one card of this guy who we basically know nothing about!  This is not something you can say about many cards!

Also I like the fact that I have a 100% global monopoly on Yoshio Matsuki cards, so anyone trying to collect this guy has no choice but to go through me.  I'm both literally and figuratively holding all the cards in any negotiation with such person were they to ever exist.  Ha.  Makes me feel very special :)

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Pre War Hall of Famer Card Bottleneck


A couple of weeks ago I did a post about my big find of a menko from the 1931 Major League All Star tour of Japan.  In this post I'd like to introduce in more detail the other two big cards which I got in the same lot, which are pretty major finds on their own.

Both of these cards feature important pre-war Hall of Famers - Minoru Yamashita on the left, Kenjiro Matsuki on the right.  Nick, who has a really excellent player collection of Japanese Hall of Famers that he has detailed his collecting of here, commented on my earlier post  that the toughest hurdle for anyone trying to pursue such a collection is guys whose playing careers were entirely before the War.  For guys who started their careers before the war, then resumed them in the late 1940s (like Tadashi Wakabayashi) its not too hard to find cards of them since they appeared in menko sets from the late 40s and early 50s which, while not plentiful, can still be found.

With the exclusively pre-war guys though it becomes a big headache.  Famously Eiji Sawamura, Japan's most beloved pitcher from the early days and for whom NPB's version of the Cy Young Award is named, has no known surviving cards from his playing days (which were entirely before the War in which he died).  But even for the guys who have known cards they only exist in sets where maybe 4 or 5 copies of each card survive.  

None of the sets from the 1930s survive in any quantity today, so there is a huge bottleneck in terms of supply of cards of players who only played in that decade (or before).  I'm not sure why that is.  One explanation is that there simply weren't too many of them produced to begin with.  Cardboard menko were still relatively new back then and maybe they just didn't catch on much with kids.  Notable support for this explanation is to be found in the fact that there aren't any known sets from the mid to late 1930s, all of the known ones seem to have been made between 1929 and 1931, then there is a huge gap until after the War.  If the kids didn't buy them, then they wouldn't have made too many and given up on the idea.  

A second possibility is that lots of them were made, but most were destroyed during the firebombing of Japanese cities.  This explanation suffers from a couple of problems though.  One is that Japan wasn't anywhere near as urbanized in the 1940s as it is now, so most of the population back then lived in the countryside or smaller towns that weren't bombed.  So if the cards were roughly evenly distributed around the country according to where people lived, then only a fraction of them would have been destroyed in the bombing, unless they had only been distributed in major cities (which is possible, but not certain).  Another problem is that this explanation doesn't explain why only cards from prior to 1931 survive.

A third possibility is that a lot of cards were made, and few were destroyed by the bombing, but most were recycled.  During the War the government organized major recycling drives to suck up all the resources they could for the war effort.  This mainly focused on metal, but also included paper and cardboard.  Perhaps they were all turned into carboard boxes or something.  A problem with this explanation though is that lots of other things made of cardboard and paper (like books and postcards) survive from that era, so the recycling programs don't seem to have gobbled up too much (and menko are so small they likely wouldn' t have bothered). 

A fourth possibility is the American one - everyone's mom just threw them out!

A fifth possibility is that the government may have actively suppressed baseball menko specifically.  The main piece of evidence supporting this is the fact that the gap that exists in the baseball card archeological record between 1931 and 1947  is not replicated in the Sumo card record. This can be seen from the many examples of sumo menko sets from that time frame that SumoMenkoMan has recorded.  The gap in baseball menko notably coincides with the rise of nationalist fascism in Japan and the deterioration of its relations with the US which led to the war.  Being associated with America, the government may have discouraged the production of baseball menko while encouraging (or at least allowing) the production of sumo menko since that was a Japanese invention.  

A sixth possibility is that all five of these are correct to varying degrees and each of these factors contributed to the paucity of pre war cards.  I think this is the most likely explanation.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because one of these guys, Yamashita (above), had an exclusively pre-war playing career.  He was a star with Keio University in the Big Six league, where he led the league in batting average in 1929.  This card features him during his Keio days so probably dates to around then.  He played against both of the Major League All Star teams in 1931 and 1934, then joined the newly formed Hankyu team for the 1936 season.  He hit the first home run in Japanese professional baseball history that cleared an outfield fence in his first year.  He played with Hankyu until 1940, then played a single season with Nagoya in 1942, his last as a player.  He worked as an umpire after the War and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987.  

Yamashita only appears in a handful of extremely rare pre-war sets (JRM 43, JCM 46, JCM 60, JCM 144) all of which have a rarity factor of R4 or R5 (meaning fewer than 5 or 10 copies of each are known to exist) so he is one of the hardest hall of famers to land a card of.  

The other card features Kenjiro Matsuki, who was also a university star who went on to play  in the newly formed pro league from 1936.  His professional playing career with the Tigers was almost entirely pre-war, but he did very briefly appear in the 1950 and 1951 seasons (11 games combined between the two).  He doesn't appear in most of the post-war sets except one: the 1950 JCM 21 Babe Ruth set, which is a lucky break for Japanese Hall of Fame collectors.  This set is designed like playing cards and gets its name from the fact that it has a Babe Ruth card in it.  Its actually one of the easier to find sets from that era, with a sizeable number still existing as uncut sheets, so most people who want a Matsuki card can get one from that set without too much difficulty.  He also appears in some (though not all) of the same extremely rare pre-war sets that Yamashita does.  

This card of mine is really interesting as its actually an error card.  The kanji on the left definitely say "Matsuki" (松木)and the player image is definitely him (he was one of the first Japanese players to strike that signature look with glasses).  But the kanji on the right  (早大) denotes Waseda University.  Likewise the lettering on his uniform is a bit hard to read but seems consistent with "Waseda".  

The problem is though that Matsuki never played for Waseda.  He went to school at rival Meiji University and played for them in the Big Six league.  

So that is kind of neat!

Given the similarity in art style, size, players depicted and inks used I would say these are both from the same set, which is not yet catalogued and thus these seem to be the only known copies of each. They are a pretty big addition to my collection even though I'm not actively working on a Hall of Famer player collection.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Yoshio Tanaka has an Odd Story


I picked up a couple of cards of Yoshio Tanaka (from the 1958 JCM 54 set and  the1959 Yamakatsu set JCM 33g ).  Tanaka is an interesting figure in Japanese baseball history who I was surprised to find doesn't even have so much as an English language Wikipedia entry.  Which is odd because his story seems kind of really out there.  If you'll oblige me, I'd like to lay out the basics of what I've been able to glean about it from the Japanese internet here.  

He was an American, born and raised in Hawaii to parents who had immigrated from Hiroshima.  He played baseball in high school and at the University of Hawaii, but never professionally in the US.  After graduating from university he became a high school teacher in the early 1930s and it looked like he would just have a normal life as a high school teacher in Hawaii.

Then one day fellow Hawaiian and future Hall of Famer Tadashi Wakabayashi, who went to McKinley High School with Tanaka and had gone off to Japan to join the newly formed Tigers team in 1936, invited him to join  the team.  

According to his Japanese Wikipedia page there seems to be a bit of debate about what drove Tanaka to quit teaching and accept that invitation.  One  version of the story is that due to the deteriorating relationship between Japan and the US at the time Tanaka would have had to renounce his Japanese citizenship (he held dual nationality) in order to continue his teaching career, something his  mother was staunchly opposed to.  So he had to quit teaching to maintain his dual nationality, and playing baseball was just the job that came along.  The other version is that he wanted to marry a girl that his mother did not like at all and he came to Japan mainly so he could be with her, with baseball just being the gig that allowed him to do so.  

Either way, he came to Japan and joined the Tigers in 1937 and played with them through 1944.  

Talk about an awkward time for an American to be starting a career in Japan!  

Here is one thing I can't wrap my head around about his story.  His playing career ended in 1944 partly because the 1945 season was interrupted by the war and partly because he was drafted.  But what I can't figure out is into which country's military?  His Japanese Wikipedia page just says he was drafted into military service, so you'd assume that meant Japan's because he was in Japan at the time.  But this article from Monthly Hanshin Tigers says he was drafted into the American military!  

How was that even possible?  I figure this must be a mistake since it makes no sense at all, but still, wouldn't that have been a conversation stopper at the dinner table at the time if it really went down like that? (edited to note: per NPB Guys' comment below, he was definitely not drafted into the US military!)

His playing career wasn't really star calibre, though he was known for his nickname (Kaiser) and the fact that he was the only catcher in NPB until Atsuya Furuta came along decades later to wear glasses.

After the war he worked for the American military in Japan for a few years, before coming back to baseball in 1954 as a coach for the Tigers.

Then in 1958 he achieved his claim to fame: he became the Tigers manager and thus the first foreign manager in Japanese history.    He lasted two years in the role, in both of which the Tigers had winning records but did not make the Japan Series.  He was the manager of the Tigers during their legendary game against the Giants on June 25, 1959 which was the first ever attended by the Emperor (which his team lost).  

My two cards above come from his tenure as Tiger skipper.  He coached for a few other teams in the early 1960s and spent the rest of his life in Japan, passing away  in Tokyo in 1985.  

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Golden Days of Japanese PItching

I picked up another pile of late 50s menko the other day.  I got a little over 50 cards including the five above, which each feature one of Japan's greatest all time pitchers.  It got me thinking that Japan's amazing pitchers from that era tend to get a bit overlooked relative to the dominant hitters like Sadaharu Oh who are more well known.  

In the same way that guys in MLB in the 19th or early 20th century put up insane stats (511 career wins, 40 plus wins per season, etc), NPB had some insanely dominant pitchers back in the 50s and 60s.  Back then the best pitchers basically threw until their arms fell off (as they sort of still do, though to a much lesser extent).  This meant that a lot of them suffered career ending injuries early on, but also that for the few who survived they amassed some incredible career and single season records.

Check these guys out:

Masaaki Koyama won 323 games (3rd all time) in a career lasting from 1953 to 1973.  His career ERA was 2.45. He won 20 or more games 7 times, and won 30 in 1964.  In addition to being 3rd on the career wins list he is also 3rd on the career strike outs list.
Masaichi Kaneda won 400 games in his career, the most of any NPB pitcher.  He compiled an amazing 14 consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins, including a 31 win campaign in 1958.  His career ERA was 2.34. He is also the NPB career strikeout leader with 4,490.
Minoru Murayama compiled a 222-147 career record with a miniscule 2.09 career ERA in a relatively short career between 1959 and 1972.  He won three Sawamura awards, including in his 1959 rookie season when he led the league with a remarkable 1.19 ERA
Shigeru Sugishita was a remarkably dominant pitcher for a 6 year stretch, kind of like Sandy Koufax in the US.  From 1950 to 1955 inclusive he never won fewer than 23 games, and broke the 30 win mark twice in that stretch.  He won 215 games in his career and finished with a 2,23 ERA.  
Tetsuya Yoneda doesn't get anywhere near enough attention.  He won 350 games in his career between 1956 and 1977, almost entirely with Hankyu.  He had eight seasons with more than 20 wins.  He never won 30 games, but came close in 1968 with 29.  Like Kaneda (and in fact, most of these guys) he played for some weak teams so he also ended up accumulating some bad stats - 285 career losses (2nd to Kaneda), and due to his lengthy career he also holds the record for most hits and runs surrendered.  And while his 2.91 career ERA would be insanely impressive in MLB, its noticeably higher than the other four guys in this post.  

I don't think any contemporary pitchers will approach what these guys did in NPB, partly because of the emergence of 5 man rotations and relief pitchers, but  more so because the best pitchers in Japan get skimmed off the top and sent to MLB for a few of their prime years, which dents their ability to come close to these guys.  Hideo Nomo, Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda, Masahiro Tanaka and Daisuke Matsuzaka (to name a few) might have put up similar career numbers (albeit with higher career ERAs) had they stayed, but until NPB finds some way of retaining its top players rather than selling them off guys like that aren't going to stick around long enough.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Cards you can Wear


I think these are two of my favorite cards in my collection. They are from the 1949 set catalogued as JDM 2 in Engel and feature Hall of Famers Kaoru Betto and Hiroshi Oshita. 

They are die cut mask cards which kids could wear on their faces.  The eyes are perforated and can be punched out, and there are little notches on each side near the ears where you can attach a string.  These are a bit easier to see from the back:

The size of the cards are a bit bigger than standard so while these would be very small on me, they might fit OK onto the head of a five year old.

Mask cards were a thing for a brief time in Japanese baseball card history, 5 different sets including this one (which contains 8 cards total) are known and all were issued either in 1949 or 1950.  After that they seem to have fallen out of favor.

The artwork on the cards from this set in particular is quite impressive, the images are much more realistic than what you find on any menko cards issued from that era.  

Pretty much all of the mask cards are quite rare.  This set is listed as R3 (fewer than 100 copies known) while some of the others are harder still.  

This might relate either to them being less popular among kids, or them being very popular among kids but also very fragile for a mask (the thickness of these is about the same as a regular baseball card).  I can't imagine these would have lasted long if a kid actually put them on.

If you think about it though baseball players are kind of an odd choice for a mask.  Watching my own kids they love to dress up in costumes and pretend to be various characters (characters from the Super Mario universe are their favorites these days).  When they do so they like to engage in play that involves doing whatever those characters do.  

My kids aren't really into baseball, but if they were I couldn't see them putting player masks to the same use.  If they want to pretend to be a baseball player, they'll do that by playing baseball.  If they are playing baseball, a mask like this is going to be a major hindrance.  The two activities are mutually incompatible and thus the kids would have little use for these.  

So while not great as a toy from a kid's perspective, they are SUPER AWESOME AMAZING from the perspective of a baseball card collector 70 years after they were made.  

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Flying Bats

I have a few cards from the 1950 Kagome "Flying Bats" set (JCM 5).  It is so called thanks to the artwork on the card backs:

I'm not really sure where the idea to put wings on the bats came from, but for Japan its not too odd a thing to find.

The cards are kind of neat to look at.  They feature bright colors yet have an overall dark look thanks to the thick outlines used by the artist.  They also have some odd spellings for player names.  The guy named "ZA" for example is Atsuhi Aramaki. I have no idea why they call him Za.

This set is notable for featuring the rookie card of Masaichi Kaneda, probably Japan's all time greatest pitcher with 400 career wins.  I haven't been able to add that one to my collection yet though.  Its on the top of my want list though.  Unlike other big names like Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh, who had dozens of rookie cards, Kaneda didn't appear on many in his rookie season so this is probably his "key" card out there.