Thursday, July 9, 2020

Shigeo Nagashima Menko Find

 I picked up this menko recently.  Its not in the best of shape but it features Giants star Shigeo Nagashima (the centering isn't as bad as it looks, my scanner cut off the left edge for some reason).

The card is a bit of a mystery to me.  I haven't been able to find a set that looks like this in Engel.  The back has a picture of a gun wielding hero, with "General" written on it, a rock/paper/scissors symbol and a long menko number.  I've never seen baseball menko with the same back:

I bought it from a seller as a single along with menko from two other sets (JCM 138 and 139) which were issued in 1960 and 1962.  The size and general look and feel of this card is very similar to the cards from those sets, and those years fall in the right ballpark given how young Nagashima looks on this one.  So I guess this is an uncatalogued early 60s menko of his. It might come from a set that featured non-sports subjects as well, the seller seemed to have a big pile of random menko and only the three that I bought featured baseball players.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Mister Whales

 Another card I recently picked up (in the same transaction that got me the cards in my previous post) is this one featuring Taiyo Whales star Makoto Matsubara from the 1973 Calbee set.

Matsubara was a long time star for the Whales (predecessor to today's Baystars), playing nineteen seasons with them between 1962 and 1980 before a swan song with the Giants in 1981.

He was an eleven time all star and led the league in hits twice (1974 and 1978).  He could hit for both average and power, ending his career in both the 2,000 hit club and the 300 home run club.  For reasons that I do not understand at all, despite his impressive career resume he still isn't in the Hall of Fame (though his 2,000 hits did earn him membership in the Meikyukai).

The title on the back of this card (198 in the set) refers to him as "Mister Whales", and the text describes in general terms why he is so known (in short: he is a good player, he is a male, and he plays for the Whales).  It also notes that he is a 10 million Yen player, which would likely have made him one of the better paid players in NPB at that time.

I like this card a lot.  I believe the picture came from Kawasaki Stadium, which was home to the Whales back in the 70s.  It was torn down in 1998 and a soccer field now occupies the property.  I love the way he is framed in the photo with the stands adorned with 1970s advertisements all over them in the background.

Monday, July 6, 2020

1973 Calbee Fierce Fight Series is Awesome

 There is a really neat series of cards from the 1973 Calbee set that I've long been fascinated by.  Its from the "Nessen" (fierce fight or maybe "tight game") series and it depicts scenes from a game played on October 20, 1973 between the Chunichi Dragons and the Hanshin Tigers.  I'm not sure how big that series is but it comes towards the end of the set in cards numbered in the 300s.  The cards depicting that game in particular seem to run from 328 to 335.

They fortunately aren't from the hyper rare thousand dollar a pop short printed series, but these cards are still pretty hard to find and usually run about 20$ each when they show up.  I was able to win two of them - card 330 and 332 - in an auction the other day for about 8$ each which was a really good deal.
 Card 332, pictured at the top of this post, features Dragons star Kenichi Yazawa in the foreground. With runners on second and third, he has just connected off of Tigers pitcher Yutaka Enatsu for a base hit to right field which drove both runners in and put the Tigers in the lead (in the 3rd inning).

The other card (330) pictured below also shows Yazawa, only this time in the first inning.  He was a runner on first base when Jimmy Williams got a base hit to center field.  Yazawa tried to make third on the play and as you can see, he didn't quite beat the tag!

The Dragons nonetheless went on to win the game 4-2.

I love the way these cards let you follow the play by play action.  The card sandwiched between these two (331) I unfortunately don't have, but I looked it up and found that it features Tigers pitcher Yutaka Enatsu  conferring with catcher Koichiro Tabuchi after getting Yazawa out at third.
I really want to get the rest of the cards from this specific 8 card run, its very neat to be able to follow a game in progress on baseball cards, another way in which these 1970s Calbee sets were light years ahead of their time.  This would have been a very important game too, the Dragons, Tigers and Giants were caught in a very fierce pennant race and this was (I think) the last game between the Tigers and Dragons.  In the end the Giants won the pennant with a razor thin 0.5 game lead over the Tigers and 1.5 game lead over the Dragons!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

A Checklist for the Yamakatsu Blue Train Set

A couple of years ago I picked up an unopened box of Yamakatsu Blue Train Cards from the 1970s. I love trains, especially in Japan where pretty much every trip I've taken for the past 20 years has been by train.

I didn't open that box, but last week I found another one for a good price and decided to crack it open.  There is basically zero information about this set on the internet - no checklist, no year of release no nothing (including stuff in Japanese) so I thought doing so might provide a good opportunity to fill that void.  So this will be my first box-break post. And unlike most box breaks this one will serve the purpose of actually figuring out a bit more about what is in this set.

To begin, this is what the box looks like:
 Open it up and you've got 30 packs of cards with 2 cards per pack for 60 total.
 There are 3 prizes that also come with the box.  One is a little album that can hold 14 cards.  The other two are giant erasers shaped like trains.  There are 3 cards randomly inserted in packs which have a little red stamp on the back entitling anyone who pulls them to claim one of these prizes from the store where they bought them.
Then comes the fun part, opening the packs! As an added service to posterity, I have decided not to video myself opening the packs and will simply cut to the chase.

I got 60 cards, consisting of 37 different cards and 23 doubles. Since no checklist exists I have no idea how close this gets me to the set, but at least we now know there are no fewer than 37 cards in the set.

These are the cards I got:

This is what the backs of some of the cards look like (note the one in the lower right, which has the red prize stamp on it):

These are not just cards of random passenger trains.  All of them are long distance sleeper trains (called "Blue Trains" since the first one was Blue, but over the years they came in a variety of colors).  These trains have since been replaced by the Shinkansen, the last of them retired in 2015, but in the late 1970s when the Shinkansen network was a lot more limited they were at the peak of their popularity.  Each card depicts a different train which ran a different route and the back features each trains logo (which appears on a plate on the front of the engine).  Some train lines appear on more than one card (three of the ones I got appear on two different cards).  The cards aren't numbered but I think it makes sense to create a checklist based on the train names, so here goes in alphabetical order

Kinboshi (2)
Myoujou (2)
Sakura (2)

(the ones with a (2) after the name appear on two cards with different photos)

I really like these cards, the photography on some of them is really great and makes me want to go on a train trip.

I really wish there were more sets out there like this from that period.  As I said above, these are just long distance sleeper trains, which represent a tiny fraction of the overall variety of passenger trains in Japan.  There were a lot (and still are a lot) of local commuter trains done up in very vibrant colors which would have looked great on cards, but it seems such cards were never produced.

Anyway, there you go internet, your first stab at a checklist for the Yamakatsu Blue Train set.  I might try to pick up another box if I can find one cheap and break it open to see if I get closer to a set.  I'll update this checklist if I do!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Roberto Barbon: The Baseball Pioneer Who Accidentally Pissed off the Wrong Guy to be Pissing Off

Roberto Barbon appears in a lot of menko sets from the late 50s and early 60s and I'd like to write a bit about him because he has an interesting story.  

His most famous card unfortunately is this one below from the 1958 Doyusha set (JCM 30a), which I don't have but Dave wrote about it a couple of years ago and I'm borrowing his picture of it:

I feel bad that Barbon's most valuable card doesn't even feature him (that's Jackie Robinson if you haven't guessed, the menko makers accidentally used a photo of him).  

There is a certain irony in this unintentional slight since Barbon has a Jackie Robinson type story as a pioneering trailblazer.  He was the first Latino player to break into NPB. I'm not sure how he ended up here, but its been mentioned that Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, had something to do with it.   He arrived in Japan in 1955 after briefly playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers minor league system and was famously shocked to find players doing training in the snow in February (being from Cuba he had never seen the stuff before).

He had a breakout year, leading the league in hits, runs and triples in his rookie campaign.  He went on to have a very productive 11 year career in which he stole over 300 bases, with all but his final season being played with Hankyu.  

My favorite anecdote about him came from early in his Hankyu days, when he accidentally pissed off a famous pro wrestler named Rikidozan, a guy with a legendary temper:

In a conversation Barbon had with a sports reporter, he casually commented that Rikidozan's matches appeared to be fixed (using the term "yaocho" which is used to describe match fixing in sports, especially sumo).  This was then reported in the press the next day and Rikidozan is said to have exploded in anger when he read it.  Years later Barbon would recall that he was "afraid to go to Tokyo" as a result.  Barbon wrote a letter of apology which seemed to satisfy Rikidozan.

Rikidozan ended up being fatally stabbed in a bar fight with Yakuza member Katsushi Murata not long after, but fortunately Barbon's story has a much happier ending.  In fact, his story isn't over.  After retiring as a player in 1965 he decided to settle in Japan.  Initially he worked at a friend's restaurant called Capone in Kobe, but he quickly returned to baseball, first as a coach for the Braves and later as an interpreter when Roberto Marcano joined the Braves in 1975.  As of 2018 (the most recent info I could find) he was still  working for the same team, today known as the Orix Buffaloes.

This is him at a fan event alongside Boomer Wells in 2012. His Japanese is really good (well he's lived here longer than I've been alive so I suppose that goes without saying):
So anyway, next time you fish a card of Roberto Barbon out of a pile of Menko, know that 60 years later he is still here in Japan, working for the team that brought him over!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

We need to have a word about Eiji Bandou

If you collect old Japanese baseball cards from the 60s you've probably got a fair number of cards of Eiji Bandou in your collection.  Bandou isn't a hall of famer and isn't really a hall of very-gooder either.  In an eleven year career with the Dragons from 1959 to 1969 he compiled a respectable 77-65 record and was a solid starter for a few years.  He never led the league in anything.  His best season was in 1967 when he went 14-6 with a 2.55 ERA and made the All Star team.

If you live outside of Japan you probably have no idea who this guy is and based on his career and his almost empty English Wikipedia page you'd probably consider him a common card.

But if you live in Japan, you know this guy probably as well as you know Sadaharu Oh.  Actually, probably better than Oh.  He is a household name whose face is instantly recognizable to almost everyone in the country.

If you take a look at almost any baseball card he appeared on, he has a huge smile on his face (like he does on the above, his rookie card from the 1959 Marukami JCM 31c Type 1 set).  I don't think I've ever seen a card of him without that huge smile.

He was able to parlay that smile into a post-retirement career as a TV celebrity ("talento").  Despite his modest pro-career, he was quite famous in Japan from his high school days.  In 1958 he set a record at the Koshien tournament by striking out 83 batters, a record which still stands and which made him a household name (high school baseball is big here, like college basketball in the US). This helped him break into showbiz after hanging up his spikes.

Over the years - until 2012 -  he was the host or appeared in dozens of variety shows and TV dramas.  He was the host of Sekai Fushigi Hakken (Discover the World's Mysteries), a weekly program that debuted in 1986, for more than 25 years. It is hard to under-state how prevalent he was on TV here, his Japanese Wikipedia page lists dozens of TV shows that he was a regular on, which is insane. Japanese TV isn't like American TV, most of the programming consists of a mix of variety or quasi-reality  programming in which panels of random famous people sit and make amusing comments about whatever the topic of the show is.  On pretty much any day of the week between the 1980s and 2012, you were likely to find Bandou either hosting or sitting on the panel of one of those types of shows (which usually have nothing to do with baseball).  No other ballplayer has come close to matching him as a TV star.

Then 2012 happened.  He was appearing on so many TV shows and splitting his time between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka as he rushed between the cities to appear in various local programs that he....uh.....forgot to pay his taxes.  Or something like that - the TLDR version is that the Nagoya tax office (his main residence is here) found that he had failed to declare about 75 million Yen in income.

He didn't go to jail or anything, but this was a big scandal.  This was made all the bigger by the fact that the...uh...PR posters used by the tax authorities to encourage people to go to the tax office to file their tax forms featured....uh.....a familiar smiling face:

Ha!  Irony, gotta love it.  (Incidentally these posters are kind of collector's items now, you can buy them on Yahoo Auctions).

This put a pretty huge dent in his TV career as most of the shows he was on dumped him.  In a familiar pattern that most celebrity scandals in Japan follow however, after about a year in exile it was deemed that he had showed proper contrition and was allowed back into the celebrity TV circuit, though he isn't as dominant as he was previously (of course he's also getting old, he turned 80 this year).

As part of his comeback he started a YouTube channel where he does stuff like have a pitching contest with a woman about 50 years younger than him:
He seems to have moved on from that though as the last upload was in 2017.  At any rate, you can see what he looks like now in it!

So anyway, next time you are flipping through a stack of menkos from the 60s, take a look out for that smiling face as its probably the most famous one in the bunch!

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Mean Managers Card

I like multi player cards that have a theme which wasn't intended at the time they were made. This is from the 1959 Marusho "Two Bat" set (JCM 38b), so named because of the two bats on the back.  This specific card I like to call the "mean managers" card for reasons I'll get into below (but as you can probably infer without much difficulty, its because both players depicted on it became mean mangers later in their careers).
This is actually a really rare set, Engel lists it as R4, meaning fewer than 10 copies of each card in it is known to exist.  I have only 3 cards from it, this is the only one featuring any Hall of Famers.

The two players are Hall of Famers Tetsuharu Kawakami and Tatsuro Hirooka.  Kawakami in particular is very famous for his playing days, he was the first Japanese player to collect 2,000 hits and is known as the "god of batting".  He was also the manager of the Giants from 1961 to 1974 which included an incredible 9 year run of consecutive Japan Series titles.

Kawakami had a reputation as a fiercely competitive manager who really drove his players.  He is the prototypical "mean manager" in Japan who runs a strict ship with lots of rules and intense training regimens and who demands total obedience from his players.

A few years after this card came out, in 1964, Kawakami was managing the Giants and Hirooka had become a player-coach.  The two didn't really get along well, Hirooka had a temper that led him to sometimes rebelling against Kawakami.  In one incident while Hirooka was at bat and Shigeo Nagashima was on third, Nagashima tried unsuccessfully to steal home.  Hirooka viewed this as a sign that Kawakami had no faith in his ability as a hitter and had a violent outburst when he returned to the bench, needing to be restrained by other coaches.  Kawakami wanted to trade Hirooka following this, but Hirooka appealed directly to Giants owner Matsutaro Shoriki, who vetoed Kawakami.  Kawakami nonetheless played Hirooka less the next year and by 1966 his playing days were over.

Their animosity carried over after Hirooka's retirement when he started working as a sports reporter.  He followed the Giants to Spring Trainging at Dodgers Town in Vero Beach Florida, but Kawakami refused to give him any access, and ordered every player on the team to not say a single word to him!

Ironically despite their differences, Hirooka would later go on to be a manager who is often cited as closely fitting Kawakami's disciplinarian mold.  From 1976 to 1979 he managed the Yakult Swallows, during which he led them to a Japan Series Title in 1978.  If you ever read Robert Whiting's You Gotta Have Wa (which you should), Hirooka is cast as the villain in one chapter focusing on Charlie Manuel's time with the Swallows under Hirooka.  Hirooka, who instituted strict rules on player behavior, didn't get along with Manuel and constantly berated him during his tenure, then traded him to the Buffaloes despite Manuel being the team's top hitter.  This contributed to a first-to-worst decline for the Swallows from 1978-1979 and Hirooka's own departure.

After that he famously built the dominant Seibu Lions team of the 1980s.  His strict regimen there is summarized by Whiting who described his "autumn camp" with the Lions thus:

"Lasting 59 days, from season's end to late December (a time when most American ballplayers are relaxing in front of television), it consisted of nine hours of daily drills, including 600 swings a day for each batter, 430 pitches a day for each pitcher, as well as swimming and aikido (martial arts) sessions. Last winter, he sent the Lions' star shortstop to any icy mountain river, hoping an act of self-immersion would strengthen the player's spirit and help make him a better leader." 

Hirooka would lead Seibu to three first place finishes in his four years as manager, but would be kind of ousted as manager following the 1985 season (in which Seibu finished first, but lost the Japan Series) after a confrontation with the team owner.  He wanted more control over the team and offered to resign as an apparent bargaining ploy, but his offer was unexpectedly immediately accepted.  Thus ended his career as a field manager, though he would later serve as GM for the Marines and again serve as a sort of minor villain in a  Whiting article about Bobby Valentine's tenure there.

So this is basically a card featuring two people who I would never in a million years want to work for. Which is kind of neat.