Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Cool Shigeru Mizuhara Find

 The above card features Hall of Famer Shigeru Mizuhara from the 1930 JRM 42 Menko set.

This is the second card I have from that set, after my Saburo Miyatake which I wrote about a few weeks back.  Its an extremely rare set, one of the first baseball menko card sets ever made in Japan, and Engel gives it a rarity factor of R5 (less than 5 copies of each card known to exist).

As with my Miyatake, this Mizuhara seems to have a couple of variations.  The one I have features a "K" (for Keio University, where he played at the time) against an orange stripe, with a red background on the top and bottom.

In Engel though they have a picture of the same card which is identical except that it has a solid red background.

Looking on Prestige they've auctioned off two copies of the card before. One which sold in 2016 has the solid red background, and another which sold in 2018 which has the orange stripe like mine.  According to their listings there were only 3 copies of the card known, now there are four!

Mizuhara is a pretty interesting guy (who, strangely, doesn't even have an English wikipedia page).  He was a star pitcher for Keio University in the late 1920s. He also played against the MLB all stars that toured Japan in 1931 and 1934, then joined the Giants, as a third baseman, in 1936 and became one of the first star players in Japanese pro baseball.

The war disrupted his career more than most, he went to fight as a member of the Japanese Imperial Army on the Asian mainland after the 1942 season (in which he won the League MVP award but it seems wasn't able to actually receive it) where he was later captured by the Soviet army and ended up spending several years as a prisoner in Siberia.  He didn't return to Japan until 1949 by which time he was too old to resume his career.  The following year though he took over as manager of the Yomiuri Giants and led the team throughout the entire decade, winning four pennants and becoming the first pro manager of Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima towards the end of his tenure.  He had later stints as manager of the Flyers and Dragons before retiring in 1971 with 1586 career victories.  He was selected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 and passed away in 1982.

One interesting thing I'm interested in researching is that he was married to Junko Matsui, who was a very famous movie actress from the 1930s.  Menko makers also used to put out a lot of sets featuring film stars and I'm curious if there are any of her (haven't been able to find any so far, but haven't looked much either, non-sports menko are basically all completely uncatalogued).  It would be kind of neat if both husband and wife appeared on cards from this vintage!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

OK, I'll Bite

This is actually a good card. Someday in the future internet archeologists will no doubt be puzzled by the spike in interest in 1988 Score Phil Niekro cards that coincided with the Coronavirus pandemic, which they'll trace to here.

I guess posting 88 Score Niekros is becoming for baseball card bloggers cooped up at home what singing from the balconies is for Italians under lockdown.

Glad to have my blog play its part in it..

Monday, March 30, 2020

Tokyo in Better Times

 It looks like things are about to get bad in Tokyo.  We've been lucky so far in Japan, despite being one of the first countries outside of China to get the virus we haven't seen the kind of disaster that's happening in Italy, Spain, Iran or the US yet.  But cases have started to spike in Tokyo (suspiciously mere hours after they announced the postponement of the Olympics, leading everyone to suspect the government was massaging the numbers until then) and it looks like our luck might be running out.  And as Tokyo goes so goes the entire country

I picked up a really neat set of cards featuring scenes from around that city ("Famous scenes of Tokyo") the other day which I thought I'd share.

The set comes in a cute little matchbox with a color photo of the Imperial palace.  Open it up and a bunch of black and white photo cards (roughly the size of 1951 Bowman cards) spill out.

 Its got a lot of great vintage images of the city, including Korakuen Stadium!

For train buffs like  me its also cool that it has cards of Tokyo Station, Ueno Station and the Tokyo Subway.

This card here allows me to date the set as having been released sometime between 1953 and 1958.

This is not Tokyo Tower, but its predecessor "Television Tower".  This is kind of an interesting inclusion in the set because hardly anybody in Tokyo would know what this is today.  It was Tokyo's first TV tower built after the war, completed in 1953, and was a very famous landmark in the city for a very short time.  It had an elevator to a viewing platform at 154 metres high, the highest in the city.  In 1958 however the much taller and more famous Tokyo Tower, which still exists, was completed and replaced this one.  Based on this, the set must have been released somewhere in that 1953-1958 period.

The backs of the cards have little write ups (in Japanese) about each of the places on the front.  Its been kind of nice flipping through them and looking at Tokyo in the 50s, happier times!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Menko lots are fun.

I picked up the above lot of vintage menko for a whopping 500 Yen (about 5$ US) a couple of days ago.  These are almost all cards from the early 50s, though the one on the lower right corner might be pre-war (it is uncatalogued, featuring a generic player from Meiji University).

The condition on most of these is pretty low, which is not unusual for old menko.  But its great to be able to sort through stuff like this.

My purchase of the lot was mainly driven by the below card featuring Futoshi Nakanishifrom the 1960 JRM 53 set.  Just three weeks ago I had written about how I just needed this card to finish this baby off and here it is!   This is no small feat since there are only about 10 copies of this card known to exist in the hobby and its not the sort of thing you would expect to find in a lot where you paid about 30 cents per card.

 I love it when I can complete a set on the cheap!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

More Morinagas! With Ghosts.

Fortunately my recent decision to put a 1000 Yen cap on my baseball card purchases has not actually prevented me from buying stuff.  Yesterday's mail included two cards from the 1964 Morinaga Top Star set which, it seems, I have decided to try to complete.

Its a 12 card set and I already had two of them, so now I'm up to four!  These set me back 500 Yen each, so combined they just squeaked under my self-imposed spending limit!

And the card on the left is Shigeo Nagashima , an A-list Hall of Famer if there ever was one, so it was a good purchase even though both are in a bit lower condition than my previous two.  The one on the right is Isao Shibata.

One odd thing I noticed is that the cards are slightly different color, the Nagashima card is a lot darker than the Shibata.  This is noticable on the border on the card fronts and especially on the card backs.  This isn't the result of anything getting spilled on the Nagashima, I think they've just aged differently.

A much weirder and spookier thing I noticed is that if you look in the background of the Shibata card, there seems to be a ghost sitting in the stands:

I'm pretty sure this was an actual person sitting there which for some reason Morinaga decided to obscure.  They chose a very odd way of doing so, the dots they use really do make it look like a ghostly apparition, or some sort of alien super hero.

The Nagashima card also has a couple of spots that look like this, but its not as pronounced. I'm going to give my other Morinagas a check to see if they have ghosts too.

While the addition of Nagashima to the cards of Sadaharu Oh and Katsuya Nomura which I already had gives me most of the key stars in the set, according to Engel there are two short printed cards (Shigeru Mizuhara and Yasumitsu Toyoda) which are way harder to find than the rest and way more expensive (like 300$ expensive).  So for the time being I might satisfy myself with trying to complete the 10 cards of the set that weren't short printed!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Baseball Card Collecting in the Age of the Coronavirus

So I picked up my first bag of 2020 Calbee chips yesterday.  Normally this is my favorite time of the year: the first bags of Calbee chips signify the start of spring and the new baseball season.

This year.....yeah, they are coming out in the middle of a global pandemic that is screwing the world over in ways we couldn't have imagined just a couple months back.  So its a bit of a downer this year.

But life goes on and I am quite lucky that I'm safe and healthy and haven't lost my job (knock on wood).  

I've been thinking a bit about how this pandemic is going to affect the hobby.  It could be either beneficial or disastrous for it, or a bit of both depending on your perspective.  

On the one hand, a lot of people are  under some form of lockdown and most of those who aren't are (I hope) at least doing their best to maintain social distance from others.  Fortunately neither of these are incompatible with our hobby.  Its not like competitive arm wrestling where we really have to stop what we are doing right now.  In fact, people having a lot of time at home is a positive boon to hobbies like ours since "time alone to sort cards" is an essential element of it.  

There is of course also a social element to it, but that doesn't necessarily require being in the same room with people.

So the hobby is good to go.

But then there is the other thing.  The scary virus and the chaos that it is raining down on the global economy and shutting down businesses left right and center.  

This is either going to expose our hobby's Achilles Heel and destroy it, or it is going to save it from the problems that currently plague it and make it even better than before (once the big scary virus has passed, of course).

Cards cost money.  People are going to have way less of that this summer than they did last.  People are losing jobs or having hours cut, and their retirement funds are being decimated by the stock market collapse.  Cards are also not toilet paper that people will irrationally throw what money the have remaining at because, apparently, in times of crisis we quite literally prioritize our own asses above everything else.

So a lot of collectors aren't going to have money to spend in the near future, which will likely lead to a sharp drop in demand.  At the same time, people are going to need more cash and those who have collections are going to be very tempted (or perhaps forced) to sell them, which may lead to an increase in supply.  If this happens I don't see any way that such a situation will not lead to a drastic decline in card values.  

From my own perspective, I'm putting a halt to all card purchases over 1000 Yen (about 8$) for the foreseeable future.  I'm by no means a big spender, but I do tend to buy cards in lots that usually sell for more than that, so this means I'll be doing way less card shopping.  And, like I said, I still have a job and am not in dire straits right now.  But the uncertainty surrounding all of this and the possibility that I might end up in that situation down the road is forcing me to re-arrange priorities rapidly, with card spending going way to the bottom of the list.  I suspect a lot of people are in the same boat right now.

If I'm right on that it means the hobby is going to be starved of cash in the very near future, something likely exacerbated by the fact that the baseball seasons (both MLB and NPB) are likely to be cancelled, which can only further dampen interest.

Is this a bad thing though?  I mean, if you've got a lot of money invested in cards then yeah I guess it would look like a really bad thing.  I wouldn't put myself in that category, but I do have a few valuable cards around that I'm realizing are probably going to be worth a fraction of what they are worth now in a few months.  And that is kind of a bummer.  And if you make a living selling cards this has to be extremely worrying and I really have a lot of sympathy for those who do right now.

But one could also argue, and a lot of people have been arguing for years, that the money has ruined the hobby in so many ways that scaring it off isn't a bad idea.

Card trimmers no longer able to make a living out of scamming people?  Nobody caring about the difference between a PSA 9 and a PSA 10 anymore?  Maybe even PSA going bankrupt?  The schadenfreude associated with seeing millionaires selling off their vanity collections and only getting a fraction of what they paid for them?  There are definitely a lot of people out there who would welcome these types of things.

This isn't necessarily to say those would be entirely good outcomes.  Nobody would miss the card trimmers, but they are really only a few bad eggs out there and a lot of good people would be hurt in the process.  And PSA for all its faults (of which there are many) also has a useful function to play.  

We are in interesting times now and nobody has a crystal ball that allows them to see into the future, but I haven't seen any convincing arguments put forth to tell me that card values aren't about to collapse, barring some miracle cure coming around soon.  The only ones I've seen are those on Net54 watching current auction prices which don't seem to have been affected yet.  Which is interesting, but it only tells us where the hobby is at now, not where it is going to be at when the macro economic consequences of this crisis start hitting home in the next couple of months.

Anyway....oh shit, look at that.  This was supposed to be a post about my new bag of Calbee potato chips cards but it got sidetracked a bit there into a big discussion about the Coronavirus.  Anyway, returning to my bag of potato chip cards, I got these two
So basically the 2020 Calbee baseball cards look exactly the same as every set they've issued for the past twenty years, no surprises.  The card on the right is from a "The Record" subset and thus deviates from the stupid Calbee photography rules by giving us a picture of Seichi Uchikawa fielding rather than batting.  Looking at the regular card of Hisayoshi Chono on the left though it seems like the stupid rules are still in effect for them!

I might actually try to buy a few bags of these this year and return to the simple roots of collecting a set pack by pack.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Isao Harimoto Got This

 Well that escalated quickly.  Looks like MLB is postponing its season too along with every other major sport.  This virus is everywhere now.  Its dangerous and it sucks.

In the face of such trying times, we need an inspiring story.  And I think Isao Harimoto is the guy to deliver it.

I've read a lot of stories about athletes overcoming hardship to achieve greatness, but none of them - and I mean ZERO of them - come close to matching Harimoto's.  He really deserves to be mentioned a lot more in lists of "greatest baseball players of all time" than he does (which now is basically never).

Just to cover the basics of his career, he is Japan's all time hit leader with 3,085, the only member of the 3,000 hit club here (not counting Ichiro who got most of his in MLB).  He was an 18 time all star, a seven time batting champion, a Pacific League MVP.  He set the single season record for batting average with a .383 mark in 1970 (later broken by Randy Bass).

Insanely, in addition to being #1 on the hits leaders board, he is also #7 in career home runs with 504.  At the time he retired in 1981 he ranked #3.

Oh and he also stole over 300 bases.

Its a bit like having Pete Rose and Willie Mays combined into one player. And then some.
But none of that is what makes Isao Harimoto impressive. Its what he went through to get there that is.  The guy’s story is a narrative of survival in the face of adversity that would have literally killed most mortals.  

Harimoto’s story begins, at least for the purposes of this post, when he was four years old.  He was sitting on a riverbank with friends one day roasting sweet potatoes over a fire when suddenly a truck backed into him, forcing his hand into the fire.  The driver drove off and the police refused to investigate because he was Korean (his parents had moved to Japan in 1940, the year he was born).  It severely burned his fingers and left his right hand permanently disfigured, little more than a claw that he would never be able to use again.

So that is why he became a lefty.

Bad as that was, it wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to him before his sixth birthday.  

The following August when he was five years old he was sitting at home one afternoon when suddenly there was a huge flash of light and a loud roar.  Before he knew it his mother, covered in blood and broken glass, was using her body to shield him and his little sister.  

The flash and roar were caused by the world’s first wartime use of an atomic bomb.  Harimoto was living in Hiroshima, about 2.3 km from the hypocenter of the blast.

He survived.  But his 12 year old sister was in another part of town when it struck.  As Harimoto later recalled:

My older brother and others went to look for her and they carried her back on a stretcher. She was suffering terrible burns, on her face, too. I was shocked to see a human being, the sister I so admired, transformed into such a state. I remember bringing charred grapes to her mouth. I have no idea how many days passed after that, but one day I heard my mother crying and I knew my sister was dead.

A week later the war was over.  The Harimoto family was homeless, living under a bridge, thanks to the bomb.  His father returned to Korea to look for work and died shortly thereafter, Harimoto never saw him again.  His mother wanted to take the family back to her family in Korea, but the ship that would have taken them sank.

So there he was.  Homeless, with a crippled hand and his father and sister dead.  He was just 5 years old.

His mother set up a food stand and worked every hour of the day to feed her three surviving children and get them into a one room apartment that he would grow up in, impoverished.  

He started elementary school. He was a wild kid, but insanely tough.  In the fifth grade an older boy invited him to play baseball, despite his crippled hand.  In his words:

I loved it and I begged him to keep letting me play. Although I had had surgery on my right hand, I still didnt have complete control over my fingers and so I couldnt throw the ball so far. But I practiced throwing against a wall and I was able to completely alter myself into a left-handed pitcher and hitter.


He dreamed of playing in the high school baseball tournament, but he always got into trouble.  He got into a high school with a strong team that actually made the tournament, but he was prevented from playing after getting into a fight, something which he seems to have done a lot of in his youth.

He was by that time one of the best high school players in the country and, despite his wildness he signed his first professional contract right out of high school with the Toei Flyers, who he joined in 1959. He gave half of his earnings in his first season to his brother to build a house for their mother. He played until 1981, making him one of the few players who played in four different decades.

Through his entire pro career he had to deal with numerous fears that only he knew.  He had to constantly hold and swing a bat to prevent his disabled hand from ending his career, something he did every day for his 23 years in NPB.  He also registered as a Hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) and lived with the fear that every one of them lived with: that cancer would take them.  Fortunately it didn’t, he is still with us today.

Harimoto is the only professional baseball player in history to have survived an atomic bomb blast.  After his sister died, his mother destroyed all photos of her since the memory was to painful. In 2014 a classmate of hers found a photo of her and gave it to Harimoto, the first time in 69 years he was able to see her face.  He keeps it in his room next to a photo of their mother who died in 1985, the two facing each other. 

So anyway, that is Isao Harimoto.  Let that story put into perspective today's events, if that crippled, homeless, fatherless five year old kid who literally had an atomic bomb dropped on him could overcome all that to become arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, we can get through this.

Stay safe!