Collecting Japanese Baseball Cards
Potato Chips, Nomo-Mania, Ichiro, and Ohtani
by Kevin Glew
It was Nomo-mania in 1995.
In that season, Japanese right-hander Hideo Nomo was baffling big-league hitters with his tornado delivery and nasty forkball, and his starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers became can't-miss events that were broadcast in Japan.
Nomo was not the first Japanese player to compete in the major leagues, but he was the first to come to the U.S. and dominate.
Gary Engel, the first American dealer to specialize in Japanese cards, says Nomo-mania definitely spurred wider interest in Japanese cards in the United States. And while the 6-foot-3 right-hander's American rookie cards were unveiled that year, Nomo had been featured on Japanese cards dating back to the 1990 Takara and 1991 BBM and Calbee sets.
Engel, who is also the author of the Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide, had purchased some 1991 BBM factory sets when they came out, but there had been little demand for them.
"By 1995, most of the  factory sets were unsold," he said. "And then, what we couldn't sell for $15 in 1991, we were able to sell for $100 or more in 1995."
David Saba, who collects graded rookie cards of major leaguers born in Japan, says Nomo-mania is what inspired the focus of his collection.
"When he burst onto the scene, I was 13 or 14 years old," said Saba. "I was just floored that someone could just show up and dominate American players like he did. And when I found out there were Japanese cards of him, I was hooked and I started looking for everything I could find."
In 1995, Nomo would start the All-Star game, lead the National League in strikeouts, and be named the Senior Circuit's Rookie of the Year. Although he'd never be as dominant again, he finished his 12-year major league career with a respectable 123 wins. And while demand and prices for Nomo cards have dropped, part of his legacy was introducing Japanese cards to U.S. collectors.
Author Rob Fitts, who buys and sells Japanese cards, says the first Japanese baseball card was produced in 1897. It was a round menko that measured 1-1/2" in diameter and showcased a hand-drawn picture of a player with his hands over his head to catch a ball. Menko are similar to North American pogs and were used in a popular Japanese flipping game.
For most of the 20th century, Japanese baseball cards did not resemble their American counterparts. The different forms of vintage Japanese cards - including postcards, bromides, and menkos - are discussed in the first part of this two-part series.
Engel and Fitts note that most of today's Japanese collectors are focused on modern cards, especially offerings produced by Calbee and BBM. Fitts visited eight card shops when he was in Japan in May 2017 and they almost exclusively stocked modern products.
"Most of them carry some BBM cards and the latest American cards," said Fitts. "I don't think I saw a vintage card. I saw some Calbee cards from the 1970s at a couple of shops, but I don't think I saw anything older than that."
Vintage vs. Modern
North American collectors have traditionally defined cards manufactured from 1970 to present as modern, but Calbee was the first company to consistently produce an annual set in Japan and they didn't release their first series until 1973.
"For Japan, 1991 is really when the modern cards start because the Calbee cards from the 1970s and 1980s are still highly collectible and rare, especially in top grade," said Engel, adding that Japanese collectors don't consider Calbee cards to be modern.
Other manufacturers such as Yamakatsu, NST/Mr. Baseball, Lotte Gum, and Mermaid introduced sets in the 1970s and 1980s that have some appeal today, but only Calbee has endured to release an annual set.
This article offers information about Calbee cards simply because the word count would've been too high to highlight them in part one of this series. As noted earlier, many companies attempted to enter the Japanese market, but this article will focus on the two major manufacturers - Calbee and BBM - as well Takara game cards in brief.
Seeking to increase sales, Japanese snack manufacturer Calbee began attaching cards to their products (mostly potato chips) in 1973.
"Sometimes people say that BBM is the Japanese equivalent of Topps, but I've always felt that Calbee is the Japanese equivalent of Topps and BBM is more like an upstart company that entered the market much later like Upper Deck," said Sean McGinty, a Canadian living in Japan who collects baseball cards.
Calbee cards are generally printed on high-quality stock and feature full-bleed photos on their fronts, with the backs presenting information about the player in Japanese. They did, however, begin adding the player's name in English in 1989.
Fitts notes that Calbee has adjusted the dimensions of their cards four times. From 1973 to 1980, singles were a little smaller than American cards (2-3/8" by 3-1/8"). For the next decade, however, the cards were reduced to approximately the same size as 1950 Bowman singles (2" by 2-5/8"). In the middle of the 1990 series, the company shifted to telephone-sized cards (2-1/8" by 3-3/8") with rounded corners. Eight years later, they adopted the standard American card size (2-1/2" by 3-1/2").
The Calbee sets, which range in size from under 200 cards to 1,436 cards, only feature star players. Fitts notes that up until the late 1990s, just one of these cards was packaged with each snack, and that was the only way to obtain them. So you would've had to eat a lot of chips to complete a set.
"I don't know anybody who has a complete set of Calbee cards before 1987," said Engel.
Challenges of Collecting Calbee Cards
When Engel started to compile the first edition of his price guide in 1993, he assembled many of the Calbee set checklists from scratch. This was extremely cumbersome because some sets are missing card numbers, while other sets have multiple cards with the same numbers.
"If you ask Calbee how much they produced or why certain numbers don't exist, they have no records," explained Engel. "They don't even have checklists of the cards they produced for any year before 1988."
There were also some cards that were only released regionally and are so scarce that it's hard to establish if they even exist.
"People have no idea why some cards within the Calbee series are almost non-existent. There are some cards in Calbee sets for which there are only two, three, or four known copies, and I'm talking about sets from the 1980s," said Engel.
Rookies in Calbee Sets
In contrast to American card producers, Calbee has never emphasized rookies in their issues.
"Calbee historically hasn't produced a lot of cards of players in their rookie year. For example, their first Nomo cards weren't [produced] until 1991, a year after his rookie year, and their first Ichiro cards didn't come out until 1994, two years after he was drafted," said Dave McNeely, a veteran collector and founder of a popular Japanese baseball card blog (http://japanesebaseballcards.blogspot.ca/). "They've improved a little in more recent years, but it's still pretty hit or miss."
McGinty adds that because there are multiple cards of star players in each set, it's difficult to identify a "definitive" rookie card.
1973 Calbee Set
The 1973 Calbee set is the most coveted. Measuring 2-3/8" by 3-1/8" each, the 368 cards that comprise this issue offer full-bleed photos with the player's surname, position, and team at the bottom. The backs offer text in royal blue and have the team flag on the top left.
"The 1973 Calbee set is one of the icons of the hobby, probably similar in stature to what 1952 Topps is in the U.S.," said McGinty.
This set leads off with six cards of Shigeo Nagashima, the most popular player in Japanese history. Card #1 of Nagashima, which features the slugger smiling and pointing towards the camera, is one of the most desirable Calbee cards. Just five have been submitted to PSA and the sole PSA NM-MT 8 is the highest-graded example.
Calbee followed up the Nagashima cards with a half-dozen coveted singles of professional home run king Sadaharu Oh.
Multi-sport star Wally Yonamine is also highlighted on two sought-after singles (#210 and #211) in this series. Born in Hawaii, he suited up as a running back for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, before becoming the first American to play pro baseball in Japan after World War II. Fitts, who wrote Yonamine's biography, Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball, says these cards are highly sought after because of a combination of Yonamine's popularity and the fact that they're short prints.
Takara Game Cards
While Calbee was focusing on star players, a Japanese toy company called Takara was producing team sets for a dice game similar to Strat-O-Matic baseball. Released from 1978 to 1998, these round-cornered, 2-1/8" by 3-3/8" cards generally present a photo with the player's name, uniform number, team name, and vitals on the front, while the backs exhibit game information. They were sold by team in box sets that included 30 cards.
"The Takaras are not very common, but when you find them, most are in pretty great shape because they have rounded corners," said Saba.
1991: The BBM Era Begins
It wasn't until the release of BBM's first set in 1991 that baseball card collecting truly took off as a hobby in Japan. It was veteran baseball executive Marty Kuehnert who managed to convince the Japanese Baseball Magazine SHA to produce a set that incorporated many of the characteristics of American releases.
The BBM cards were not only the same size as U.S. singles, but they also had the player's name in English on the front and the backs offered statistics. And not including the Takara game cards, the BBM sets were the first major Japanese release that featured cards of almost every player on each Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team. The BBM sets also emphasized rookies and highlighted league leaders and award winners and were sold in 10-card foil packs.
"It wasn't like people weren't collecting in Japan, but I think the BBM cards are really what got people more interested in collecting in Japan and then there was a boom in the 1990s," noted Engel.
BBM has also made it easier for rookie card collectors like Saba.
"BBM will produce cards of all the draft picks from the previous year," explained Saba. "When BBM comes out in 2018, it will have everyone who has been drafted from the previous October, so there is no longer a question about when a player's rookie card was released."
And as the popularity of baseball cards has grown in Japan, BBM has made more sets. Each year, the company generally produces a base set, premium set, an All-Star set, a Japan Series set, and team sets. In more recent years, they have added inserts, parallels, memorabilia cards, and autograph cards.
1993 BBM Set
The third-year BBM set is likely the most coveted. It consists of 498 standard-size cards, each of which showcases a color photo with "BBM '93" printed in the upper-left corner. The player's name, number, and position are printed across the bottom just below the team flag. The backs present the team name, vitals, and statistics, as well a small color headshot of the player.
This set is notable because it includes the Japanese rookies of Ichiro Suzuki (#239) and Hideki Matsui (#423). Demand for the Ichiro was very strong when the talented outfielder debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 2001.
"I would say that Ichiro had a similar effect on Japanese baseball cards as Nomo," said Saba. "Nomo and Ichiro have driven interest in Japanese baseball cards."
Of the 814, 1993 Ichiro cards submitted, there have been 118 PSA GEM-MT 10s.
Fireballer/slugger Shohei Ohtani could be the next Japanese superstar to inspire more interest in Japanese cards. The 23-year-old right-hander has excelled on the mound and at the plate for the NPB's Nippon Ham Fighters for the past five seasons. In 2016, he batted .322 with 22 home runs, while going 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA as a pitcher, but in 2017, his numbers were curtailed by an ankle injury.
Despite his injury, Ohtani asked to be posted so he could play in the U.S. in 2018, and almost every major league team expressed interest in signing him. On December 8, 2017, however, the Los Angeles Angels won the major league sweepstakes for the two-way phenom, and they plan to utilize Ohtani as a pitcher/DH in the coming season.
"[Up until now,] Nomo and Ichiro have driven interest in Japanese baseball cards," said Saba. "But I'm convinced that Shohei Ohtani will do the same thing. There will be another boom in interest in Japanese baseball cards when Ohtani comes on the scene in the next major league baseball season and starts to dominate."
McNeely notes that Ohtani has been featured in BBM sets dating back to 2013, and there's already significant interest in these cards.
"I've probably been asked more questions about Ohtani than I've been asked about any previous player - and folks have been asking about him as far back as 2013, his rookie year," said McNeely.
Ohtani has several 2013 BBM rookie cards, including singles in the regular and Rookie Edition series, as well as in the Fighters team set.
Ohtani is also featured on several 2013 BBM certified autograph and memorabilia cards. McNeely notes that one of Ohtani's most valuable cards is his 2013 2nd Version "Cross Wind" autograph which is worth around 180,000 yen (approximately $1,600 U.S.).
"I see a lot of his cards on eBay right now at a somewhat surprisingly high price; however, I haven't been paying attention to whether the cards are actually selling," commented McNeely. "I do expect a spike in the value of his cards now that he has signed with an MLB team."
After Ohtani's press conference with the Angels on December 9, 2017, American card manufacturer Topps produced the first card of him in an Angels uniform through its Topps Now program and made it available for 24 hours. The card sold 17,323 copies to set a Topps Now sales record. Although not a Japanese-made card, the interest shown in this brief release may serve as a good indication of what's in store for both the American and Japanese modern baseball card market.
Click here to read Part 1 of this article. For more information on modern Japanese baseball trading cards, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/#13baseball-cards.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thank you to David Saba, Nate Leech, Dave McNeely, and Prestige Collectibles for providing images and cards for this article. Please note the PSA Population Report statistics quoted are as of February 2018.
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