Japanese Baseball Cards—Fun with Menko!

Japanese Menko Card, 1949 JRM, Makoto Kozuru

Japanese Menko Card, 1949 JRM, Makoto Kozuru

I don’t know much about Japanese baseball. I don’t know much about Japanese baseball cards. I *really* don’t know much Japanese.

Apparently, Japanese baseball is relatively similar to American baseball. Of course there are some differences, especially cultural ones where crowds and players are concerned. But they share all of the basics: bats & balls, pitchers, bases on a field, etc. By most accounts, baseball was introduced to Japan in the 1870s, roughly twenty to twenty-five years after Americans started to professionally organize the game. . . .

Old Japanese Baseball Card of Catcher

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Really, though, that’s about all I know—or all I can recall—about that. Other folks like Dr. Fitts or Robert Whiting (coincidentally both named Robert) know quite a bit more about Japanese baseball.

Japanese Menko Card, Tetsuharu Kawakami

Japanese Menko Card, Tetsuharu Kawakami

Old Japanese Baseball Card of Hitter

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

When it comes to Japanese baseball cards, my knowledge is equally limited. Some Japanese baseball cards were made for a popular game called menko. (While menko cards do not account for all Japanese baseball cards, they do appear to be the earliest.) In this game, players throw their cards down upon a flat playing surface in an attempt to flip the other cards belonging to opponents. Yeah, it’s like pogs. Unlike baseball, though, Japan’s menko came well before the American pogs of the 1990s.

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Masayasu Kaneda

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Masayasu Kaneda

Again, there are others with plenty of more expertise in this realm. For example: Dr. Fitts (once more), who runs an additional site just for blogging about Japanese baseball cards; Gary Engel, co-author of Sayonara Home Run!: The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card; and, of course, the Japanese Baseball Cards blog.

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Hideo Fujimoto

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Hideo Fujimoto

As for Japanese, the language—well, I got nothin’. But I found these Japanese baseball cards that sure do look pretty cool.

Old Japanese Baseball Card of Pitcher 4

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Old Japanese Baseball Card of Pitcher 2

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Old Japanese Baseball Card of Pitcher 2, back

Japanese Menko Card (back), player name?

Oh, there’s more alright. . . .

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card (back), player name?

Japanese Menko Card (back), player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card (back), player name?

Japanese Menko Card (back), player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card (back), player name?

Japanese Menko Card (back), player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Tokuji Iida

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Tokuji Iida

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Tokuji Iida (back)

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Tokuji Iida (back)

Japanese Menko Card, 1960 Takagi

Japanese Menko Card, 1960 Takagi

Japanese Menko Card, 1948-1949, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1948-1949, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1948-1949, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1948-1949, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1948-1949, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1948-1949, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1947 JCM, Ted Williams back, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1947 JCM, Ted Williams back, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1947 JCM, Ted Williams back (back), player name

Japanese Menko Card, 1947 JCM, Ted Williams back (back), player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, player name?

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Hideo Fujimoto

Japanese Menko Card, 1948 Hideo Fujimoto

Japanese Menko Card, circa 1960s Sadaharu Oh

Japanese Menko Card, circa 1960s Sadaharu Oh

Japanese Menko Card, circa 1960s Sadaharu Oh (back)

Japanese Menko Card, circa 1960s Sadaharu Oh (back)

And last but not least. . . .

Japanese Menko Card, 1950 Babe Ruth

Japanese Menko Card, 1950 Babe Ruth

The Strangest Baseball Card Blog—Ever.

Simply put: this is the strangest baseball card blog—ever. If anyone finds one that surpasses its utter weirdness, then please do let me know. . . . Actually, it’s almost poetic (in an American cardboard psycho kind of way). The blog is officially called I Post Baseball Cards. As you can see, though, that’s not even the half of it.

Poor Roger Maris (or Reflections on a Baseball Card with Review of a Maris Biography)

Poor Roger Maris, 1964 Topps, ed

*An oldie but a goodie: new post with a previously posted card
**Fourth Roger Maris post–and last for a while, promise
***Essay from latest issue of Aethlon 30.1

On the front of my pocket-weary, 1964 Topps baseball card that now feels all too emblematic in its scuffed and battered surface, Roger Maris gazes skyward with a look of defiant optimism and little clue of future mishaps that would befall him in the year following the card’s release. Surely an eventual two-year stint with the St. Louis Cardinals would bring Maris some unexpected rejuvenation and another World Series ring. Yet when I examine the career statistical breakdown for Maris, at first I notice only the salient decline in his regular season homeruns—those supremely arcing beacons of progress and willpower that once soared through the open sky of the old Yankee Stadium and countless other ballparks. And as I observe the stark drop after that extraordinary year of 1961 when Maris broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding season homerun record, so, too, do I feel my heart grow heavy and sink in my chest. However, statistics rarely tell the whole story, as I recently discovered with Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero (2010).

Not unlike the worn eponymous card from 1964, Roger Maris refused to “go gentle into that good night,” even in the apparent twilight of his fatiguing career. Admittedly, he was never again the same caliber of power hitter after Yankee management intentionally misdiagnosed his broken hand in 1965 just to keep him playing so the team could be in contention for a pennant (for which they weren’t even close). And although the hand injury sapped his fastball-slugging talent and the occasional slumps and streaky character of his hitting game would dog him early and mid-season, he stubbornly stuck around—and excelled when it mattered most. While limited by physical circumstance and no longer as capable with the long ball, he nonetheless proved he could also hit the smart ball as he continued to be a scoring factor—if not a decisive one. For Clavin and Peary do well to remind (or inform) fans and readers how in both the late season and at playoff time Maris remained a remarkable clutch hitter with solid RBI numbers. Furthermore, not even a magnifying glass elucidates those figures printed in miniature font on the backs of baseball cards, which seldom reveal fielding prowess and hustle, such as so regularly exemplified by Maris. It was, in fact, that very penchant for speed and determination that likely cut his career short—first with the knees, colliding into the stands for improbable catches, and then with his hand that he broke upon sliding into home plate and a slow-footed umpire.

Roger Maris is one of the rare finds among baseball biographies, as it insightfully recounts little-known facts and episodes like these and dexterously negotiates with well-crafted narrative a field typically fraught with obstacles: those of family drama and lineage; regular season and playoff games and statistics; and extensive commentary on behalf of family and friends, reporters, and witnesses. (The reliance on others for gleanings about Maris the man prove necessary because Maris himself grew appropriately mistrusting and uncooperative toward the press after the hellish and surprisingly negative media coverage in 1961 that literally caused his hair to fall out in clumps. Thereafter, he protected his privacy and largely guarded his words.)

The book is at its best, though, when it comes to those wonderful little baseball anecdotes that swiftly usher words like guffaw back into your vocabulary, as well as fateful tales where even ordinary men are granted the experience of triumph. Take, for example, the story of Andy Strasberg, previously an ardent Yankee supporter and reportedly Roger’s biggest fan. Almost as a lark on account of his college friends who persisted in needling him about his “‘good friend Roger Maris,’” Strasberg makes the drive from Akron College to Forbes Field in Pittsburg to see Maris and the Cardinals play the Pirates (318). Maris does not disappoint. Before the game he calls out to Strasberg by name, and Andy lines up his awestruck friends for introductions “‘as if it was a wedding reception.’” Later on during play, while seated “‘in row 9, seat 9’” and watching his favorite player wear the “‘familiar number 9,’” Andy receives an even bigger treat:

In the 6th inning against [southpaw Woodie] Fryman, [Maris] hit his first National League home run. And I caught the ball! My friends were witnesses. They were screaming at the top of their lungs as the ball came toward us, and I caught it on the fly bare-handed. I started crying because I was eighteen years old and life was not going to get any better for me. After the half inning, Roger comes out to right field and sees me holding the home-run ball and says, ‘I don’t believe it!’

However, there remains a noticeable dearth of such upbeat and jubilant sentiment in much of the biography and Maris’s life on the field. After I finish reading the closing chapters, a fishhook seems caught in my throat with some final thoughts that equally stick in my heart. For Maris ultimately received more in the way of jeers than cheers during his playing days. Clavin and Peary tell how even when the increasingly ill Maris returned to New York for his final Yankee Old-Timers’ Day, an elderly usher in the stadium shook his head and coolly remarked to Maris’s former coach, Sid Cichy, how “‘Nobody, nobody should have broken the Babe’s record’” (370). Clearly the swell of ill will that once followed Maris during his time in New York as a Yankee persisted in some minds.

After that summer day in 1984 when his number 9 was officially retired, Maris stoically suffered for over a year through an excruciating and tedious battle with cancer, which eventually ended his life at age 51 and took him away from his only true joys in life, his wife and children. Fittingly, his funeral service concluded with a poignant exchange between Maris’s son, Roger Jr., and that dedicated fan, Andy Strasberg. Indeed, Strasberg later recalls the scene:

The funeral was extremely moving. . . . At the end of the service I paid my respects to [Roger’s widow] Pat Maris. As always, she was extremely gracious and introduced me to her kids, whom I hadn’t seen since the last game of the 1968 season. She said to them, ‘I want to introduce you to someone very special. This is Andy Strasberg.’ And Roger Jr. said, ‘You’re dad’s number one fan.’ I said, ‘You’ll never know how much your dad meant to me growing up.’ And he said, ‘You’ll never know how much you meant to our dad.’ (378)

So I cannot help but think about stories like these—about young Andy Strasberg now grown up, his prized baseball, and where they both may be today—when I handle and cherish my old, beat-up Roger Maris baseball card and the meaning it contains for me. Some collectors would designate my Roger Maris 1964 Topps baseball card as strictly a “filler card” (a card in poor condition meant merely as a place-holder of sorts until a “better” card may be acquired), which I believe was also the exact phrase used in the description for the online auction of this card. But let me say this: there are few cards that I will ever feel are “better” than this one with all of its painfully wrought, elaborate wrinkles—its edges frayed by time. And there is no other player whom I will ever like more than poor Roger Maris.

Ty Cobb—a Liked Guy?

Keith Olbermann’s recent interview with author Charles Leerhsen introduced some unexpected revelations about the often notorious, downright vicious characterizations of Ty Cobb. Apparently, Leerhsen uncovers “new news” in his latest book, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (2015), with intriguing research and claims about the thus far infamous ballplayer.

As Olbermann himself notes in the interview, we’ll have to wait and see how other historians weigh in on this perhaps “revisionist history,” for lack of a better term. Surprisingly, though, it seems that Leerhsen didn’t need to dig very far to cast significant doubt on popular assumptions about Cobb—namely, the largely unquestioned reputation for being a virulent racist and an overwhelmingly detested figure among fans and players alike.

It seems that these portrayals of Cobb as utter villain originate with or at least have been popularized by one particular biography, Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball, written by Cobb’s earliest biographer, Al Stump. Leerhsen indicates several inconsistencies and even fabrications with Stump’s depictions of Cobb.

On the question of Cobb’s assumed blatant racism, Leerhsen also emphasizes the history and likely influence of several abolitionists in Cobb’s immediate and extended family. There’s also a published and confirmed statement from 1952 where Cobb made some comparatively democratic remarks about integration in baseball.

Finally, there are some overlooked but relevant points about the oft-cited 1910 Chalmers Award, another episode that Leerhsen mentions. The award was a highly coveted prize of a new automobile for the batting leader in each league, and the race was extremely tight for the American League—with a fierce competition between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. Leerhsen’s account highlights a pivotal game with questionable fielding positioning of Nap Lajoie’s opposing team, the St. Louis Browns, which heavily favored Lajoie’s efforts. Ultimately, both players were awarded the title, yet the debate persists about which one truly deserved and earned it. However, Cobb is frequently the player painted in a far more negative light in this controversial season and career achievement, as he sat out his final games to preserve his batting average. And Leerhsen again appears to offer some reasonable support to discredit such sweeping, unfavorable characterizations of Cobb, especially when compared to peers like Lajoie (who played with an equally fiery personality).

Indeed, Leerhsen goes so far as to suggest that there were many fans as well as teammates loyal to and even fond of “the Meanest Man in Baseball.” I can almost hear a voice exclaiming from beyond the boggy grave, the much maligned and mired Cobb himself in shock: “Hey, I’m liked guy?!”