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

1933 Sanella Babe Ruth—from the Handbuch des Sports Album, Part III

1933 Sanella Babe Ruth

The older the subject, the more challenging it is to add to the discourse. There is nothing new under the home run, and few names are as instantly recognizable in baseball as the legendary George Herman Ruth—otherwise an archetype, as “the Babe.” Actually, Ruth’s reputation precedes him so that he has garnered several additional monikers. In one memorable scene from popular film, the young misfits in The Sandlot (1993) cycle through a list of the alternate names, each title an attempt to convey Ruth’s hard-hitting renown: “The sultan of swat!”; “The king of crash!”; “The colossus of clout!”; “The great Bambino!”

Here’s a man. Here’s a man with more noms de guerre than a prince or king. Here’s a man during his career with easily more mentions in newspapers than his extraordinary number of homeruns. Here’s a man whose name graced more endorsement contracts than any athlete before him. Anyone care for some Red Rock Cola, Murphy-Rich soap, or All American Athletic Underwear? What about tobacco? The Babe peddled for Old Gold Cigarettes and Pinch Hit Tobacco, too. With a wide range of Ruth biographies, baseball histories, and young adult and children’s titles, there’s also not any shortage of Babe Ruth publishing products. So, again, Ruth being so popular a personality in life and in death, is there anything left that’s new to say?

I’ll kill the suspense: no, there’s probably not.

However, this 1933 Sanella Babe Ruth card may be new to you—that is unless you’re the kind of collector with a ludicrous desire and improbable goal to acquire a pre-WWII Ruth card whilst on a trading card budget as tight as the skinny man’s pants worn by a fat man. But that only makes the rare purchase, the rare deal, all the more special. Even better for “the poor collector”: a lump sum of $80-85 will occasionally yield not merely this meticulously crafted card, hand-colored in the pre-press process and issued during Ruth’s playing days, but also the full 1933 Sanella set with its official Handbuch des Sports album.

Like the rest of its set, the 1933 Sanella Ruth is not particularly rare or very valuable, especially compared to earlier, more coveted Ruth issues. Criminy! The flimsy stock isn’t actually cardboard; it’s really more paper than card. Even the nearly identical Astra variation carries a significantly higher price than the Sanella one. Then there’s the obvious sticky point that it’s not American but German, though perhaps that’s all the more appropriate since Ruth’s parentage was German-American.

But let’s face it: no matter how precious, prized, or exorbitantly priced a 1933 Goudey Ruth or 1914 Baltimore News rookie card of Ruth may be, these frail portraits in miniature will never manage to truly convey the enormity and vitality of Ruth’s life. The often weathered substance and time-muted color palette of these artifacts do even less so to capture, contain the icon. The 1933 Sanella is no different when it comes to such shortcomings.

That’s not at all to diminish the intrinsic worth of these cards. Their mere existence today, the perseverance to survive the passing of various stewards whose watchful care must always at some point cease before transition to some new, more watchful sentinel—this culture of cards alone is a testament to Ruth’s life and heritage.

He mattered. And that fact is abundantly clear in every one of his surviving vintage cards, no matter the state of pristine condition or decay. That’s clear, too, in the 1933 Sanella issued by his ancestors’ homeland.

Like most products (indeed all trading cards) to feature Babe Ruth, the Sanella card focuses on a positive quality or moment of triumph, instead of some flaw or folly. Surely it was not a pretty sight when a man of Ruth’s size whiffed at a pitch and struck out, as he almost necessarily did in that stellar year of 1927, for example, with 89 strike outs. There’s none of that here. The still image glorifies Ruth when he was at his best, an apparent instant after full contact and thunderclap: on a stage laid in earth and grass, with a “Hotel Congress” billboard for the set’s stark backdrop, and before an audience all aquiver as a hazy array of apple blossoms. Here Ruth’s follow-through form is less slugger than ballet artist for the ages.

Babe Ruth in the Minors

1914 Baltimore News, Babe Ruth Rookie Card Image

Did you know that Babe Ruth had a card released with an image from his minor league days?

Until recently, I didn’t think minor league cards of stars even existed much before the Madison Muskies Jose Canseco days (courtesy of Fritsch Co.) and some TCMA issues.

And, apparently, this one comes with the option of red OR blue!

However, it does cost a little bit more than the Canseco card.