Poor Japanese Catcher, Anonymous—from the Handbuch des Sports Album, Part II

I know next to nothing about baseball in Japan. Here’s what I do know: baseball is big in Japan, very big; folks have been playing baseball in Japan for roughly one hundred and forty years; and, as in the Americas, baseball cards appear to be popular collectables, with menko being just one of several types of vintage Japanese baseball cards.

That’s not all. Today’s MLB teams are filling their ranks with both veteran stalwarts and younger talents who hail from Japan. Of course many fans may be familiar with current Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who previously played ball in what’s known as Japan’s Pacific League. (Although far from peak form, Suzuki’s BA, OBP, and OPS figures are slightly up from last season.) Nori Aoki plays for this year’s surprising (re. winning record) Kansas City Royals; he’s Japanese as well. Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is also from Japan–and with his 2.47 ERA, he remains a promising feature member of New York’s starting rotation (despite some elbow issues). This is just to name a few. Here are some more.

It may further surprise you to know that Tom Selleck was quite the ballplayer and made a name for himself in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons.

(Note: most of this information I’ve gleaned from the million-legged Wikipede and something called Mr. Baseball, which I caught on TV late one night.)

Finally, there’s this guy. . . .

1933 Sanella, Japanese Catcher

It’s a 1933 Sanella–so a German card of a Japanese baseball player. Apparently, he was a catcher. Again, though, that’s all I know. His name is nowhere to be found on either his card or the trading card album in which his card appears. However, he must have been pretty good, as he’s only one of two ballplayers featured in the entire Handbuch des Sports.

1933 Sanella Margarine—and the Handbuch des Sports Album, Part I

1933 Handbuch des Sports album

The trading card album is not a rare or recent novelty. Rather than collect some slivered, frail artifacts to store in a shoebox or even today’s slick, ultra-violet ray resistant, acid-free, and PVC-free protective page sleeves destined for some equally cloistered binder, once upon a time folks would tape or (gasp) glue and paste their cardboard and/or paper treasures into an album for display. For collectors of both sport and “non-sport” cards (curious term that may be, as in identification/categorization by absence or deficit, like nonfiction), this phenomenon was a pervasive one across cultures and time.

Some of these albums can still be found lingering, slumbering the decades away in people’s closets, attics, and (worse for wear and mold) basements. For example, hunters and searchers of cellulose gold continue to seek out the following, to name just a few: the 1929 Churchman’s Cigarettes Sports and Games album from the United Kingdom; Cuba’s 1946-47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte; or the German-issued 1933 Sanella Margarine set. (Besides the supplementary album format, each of these mentioned releases shares another distinction; more on that can be found in the third and final installment of this series.) And while the 1933 Sanella Margarine trading card set and its official, accompanying Handbuch des Sports album may not be the oldest, rarest, or most valuable, the vibrant specimens and often excellent-to-near-mint conditions make this as good a place as any for an introduction to one such noteworthy album-based card set.

The history of the 1933 Sanella set is well known to several avid card collectors—as well as to many German-born citizens. Indeed, an urban legend of sorts indicates that just about every German household owned at least one copy of the album or book. Perhaps one reason: what self-respecting German doesn’t love margarine? As was so often the marketing practice, the trading cards were premiums associated with Sanella margarine products. (Also, a caveat: these somewhat flimsy cards actually look and feel like paper stock, though a mid-to-high grade quality thereof, not cardboard.) Reportedly, or at least as another entertaining myth would have it, one collector took advantage of the high population count of the Sanella cards and several years ago flooded the U.S. market, thereby driving prices down—even for cards of the most popular athletes in set.

Another possible reason for the abundance of Sanella cards: much of the set and album amounted to almost propagandized nationalistic material that German citizens must have felt privileged or compelled to own. After all, the cards were issued in 1933, not too long before the (in)famous 1936 Berlin Olympics. Of course, 1933 being the year that historians often refer to as the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, another more problematic kind of, er, national pride was brewing with plenty of further troubles abound.

Not surprisingly, among a smattering of globally recognizable athletes, the set therefore features a disproportionate number of German figures. As with a few of these individuals, some of the selected “events” appear to have little if any background or standing in the sports realm, at least as traditionally defined. For one, the number of airplanes and aviators (often or always German) contextualized here as objects and figures “des sports” feels like a bit of, again, a propagandic stretch.

Admittedly, motor sports is somewhat of an oxymoron likely concocted by a person with deep-rooted automotive interests—either a fanatical imbecile or capitalizing genius. But at least by standards of acceptability in German popular culture, even for this time period some of these events were nevertheless tenable: such as motorcycle racing or car racing. With such qualifiers in mind, the colorfully inked and exquisitely printed and rendered card images of these primarily terrain-bound and wheeled automotive wonders really do deserve some focus.

First, here’s an example from the album with two racecar cards on the same page.

1933 Sanella fig. 1, Full page example--two racecars(Top card: Der Welfrefordwagen / Bottom card: Glromlfnlen (?) Mercedes.)

One such card of a motorcycle dirt race, or dirt bike race if that’s the preferred phrase, depicts a well-composed yet high-speed scene that really demonstrates the uncanny ability of the still image to communicate motion (which must have been something that continued to fascinate people, even at a time when Hollywood exports of moving pictures were already widely popular). The stillness of the large, floating red letters—as on a high wall or overhead banner—offers an effective juxtaposition that accentuates the movement and speed of the perhaps undersized but powerful machines chewing and churning up bits and plumes of earth on the dirt racetrack.

1933 Sanella fig. 2, Motorcycle Dirt Race (Motorcycle dirt race)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 3, Rudolf Caracciola(Pictured: Rudolf Caracciola.)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 4, Beiwagenrennen(Beiwagenrennen! Google translation: “Chariot Races.” Hmm, maybe there’s an idiomatic issue there.)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 5, Manfred von Brauchitsch(Pictured: Manfred von Brauchitsch.)

Note the expressions of the motorists and the faces of spectators in many of these racing scenes. As probably evident by the contrapuntal dynamics (yes, there can be music in the visual) of photographic definition combined with the softness of an almost watercolor application, all of these cards look to be based on pre-existing photographs. Indeed, for some of the more notable athletes elsewhere in the set, the very same images can easily be researched and located in their earlier, monochrome forms.

1933 Sanella fig. 6, BMW motorcycle(BMW motorcycle)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 7, Motorists and Cyclists(Motorists and cyclists)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 8, Toni Bauhofer(Pictured: Toni Bauhofer.)

Posing here is one racing star of the day, Toni Bauhofer. Before an accident and injury led him to retire, Bauhofer won four major championship titles (between 1924-1932) and earned several other racing distinctions in his early life. A lesser known distinction of Bauhofer’s: according to Hermann Historica, an international auction house and collecting resource, Bauhofer purchased a watercolor painting by Adolf Hitler that was a gift from Hitler to Eugenie Haug, a close and “ardent supporter” rumored to be a former lover of the mustached megalomaniac. The auction house notes that sufficient documentation verifies Bauhofer made the purchase; it makes one wonder about the undocumented penchants held by Bauhofer, as well as some other folks highlighted in this “handbuch.”

Finally, to return to the exemplary quality of these artifacts: both the advanced printing technology and honorific portraits of a booming automotive industry more than tempt the present-day viewer with speculation. What developments, what heights could have been attained through such mechanical and engineering talents alone, specializations so inherently and comparatively benign in nature next to the tragedies that followed. Instead, this portrait of a nation that these hopeful colors paint is now vastly overshadowed by darker shades cast by almost unspeakable monsters and monstrous actions. Strangely haunting, too, how the same enticing messages of an impossibly promising future filled with wondrous, superbly well-oiled machines driven and piloted by blue-eyed, blond-haired specimens of “perfection”—how these lures of a larger, more dangerous and devious scheme eventually doomed so many thousands to such horrors.

She Wore Blue Velvet–and Drank it, too

Kerr-McGee Blue Velvet Motor Oil--I'll Buy That! Ed

It holds an appeal in the strangely still vibrant colors amidst apparent decay. Indeed, those intriguing hues of a night-draped veil, what velvety blues, and the brackish yellow and gold—along with the starkly promoted automotive content in the curiously branded oil can—all fooled my eyes from afar. Up until the point when I grazed the surface and edges with my fingers, I would have sworn that this was some toasted, porcelain sign. But no: ’tis only cardboard—beaten, worn, yet painted (printed) bright.

Likewise the story holds an appeal: how I’d locked my keys in my car for probably the dozenth time in my life and was temporarily trapped at a delightful hole in the wall antique store, which to me aptly recalled an ill-lit vintage baseball card shop I once knew that was actually called The Hole in the Wall due to a literal gaping hole in the storefront’s crumbling adobe. In any case, I had ample time to stare, debate purchase, and admire the subject matter and design—time enough to learn that the piece came from the consigned collection of some local picker called Nestor, Roscoe, or some such name that seemed nicely evocative of engine parts and kinematic viscosity.

Even some cursory research on the Kerr-McGee company’s history proves equally, if not murkily rich as well with their less than stellar environmental or simply ethical record.* For example, Kerr-McGee lost a drawn-out legal battle against the Navajo Tribe in a dispute vitally pertinent to Native American rights and sovereignty of reservation lands; eventually, the case was decided by the Supreme Court. In addition, Kerr-McGee owned and operated the plutonium production plant where Karen Silkwood worked, whose life and activism inspired the film Silkwood (1983).

I also learned that Kerr-McGee was headquartered in Oklahoma City, which is less than a few hours driving distance from the previously mentioned antique shop wherein this sign was found.

Yet most appealing of all is the inside joke to myself: how there’s few more perfectly idiosyncratic, cunningly sideways allusions to be unearthed and appropriated for the personal display of a David Lynch devotee.

*It’s somewhat difficult to read from the image, but the Kerr-McGee company name is seen on the upper-left corner of the illustrated oil can.

To read more about the Kerr-McGee company history, visit the Kerr-McGee wiki page.

Ephemera Found When You Move, Part III: Nolan Ryan Signed Baseball

Signed Nolan Ryan Ball--after the family dog had his way with it

Please humor me for a moment to follow (and perhaps check) my math here: according to Major League Baseball’s sanctified Official Baseball Rules, the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s plate at the mound is 60 feet and 6 inches or 60.5 feet. Now this means when Nolan Ryan hurled his fastest recorded pitch at 100.9 miles per hour in an official major league game that it took all of .408 of one second for the ball to travel from the origin of the mound to the destination of home plate.[1] You may also note that this time is not far off from the average blink of the human eye.

So while the length of time that the featured Nolan Ryan autographed baseball (above) remained in mint condition certainly exceeds that of Ryan’s official fastest pitch, this particular piece of memorabilia nonetheless existed in pristine form for a still relatively brief period.

The story goes that my physician father-in-law received the autographed ball as one of those curious gifts given by some traveling pharmaceutical salesperson. And whatever you may feel about that particular, perfectly legal and not uncommon practice and the lamentable ethics of the broader pharmaceutical industry, I can say with confidence in knowing this discriminating man (my father-in-law, that is, not the traveling pharmaceutical salesperson) that he more than likely said “why, thank you very much—that’s very generous,” while in the same breath, “but no thank you to that worthless poison you’re peddling.”

My father-in-law couldn’t care less about baseball or Nolan Ryan, though, so he in turn gave the signed ball to his teenage daughter (my future partner-in-crime). At the time, she was an avid sports enthusiast, immersed in all manner of scores and statistics, nightly basking in the glow of broadcasts from the soon-to-be imperial ESPN. In fact, she even once attended a Texas Rangers and New York Yankees baseball game.

This inked orb of ephemeral memorabilia did not remain long in her possession, however, before a younger sibling (of yet fully developed capacity for appreciating material values) looked up towards a lofty bedroom display shelf and gazed upon said perched orb. Of course, the first thought that popped into this young child’s noggin proved just too tempting to resist: now isn’t that the perfect little bauble for me to throw and to catch and to play with—with my dog. Thus shortly thereafter Nolan Ryan’s still freshly scrawled autograph met with much smudged and slobbered disaster in the jaws of the family dog. . . .

But the ball survived just fine, albeit a bit lopsided, smeared, and worse the wear.

[1] After much nocturnal, numeric agony and my own feeble math skills, the calculations first require conversion from mph to ftps, or miles per hour to feet per second; hence 100.9 is multiplied by 5280, since 5280 feet equal one mile, and then that product of 532752 is divided by the 3600 seconds that comprise one hour. This yields 147.986 ft./sec. Given this rate, then divide the distance of 60.5 feet by 147.986 ft./sec. (as t = d/r, or time = distance/rate), all to arrive at the .408 seconds travel time.