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For Love of Besuboru

In Japan, as in the United States, companies have been printing baseball cards for about as long as teams have been playing the sport. Japan has had professional baseball since the Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club (which later became the Yomiuri Giants) formed in 1934, shortly after Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other American stars played 15 exhibition games in the country. But Japan’s relationship with the game dates to 1873, when Horace Wilson, a visiting American professor, introduced Japanese college students to the game. By the turn of the last century, the country had formed a network of high school and university teams that ultimately would feed its professional leagues.

A colorful, illustrated type of Japanese baseball card made from the 1930s through the ’60s was designed for playing Menko, a centuries-old game. A competitor would try to slam his card, which was made from a very heavy paper stock, onto an opponent’s card violently enough to flip it and win the dislodged card. Bromides, another type of Japanese baseball card produced from the 1930s through the ’50s, featured photographs of athletes, little text, and no statistics.

Menko, bromides, and every other type of vintage Japanese cards are rare. Japan’s mostly small dwellings allowed little storage room, dooming countless treasures to the dumpster before budding collectors could accumulate them. Also, many older cards were lost in World War II, when Japan shunned the sport, and almost none survive from the decades of baseball’s infancy in Japan. “Vintage Japanese baseball cards are very scarce by American standards,” says Gary Engel, a collector, retired dealer, and author of the self-published Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide, which is in its sixth edition. “For 90 percent of the cards made before 1970, there are fewer than 100 copies because people threw them away.”

American baseball card production has been dominated by the Topps Co. since 1952, but Japan lacked a market leader until Calbee, a snack food company, began issuing cards in 1973. Before Calbee’s arrival, a jumble of businesses jostled for the baseball card collector’s attention, and some did not last as long as a baseball season. That earlier chaos can complicate matters for a collector today. Consider, for example, a 1959 rookie card for Sadaharu Oh, who holds the professional baseball record of 868 career home runs. Such a card is worth $850 or more, but at least 30, and as many as 50, different styles of the card exist.

Robert Klevens, who purchased Prestige Collectibles from Engel in 2006, has, over the last 20 years, ridden Japan’s trains to almost every depot in the country hunting for rarities. Klevens, who is 40, conducts auctions through the Prestige Collectibles web site and expects to stage sales in February and April. “With U.S. cards, you’re never going to find anything [new]. There’s nothing to be discovered,” he says. “But with Japanese cards, you can find stuff every day. It’s like being an archaeologist out on a dig.”

Klevens hopes to cap his career by unearthing a vintage card for Eiji Sawamura, Japan’s equivalent to Cy Young. In 1934, at age 17, Sawamura struck out Charlie Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig, and Jimmy Foxx in succession during one of the Major League Baseball exhibition games in Japan. Manager Connie Mack offered Sawamura a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics, but the teenager chose to remain in Japan and play for the Yomiuri Giants. He later was drafted into the Japanese military and was killed in battle in 1944. Klevens says that no vintage Sawamura card has been located, but he believes one might exist: He owns a 1930s-era Japanese baseball magazine containing an advertisement for bromides that lists Sawamura’s name. “If I did find it,” he says, “it would be one of the best Japanese cards ever found.”

Prestige Collectibles, 954.727.5179, www.prestigecollectibles.com

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