The Oddest of the Oddball
May 14th, 2010 by slangon

I don’t remember where I first saw them, but at some point in researching old baseball cards I had seen a few older Japanese baseball cards and I thought they were so incredibly cool looking. The ones I’m thinking of weren’t your standard baseball card fare, consisting of a photograph of a player in some kind of standardized design like most cards are. The one’s that I’m thinking of were crazy looking, comic book style illustrations of the players in intensely colorful designs, much like the Mr. Sparkle packaging.

One day a while ago, mostly out of boredom, I was cruising around eBay looking things up, and I decided to see what they had along the lines of Japanese baseball cards. I ended up seeing one auction for a lot of 3 cards that was ending soon, hadn’t been bid upon and was only $0.99. I figured what the hell, placed a $0.99 bid and figured if someone really wants these, they can have them, but if no one else bids, I’ll take them for a buck. Apparently, no one else wanted them.

The first of the 3 cards was just listed as a “header” card.

And the other two were player cards.

The player at the top, with the Ace of Diamonds designation, is Hideo Shimizu. The 5 of Diamonds chap is Kiyoshi Sugiura. Here is the back of the cards.

As you can see, the back continues the theme of a deck of playing cards. I particularly like the inclusion of the baseballs in the corners. The back of the header, sadly, was just blank.

When I got these cards in hand, I was extremely pleased with them. As awesome as the scans look, they look even better in person. One of the things I really love about collecting baseball cards though, particularly when getting oddball cards or even lesser known players, is researching the card or player to see what I can learn about them. Seeing as I knew nothing about Japanese cards or either of these two players, the best part of acquiring these cards to me was doing research. Here’s what I turned up.

First of all, these particular cards are not just run of the mill baseball cards. Apparently in Japan, there is a very old tradition called Menko. The word “menko” translates literally to small object with a face. The tradition dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) and began with menkos made of dried mud or clay and adorned with the face of a person or animal. As time went on, the medium used to make them included tile, wood, lead and other metals, and finally paper and cardboard. The images used on menkos ranged from samurai, sumo wrestlers, politicians, and military imagery, such as tanks and airplanes.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, the Japanese began to become more open to Western influences and the subjects of menko cards changed to reflect that. Images such as silent-era film stars, Western comic characters and sports figures began to appear on them. This time period happens to coincide with Japans emerging interest in baseball, so it makes perfect sense that ball players would become a popular subject.

Menko cards were primarily used to play games. One player places his card on a hard, flat surface and his opponent throws his card down, attempting to flip the first card either with a gust of wind or by hitting the card. If he succeeds, he keeps both cards. Whoever ends up with the most cards wins. I guess it’s basically the same as American kids flipping cards.

The particular set that these cards came from seems to be a relatively common set from the 1950’s, referred to as either JCM21 (I guess that’s similar to American Card Catalog designations, such as T206 or R319) or as “Babe Ruth” Menko, due to the inclusion of the Bambino as the joker in the set. That link also has an image of an uncut sheet of the entire set. I’m not sure if that’s how these cards were sold, or if that sheet is just a production test or something. That is pretty much all the info I could find on the set. I had no luck on finding who manufactured it or anything like that.

I was a little surprised at the fact that I also had very little luck in trying to track down information on the 2 players. I don’t know exactly why I was surprised. I just thought older Japanese players would’ve been better documented. I guess much of my inability to find info on these guys has to do with the fact that they’re not the biggest of stars.

I had a little more luck with Kiyoshi Sugiura, who is the 5 of Diamonds, so I’ll start with him. He managed the Chunichi Dragons from 1946-48, and again from 1963-64. In 1946, the team posted a record of 42-60-3, which was good for 8th place out of 8 teams. He became skipper mid-season however, taking over for Aiichi Takeuchi, so I don’t know how much of the blame belongs to Sugiura. He fared much better in 1947, leading the team to a 67-50-2 record, which was good for 2nd place in the League. Interestingly, Kiyoshi was also named short stop on the Best Nine team, which was the equivalent of the All-Star team. Apparently, he was a player-manager. The team took a sharp turn-off in ’48, going 52-83-5, again occupying the basement of the League. I’m sure that had a lot to do with why Sugiura was not brought back to manage in 1949. He returned to managing the Dragons in 1963, I assume this time not as a player-manager. His first year back, he had some success, leading the club to a 80-57-3 record, which once again was good for second place just 2.5 games behind the Champion Yomiuri Giants. I would guess a lot of that success had to do with the fact that he had 2 future Japanese Hall of Fame players on that team in Morimichi Takagi and Shinichi Eto. Things were not so good for him his final year of managing when the team went 57-83 and were once more cellar-dwellers. Things were so bad in fact that he was fired half-way through the season.

The fellow who occupies the prestigious position of Ace of Diamonds proved to be much more wily in my hunt for information. I was only able to find a few facts about Hideo Shimizu. He played for at least four different teams during his career, the Kinki Nihon (which would go on to become the Nankai Hawks), the Chunuchi Dragons, and the Taiyo Whales. I wasn’t able to tell if he was on the Dragons at the same time as Sugiura. I was able to find out that in 1944 he was tied for the most losses in the Nippon Baseball Patriotism Association with 12. That was while he was with the Kinki Nihon. So much for him being the Ace of Diamonds. The final fact that I found out about him was that he died on March 23, 1964 at the tender age of 45.

By the way, on the off chance that anyone out there who reads this blog is able to read Japanese, I’d be mighty obliged if you could translate what is actually written on these cards. Any additional information I can get on them would be much appreciated.

All in all, for a dollar plus shipping, I got some really beautiful looking cards and small bit of an education about early Japanese baseball. Not too shabby.

7 Responses to “The Oddest of the Oddball”

  1. Wow, what a great post! My Japanese is rusty, but I can help with some of it.

    The top line says “DRAGONS” in Japan’s phonetic alphabet, so that might resolve the question of both men playing together. (Below that is “Chunichi,” the home town.)

    Right edge should be their position. You said 5 of Diamonds is shortstop and Ace of Diamonds is pitcher, though the latter doesn’t say “left” or “right” handedness, unless it’s using a colloquialism.

    Lower-left corner should be their last names, which you already have.

    Should you find a need to trade that 5 of Diamonds, let me know… 😀

  2. Thanks Matt. That all makes perfect sense. I guess that’s at least one question answered as far as to whether the two guys played on the same team at the same time. I need to try to get that header card translated. I would hope that that would have some clues as to the card set.

    I would certainly be willing to listen to offers on that 5 of diamonds. Let me know.

  3. Nice cards and nice research. For a basic introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards take a look at Rob’s Japanese Baseball Cards site.

  4. Mark

    That was one of the few resources I was able to track down when I was researching this stuff. Pretty interesting site. Thanks for putting up the link. I probably should’ve done that when I was writing the. post

  5. Those are very cool. Thanks for sharing them.

  6. Enjoyed the post. Love the history.

  7. Oh yeah, forgot to translate the header card! It’s actually easier.

    1. First line says “Baseball Stars.” (They use the word “Yakyu,” which is Japanese-played baseball, distinct from the phonetic word “besubaru,” when it’s played elsewhere.)

    2. Second line says “Central League.”

    Only text I’m not sure about is the name on the trophy in the background.

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